Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.
I was recently informed that the church I serve risks becoming known for what it opposes rather than for what it supports. This is a familiar rhetorical approach in discussions when churches are willing to publicly question or even oppose things that the society, in general, supports. There’s an appeal to the argument because no one wants to be seen as the grumpy fundamentalist church that views itself as “against the world.”
It’s a warning that’s worth heeding and worthy considering seriously.
Yet often those who introduce it have no problem with churches when they oppose the “right things.” In other words the line “becoming known for what you oppose” actually means, “I disapprove of what you oppose and it’s convenient for me to characterize your opposition to it in a negative manner.”
The Bible suggests that opposing what is wrong—hating what is evil--is actually an appropriate expression of the true love that marks the Christian (see Romans 12) in the communion of the church.
What we’re talking about is not arbitrary hatred addressed toward people simply because they are different. Quite the contrary: we are never instructed to hate anyone, rather to love them. We are, however, instructed to hate that which is wrong, or put another way, those actions that are contrary to God’s moral law.
We’re instructed to love what is good—those things that align with God’s character and God’s purposes in the world.
We’re instructed to hate what is evil—those things that are at odds with God’s character and God’s purposes in the world. The church is instructed to stand against what is evil with the same vigor we stand for what is good.
By doing this, according to Paul, our love is genuine “hating evil” and “holding fast to good” are the expressions of authentic love. Genuine love does not toy with evil—it flies from it knowing what the writer of the letter to the Hebrews knew, “sin easily entangles.”
We’re often told that we should let our conscience be our guide.
This is the classic “that’s beyond my pay grade response” to difficult and divisive issues. The church–at least the church as envisioned in the New Testament– doesn’t have the option to simply say to its members you decide whether adultery is sin, homosexual practice is sin, or theft is sin.
The truth is, however, that our consciences are not infallible, our consciences are not unaffected by sin.
Our conscience is simply an internal, error-prone voice that is shaped by a variety of forces including our culture, our ethnicity, our sub-culture, our peer-group, and can easily lead us astray.
It’s for this reason that we—Christians—were given the Scripture: in order to learn what God calls good and what God calls evil. The church is a school of virtue tasked with forming Christians to love and hate rightly.
At the end of the day, for the Christian, our moral judgments must align with the Scripture because this is the principle means by which we discern God’s will.
The conscience can only BE a guide of the conscience HAS a guide.
We need a book from God that points to God and reveals God.
Christians have confessed for millennia that the Bible is the Word of God—it reveals God to us, it is our “rule of faith and practice.”
What does that mean? A rule is a standard against which something is measured or tested. We test our experiences of God, we test our experience of self and others, we measure our beliefs and our instincts against the Bible because the Bible is the Christian’s ultimate standard.
By all means follow your conscience. However, if your conscience has not demonstrably been shaped and formed by the Bible then it’s unlikely to be a guide worthy of following.
Allow careful reading of the Bible to shape your understanding of God. Allow careful reading of the Bible to shape your understanding of your self and your neighbor. Allow careful reading of the Bible to shape your views on current issues. Christians are to be shaped by the Bible and there is no excuse for a Christian who neglects to read it.
It’s not enough to recognize what’s negative and seek to eliminate it—Most counselors will tell you that simply rejecting something isn’t enough to make a positive change in your life. Many couples go through their remarriage counseling sessions swearing: “this is not going to be like my parents’ marriage!” In the absence of a positive alternative, it’s virtually guaranteed that history will repeat itself. That’s why Paul suggests that we cannot simply hate evil; we must actively seek that which is good.
What Paul seems to have in mind is not some slight preference for good over evil. Rather, Paul is urging his readers to “be glued to” the good. It’s the same word that appears in Jesus explanation of marriage found in Matthew 19:5:
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.”
The idea is of joining two things together in a permanent and indissoluble relationship. The Christian is wedded to the good because the church is the bride of Christ and Christ’s purpose for the church is, according to Ephesians 1:4—
“To be blameless and pure before [God].”
Each of us has the opportunity to faithfully live out this sort of life—one that is marked by true love, which hates evil and clings to that which is good.
At root of this is the example of the self-giving, self-emptying love that Jesus demonstrated:
Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8, NRSV).