“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” – 1 Corinthians 13:1–3

I have only one question in this post: Was Paul serious when he said this? Because these are strong words. In fact, I think these are the kinds of words you or I would take heat for saying were they not recorded in the Bible.

Think about it. What if we didn’t have these verses in the Bible, and I told you that you could have perfect theology, knowing everything about the mysteries of God, but it would be absolutely meaningless without love for the people around you? Or imagine that I told you that you could have perfect faith, or put that faith into practice by giving away all of your possessions, but that without love for people this wouldn’t matter whatsoever. What if I told you that you could be a fearless martyr for the faith, but that if your life wasn’t marked by love, you’d gain nothing and be nothing?

I honestly think that if Paul hadn’t written these words, and if I came making statements like these, that I’d be shut down by people quoting chapter and verse on why doctrinal accuracy is most important, why God wants us to rebuke heretics rather than love them, and why we should be careful not to “love people into hell.”

But Paul’s words here are stunning. Get every theological nuance exactly right, he says, and without love, it doesn’t do anyone any good. Say anything you want, no matter how right or beautiful or biblical it is, and if it’s not saturated in and motivated by love, then your words sound like a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.

We don’t take Paul’s words seriously. How much of the Christian internet could be classified as clanging cymbal theology? Every sarcastic correction of someone’s theology, every “farewell” to a Christian leader who puts a doctrinal toe out of line (or is assumed to have done so). Honestly, I wonder if less than 99% of the theologically-related tweets launched into the twittersphere would pass Paul’s test.

How different would our culture be if we took Paul’s words seriously? Would the words “Christian” and “church” be synonymous with “hypocrite” and “judgmental” if we had been heeding Paul’s warning?

If we did pay attention to what Paul said here, what would it look like?

“Theology is not the main concern. People are. Actually, people are the main concern because God is always the highest concern. And God is love. So Theology without love is not theology: it’s heresy.”

I’ll make an important admission here: If my daughter says something theologically inaccurate, my initial response to her is very different than my initial response to someone on Facebook who challenges something I post. Why? Because I love my daughter deeply, and I’m so concerned for her personal growth and human flourishing that I try to avoid tearing her down. I want her to know and love God deeply, which is exactly why I don’t tear her apart for theological thoughts. Instead, I want to push her to wrestle, to think, to consider all of the information, to come to know the biblical texts, and to encounter Jesus for herself. In these moments, the last thing I want to be is a clanging cymbal. I want her to actually hear what I’m saying.

But when I respond quickly on social media, I’m often just trying to defend my point. The theology is my main concern, not the person. And this is exactly Paul’s point. The theology is not the main concern, the person is. And the person is the main concern in any given situation because God is the ultimate concern in every situation. And God is love. It’s NOT that theology doesn’t matter. But it IS that theology without love doesn’t matter.

Consider this last thought. Since I first started getting serious about theology, I’ve made it my goal to collect and develop answers to doctrinal questions. Love is one of those doctrines I believed in, but Paul’s strongly stated point here was lost on me. That’s not because I was a great theologian who was lacking one peripheral quality (love(. It’s because I was immature. Look at how Paul ends this passage:

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 11:11–13)

It’s eluded me for ages but it now seems so obvious. Paul’s “childishness” was not his inability to lay out theological arguments. It was his lovelessness. A child can speak confidently but lack love. But once Paul grew up, he realized that love was the greatest of all.

How childish I have been. How childish so much of the church insists on being (myself still included). If only we actually believed that the greatest of these is love.

Mark has been serving in pastoral roles for over 15 years. After a decade in various teaching and administrative roles at Eternity Bible College, Mark now works with Ryan as an associate pastor in Sacramento, California. His books include Resonate: Enjoying God’s Gift of Music and the New York Times bestseller Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples, which he co-authored with Francis Chan. This site contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. There are costs associated with running the blog. These links help to cover overhead.

4 COMMENTS

  1. This is the one! The articles undergirding all articles! So I have been a brother in this way of love with you all along, and taught 1 Cor. 13 exactly this way for the last 5 years. HOWEVER, your last observation about moving from childishness to maturity BLEW ME AWAY. Why is this the first time I’ve heard/read this? The adults in the room are holding their thoughts and all you can see/feel/hear is their love.

  2. Mark. I Love it, I Love it, I LOVE IT. You my friend nailed it. When I read this, I felt the Holy Spirit inspired all of it. It came form God and was downloaded to you through the Holy Spirit.

    Now I am going to play the Devil Advocate, because I see a lot of warnings in what you wrote and I am going to ask you, would you have the courage to actually teach and preach this, and make it very personal to your congregation like you did with your daughter, and ask questions? Did you see the love you put out towards your friends and family, your neighbors, co-workers, and other Christians? Or was it something other than Love? This will convict a lot of people and the God Head has showed me conviction for most Christians, I will say 90 to 95% of Christian has conviction wrong and blame Satan for it, because it is so painful, and they will feel guilt, sin, unworthy, and handling it wrongly. Christians will blame Satan for this conviction, and they will say it’s a lie from Satan. When in fact it is coming from the Holy Spirit, and what is the Holy Spirit saying? Answer Repent. Satan cannot convict, only the Holy Spirit can convict. Satan can Lie, deceive, trick you in thinking you are right with God.

    Jesus raised the bar and he said, Hate is Murder. I see a lot of murder in today society. Our country is divided down the middle and I see hate against our President and against politicians on both sides. As Christians we are allowed to hate the sin that comes out of these people, but we still must love the person or the sinner.

    When I read the Bible, I see a book of warnings and The God Head has put all these warnings in the Word because of love, and for our own good, so we have an example how to live and not fall into sin. The problem is the Church today will not teach or preach any warnings. Your right Mark, if you taught this you would have people come down on you and they would say things like are you questioning my salvation. They will say, it is impossible to love like that and if you only knew what they have done to me, and I do not think God would even like it. I would say Mat. 6:14-15. Do you see the warning in Mat. 6-15? Jesus hanging on a cross that the religious establishment (God’s chosen people) put him there and he is asking our Father in Heaven to forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. If Jesus can forgive that, we should be able to forgive anything that a person does to us.

    Mark. I am being very bold here and I am saying all this in love and with the help of the Holy Spirit. I have been praying for revival for many years now and the God Head has shown all this to me, and the Church today needs a wake-up call and turn back to God and start teaching warnings. There in the Bible because of love.

    If the Church starts teaching warnings, first they must teach CONVICTION, and Satan cannot convict, and it comes from the Holy Spirit, and what is he saying, TURN FROM YOUR SIN (REPENT).

    Here is a lie from Satan that was revealed to me. If you try to love like this and live like Jesus, and you do this by the flesh you will fail. You must mature in Jesus so that you receive the promise Holy Spirit. Satan has told a lot of Churches and the people you have received the indwelling Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation, and this is a lie from Satan. John 14:15-17 Jesus said, if you love me, you will keep my commandments. Then he will ask the Father and he will give you a helper to be with you forever. Can you see the timeline here? You must get to know him and love him and keep his commandments. Impossible to do all that at salvation. In Acts 19: 1-12 Paul came across some disciples. These are people that were saved and baptized and teaching Jesus and the good news, but they have not received the Holy Spirit yet. Receiving the indwelling Holy Spirit is a second event and it is supernatural, and it comes from above. Why does Satan want to deceive us on this? Because when you feel the conviction you will not feel the need to press into Jesus more and chase after him. This will stop the growth in Jesus, and you will never receive the promise Holy Spirit.

    This is the true meaning of Grace. God loved us so much and knowing we had no hope of keeping the law he gave his only begotten son Jesus and the Holy Spirit. If they are in you and you abide in them you can live like Jesus, because they are living through you, and they know how to live like Jesus. This is living in Holiness. Holiness living is not taught in church anymore, and our Father in Heaven wants this taught.

  3. Mark, I was awakened at 3AM this morning by the Holy Spirit with a revelation to your question, was Paul serious when he said this 1 Corinthians 13: 1-3. Paul was very serious about it. He was describing himself as Saul, he was a Pharisee and he knew the Law backwards and forward and it was in his heart. He had all this as Saul, and he went to war for his God and Murder Christians. If you asked Saul why? He would have said, with all his Heart, Mind and Soul it was for God. And he is wrong, because he did not have LOVE.

    • This resonates with me deeply, Darin. Thank you for taking the time to post this. So beautifully said and so true.

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