Knowing Things Vs. Loving People
In reading through 1 Corinthians lately I was reminded of a conversation I had recently about the supposed dichotomy between doctrine and love; the tension between knowing things and loving people.
On the face of it, it looks clear. Here is the verse in question (I’ve abbreviated it to present it in the form in which it was explained to me in my recent conversation);
“We all have knowledge. Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth. And if any man think that he knoweth anything, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know.” (1 Co. 8:1b-3)
The argument was then positioned like this;
Premise 1: The Bible teaches that it is better to love each other than to know doctrine
Premise 2: The Bible is the word of God
Conclusion: We should not worry too much about what we know and focus on loving each other
At first blush this looks to be an absolutely clear-cut presentation of biblical truth. But is it? Could there be something missing? Well, as it turns out, this is a very unsatisfactory presentation of biblical truth. Here are four reasons why; four tests that can be applied to any situation.
The first test is the context test: is the verse quoted the whole picture, or is there a more specific context that the author was explaining. The old adage is true: ‘a verse stripped of its context is nothing more than a pretext’ and so this is where we begin.
Here is the full passage (ommitted parts in bold): “Now as touching things offered unto idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth. And if any man think that he knoweth anything, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know. But if any man love God, the same is known of him.” (1 Co. 8:1b-3)
The apostle sets the context by placing confines on his argument: he is speaking explicitly about the situation where there were those in the assembly who were offended by the eating of meat that had been offered in the idols temple, prior to its sale in the food market. In this case he states ‘we all have knowledge,’ or we all have a degree of knowledge. He then continues like this: ‘we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one.’ There were those who understood (along with the apostle Paul) that because idols are nothing more than lumps of metal or wood they don’t really exist, and therefore offering food to them in a pagan temple means absolutely nothing. But then he says; ‘there is not in every man that knowledge.’ There were those who didn’t see it as clearly as that, and thus their conscience was offended every time they heard of, or saw a brother eating meat that had been offered to idols.
The point that the apostle is making is, in this case it is better to put their brother’s interests first and refrain from eating the meat (in other words, love them), than allow ourselves to be puffed up by our knowledge of what an idols is or isn’t, and continue doing what is offending our brother. Now we have the full context we can assess the conclusion: does it seem right to say that this verse is teaching that doctrine is not important, or even, doctrine is not as important as love? The answer is no, because the context limits the scope of the statement considerably. What the passage is teaching is that it is better to set your knowledge based liberty to the side in favour of love based sacrifice.
The second test is the contradiction test: does this conclusion contradict other portions or the general tenor of scripture?
There are any number of verses we could look at to prove that 1 Corinthians 8:1-3 is not teaching that love is more important than knowledge categorically, but here are three given to Timothy;
‘All scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine…that the man of God might be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works’ (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
‘Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needed not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.’ (2 Tim. 2:15)
‘Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.’ (1 Tim. 4:13)
Another helpful rule of thumb is as follows: ‘If you have a text that in its context appears to reach a conclusion contradicted by the rest of scripture, then you need to look again at the text.’ Safe biblical interpretation makes sense of all the biblical data. If you have to exclude verses to reach your conclusion then you have reached an unsafe conclusion.
The third is the logical consistency test: does what you are suggesting make plain sense? Here is something to think about: the conclusion that love is more important than doctrine is itself based on doctrine, albeit a false one. It is based on an inaccurate exegesis of 1 Corinthians 8. Does it seem consistent to use a doctrine to prove that doctrine is less important than love? If so, can we trust this doctrine? The answer is no, and the argument is self-defeating.
The final test is the conclusion test: what does this mean as far as my conduct is concerned? Does it result in behaviour that is God-honouring?
Let’s imagine how this works in practice. If we truly believe that it is better to love than to know doctrine, then what we need to discern is what does it mean to love? This is where the argument has deliberately introduced sufficient ambiguity to enable a wide range of application. Does it mean to ignore all behaviour (no matter how unbiblical) without contradiction? Could it even mean that we must positively affirm all behaviour regardless of how worldly? Or could it mean, that we’re prepared to tell someone the truth regardless of the consequences? There is a wide range of possibility here.
Ironically, this type of argument has been used to cause much disharmony, and justify ignoring much sinfulness.
On all four of the tests, this doctrine is proven to false. So what is true? Is it the reverse? This is where we need to avoid the trap of falling into the either/or approach to Scripture. It is not either/or, it is both/and. We need more doctrine, and we need to practice that doctrine with more love. Rather, doctrine is required to know how to love. Love is required to practice doctrine. High standards, but biblical standards.