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  • Writer's pictureMatthew L. Tinkham Jr.

Love Redefined: Are Obedience and Authority the "Truest of All Love"?

Updated: Oct 4, 2019

In his book, Father, Son, & Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, & Relevance (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), evangelical scholar, Bruce A. Ware, argues that there is an essential "authority-submission structure" that characterizes the eternal relationships of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Son submits to the Father in role, function, and authority, and the Spirit does the same to the Father and the Son.

For him, this "authority-submission structure" is indicative of "a love that is so great, so pure, so deep, and so passionate, that we can only grasp in minuscule part what this truest of all love really is" (ibid., 101). Here's how he understands this "truest of all love." He writes, "Christ's obedience to the Father was the truest and necessary expression of the reality of his love for the Father ... . The love of the Father for his Son is shown in the wisdom of his command and its blessing" (ibid., 101–102).

From here, he proceeds to apply this love to human relationships. He writes, "True love, then is 'wrapped' in relationships, and whenever those relationships involve some level of authority and submission, the love of the Son for the Father, and of the Father for the Son, instruct us concerning just what love really is. Our sentimental notions of love need to be displaced with the real-life love shown us in this Father-Son relationship. No greater love exists than this love, and so no better model exists by which we may learn, and relearn, how love is rightly expressed. True love, more often than we think, is shown precisely in loving obedience or in loving authority. May we reflect deeply on the love relationship of the Father and the Son and allow this reality to reshape the love relationships of our lives" (p. 102).

Love, as redefined here by Ware, is not the robust, rich love of which Paul wrote in 1 Cor 13. Ware has totally redefined love merely as loving obedience or loving authority, depending upon one's position of power in his or her relationship. By implication, then, a woman's true act of love toward her husband is obedience, and her true act of love toward her children is authority, because the woman is supposedly in the position of the subordinate in her relationship to her husband (like the Son to the Father) and supposedly in the position of authority in her relationship to her children (like Father to the Son). The same would apply to other kinds of relationships, such as “congregations to their elders, employees to their employers, and citizens to their governments,” etc. (ibid., 98). Taken to its end, this is a profoundly perverse redefinition of love that has the potential of perpetuating cultures and relationships of domination, oppression, and victimization, legitimizing them by grounding them in the being (nature or essence) of the triune God.

Scripture's Definition of Love

Of course, in Scripture, Jesus never supported this conception of love. First of all, putting aside the debate regarding the nature of intra-Trinitarian relationships for a moment, Jesus’s relationship of obedience to the Father (no matter how one understands it) is not prescribed in Scripture as a biblical model for how we should relate to others (women to men, children to parents, employee to employer, etc.). Rather, according to Scripture, it is a demonstration of how humanity is supposed to live in relationship to God (John 15:10). As Stanley J. Grenz wrote, with Denise Muir Kjesbo, “Nowhere does the New Testament assert that the Son’s obedience to the Father is a model of how one … should relate to the other ... . Jesus’ obedience to the One he called ‘Abba’ serves as the model for how all human beings ... should live in obedience to God” (Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995], 153). See also my more detailed discussion of this topic in “Neo-subordinationism: The Alien Argumentation in the Gender Debate,” AUSS 55.2 (2017): 278–279.

Second, Jesus taught, based upon the Old Testament (Lev 19:18), that the “golden rule” of how to love others is as he expressed it in Mark 12:31 (ESV): “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Following this command of Christ involves doing unto others as we would have them do unto us (Matt 7:12; Luke 6:31). John added to this conception of loving others, when he quoted Jesus as saying, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I [Jesus] have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34). Thus, Jesus’s love for humanity is the real model of how human beings should love and treat one another, not his obedience to the Father.

Now, what was the nature of Jesus’s love? Does Scripture define it as a "authority-submission structure," as does Ware? Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 [ESV]). That's it! The truest nature of the love with which we are to love others is a self-sacrificial love that was demonstrated by Christ when he died for us on the cross.

A long passage that is worth quoting at this point is Phil 2:1–11 (ESV), which captures the essence of this self-sacrificial love with which we are to love others. Paul penned, "So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

We are called to have the same self-sacrificial love of Christ that “count[s] others more significant than” ourselves, that considers “the interests of others” in addition to our own interests. This is how Jesus loved us, when he humbled and emptied himself, becoming a “servant” (the Greek word used here is a form of the noun δοῦλος, meaning “slave”) in human flesh for us. Moreover, he died a death of crucifixion for us. This self-sacrificial and servant character of Jesus’s love is the real “truest of all love,” with which we are to love others.

Another helpful passage is Matt 20:25–28, which addresses how to treat others in the context of the exercise of authority. Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave” (Matt 20:25–27 [ESV]). Again, Jesus instructed us to love one another in a quality of love that is servant- and slave-like, a love that is self-sacrificial, exalting others above ourselves. It should not be a love of authority (contra Ware) that is characterized by that which was manifested through the Gentile rulers who exercised exacting lordship and authority over their subordinates. Jesus continued this teaching, saying, “even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28 [ESV]). Again, the model of interpersonal relationships that we are to imitate is not that of Jesus's obedience to the Father, but rather the self-sacrificial, kenotic love that Jesus had and continues to have for us.

So, what does this biblical definition of love look like practically in contradistinction to Ware's redefinition of love? Well, in the case of the husband and wife, both of them (not just the wife) would love each other self-sacrificially, exalting the other above his/herself, considering his/her needs above the other, serving one another with gratitude, mutually respecting and honoring each other, and dying for each other if the situation arises (see Eph 5:21–33). With this definition of love, the husband doesn't lord authority over the wife nor the wife over the husband. The same would go for a mother and father and their children (see Eph 6:1–4). The parents don't lord authority over their children (nor the children over their parents), but self-sacrificially love their children by considering their interests above those of the parents, ascribing to them self-worth and dignity that belongs to them as children who bear the imago Dei, and raising them with healthy and appropriate amounts of nurture and structure in order that they may grow into healthy adult Christians, who love others in the say way their parents loved them. This self-sacrificial kenotic love should be manifested in all the kinds of relationships that exist between humans.

Therefore, Ware's redefinition of love as obedience and authority does not match the profoundly robust definition of love that is found in Scripture, but rather it is a perversion of it. Jesus intended that his love for his disciples be the model upon which all horizontal human love is built, not the obedience that Christ gives to the Father. Since Jesus's love is self-sacrificial kenotic love manifested in service to others so should ours be. May God guide us in our practice of Jesus's self-sacrificial kenotic love toward others!


Addendum on Theological Methodology

So, beyond the true, biblical definition of love that we explored above, there are other lessons that can be learned from Ware’s wrong-headed redefinition of love. These are methodological in nature.

  • First, we should pay close attention to what is actually “discernible, demonstrable, and defensible” in the text of Scripture (see John C. Peckham, Canonical Theology: The Biblical Canon, Sola Scriptura, and Theological Method [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016], 209). There is a very thin line between biblical teaching and theological speculation. Crossing that line can be perilous. If we truly desire to be “people of the book,” then we should especially avoid unhealthy and dangerous speculations, such as those suggested by Ware regarding love and the Trinity.

  • Second, we should be careful not to read our personal social and political “agendas” into Scripture, but rather let Scripture inform, shape, and control those “agendas.” This is the whole "eis-egesis vs. ex-egesis" or "object vs. subject" discussion of reading meaning "into" (εἰς) the text or getting meaning "out of" (ἐκ) the text (of course, we, the readers, cannot escape contributing to meaning, but we must do our best to let the intention in the text speak for itself; see Peckham, Canonical Theology). The point is that we need to step back (via epoché or bracketing) in our reading of Scripture to the extent to which we are able, in order to allow Scripture to do the talking.

  • Third, as I have said elsewhere (see “Neo-subordinationism,” 290), it is inappropriate to read one’s own social perceptions (such as gender roles) “into the economic functions and then into the immanent relationships and being of the persons of the Trinity in order to have a stronger grounding for” the said social perceptions (such as complementarianism). This is essentially making God into our own image (Exod 20:3–6), instead of permitting God to recreate us into his own true image (Rom 8:29).

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