This is a response to a YouTube community post put up by Pastor Mike Winger. While I often find Pastor Winger to be a thoughtful, Spirit led leader who seems to honestly do his due diligence in study and is primarily motivated by a love for God as revealed in the pages of the Bible, this is a case where I think Pastor Winger has missed the mark.
On October 3, Pastor Winger wrote “Loving God is a greater priority than loving people. This is not to lower our sense of how strongly we are to love people, just to elevate our sense of how strongly we are to love God. This moral rule seems to be absent in our culture.”
This statement is anti-scriptural. If you are elevating your so-called love of God above the love of people, then it’s not the God of the Bible that you love. It’s a god of your own imagination. What does it look like to make loving God a greater priority than loving people if it isn’t the false piety that Christ and the prophets so often condemn?
The most obvious place that Pastor Winger’s general thought is addressed comes out of First John 4:20 “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” To extend this thought just a little, how can you love the God you haven’t seen more than the brother you have seen? It’s easy to see how the one thought flows easily from the other.
This is hardly the only place that the subject is brought up, though. James makes a similar point in James 2:14-19.
“What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.”
Notice how intimately James connects the thought of false piety with the neglect of the poor. In James’s line of thinking, there clearly are those that profess a love of God above their love of others. He compares them to demons. I don’t know about anyone else, but when the inspired authors start comparing my thoughts to those of demons, I start to get nervous.
It never ceases to amaze me, but there are those who won’t believe a concept unless it is reiterated in one of Paul’s letters. I prefer Christianity, not Paulianity. That said, Paul is inspired and I’m casting a wide net for Bible believers here, so those who need to see this in Paul, he brings this very point up in The First Epistle to the Thessalonians, chapter 3, verses 11 to 13.
“And may God our Father, and our Lord Jesus the Messiah, direct our way unto you; and increase and enlarge your love towards one another, and towards all men, even as we love you; and establish your hearts unblamable in holiness, before God our Father; at the advent of our Lord Jesus the Messiah, with all his saints.”
Notice, he says to increase their love towards one another, not towards God. And in Titus 1:7-9, we are told several things that an elder is to love, but God isn’t one of them. It might seem strange to not list the love of God in the requirements for an elder. Surely the elder must love God. I would be skeptical of a church that appointed an elder that had not demonstrated a love of God. (Although I must admit that this seems to have worked once in history. See the story of Ambrose of Milan. He was elected bishop of Milan before being baptized. So… I would still be skeptical of such a church, but I could be wrong to be skeptical of such a church.) I think there’s a good reason that Paul doesn’t list love of God as a requirement for a leader, though. I think it’s impossible to love the God of the Bible in the same sense that one might love the neighbor or the stranger, and similarly impossible to love neighbor or the stranger without actually loving the God of the Bible.
Let’s take a moment to really examine Jesus’s take. In Mark 12:29-34 we read:
“And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these. And the scribe said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for he is one; and there is none other but he: And to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly, he said unto him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God. And no man after that durst ask him any question.”
To love God and neighbor is more than all the burnt offerings. And the scribe who accepts that — even though he is actively opposing the person of Christ standing right in front of him — is not far from the Kingdom of God. That is all interesting and I could probably make my whole point from what we hear about that scribe, but I’m already on this road and I think that road would be longer. For now, let’s focus in on “and the second is like,” which in Greek is “καὶ δευτέρα ὁμοία.” The word for “like” is the “ὁμοία.” This word is most often used in the New Testament to introduce a parable. For example, Luke 13:19 “It is like (ὁμοία) a a grain of mustard seed…” From this, it’s clear that Jesus is teaching that to do one of these is to do the other. If you love your neighbor as yourself, you’re really loving God, and vice versa.
I can expand on that. Have you ever noticed that after Jesus, when these commandments are alluded to in the New Testament, thay only mention loving your neighbor?
- Romans 13:8-9 “And owe nothing to any one; but to love one another. For he that loveth his neighbor, hath fulfilled the law. For this likewise, which it saith: Thou shalt not kill; nor commit adultery; nor steal; nor covet; and if there is any other commandment, it is completed in this sentence: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
- Galacians 5:14 “For the whole law is fulfilled in one sentence; in this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
- James, 2:7-9 “Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called? If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well: But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors.”
After Jesus makes this point, the apostolic writers seem to no longer feel the need to command that future Christians to love God because loving neighbor will suffice. If you’ve done one, you’ve done the other, and it’s far easier to confuse loving God with false piety than it is to confuse loving your neighbor with something nefarious. (From the inside. I realize that examining a person from the outside is its own kettle of wax, but that’s another topic for another day entirely.)
More could be said to build this case, but I think I’ve shown that my position is based in scripture. There is one near miss that needs to be acknowledged before I go into what this means. Matthew 10:37 says, “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” This is the closest we ever get to something that matches Pastor Winger’s statement. I can’t find any other statements that even come close in all the pages of scripture. We can’t extract this verse from its context, though. Chapter 10 is where Jesus is sending out the Apostles on independent missions to Israel. Christ warns that those of us that follow him will find that our greatest obstacle will sometimes be in our own families, not those distant lands that we are sent to. In fact, in case you think I’m reading that into the context, those are almost the very words of the verse before. “And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” In loving our neighbor, we may fail to fit into the predetermined mold set for us by our loved ones. In the immediate context, Zebedee might not have been thrilled that the sons he raised from their youth to take over the family fishing business are now wandering around the countryside like homeless vagabonds begging for food and talking about some (soon to be) dead guy. In modern times, a father may want their child to build the family fortune or reputation in a way that takes away from others, and a Christian will need to stand against that. A husband may want his wife to laugh along with the business associate that celebrates breaking a union so he can lower wages, or the union rep that wants to brag about getting their colleague out of charges of incompetence through aggressive negotiations. There comes a point when we need to tell someone, even someone we’re close to, “I understand you want me to walk with the world so that I can walk with you, but I can’t. I can’t promote hate.” Certainly the same Christ who criticized the Pharisees for using ritual to get around the commandment to love their parents (Matthew 15:5) isn’t here setting up some kind of loophole to avoid loving your father and mother because you are showing your devotion to God.
I want to take a moment to rewind. What was that James said? (James 2:19) “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.” There’s something here, isn’t there? I can’t imagine any fact or detail about God that we would know that the demons would not know. We might know in hindsight things that they did not know in foresight, (1 Peter 1:12) but in terms of current sight they would seem to know more than we do. This is one reason why we need to be careful when we talk about loving God more than we love our neighbor: the demons hate the God we love, but they certainly know him better. It’s what John is getting at when he asks, “how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” If a man were to tell me that he loved his wife more before he met her, then it would be obvious that he didn’t really love his wife before meeting her. He loved his imaginary version of her. In the same way, if you’re claiming to love a god more than your neighbor, then you’re not loving the God who made your neighbor in his image. You’re loving an imaginary god of your own creation. Which, I suppose, is your right. I just don’t think it’s what Pastor Winger is going for.
I get the sense that Pastor Winger and I have different conceptions of God. I can’t say for sure. I don’t have insight into Pastor Winger’s concept of God. I’m sure if I could ask him he would say something like, “The God of the Bible,” or “The God of Christ and the Apostles.” Which, fine, I have been known to say the exact same things and been rightly accused of being exactly as unhelpful as those answers would be here. It’s going to be the same answer from a Jehovah’s Witness or Joseph Smith, so that’s how unhelpful that line of answers is. I’m not sure what Pastor Winger would say if I pressed further with more probing questions, though. So I’m not going to speculate on what he believes specifically. I’m just going to say that it feels very much like his concept of God is somewhat incompatible with my own just because Pastor Winger’s statement doesn’t make sense in terms of my understanding of God. To make an analogy, if someone told me that I shouldn’t be concerned that I can see myself in a mirror, only that it reflects light perfectly, I would be left scratching my head. Doesn’t one thing mean the other? Isn’t the way that I know my mirror is reflecting light perfectly that I can see myself in it? If I can’t see myself in it, doesn’t that very strongly imply that it’s not reflecting the light perfectly? Like, so strongly that every case where I say that I can’t see myself in it, it’s because it’s not reflecting perfectly? The interlocutor says, “Well, what if it’s dark?” Um… then there’s not no light to reflect and it’s therefore not reflecting light. “What if it’s fogged up?” Um… then the reflection is imperfect. “What if it isn’t facing you?” Well, then it might be reflecting perfectly but I have no way to know until I turn it around and see myself in it.
So let’s ask the question: what would it mean to prioritize loving God over loving neighbor? I mean, in a practical sense, not an emotional one. What does it look like when you love God more than your neighbor in a concrete, measurable outcome?
I still feel like that’s a silly question, but let’s turn it around to make it feel somewhat less silly at least in principle: what does it mean to love a neighbor more than God? At least when it’s asked that way, it doesn’t feel silly. I mean, I still think it is silly in the end, but I’ll admit that if I hadn’t put a bunch of thought into this way of thinking about God I might need to be walked to it. So let’s show why it’s silly, and I think that will shed light on why the reverse is also silly.
To love a neighbor more than God is going to imply seeking the good of my neighbor above the good of God. Leaving to one side that God is transcendent and therefore I can neither hurt him nor benefit him, we can at least admit that I can try. I can go to my neighbors birthday party on Sunday instead of church in a misguided attempt to actively hurt God by choosing someone else that I love more. Then I’ve loved someone else above God. Haven’t I?
Not so fast. Let’s remember what John tells us: “God is love.” (1 John 4:8, 16) So let’s assume that going to this birthday party is truly an act of selfless love for my neighbor. (Dubious with what data is given, but possible. Let’s roll with it. After all, it’s a thought experiment.) In order to do this act of selfless love for my neighbor, I have to prioritize that love. I have to prioritize my love at the same time in order to really prioritize my neighbor. There’s no way to prioritize my neighbor without also prioritizing my love for my neighbor unless it’s an act not done out of love. (If it were done more with intention to hurt someone else rather than to help the friend, that would not be loving.) And God is love. So I’m not just loving my neighbor, I’m also loving the love of my neighbor, which is itself God.
That even helps to explain a verse that many people find confusing: Luke 12:10 “And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but unto him that blasphemeth against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven.” How can it be forgiven to speak against the Son, but not the Holy Ghost? What are you doing when you actively blaspheme the Son? You’re blaspheming a historical image. Which, let’s face it, we probably got more wrong than right. In stark contrast, when we blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, we are calling something evil which is good. We are directly saying, “Even though you’ve acted lovingly and helpfully, you’re still evil.” That’s a denial of love. And since God is love, that’s a true denial of God.
Doesn’t this fit in nicely with the scribe who is closer to the Kingdom than he thinks? He’s blaspheming the Son who stands right in front of him, but he knows to prioritize love of others over a sense of piety. Indeed, wasn’t it the case that the Scribe alludes to in Micah 6:6-8? Aren’t the people of Micah’s day claiming to love God over others by offering sacrifices and holding feast days, all while their people go without? Isn’t it exactly this kind of piety that Christ rebukes with statements like, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath,” (Mark 2:27) and “Thus you have made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition,” (Matthew 15:6) and “ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” (Matthew 23:23) In every one of these cases, aren’t the prophets and Christ criticizing those who claim to be showing piety (the love of God) over the love of neighbor?
Isn’t it interesting how seeing God this way pulls all these things together? For me, this has become the lense I try first when examining any theological theory or doctrine or Bible passage. It has helped me to make sense of the Trinity, judgement and mercy, the nature of God, the incarnation, and salvation. This thought has not let me down in ten years.
But I’ve left one problem hanging: who am I snubbing in the birthday party scenario above? I’ve set out to snub someone, and it could be argued that trying to snub someone is automatically successful at least in principle. (I’m not sure that the crime of attempted but failed snubbing makes a lot of sense. If I tell someone that they’re skinny and then they thank me and I follow up with, “That wasn’t a compliment,” then they are usually offended just because I meant it so. The very thing they thought was a compliment becomes a snub just by intention.)
Clearly the entity that I was trying to snub isn’t love itself and therefore cannot be the God of the Bible. The immediate thing that pops into my head is that it’s some kind of semi-idolatrous anthropomorphic Thor-like thing or maybe a Zeus-like thing or maybe a Karma-like thing. I’m sure other ideas could fill that void as well, but whatever it is it’s not the God who is love that’s described in the Bible.
Of course, I can only speculate what Pastor Winger would say to such a thing. I’m not sure what the thing is that he’s trying to elevate above his love of neighbor. This concept of mine is grounded in scripture, and whatever he is trying to elevate doesn’t seem to match with what I read in scripture. That doesn’t automatically make me right. Maybe Pastor Winger has another, particular image in mind that better fits some point I’ve missed. It would be interesting to see if that were the case. From here, the obvious question is what I started with: “What does it look like to make loving God a greater priority than loving people if it isn’t the false piety that Christ and the prophets so often condemn?”