What Does It Mean to Love Your Neighbor?

Rebecca McLaughlin
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When asked, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus replied, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself ’” (Mark 12:29–31). This summary of the Old Testament law was likely not original to Jesus. In Luke, a Jewish lawyer gives a similar summary of the law (Luke 10:27). What is utterly radical is how Jesus then answers this lawyer’s follow-up question: “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with a story of self-sacrificing love across racial, ethnic, and religious difference. In the story, a Jewish man is robbed and beaten and left to bleed out by the roadside. Two Jewish religious leaders pass by and don’t help. Then, a Samaritan shows up and cares for the victim. The Jews of Jesus’ day despised the Samaritans, and vice versa. This story, known as the parable of the good Samaritan, defines the neighbor we are called to love as the exact kind of person we were raised to hate.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus presses this expansive principle of love even further: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:43–45). Christians should be known as Jesus’ followers not only by our love for one another (John 13:35), but also by our love for those most hostile to us.

What does this love look like? “If your enemy is hungry,” Paul writes, “feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink” (Rom. 12:20). This hospitality includes things Jesus’ first followers would have done: inviting those most hostile to their faith to share their food or hang out in their homes. It also extends to things belonging to our modern world. Loving our enemies today might look like coming to the defense of our ideological enemies when they’re being unfairly attacked online or responding graciously when we’re attacked.

Often, loving our enemies means patiently listening to those who think of Christians as foolish, immoral, or harmful, and asking gentle questions to find out more about what’s shaped their perception, rather than immediately leaping to defend our tribe. Best-case scenario, it means building real friendships based on mutual love and respect, despite deep disagreement.

Persuasion and Respect

If we truly believe that Jesus is the only hope that any human has for being saved from God’s eternal judgment against sin, we cannot say we love our friends and not want them to come to Him. What’s more, we cannot just be silent—praying for our friends but never speaking up. In his second letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul writes, “Knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. . . . For the love of Christ controls us” (2 Cor. 5:11, 14).

Persuasion doesn’t mean coercion or manipulation. But it does mean Christians making the best possible case for faith in Jesus, both in what we say and in how we live. Rather than being disrespectful, trying to persuade someone to change their beliefs is a sign of respect, and we should do our best to make them feel respected, even as we challenge their beliefs. Writing to Christians facing fierce opposition to their faith, Peter urges, “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and  respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Of course, some people who aren’t followers of Jesus will find our beliefs so utterly offensive that they won’t want anything to do with us. But we can always offer love and hospitality to those who are not Christians as far as they are open to receiving it.

So, are there any limits on the ways that Christians should pursue relationships with nonbelievers? Yes.

To Eat, or Not to Eat

As the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul repeatedly addressed the question of how Christians should relate to those who worshiped pagan gods. Two potential responses would have been straightforward. Paul could have prescribed separation: have nothing to do with pagan neighbors, family members, work associates, or former friends. Alternatively, Paul could have recommended syncretism: Jesus is the Son of God, but it’s okay to worship other gods as well to keep the peace. But Paul’s answer is neither separation nor syncretism. It’s shining. “Do all things without grumbling or disputing,” Paul writes, “that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life” (Phil. 2:14–16).

Paul’s “No” to syncretism is crystal clear. “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons,” Paul explains to the Corinthians. “You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (1 Cor. 10:21). Joining non-Christians in worship—which often involved eating and drinking—was antithetical to faith in Christ. Paul pens a similarly passionate warning against syncretism in 2 Corinthians:

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God. (2 Cor. 6:14–16a)

Belial is another name for Satan. Just as believers in the Old Testament were called to separate themselves from the pagan nations that surrounded them, so Christians were to separate themselves from the pagan worship that surrounded them. This passage is often used to counsel Christians against dating or marrying non-Christians. While this may well be one valid application of this passage today, it’s unlikely that marriage is what Paul had primarily in mind. Rather, he is urging to Corinthians not to fool themselves that they are on the same side as their pagan neighbors or that they can continue to participate in pagan worship, now that they’ve been united to Christ. So, does this mean that Paul was teaching total separation between Christians and their pagan neighbors? No.

“If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go,” Paul writes, “eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience” (1 Cor. 10:27). Eating with an unbeliever would have been a big deal for Paul, who was raised with the practice of not eating with non-Jews. Paul clarifies that it is not wrong for a Christian to dine with a non-Christian, even if the food has been sacrificed to idols.

Paul is also keen that the Corinthians don’t cause believers who were once idol worshipers to stumble by eating food that has been sacrificed to an idol and hurting the conscience of their brother or sister (1 Cor. 8:7–13). These guidelines mean that the exact same action might be right or wrong for a believer depending on the people they are with. Followers of Jesus need to operate in love both to non-Christian friends and to our brothers and sisters, who may have vulnerabilities we do not have. Paul concludes, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (1 Cor. 10:31–33).

Paul was committed to coming alongside non-Christians and accommodating their culture as far as he could:

To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law), that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. (1 Cor. 9:20–23)

If you, like me, are a Christian, we should be completely clear that we will only worship the one true Creator God, revealed in Jesus Christ. At the same time, we should be willing to set aside our own cultural preferences to come alongside the nonbelievers in our neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and families. We’re not called to blend in or to check out, but to shine.

So, what does this look like in the area where both the pressure to blend in and the impulse to check out can be the strongest?

If you, like me, are a Christian, we should be completely clear that we will only worship the one true Creator God, revealed in Jesus Christ.

Do Associate With Sexually Immoral People

In many people’s minds today, the most offensive thing about Christianity is no longer Jesus’ exclusive claim to be our only hope for right relationship with God (John 14:6). Rather, it’s the New Testament’s uncompromising claim that sex belongs only in lifelong marriage between a man and a woman.

If this teaching is countercultural today, it was also profoundly countercultural in the first century. In the Greco-Roman empire, men were not expected to be faithful to their wives. They were free to sleep with prostitutes of either sex, to use enslaved people sexually, and to have sex with adolescent boys and adult men, so long as they took the active role. Christian sexual ethics came as a massive shock to this system. Christian men were required to live either as faithful husbands to one wife or in celibate singleness (like Jesus Himself). This limitation of sex to the lifetime commitment of male-female marriage was a non-negotiable distinctive of God’s people. It was not an agree-to-disagree issue. So, how are Christians to relate to people who are not living by Christian sexual ethics? Paul answers this question in his first preserved letter to the Corinthians.

Paul references a previous letter in which he told the Corinthians not to associate with sexually immoral people, and clarifies what he did and did not mean:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. (1 Cor. 5:9–11)

Many Christians today think they shouldn’t associate with non-Christians who aren’t living according to Christian sexual ethics—especially if they’re in gay relationships. But Paul is clear that this is not what he means. Instead, he’s calling Christians not to associate with other Christians who are engaging in ongoing, unrepentant sexual sin.

By Jesus’ standards, all of us are sexual sinners (Matt. 5:27–28). But Paul highlights the night-and-day difference repentance makes. In the very next chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul once again lists various kinds of sexual and nonsexual sin as barriers to inheriting the kingdom of God:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6:9–11)

For me, as a Christian who has always experienced same-sex attraction, this passage has formed one section of the guardrail composed of multiple New Testament texts that explicitly categorize same-sex sexual relationships as sinful (see Rom. 1:24–32; 1 Tim. 1:8–11; Jude 7). But it has also acted like a banister for me to cling to for encouragement. Some of the very first Christians came to Christ with a history of same-sex sexual relationships. They were washed, sanctified, and justified in His name.

Befriending a non-Christian who is engaged in sexual sin does not affirm them in their sin.

Befriending a non-Christian who is engaged in sexual sin does not affirm them in their sin. They know we disagree with them in the most fundamental way. Likewise, our hope for our non-Christian friends is not that they would start to live by Christian sexual ethics without knowing Christ. It’s that they would put all their trust in Jesus as the one who paid the price for all their sin—just as He paid the price for ours. If someone puts their trust in Jesus, He becomes the Lord of all their life. But we should not expect someone to live by Christian ethics before they’ve been united to Christ. And if we understand the gospel for ourselves, we should approach our nonbelieving friends not with a smug self-righteousness, but with profound humility.

Remember, God Hates Pride

One of the most disorienting things for many Christians in the West today is finding that they’re on the moral low ground in the eyes of their non-Christian friends and neighbors. In previous generations, Christians tended to be recognized as on the moral high ground. Maybe they were seen as unattractively judgmental. But it was typical for those who didn’t go to church to think of those who did as morally superior.

Today, that ground has shifted. Christians are more likely to be seen as morally inferior. Especially when it comes to sexual ethics, gender identity, and abortion, those who hold to scriptural beliefs about male-female marriage, the givenness of biological sex, and the right to life of unborn babies are seen by many as morally repugnant: equivalent to racist segregationists or hateful misogynists.

What’s more, the growing recognition of the ways in which churches have historically been guilty of a range of sinful practices—from propagating racial oppression, to acting hatefully toward non-Christians who identify as gay or lesbian, to covering up sexual abuse—has led to an increasing sense that Christians are the antiheroes in our culture. When we stand for Christian sexual ethics today, we’re seen as taking an absurd, unloving, and ultimately futile stand on the wrong side of history.

Some Christians have reacted to this shift by trying to fit in. The arguments for affirming same-sex marriage and self-determined gender identity can feel so compelling when the alternative is being accused of hateful bigotry—and when you’re aware of the times when Christians have acted in hateful ways. Other Christians have reacted in the opposite direction: refusing to acknowledge any history of sin in the church and doubling down on genuinely hateful attitudes that contradict the love of neighbor Jesus calls us to pursue. They want to scramble back onto the moral high ground by blocking their ears to legitimate critique and shouting down the opposition. But Jesus calls us to another way.

In one of His most powerful parables, Jesus contrasts a man who would have been seen as impressively religious with a man who would have been spurned as a shameful sinner. Jesus told this parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9). The story went like this:

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10–14)

Jesus calls His followers not to self-righteousness but to humble recognition of our sin. We’re called to cling not to the moral high ground but to Jesus. We’re called to walk in humbleness before Him and before our nonbelieving friends. Our message is not, “We’re so good, you really should become like us!” Our message is, “We’re so bad we needed God’s own Son to die for us. That offer’s on the table for you too.” Shortly after listing various kinds of sin that are against God’s law—from things our culture would affirm, like same-sex sexual relationships, to things it would rightly condemn, like enslaving people (1 Tim. 1:10)—Paul declares, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:15). If we’re following Jesus, then the basis for our friendships with non-Christians is not condescension, judgment, or self-righteousness, but humbleness and love.

One day, there will be no more sin and struggling. Jesus will wipe away every tear from my eyes (Rev. 21:4).

For years, as I related to non-Christian friends, I kept quiet about the hard things in my life. I thought I’d point them best to Jesus by convincing them that I had everything together, that I wasn’t struggling like they were. In particular, I didn’t tell my nonbelieving friends about my lifelong history of same-sex attraction and the sense of loneliness and longing it was generating in my heart. I wanted them to think that Jesus was enough for me. He is enough. But I now think that I can point to Jesus best by being honest with my friends about my sins and struggles. I’m not here to say I have it all together. I am here to say that I need Jesus every single day. I need His help provided in His Word and through His people. I need my brothers and my sisters to embrace me and assure me of His love on days when I feel like I’m utterly unlovable, and I need them to correct me on days when I’m justifying my own sin.

One day, there will be no more sin and struggling. Jesus will wipe away every tear from my eyes (Rev. 21:4). But in the meantime, I hope to relate to my non-Christian friends with humility and love. I’m honored by the people in my life who do not follow Jesus but are willing to be friends with me. My earnest prayer is that one day, I’ll get to call these friends my sisters and my brothers. In the meantime, I will do my best to love them as my neighbor, and therefore—with Jesus’ help—to love them as myself.

For Further Reading:

No Greater Love

by Rebecca McLaughlin

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