Love is the goal of Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy. That’s not the tradition I was raised with, but as I revisited 1 Timothy, I realized those traditions were far more legalistic than my current theology can sustain. Let’s explore how making love the goal changes the conversation and what that might mean for purity culture and legalistic approaches to Paul’s instructions.
Attributes of Love
Let me lay some groundwork about love. There are three attributes of love that are becoming the hermeneutic through which I evaluate “lovingness.”
- Love is incarnate.
- Love is contextual.
- Love is adaptive.
These don’t describe what love is as a thing (i.e. not love itself) but more how love functions. When I say love is incarnate, what I mean is that love can’t be separated from the idea of incarnation. When I say love is contextual, I mean love can’t be separated from contextual considerations. When I say love is adaptive, I mean love can’t be separated from adaptiveness.
Love Is Incarnate
Incarnate, here, means embodied. It means enfleshed. The obvious example of this, for Christians, is Jesus who we claim is God in the flesh (i.e. incarnate). Most Christians claim that Jesus is a human being who was brought into the world as an embodied aspect of God. Because I believe that God is love, love is incarnate in Jesus, but I don’t think you have to believe in Jesus to believe that embodiment is an attribute of love.
Any love that a person has in any context has to be incarnate — embodied. It has to be manifested in something physical. You might hear this described as “active.” Love requires physical, embodied action. This is similar to James’s claim that faith and works go hand-in-hand (James 2:14-26). Faith that’s expressed through love has to go along with works that are manifestations of that love. Back to the Jesus example, God shows God’s love in Christ, which is essentially a minimum requirement of incarnational love.
James gives the counter example: if you say to a person, “Go, keep warm, and be well fed,” but don’t help their bodily needs, your love is not embodied — your faith is dead (James 2:16-17). Paul makes the case several times in his letters that if your love doesn’t translate to some kind of incarnate, present, embodied action, then it’s not real love or it’s not real faith. (This may seem less obvious even with references. When you read Paul, listen for places where he gives instructions related to actions, as opposed to just thoughts. It’s the actions that Paul is concerned with — the way of living — such as how we eat food and around whom. Embodiment.)
Love Is Contextual
Love cares about the time and the place. Manifestations of love should reflect the context in which that love is appearing, so the way we incarnate love should reflect the context in which we’re loving ourselves and others.
For example, in Romans, Paul says that eating meat versus not eating meat is an issue they need to deal with. Some of them want to eat meat, but some of them don’t think they should eat meat. In 1 Corinthians, however, the issue isn’t about eating meat in general. The issue is specifically about eating meat sacrificed to idols versus eating meat not sacrificed to idols. These are contextual issues. Different context, different issue. Love takes those contexts into consideration as it manifests, which is precisely what Paul claims: if his eating meat will cause someone to “fall,” he’d rather not eat meat (1 Corinthians 8:13). The “if” qualifies this as a contextual consideration; how best can I love my neighbor right here and right now?
In the same way, we should be prepared to address contextual issues in our own time and place. The question we might ask ourselves is this: for my time and place, right here and right now, what might it look like for me to love the people around me. Contextual manifestations of love are informed by cultural norms and expectations, local demographics, current events, etc. The way I love people in this space, in this particular city, in Las Vegas, NV in the United States, is probably not going to look the same as the way we might love somebody in, say, Peru. The idea of love, if God is love, might be fairly consistent, but the way we embody that love — the way we incarnate that love — is contextual.
Love Is Adaptive
Even within a context, love adapts to the changing needs of that context.
For example, a congregation might look a certain way when it starts. Maybe it starts with mostly younger members, and then 30 years later, it’s mostly older members. Maybe those same members were once 20/30/40 years old, and now they’re 50/60/70 years old. The age demographic has changed. How we love a group of 20 year olds worshiping together might look different than how we love a group of 50 year olds worshiping together.
Maybe the ethnic demographic changed; maybe that same congregation was mostly White or mostly Black or mostly Hispanic, and 30 years later, it’s more ethnically diverse. It’s now a mixed ethnic group of worshipers who come with different cultures and expectations and from different places into this one context. Or, maybe it was a suburban congregation, and 30 years of city development later, it’s now an urban congregation.
In other words, even within a set context, the circumstances change, and love adapts to the changing needs of the people within that context. This is especially true if the people in our contexts have explicit physical, emotional, or spiritual needs. What if a congregation had nobody in it who was neurodivergent, and now the congregation has several families with neurodivergent children. The congregation ought to adapt how they function in order to best love those families within the context of the congregational community.
So, love is incarnate; it’s embodied in action. Love is contextual; it considers the time and the place. Love is adaptive; it pays attention to the changing needs of the people who are there. These are base attributes of what love is, functionally.
In 1 Timothy, Paul is writing to his protégé, Timothy, who is in Ephesus, and he opens with the following:
I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia, to remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine, and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith. But the aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.1 Timothy 1:3-5, NRSV
Timothy is to correct contrary teachers in his context — in his time and place — which is the city of Ephesus, but Paul says the goal of this command is love. Whatever the specifics of Paul’s instructions are for Timothy, he has already stated an explicit goal: love, and that love comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.
He also says that some people’s devotion to controversial speculation is preventing them from promoting “divine training,” or the divine plan. The NIV translates this as “advancing God’s work.” It’s not 100% clear what Paul’s referring to, but I think it’s safe to say that the divine training/plan/work that’s “known by faith” is related to God’s Mission, whether by training or by direct participation. In other words, they’re devoted to myths and endless genealogies rather than the participation with God through faith. One thing is interfering with the other thing. Paul would rather that they focus on the plan and God’s Mission, but he reminds Timothy that the goal of the command is love. He gave the command because he was trying to provoke love within the Ephesian community. That suggests to me that something about their devotion to myths and genealogies was preventing them from loving people or from promoting love. It was creating some kind of controversy. They weren’t just speculating about things. They weren’t just doing explorative theology or philosophical theology. Rather, they were creating situations of controversy within the community that were opposing the “divine plan,” which Paul suggests has something to do with love. The command is rooted in his desire for love to reign in the community.
Paul says love comes from a pure heart, good conscience, sincere faith, and in his letter to the Galatians, he wrote that the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love (Galatians 5:6b). Paul’s goal seems to be the same in both places: he wants them to love each other in a way that’s going to be expressive of their faith in Jesus Christ. Their faith should lead to love, and if their faith doesn’t express through love — that is, if it doesn’t incarnate in their contexts in love — then their faith isn’t promoting the work/plan/training of God. That’s the gist of his opening instruction to Timothy.
Sincere faith leads to love, and love is the goal, so love, as a goal, should inform everything that we consider about faith, God, and scripture.
Don’t Get It Backward
It’s important that we don’t get it backward, because when we get it backward, we get all kinds of strange things, not the least of which is legalism. The goal is love, which is by faith. The question we should ask is what can we do that would be in line with love as the goal, or, as we asked earlier, what might it look like for us to love the people around us? If we get it backward, then the command comes first, and love is an assumed result of the command. The command, then, dictates how we understand love. When love comes first, the command doesn’t reveal love; instead, love determines the command.
We can see places in 1 Timothy where these different approaches have a significant impact on our understanding of Paul’s instructions. For example, in 1 Timothy 2, Paul writes,
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.1 Timothy 2:11-12, NRSV
If the command comes first, we end up assuming that submissive women, men in authority, and men telling women to be submissive are all incarnations of love. In other words, when the command comes first, embodied love is women submitting and men having authority.
When we put love first and say the goal is love (how do I love these people, as a first), it makes sense to ask, “Is it loving, in my time and place, with this group of people, to say that women should submit to men?” If it’s not loving, we don’t do it, because love is the goal!
When we put the command first, we say we have to do it, because that is love. When we put love first, we ask what is love, and what’s the command that would follow? In a specific context, is it loving to say that women should submit to men, or is it loving to say that men should submit to women, or is it loving to say that they should have equality, or is it loving to say that they should have equity? Etc.
The question is what is love? How do we get to love? Not what is the command and we’ll just do that and assume that’s love. With that command that Paul gives to women and men, in my context, considering all kinds of things, like abuse of power, patriarchal manipulation, spiritual trauma perpetrated by Christian leaders and congregations, etc. — it doesn’t seem loving to me that in my context I should tell women to submit to men. It doesn’t seem loving to me that in my context I should tell men to have authority over women and to tell women to be quiet. Rather, it seems loving to me that we should find healthy ways to empower women to have a voice and that we should promote equality and equity between women in authority and men in authority.
That is the loving thing in my context, because it pushes against shame. It pushes against manipulation. It pushes against abuse. It pushes against all sorts of issues in society that lead to oppression. It says that love desires something that our society is not supplying to people. Therefore, the command should fit the goal of love.
Disagreeing With Paul
A lot of people push back on this. They say, “Wait a minute. So, you’re telling me you’re disagreeing with Paul? You’re disagreeing with something that we found in scripture? How can you do that and still say that you’re being faithful to scripture?”
No, I’m not disagreeing with Paul. Paul wasn’t speaking to my context. That’s important to remember. That’s why we started with that base about love; love is incarnate, contextual, and adaptive. Paul was speaking to Timothy’s context. I don’t know enough about that context to say whether or not it was loving. I don’t know if he’s talking to a specific group of women and men within the Church in Ephesus or if he’s talking to everybody in Ephesus. I don’t know if he’s making a blanket statement for all Christians everywhere. I simply don’t know.
What I do know is that regardless of whether or not it was loving in Timothy’s context, it’s not loving in my context, and if I believe Paul that the goal is love — that the command he gives is intended to manifest love — then I have to adapt that to my context so that I can embody it in ways that are actually loving for the people who are here. That’s what love does, and that’s what love does in every context, and if we’re not careful — if we get it backward — we get all kinds of legalism out of this.
Instruction Manuals and Blueprints
I was always taught, at every congregation and Christian group throughout my entire childhood and early adulthood, that the Bible is an instruction manual or like an industrial blueprint. It’s purely instructive, not open to interpretation, completely inerrant, and intended for the sole purpose of being followed to the letter. If that’s your current posture toward scripture, the things I’ve written so far might not be sitting well with you, but I no longer hold to that view of scripture.
If the Bible is either an instruction manual or a blueprint, then we have fallen into legalism. It becomes a timeless, one-size-fits-all, flat, legal document. Doing anything contextual or adaptive or incarnate becomes wrong, because we’re not following the blueprint, but as we already discussed, love is incarnate and contextual and adaptive. If we’re going to flatten it out, we shouldn’t call it love, and that’s the issue. That’s the obvious dissonance that people often come to me with — Christian and non-Christian, alike.
Most people already believe that love is incarnate, contextual, and adaptive, even if we don’t talk about it in that way. We live in relationship with everyone around us. We know what it is to be loved and/or to be without love. We know what toxicity looks like and feels like, and so we have an idea of what non-toxic relationships look like and feel like. When Christians present obedience as love, most people immediately recognize that something is backward. We say we have to do this thing, because obedience is first, and love is second; love looks like whatever the obedience looks like, but that’s not what Paul presents in 1 Timothy, and that’s not what Jesus presents in how he lives his life and when he deals with religious elders.
Justice, Mercy, and Faithfulness
Yes, good! Obey the rules and tithe your ten percent of your mint and your dill and your cumin and go and say your prayers and do the ceremonial cleansing rituals or whatever it is that you’re going to do. But, at the end of the day, those things don’t define what love is. Instead, don’t neglect the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. These are incarnate manifestations of love. More than that, they’re contextual and adaptive. This is the thrust of Jesus’s rebuke against religious leaders of his day.
Love defines how we respond to those things. Which is lawful to do on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil? To heal someone or to do harm to that person? Obviously, the good thing is the loving thing, which is to help the person and to do good, but that would break the Sabbath tradition! Fine, Jesus said. The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath, and the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.
When we put the command before love, we twist everything that God does in creation, and that’s what’s happening all the time in Christianity today. We are twisting it backward so that the command becomes more important than the goal, and by doing that, we miss the goal every single time.
If Paul came into my context and said what he said in 1 Timothy 2, then yes, I would disagree with him, but I don’t see scripture as an instruction manual or blueprint, so I’m not boxed into believing Paul is talking directly to me and my context. Paul gave a command, but he said at the beginning that the goal is love. I get to say that’s not what love looks like in my context, so I need to incarnate the love of God in my time and place in order to be effective in advancing the work of God. That’s how we participate in God’s Mission.
Jesus said love God and love your neighbor, and all the law and the prophets hinge on these two greatest commands, and Paul echoes that throughout his letters.
- Galatians 5: the only thing that matters is faith expressing itself through love.
- Romans 13: every command that exists is summed up in this one command: love your neighbor as yourself.
- 1 Corinthians 13: nothing you do matters unless it’s done in love.
- 1 Timothy 1: the goal of this command is love.
Love Is the Goal
The point is that love is the goal. Love is incarnate, it is contextual in a time and a place, and it is adaptive to the changing needs of the community. We are always trying to get at the core of who God is and what God desires. What the New Testament tells us is that God is love. I believe that what God desires is reconciliation for all of creation, so that should be our goal, as well. If that means that we have to lay down the traditions we had before in favor of something new — in favor of something that is incarnate and loving in our context in this time and place — if that means we have to adapt over the years, even within our context, to the changing needs of the community, then that’s what we should do, because a devotion to the traditions and the commands of the past without respect to the desires of love just leads to idolatry and legalism. That’s not what we should be about.
This whole thing isn’t going to sit well with some people, but I hope that if you’ve made it this far, you’re at least open to it. To talk about adaptive, incarnational, contextual love threatens the status quo every single time. It threatens the power structures every single time. Yet, for those of us who have been pressed into molds that are not sustainable, for those of us who have experienced the freedom of coming out of those power structures and those expectations and those borders that try to box in everything about God — for us, this is freedom. For us, this is life. What I desire for others is the same thing I received: freedom in Christ, because God is love; freedom in Christ, because God desires reconciliation; freedom in Christ to pursue Love without the expectation of oppression and manipulation and abuse.
Embody and contextualize and adapt love in your community, because love is the goal.
If you’re enjoying the content on Breaking Bread Theology or find it helpful, please consider supporting this work with a donation. I would love to make this a full-time effort and continue to expand the available content, but that will only be possible with enough support from readers like yourself. I hope that together we can continue to create safe spaces for people to explore faith and theology.