First Corinthians and the Twenty-First Century Church: Love Defined, Part 2

Last time, we attempted to bring some clarity to our discussion of love by noticing the various phenomena associated with love language. Another way we can define a term is by noticing what words or phrases are considered to be its opposite. And when we turn to the biblical evidence, we get a bit of a surprise.

The Complex Relationship between Love and Hate

What is the opposite of love? For many Americans, the answer is quite simple. Love’s opposite is hate. The evidence for this way of thinking can be found all over our political discourse, but it can be found in our daily lives, too.

Paul is certainly familiar with this way of thinking; he uses it in Romans 9:13 (quoting parts of Malachi 1:2-3). But in that same letter, Paul writes the following words: “Love must be sincere, hating what is evil and clinging to what is good” (Romans 12:9, my translation). For all the grammar nerds out there, I think the editors of the Greek text have slightly misapplied the punctuation in this sentence, which is why I have translated it differently than the NIV and other commercially available translations. 

My point is simply this: love cannot be love unless it hates certain things.

We have all had the experience of being hated. It is the ultimate repudiation of one’s worth, and, as Old Testament scholar Douglas Stuart points out, it designates a radical disruption in our relationship with the other person. That kind of hate is incompatible with love.

And yet, love is not love unless it “hates” evil. Stuart reminds us love is, in the language of the ancient Near East, a word of loyalty. It speaks to the covenant relationship one person or nation has with another. Love cannot be loyal to that which is evil; it must “cling” to what is good.

Love’s True Opposite: Selfishness

Given the complex nature of the relationship between love and hate, we are left wondering if there might be another antonym we could use for love—one that will help us make better sense of love’s true character. Fortunately, one is provided to us by the text we have been considering for a few weeks now.

As we read Paul’s description of what love is like in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, it emerges that selfishness is really the opposite of love, at least in Paul’s mind. The thing that motivates one to be “patient,” “kind,” etc., the thing that makes pride, arrogance, boasting, etc. unattractive, is a thoroughgoing lack of focus on those things which benefit one’s self and a thoroughgoing focus on what benefits others.

This way of thinking about love coheres quite nicely with the general contours of Jesus’ message, but it also corresponds to our experiences in everyday life. Jesus taught us that love is what God really wants from us (Mark 12:28-31 and parallels), and then he practiced what he preached by giving his life “as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He did not do it because we deserved it (Romans 5:6-11). He did it because he loved us (Galatians 2:19-20).

Likewise, we make sacrifices for the ones we truly love. We do not engage in any mental exercises to determine whether they deserve whatever it is we are to give up. We simply acknowledge the need and act accordingly.


The antonym we choose for love has real consequences for how we construe this most important of biblical concepts. If we think of love only in terms of its opposition to hate, we run the risk of limiting its scope to affinity and affection and thus ignoring its connection with attachment and action. Moreover, we will find it difficult to work out how we can “love” someone with whom we disagree—or, worse, whose behavior is out of line with what we think is good.

By contrast, if we recognize the complex relationship between love and hate, and if we recognize the fundamental incompatibility which exists between love and selfishness, we are on firmer ground when we try to understand the ambiguities which attach themselves to love. Love is messy sometimes; it can be hard to figure out what it looks like in the real world. That is why we will need to spend a little more time talking about some of those ambiguities in the next post.

Published: Dec 7, 2020


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