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Christian Interpersonal Responsibility

One of my students, Brett, was struggling to help the congregation that he served to understand the fully mutual dimensions of body life. In particular, the history of the church and the denomination had led the members to expect that he himself was to provide all theological and pastoral input, and their place was to be the recipients of his efforts. His attempts to initiate programs that would foster a more communal life, and to stimulate gifted members in discovering responsible ministry roles, were met by good-natured resistance and the implication that he shouldn’t ask others to do his job. His frustration in attempting to reproduce NT patterns of body life in his own church was palpable.

What are the responsibilities we have toward each other as Christians, apart from the question of professional duties? One very fruitful and far-reaching approach is to start with the double commandment of Jesus Christ. When in the days of his teaching in the Temple Jesus was challenged to declare the most important of the OT commandments, he replied with two: love the Lord your God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:28-31, and pars., citing Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18).  Virtually all Christian ethicists have drawn on this passage in propounding accounts of Christian practice. It is probably not wrong to discern a third area of responsibility, mentioned in the text but to which we in our era are particularly sensitized: the proper regard of self.1 

Much of the scholarly discussion of the double command has underlined the inseparability of loving God and loving neighbor.2 In Luke’s Gospel it is clearly one command: God and neighbor are the objects of the single imperative to “love” (10:25-28). The text challenges us to understand that the love of God implies love of neighbor, and, rightly construed, vice versa. In this essay I wish to sketch out the implications of understanding the command as implying three objects of love (God, neighbor, self) in a way that understands it as a single love command, in service of the question, “What is Christian interpersonal responsibility?”

First, if the command is single, then the command to love God connotes a three-fold rationale: God ought to be loved for God’s own sake, as well as for the sake of the neighbor (who will lose out if we falter in our love for God), as well as for our own sake (for this is the way of redemption). Likewise, we ought to love the neighbor for the sake of God (who commands it and purposes much in our love of the neighbor), as for the sake of the neighbor (who must benefit if we indeed bear God’s love), as well as for our own sake (as we both give and receive love in God’s design). And we ought to accord love to ourselves for the sake of the God who also loves us (lest we imply God is a liar or undercut God’s loving will for us), as for the sake of the neighbor (who benefits as we are in good health and welfare), as also for our own sakes (as vulnerable creatures of God).

Broadening the implications of the love commandment in this way helps to keep before us its deeply theological roots as well as its far-reaching dimensions. Here are three suggested applications. Our contemporary society encourages us to understand the well-being of the self as the adequate ground for all decision-making; but the love command reminds us that we simply have neither the information nor the competency to decide what is good for me, and I must depend on God’s guidance and direction—and my neighbor’s—for my welfare. Second, there is a certain strain of Calvinism that enjoys surprising popularity today, that emphasizes the love of God and God’s glory as the highest and virtually the exclusive ground for Christian decision-making; but the love command as Jesus articulated it prods us to unerstand that we can’t always make sense of everything in terms of God’s glory, and sometimes we must simply respond in God’s love to the obvious human needs around us. And third, postmodern writers who have maintained the importance of sociological dimensions of human flourishing can leave the impression that social factors must determine the value of initiative or action; but the love command roots Christian initiative more deeply in the strategy of God rather than the strategy of society, and sensitizes us to those individuals whom social trends have left behind.

Where have we gotten answering the question about what we owe each other as Christians? I need to reiterate, from a previous essay in this series, that the heart of the Christian call to others is witness. We owe God worship; we owe creation witness; Jesus cast them both as love. Our responsibility to others, then, and particularly to fellow-Christians, is most deeply our witness. And first, it is our witness as those who love God. This is not a simple matter, and entails many things; we owe our witness as worshiping members of a church, as those who love God and seek God’s will, as those who live more and more consistently as acknowledging the love of God in all areas of life; and so forth. But our responsibility to others also entails our witness as those who love the neighbor. This too entails much, and much that must be discerned in process: broad care for others, ready availability in time of need, avoidance of elitism and gossip, social and political awareness and compassion, a willingness for the neighbor to be a neighbor to us in our need; and the list goes on. And finally our responsibility to others entails our witness as those who care for self: fostering accountability in family and health and finances, in personal as well as corporate spirituality, in allowing others to rejoice when we rejoice and weep when we weep; and so on.

The point is two-fold; first, we cannot easily or safely compartmentalize the love of God and where it ought to be expressed. Second, that means that our interpersonal responsibilities as Christians, both to be there for others and to allow others to be there for us, will only increase in quantity and complexity as we grow in our understanding and obedience as Christians. Brett’s problem was a real one; he was challenging his congregation to discover or the first time some of the basic dimensions of Christian faith and practice. The resistance he felt was profoundly discouraging and, in that circumstance, perhaps impossible to surmount. But the theological reasons for his concern are undeniable.

—Theopulos




1 Robert M. Adams argues for a love of self which is “self-concerned but not self-interested,” in The Virtue of Faith and Other Essays in Philosophical Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 188.   Feminist theologians have also argued for self-esteem as a positive Christian value, as noted in another essay in this series.  See Judith Plaskow, Sex, Sin, and Grace: Women’s Experience and the Theologies or Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich (Washington: University Press of America, 1980); Barbara Hilkert Andolsen, “Agape in Feminist Ethics” (The Journal of Religious Ethics 9 [1981] 69-83).

2 Joel Marcus expresses the consensus of the commentators: “the command to love God is indissoluble from the command to love the neighbor;” Mark 8-16 (Anchor Yale Bible 27A. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009) p. 843.