Which should we champion: truth or love? Why not both?
One of the worst things we can do as believers is to seek to pit one biblical truth against another, as if we must choose between alternatives. Too often biblically unbalanced believers will insist on an either/or situation when it comes to certain truths, instead of a both/and approach.
Some things are wrongly portrayed as an antithesis, as polar opposites, when instead they are simply two sides of the same coin. In logic, we speak of the fallacy of the false dilemma. This involves pushing a false either/or scenario, when both may well be possible, or a third option might exist.
If you want something simpler to latch on to here, just think of a recent television ad for tacos. In the ad a major debate is taking place as to whether one should use Old El Paso hard taco shells or soft taco shells. A young girl solves the problem by asking, “Why not both?”
There are plenty of examples where Christians can push one option over another option, when in fact we should be running with both. For example, we often hear debates about whether we should pray about certain evils, or work to eliminate them. Um, why not both? Why force us to choose one or the other, when we of course should be doing both.
Or we can have big debates about God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, as if we must run with only one of the two. But again, why not both? Both are biblical truths fully supported by Scripture, so we should be supporting both as well, and not insisting that only one can be true or biblical. They both are.
Some believers might even foolishly debate which is more essential: daily Scripture reading or daily prayer. When Charles Spurgeon was asked, “What is more important: prayer or reading the Bible?” he replied, “What is more important: breathing in or breathing out?”
Here I want to look at another pair of biblical truths that too often are unhelpfully separated by some. I refer to the crucial importance of truth and love. Too often believers will champion one or the other. But clearly Scripture urges us to hold on to both simultaneously. Consider just two vital passages on this:
Ephesians 4:14-15 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.
2 John 1-3 To the lady chosen by God and to her children, whom I love in the truth—and not I only, but also all who know the truth—because of the truth, which lives in us and will be with us forever: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, will be with us in truth and love.
Truth and love go together. They cannot and must not be separated. And above all, we must not have any believers recklessly and foolishly trying to tell us that we must only go with just one of them. Either one without the other makes for a completely unbalanced faith – one that will not be of any use to anyone.
There are plenty of key Christian leaders that I could appeal to here on this matter. Many have spoken and written about the need to never divorce love from truth and truth from love. But let me highlight just one important Christian thinker.
The late John Stott often discussed this issue, and he wrote about it as well as anyone has. So let me offer three quotes of his on the importance of keeping truth and love in tandem. I will feature three of his books, moving from his earlier to his later works.
In his 1964 commentary, The Epistles of John, he says this about 2 John 1-3:
The fellowship of the local Church is created by truth and exhibited in love. Each qualifies the other. Our love is not to be so blind as to ignore the views and conduct of others. Truth should make our love discriminating. John sees nothing inconsistent in adding to his command to love one another (5) a clear instruction about the refusal of fellowship to false teachers, who are deceivers and antichrists (7-11). Our love for others is not to undermine our loyalty to the truth. On the other hand, we must never champion the truth in a harsh or bitter spirit. Those who are ‘walking in truth’ (4) need to be exhorted to ‘love one another’ (5). So the Christian fellowship should be marked equally by love and truth, and we are to avoid the dangerous tendency to extremism, pursuing either at the expense of the other. Our love grows soft if it is not strengthened by truth, and our truth grows hard if it is not softened by love. We need to live according to Scripture which commands us both to love each other in the truth and to hold the truth in love.
Second, consider Stott’s classic book, Christ the Controversialist, which was released in 1970. In his opening chapter, “A Defence of Theological Definition,” he writes:
The apostles also were controversialists, as is plain from the New Testament Epistles, and they appealed to their readers ‘to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.’ Like their Lord and master they found it necessary to warn the churches of false teachers and urge them to stand firm in the truth.
Nor did they regard this as being incompatible with love. For example, John the apostle of love, to whose pen we owe the sublime affirmation that God is love, and whose Epistles abound in entreaties to mutual love, roundly declares that whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ is a liar, a deceiver and an antichrist. Similarly Paul, who gives us in 1 Corinthians 13 the great hymn to love, and declares that love is the firstfruit of the Spirit, yet pronounces a solemn anathema upon anybody (human or angelic) who presumes to distort the gospel of the grace of God.
We seem in our generation to have moved a long way from this vehement zeal for the truth which Christ and his apostles displayed. But if we loved the glory of God more, and if we cared more for the eternal good of the souls of men, we would not refuse to engage in necessary controversy, when the truth of the gospel is at stake. The apostolic command is clear. We are ‘to maintain the truth in love,’ being neither truthless in our love, nor loveless in our truth, but holding the two in balance.
Finally, in his 1991 The Message of Thessalonians, he says this when commenting on 1 Thess. 3:11-13:
Here, then, is the double commitment of Christian pastoral leaders, first to the Word of God (as stewards and heralds) and secondly to the people of God (as mothers and fathers). We are ministers of the Word and ministers of the church. Another way of expressing the same thing is that the two chief characteristics of pastoral ministry are truth and love. It is these which build up the church, especially in association with each other. It is by ‘speaking [or maintaining] the truth in love’ that we ‘grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ’ (Eph. 4:15). Yet this combination is rare in the contemporary church. Some leaders are great champions of the truth and anxious to fight for it, but display little love. Others are great advocates of love, but have no equal commitment to truth, as Jesus and his apostles had. Truth is hard if it is not softened by love, and love is soft if it is not strengthened by the truth.
More quotes like this could be offered by Stott and others. But hopefully you see how inappropriate and silly it is to try to insist on choosing one or the other. To drive this point home, the next time you meet someone trying to make that case, ask him which option they prefer when taking their next flight: “Do you want the airplane to have only a left wing or only a right wing?”