Dialogs and Commentary

Agape Love



A correction in love; applying Acts 17:11 to a modern sacred cow.

1 Thes 5:21 (NIV) Test everything. Hold on to the good.

For the past few decades believers in the English-speaking world have been told time and again that agape is a Greek word meaning "God's love", a "God kind of love", "a giving kind of love", even the ever popular "unconditional love". (See the next posting for more on this last meaning.) For example:

John 3:16 (NIV) "For God so loved [agapao] the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

For Christian teachers, it is a common temptation to try to look sophisticated in the sight of man by asserting what Greek or Hebrew words "really mean" and using this as a source of authority in teaching in an attempt to appear deep. Well, even if this is a popular primping technique among ministers, at least we should be right in our scholarship... as we posture to gain praise from men.

John 12:43 (NIV) for they loved [agapao] the praise of men more than the praise from God.
If agape is a "God kind of love", then why does scripture use it here as a motive force of sin? And look what sin in particular! The Lord has a wonderful sense of irony, doesn't He?

But wait, there is more. Just three verses after the famous John 3:16 agape verse is the following:

John 3:19 (NIV) but men loved [agapao] darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.

Oh no! If agape is God's love, John sure made a mistake here.

2 Pet 2:15 (NIV) who loved [agapao] the wages of wickedness.

Peter, apparently, was also unaware of the "real meaning" of agape. But John and Peter are not alone. Paul was apparently the merest simpleton in the use of ancient Greek as well.

2 Tim 4:10 (NIV) ... Demas, because he loved [agapao] this world, has deserted me...

Perhaps some of the "agape teachers" will want to pull the apostles John, Peter, and Paul aside in heaven and give them a little advice on the use of ancient Greek.

And then there is that horrible "phileo" stuff! It is typical among those who make an industry out of "agape teaching" to set up phileo as a straw-man, and denigrate it. For phileo is "human love", "flesh love", "man love" we are told.

While it is true that agape is most often used in scripture to describe God's love for us and our love for Him--and in the noun sense always so--still these distinctions are not as crisp as advertised. Where agape is getting hyped into a place it is a little uncomfortable with, phileo is getting a rather "bad rap" indeed. Such is the convoluted logic of this teaching: for agape to get taller; phileo must get shorter. So "down with phileo"!

But let us be fair now; phileo has it merits as well:

John 5:20 (NIV) "For the Father loves [phileo] the Son and shows him all he does..."

John 16:27 (NIV) "No, the Father himself loves [phileo] you because you have loved [phileo] me..."

Rev 3:19 (NIV) "Those whom I love [phileo] I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent."

Titus 3:4 (NIV) ... the kindness and love [philanthropia] of God our Savior...

(See this link for a few more examples of how agapao and phileo are used in scripture.)

Perhaps the useful distinction between these two words could be defined as:

Some blame the origin of the current spate of "agape teaching" on The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis. But in this book, Lewis mentions storgie and eros--but NOT agape or phileo.

In any case, if there are 2 words in Swahili and 18 words in German for love, the study of this may be interesting to linguists, but will it help us understand what love really is? Does not God define love for us in the "other" John 3:16 (that is: 1 John)?

Let's not get too focused, though, on the particular error. The shameful aspect here is our carnal church environment that fosters such fleshly primping among us--be it right or wrong.

Truly, truly, we "agapao the praise of men more than the praise of God".

Are we trying to be spiritually trendy, or speak the Word of God? Are we parroting the latest "pop teaching" in the church, or following the tradition of the holy prophets? Do we have the same burning concern for "holding fast to the message we have received" that James, Paul, Peter, and John had, or are we ambitious to be included in the latest religious fad?

Jer 23:29-31 (NIV) "Is not my word like fire," declares the Lord, "and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? Therefore," declares the Lord, "I am against the prophets who steal from one another words supposedly from me. Yes," declares the Lord, "I am against the prophets who wag their own tongues and yet declare, 'The Lord declares.'"





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