“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.