Love as Union: Implications for Family, Church, Society, and Enemy

This week, we are going to explore the implications of Alexander Pruss’s understanding of love for our lives as Christians. The discussion that we had last week about love as union, simplified (and probably oversimplified) though it was, can seem rather arcane.  Nevertheless, I think that Pruss’s emphasis on union as an essential property of love can help us as we think about how love should affect our daily lives.  

The Implications of Union for the Family

Let’s begin by exploring the implications of union for family life.  Families do not function well without love. This love expresses itself in genuine concern for the well-being of others in the family, but it also expresses itself in an active pursuit of knowledge about those other family members.  Husbands should seek to see the world from the standpoint of their wives, and wives should seek to see the world from the standpoint of their husbands. In so doing, husbands and wives ought to build empathy for one another and model for their children what it means to genuinely love.  And, yes, children should first apply those lessons by loving their parents and siblings. This means that children have an obligation to try and see the world through the eyes of their parents and siblings.

This kind of empathetic knowledge has as its ultimate end the partial dissolution of the boundaries between individuals in the family unit. Perceptions of self begin to overlap, which, in turn, only heightens the empathy that members of the family feel for one another and the commitment that they share to work for one another’s good.  As empathy grows and commitment to the well-being of others deepens, expressions of affection and benevolent actions become more frequent and more meaningful. Moreover, unloving actions become less numerous, and they are more easily forgiven.

Even though every member of the family is supposed to love every other member of the family, the relationship that a family member shares with one specific family member will differ significantly from the relationships that he or she has with other family members.  For this reason, the ways in which love is expressed will differ significantly within the family. For example, the parent-child relationship is so radically different from the husband-wife relationship that to ignore this difference by expressing love in the same way in both cases does great harm to the beloved (and, in some instances, violates well-established rules of criminal statutes).  

Likewise, the nature of a given relationship changes as the two people involved in that relationship change.  For example, as Pruss himself observes, the marital love of a young couple expresses itself differently than the marital love of an elderly couple.  The former may express itself in passionate sexuality, while the latter expresses itself in sacrificial service. One is not better than the other because each is appropriate to the stage of life in which the lovers find themselves.  Indeed, the commitment to care for one another in old age authenticates and invigorates their younger passions, and the memories of the sexual experiences that they shared when they were young give them strength to endure the hardships of old age.

What do these two facts mean?  They mean that there is a fluidity to how love is expressed.  The intensity with which an interpersonal bond is felt is not the only (or even the primary) factor determining how love is expressed.  Individuals have to be able to read the ones they love and the social situation well enough to understand how love can be expressed appropriately.

Too many families, even in our churches, succumb to dysfunction precisely because their members have not been taught how to love effectively within the family unit.  Family members become enemies rather than allies because they do not understand one another. Spouses stray and children rebel because they feel unappreciated by and out of place in the family unit.  Psychological and spiritual damage is done because an adult child is treated like an infant or a spouse is treated like a child.

Our goal needs to be to love one another in such a way that those we love know they belong to us and are treasured by us.  In social psychological terms, we are striving to create a cohesive social identity in which everyone not only understands the values, goals, and worldview of the group but also in which everyone sees the group as their property and themselves as a constituent element of the group.  When love manifests itself in this way in the family (especially in the relationship between husband and wife; cf. Ephesians 5:21-33), the love that Christ has for the church is made manifest to the world.

The Implications of Union for the Church

The New Testament, and especially the letters of Paul, is saturated with language that presents the church as a family.  This is especially fortuitous as we think about what it means for followers of Jesus to love one another. Just as families are bound together by the love that they share, so also congregations, and the universal church, are bound together by love.

Defining love in terms of union will have some of the same implications for spiritual families (churches) that it does for biological or adoptive families.  Some of these implications are obvious. For example, Paul presents members of churches as siblings. Only certain kinds of union are appropriate for sibling relationships.  So, for example, any religious group whose identity facilitates promiscuous or predatory sexuality among its members is not a genuinely Christian faith community. It is a cult.

Some of the implications of a view of love that emphasizes union, however, are less obvious.  Being part of a church is not about individuals gathering for a spiritual fill-up, though good churches often accomplish precisely that.  It is not about making a statement about proclaiming one’s moral superiority in comparison with those who do not attend church, though church attendance should make a difference in how people live.  It is not about facilitating the formation of other kinds of relationships (marriages, friendships, etc.), though, if we are practicing love as we ought, it is precisely in the context of our gathering as congregations that such relationships will form in the most healthy way.

Being part of a church is about identifying with a specific group of other people on the basis of our shared commitment to follow Jesus together.  As such, it must involve genuine, empathetic knowing, and our knowing must be appropriate for the kind of relationships that we have with one another.  This means that fellowship is not an adjunct to church life; it stands at the very heart of what we should be doing as God’s people.

The objection that many of us have heard to this way of understanding church life is that there is no way that we can have meaningful emotional and spiritual bonds with everyone in our congregation.  There is, of course, some truth in this claim; after all, churches are made up of people who possess vastly different histories, ideologies, and levels of spiritual maturity. We should remember, however, that we are called to love people outside of our congregations, too.  We should see our work inside our churches as practice for what we will do in the world. As we grow in our ability to know and have empathy for our brothers and sisters in Christ, we build the skills that we will need to know and have empathy for the other people that God brings into our sphere of influence.

Union does not end with empathetic knowledge.  Union requires us to actually live out the gospel together.  We express our love for one another by sharing the joys and the pains of life, by facilitating each other’s renunciation of sin, by serving our community together, and by working together to tell the story of Jesus.  In other words, we express our love for one another by inviting one another into our journey with Christ and by graciously and respectfully receiving the invitations that we receive from one another. The truth is that converting to Christianity is not about asking Jesus to be our personal Savior.  It is about joining those who proclaim His Lordship with their words and their lives.

Living in this way has an interesting and important side-effect.  As we seek to know one another better and to live increasingly in the presence of one another, we find it increasingly difficult—and less appealing—to do things that separate us from the community as a whole or that harm individual members of the community.  Indeed, one of the ways that we can evaluate a proposed course of action is to ask ourselves 1) would I be proud to tell the members of my faith community that I did this, or 2) would my course of action bring harm to any person within my faith community? We care about these things not because our faith communities are perfect (after all, they are made up of frail and fallen human beings just like us) but because our knowledge of and empathy for our community is more important to us than our claims to be sovereign over our own lives.  Obviously, truth is the most important guide for our behavior, so sometimes we will have to say “no” to our community. What I am saying is that our love for our community should draw us out of the radical individualism of our age and into a more substantive relationship with those whom we love in Christ.

The Implications of Union for the Society

Our obligation to live extends beyond those who are in our legal or spiritual family.  We are called to love all people, and we should model this love as a cure for what ails our society.  Unfortunately, our task gets even more complicated at this point. It can be hard to figure out exactly how love should impact traffic patterns, treatment for the mentally ill, or economic policy.

Still, I think that our obligations remain essentially the same.  We are to seek to know all people with empathy, and we should strive for real union with those who are willing.  This is not necessarily a plea for tolerance/inclusion. We have said on the blog before that our nation’s obsession with tolerance/inclusion is unhealthy, and we said in last week’s post that love must be guided by truth.  Nevertheless, I am convinced that many societal problems could be solved if we knew how to see things from another person’s point of view.

The Implications of Union for Our Enemies

The same is true for the hardest population to love—our enemies.  Some enemies live in far away places like North Korea. Others inhabit our hometown or maybe even our church.  We justify our enmities by characterizing the people we oppose as evil, which, in turn, supposedly means that we do not have to get to know them or to seek their good.

I do not wish to deny the existence of genuine evil.  Frankly, if we look through the eyes of some people, we will find nothing but darkness and decay.  But one of the by-products of enmity is that it obscures the evil within our own hearts. As an amateur historian of war, I can tell you that almost no war in history was without moral ambiguity.  Each participant in a violent conflict believes that they have a good reason for going to war. Rhetoric demonizing one’s opponents is quite common, and this rhetoric often results in the enemy’s dehumanization in the eyes of a given populace.  (Is it any wonder that rape and genocide are often the results of violent conflict?)

When we open ourselves to the possibility of loving our enemies, we are not merely promising not to torture them if we get the chance.  We are opening ourselves up to the possibility that they are truly human. More frighteningly for us, we are also opening ourselves up to the possibility that we, as well as they, are wrong.  This recognition elicits fear because it threatens to undermine the moral and logical foundation for our enmity. And when that foundation is undermined, we come to a place where we must connect with our enemy on a deeply emotional level.  And when that happens, our behavior cannot help but change.

I think that is exactly what Jesus was counting on when he commanded us to love our enemies.  He knew that we would see ourselves in them, and, seeing ourselves, we would not be able to do any violence (literal or metaphorical) to them, perhaps even if they deserve it.  After all, we, too, deserve to be the recipients of violence, for we, too, have participated in the evil that saturates our world.

Too many of us evaluate our character on the basis of how we treat our friends.  Jesus tells us that we should evaluate our character on the basis of how we treat our enemies.  After all, God loved us even when we were at war with Him (Romans 5:1-11).  So we should love one another, even when we are at enmity with one another.

Published: Mar 6, 2018


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