WATERED DOWN RELIGION
T. PIERCE BROWN
A few minutes ago I was visiting with an old friend who has been an elder in the Lord’s church. He mentioned to me that he thought one of the most significant principles in the Bible that is found word for word in both Old Testament and New is “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” When I suggested that the expression did not necessarily mean “as much as you love yourself,” he remarked that we have an extremely dangerous tendency to try to water down and modify the requirements of Jesus any time we do not like the demands they make on us.
I agree with him that this compromising tendency and satisfaction with a diluted form of Christianity had probably done as much damage to the cause of real Christianity as any other one thing, including all the liberals and radicals with their divisive and destructive doctrines. It is true that I do not think the words in the expression necessarily mean “as much as,” primarily because when Paul says, ” Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself up for it” (Eph. 5:25), I do not think he was commanding us to love our wives as much as Christ loved the church. However, if I have the kind or quality of love that Christ had for the church, I will be willing to lay down my life for her, even if I do not love with the same amount or degree of love. Part of the problem is that I know of no way to measure the degree. If I am asked, if I love my wife more than I love my children, I know of no way to answer that, for it is a different kind of love.
So, when I am commanded to love my neighbor as myself, if I have the same kind or quality of love I have for myself, I will sacrifice of what I am and have for his welfare. I will be willing to die for him. So, although the words, “as thyself” may not always mean “as much as,” it does not allow us to water down the instructions by saying, “we can’t do that,” or “he did not mean what he said.” If we practice the kind and quality of love this commandment enjoins, the problem of “how much” or the degree of love will take care of itself. Whatever you are willing to do for yourself, and whatever good you wish for you, you will be willing to do and wish for your neighbor. If we would always do unto others as we would have them do unto us, we will not need to be too concerned with the legalistic question of “do the words demand that I love as much as,” but the demands of the law will be met, both in spirit and in actual practice.
However, the practice of “watering down” the teachings of the Lord is not confined to this one verse or situation. We have a tendency to do the same thing with the command to give as we have been prospered. We may properly say, “As you have been prospered” is not an exact term, so we can put about any meaning we want to it and give as little as we choose. We tend to do it with the Great Commission. It is true that the Great Commission “Go into all the world” does not mean that every individual must go into every city or nation in the world. But this does not allow us to “water down” the commission and say, “I can’t do what he said to do, for he did not mean what he said.” He meant what he said, for the expression simply means, “As you go,” or “Whenever or wherever you go into all the world” make disciplined followers of Christ. If every person would simply do what Jesus commanded, the total effect would be that every person in the world would hear the gospel. To attempt to “water it down” and escape the responsibility simply because the words do not mean that every individual is to go into every nation is characteristic of our normal practice.
In my judgment, even such a great scholar as McGarvey made this sad mistake in his exegesis of Matthew 5:48,” Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus has commanded us to love our enemies and then describes what our condition will be when we do that. McGarvey says, “It is, of course, impossible for man to attain to this perfection; yet anything short of it is short of what we ought to be.” In my opinion he made two or three errors in this viewpoint. First, to say that God commands man to do something that he cannot do would lead men to attempt a subjective analysis of God’s commands, picking out those which seem to hard for us, and disregarding them. Second, he fails to properly regard the context in which this statement was made. He apparently was thinking that we can not be completely without fault as God is. Of course that is true, but has nothing to do with the idea Matthew was presenting here. Matthew says, in effect, when you love your enemies, you will be children of your Father, having His quality, and will be perfect and mature in this respect. If one takes the position that the sort of love for one’s enemies he enjoins would not be perfect, then it is incumbent on him to describe what would be perfect in that respect. In fact, when a person has done exactly what God commands in any one area, this is perfection in that area. The idea that since we all fail to do what God commands or desires in some respects, and therefore are imperfect, gives us no license or excuse to say, “Since no one can be perfect, we are excused for not doing what God requires of us.” This is essentially what McGarvey’s idea would lead to if followed to its logical conclusion. If God says, “Do not lie” and I do not lie on this day, I have been perfect regarding that command for this day. If not, why not?
In our terminology, there are no degrees of perfection, for a thing that is perfect can not be any more perfect. It is similar to a circle. By definition a circle is perfect. It is a line that is at every point equidistant from a point called the center. A circle with a one inch diameter is no more or less perfect than a circle with a one foot diameter. However, if God commanded you to draw a circle with a one foot diameter, and you drew one with a one inch diameter, you might have a “perfect” circle, but you would not have been perfect in your obedience to God. If you drew one with a one foot diameter, you would be perfect as God is perfect in that respect.
If we think of God’s love of humanity, enemies and all, as an infinite love, and you have a love for humanity, enemies and all, as God commanded, you will not have an infinite love, but you will be loving your enemies as God loved them, and will be perfect as God is perfect in that respect. Let us never try to “water down” or dilute God’s commandments either because we think they are too hard for us to do, or because we misunderstand what they involve.
T. Pierce Brown
1068 Mitchell Ave.
Cookeville, TN. 38501
Phone: (615) 528-3600