Love is Love?

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The Secular vs. Scriptural Conception of Love

Love is undoubtedly a dominant theme in the arts, especially in music. If the adage ‘art imitates life’ is true, then love appears to be what matters most to humans. But what is love and what, if any, are love’s ethical boundaries and guidelines?

In her song the “Greatest Love of All,” Whitney Houston sings that “Learning to love yourself…is the greatest love of all.” In the song “Love is Love” by Starley, she sings to her father, “I don’t understand you ‘Cause loving her, it ain’t an illness…she makes me happy…So…open up your eyes ‘Cause love is love.” And in “Whatever You Like,” T.I. raps, “I want yo’ body, need yo’ body; Long as you got me, you won’t need nobody.”

These representative examples of the (post) modern understanding of love suggest that:

1. The greatest love is self-love.

2. All mutually felt romantic love is good, as long as it makes you happy.

3. Romantic love should be highly physical or sexual, regardless of your marital status.

Are these three claims true, and how do they square with a biblical conception of love? In what follows, we will evaluate why each of these components of our “secular age’s” vision of love is untrue and unbiblical.

The Greatest Love is Self-Love

Love is, by definition, others-oriented, not self-oriented. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Love is something that one person has for another person.” But what is love? Here’s a working definition: Love is an orientation of the heart towards the highest good of another, which manifests itself in actions conducive to the flourishing of another, even at great cost to oneself. God is the source and standard of love, which is why John can write that “God is love” (1 John 4:16, emphasis added).

Love is, by definition, others-oriented, not self-oriented.

Especially in God, then, love is other oriented. God is not, as unitarian conceptions of theism assert, a solitary person; God is, instead, as Christian theism asserts, a perfectly loving tri-personal being.

God is also the greatest being. So, contrary to what the world would have us believe, the greatest love is not self-love but God’s love, which was supremely demonstrated at the cross (Romans 5:8) and poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5).

All Mutually Felt Romantic Love Is Good

The phrase ‘love is love’ means something like: All mutually felt romantic love is good (as long as it makes you happy). But the ethics of love cannot be determined by the mutuality of romantic feelings, or by whether or not the object of our desire makes us happy.

First, if what is good is whatever makes someone happy, then rapists, racists, serial killers, and pedophiles could claim that their evil desires and actions qualify as ethical because it “makes them happy.” Would anyone want to say to a pedophile or a murderer, “Do whatever makes you happy”? No. Just because something makes you happy doesn’t make it good, right, or loving.

Similarly, if the mutuality of romantic feelings were sufficient to deem a relationship ethical, then we wouldn’t be able to object to things we usually find reprehensible. For instance, we would lose any moral grounds for objecting to consensual romantic/sexual relationships between adults and minors or between family members.

It is neither morally nor legally permissible for an uncle to have a romantic relationship with his six-year-old niece, regardless of how she feels about it. So, the ethics of love, in particular romantic love, cannot be determined by the mutuality of romantic feelings. Rather, the ethics of romantic love are determined by God, His character, and His commands. The mutuality of romantic feelings are only good, therefore, if they make God happy.

Love Should be Highly Physical Regardless of Marital Status

What contemporary conceptions of love often fail to communicate is that there are different kinds of love and loving relationships, and not all of them are sexual or romantic. For instance, parental love for a child is not sexual in any way whatsoever. Erotic love is erotic love, but erotic love is not parental love.

Erotic love is only one kind of love, and this kind of love, according to God’s word, is only appropriate in the context of a one-man, one-woman marriage relationship (Genesis 2:24). Love should only include sexual intimacy in one category of loving relationship (marriage); and that relational category prohibits sexual intimacy between people of the same sex and unmarried people of the opposite sex, just as much as it does between adults and children.

God designed erotic love to be exclusively between married couples of the opposite sex; note, this does not mean that God didn’t design us for loving relationships with people of the same sex. As Rebecca McLaughlin writes, “The Bible calls us to non-erotic same sex love.” In other words, our relationships with people of the same sex can be full of phileo (friendship love), storge (supportive, familial love), and agape (sacrificial love), but not eros (erotic love).

We should also note that while erotic love is intended to be exclusive to marriage, marriage is not intended to be exclusively erotic. Marriage should include agape, phileo, and storge as well.

The Life of Heaven

N.T. Wright says that love “is the lifestyle that reveals what genuine renewed humanity is all about.” In other words, love displays the life of heaven and the future life of the new creation. To love others well, and truly reveal “what genuine renewed humanity is all about,” requires embracing God’s designs for the various kinds of relationships discussed above. It will also require embracing a truth that the world currently finds repugnant: that love is greater than approval.

If we truly love someone, we cannot approve of things that harm their physical health, spiritual well-being, or eternal destiny; which means that to truly love someone we must disapprove of all misdirected/ungodly romantic love—be it heterosexual or homosexual (1 Corinthians 6:9).

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Jonathan Darville

Jono Darville is a former Global Master Trainer with The Center for Leadership Studies and Co-Leader of the New York branch of Models for Christ (an international non-profit bringing the gospel to the fashion industry). Due to a decade-plus long battle with chronic illness, Jono almost lost his life in 2017. After spending a number of years bed-bound, God graciously intervened in 2020, using UNC Hospital to restore Jono’s health. Jono is now finishing an M.A. in the Philosophy of Religion at SEBTS, while serving as a Ruling Elder and Youth Director at Peace Church in Cary, NC. He and his wife, Jillian, have one son, Jono Jr.

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