The Bible teaches that God created man and woman subordinate to God, spiritually and socially equal to each other, and entrusted to care for creation. However, man and woman were not content with this God-ordained order; they wanted power over God. In an act of deliberate disobedience, they replaced God with self, a choice that separated them from God and from each other.1 God’s redemptive plan is to restore human beings to a new relationship with God and with each other, referred to in this essay as right relationships.2 What are right relationships? How should Christians living under God’s reign endeavor to treat others all day every day?
Right relationships and the Great Commandment
The Great Commandment is the classic New Testament expression of right relationships:
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important? “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love [agapaō] the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love [agapaō] your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31 tniv)
In this response, Jesus connected a prayer about loving God from the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9), which devout Jewish people have spoken daily for centuries, to a commandment about loving neighbors from the Levitical social code (Lev. 19:18). Believers are called to love both God, which is the vertical dimension, and neighbor, which is the horizontal dimension.
The Great Commandment summarizes and fulfills the entire law as well as the teachings of the prophets (Matt. 5:17-20; Luke 16:16-17; Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:13-14; James 2:8). The unifying principle of right relationships is self-giving love (agapē). Paul summarized the characteristics of self-giving love in a letter to the church in Corinth:
Love [agapē] is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Cor. 13:4-8a tniv)
One significant aspect of self-giving love is often overlooked. Embedded in self-giving love is the willingness to yield to another; it requires voluntary submission. Though a biblical love for God and others also calls for a healthy love of self, this love “is not self-seeking” (v. 5); it “does not insist on its own way” (nrsv).
In the Great Commandment, Jesus connected the vertical and horizontal dimensions of love in such a way that for either dimension to be “right” both must be “right.”3 Jesus illustrated the importance of this connection in his teaching of the Model Prayer, in which he instructed the disciples to pray, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12 tniv). Jesus explained why forgiveness has both earthly (right relationship with others) and heavenly (right relationship with God) dimensions: “For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matt. 6:14-15 tniv).
Right relationships in biblical perspective
An overview of the Old Testament background for the Great Commandment reveals that the connection between the vertical and horizontal dimensions is a requirement in God’s plan of right relationships. In Genesis 12:1-3, God told Abraham “I will bless you” and “you will be a blessing,” and a similar covenant was made with Isaac (Gen. 26:1-4) and Jacob (Gen. 28:13-15).4 These blessings include both gift and demand. God’s gift is made explicit in the phrase, “I will bless you,” and God’s demand is made explicit in the phrase, “you will be a blessing.” The outcome of this cascade of blessings is that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3, 28:14; see also Acts 2:35).
The Jewish people, however, seemingly misunderstood what God required of them.5 They believed that God called them primarily for the sake of blessing them.6 To correct this wrong thinking, God spoke through prophets repeatedly over the course of centuries to tell them of their error and to urge them to repent. However, they continued to disobey the exhortations of God’s prophets.
What did the prophets preach about true religion and right relationships? What does the Lord require of the people of God? They should “let justice [mishpat] roll on like a river, righteousness [tsedaqah] like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24); acknowledge God with “mercy [chesed], not sacrifice” (Hos. 6:6); “maintain love [chesed] and justice” (Hos. 12:6); “seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, and plead the case of the widow” (Isa. 1:16-17); and “act justly” and “love mercy [chesed],” and “walk humbly with your God” (Mic. 6:8).7 The connection between right belief and right behavior toward others is unmistakable in these texts. True religion consists of both. A belief system that does not bring about right behavior is neither right nor biblical.
Zechariah, who prophesied during the early post-exilic period in the sixth century b.c., summarized the failure of the Jewish people to heed God’s prophets this way:
This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Administer true [emeth] justice; show mercy [chesed] and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien [ger, ‘stranger’ or ‘foreigner’] or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.”
But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and stopped up their ears. They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets.…(Zech. 7:9-12)
In general, God’s people did not listen to God’s prophets. They turned their backs and walked away from God. They did not understand that God called them to dispense justice grounded in lovingkindness and to be a blessing to peoples of all nations. Instead, they continued to separate the two dimensions of gift and demand; they accepted the gift and essentially ignored the demand.
Jesus—paradigm of right relationships
When Jesus quoted Isaiah 61:1-2 in his first sermon (Luke 4:18-19), he established continuity between his ministry and that of the Old Testament prophets. He called attention to the social, concrete, and here-and-now aspects of his mission. Notice especially the phrase “to release the oppressed.” During Jesus’ day many wives, children, and slaves suffered under the domination of the husband/father/master. According to Walter Wink, “Jesus brought to fruition the prophetic longing for the ‘kingdom of God’—an expression we might paraphrase as ‘God’s domination-free order.’”8
Herod’s Temple was a major focus of Jesus’ teachings about transforming wrong religion into right religion. In terms of relationships among human beings, barriers divided priests and Jewish men, Jewish men and women, and Jewish women and Gentiles. Also, some people could not enter the temple at all.9 Inscriptions were posted at the entrances in the low wall between the Gentiles’ Court and the sanctuary complex warning outsiders not to enter under pain of death.
The Temple barriers that hindered direct access to God by all were the same barriers that segregated humankind hierarchically on the basis of ethnicity, class, and gender. Among human beings, there was a “hierarchy of holiness,” with purity decreasing in the order high priest, priests, Jewish men, Jewish women, and Gentile men and women.10
The curious story in Mark’s gospel (11:12-14, 20-21) in which Jesus caused a fig tree to wither because it did not bear fruit can be understood in the context of right relationships and the temple. During the last week of his ministry, Jesus confronted the unscriptural activities taking place within the temple precincts. The fig tree incident occurred the morning after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, as Jesus and the disciples returned to the temple from Bethany. Upon approaching the tree, Jesus recognized its similarity to the temple. Both the fig tree and the temple were magnificent and fashioned for bearing fruit. However, neither was currently yielding the “fruit” commensurate with its unique function.
The fig tree promised to be laden with fruit to satisfy physical hunger, but none was present. The Temple promised to be a “house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17; cf. Isa. 56:7; 1 Kings 8:41-43) to satisfy spiritual hunger, but true worship of God, which requires unity and fellowship that originate from self-giving love and peace, was hindered because human beings were separated hierarchically on the basis of ethnicity, class, and gender. The partitioning of the temple into separate courts created areas in which male and female Gentiles were exploited and Jewish women and Gentiles were primarily observers rather than full participants in worship.
The fruit was absent from both the fig tree and the temple. In righteous anger, Jesus withered the fig tree. Later that day he “began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts” (Mark 11:15-16; cf. John 2:13-16 tniv). These actions were a condemnation of the “domination order,” and they foreshadowed the temple’s destruction. While teaching in the temple the next day, Jesus presented the Great Commandment as the standard for right relationships in God’s “domination-free order.”
At the crucifixion, God’s power split the temple veil (Matt. 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45) and destroyed “the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14), thereby removing the barriers to right relationships between God and human beings and between human beings and human beings. The resurrection miracle, which completed God’s redemptive plan, made right relationships a possibility for all and an imperative for those who know Jesus as Savior and Lord.
Jesus destroyed all of the barriers that segregated humankind hierarchically on the basis of ethnicity, class, and gender; therefore, he is the paradigm of right relationships, which are egalitarian.
Walking in love—the Christian distinctive
The importance of the connection between the two dimensions of the Great Commandment is evident in the life and teachings of Paul, who was known as Saul before his encounter with Christ.11 For Saul the Pharisee, the two dimensions were separated, whereas for Paul the Christian, they were connected. The salient difference between Saul and Paul is his personal relationship with Jesus Christ, a relationship in which Jesus is his Savior and Lord.12
Even though Saul was familiar with the Shema and the Levitical social code, they were not meaningfully connected in his belief system. Therefore, he believed that it was possible for him to be in a right relationship with God without being in a right relationship with others. Because of his wrong thinking about God, Saul treated Gentiles and especially Christians with a spirit that was zealous, intolerant, and divisive. He saw himself as a guardian of God who believed that this end (i.e., protecting God) justified any means, including execution (Acts 22:20; 26:10).
When Saul “persecuted the followers of this Way…arresting both men and women” (Acts 22:4 tniv), he persecuted Jesus (cf. Matt. 25:40; Luke 10:16). In the context of women’s lives, it must be emphasized that persecuting women is persecuting Jesus. Persecution of others is non-Christian behavior; it cannot be a trait of those for whom Jesus is Savior and Lord.
As a result of his Damascus Road experience (Acts 9:1-19), Paul, in addition to knowing about God from the Scriptures, knew God personally through his relationship with Jesus, and the Holy Spirit began to correct his wrong beliefs. His passion was redirected toward helping both Jews and Gentiles enter into a right relationship with God and with each other, and the divisive expressions of his spirit were being transformed into the fruit of the Spirit. As a Christian, Paul knew that loving others was loving Jesus and working with the Spirit to build tolerance, peace, and unity in the body of Christ.
John commented on the connection between the vertical and horizontal aspects of the Great Commandment:
If we say, we love [agapaō] God yet hate [miseō] a fellow believer, we are liars. For if we do not love a brother or sister whom we have seen, we cannot love God, whom we have not seen. (1 John 4:20 tniv)
The Greek word used for hate means to detest, to persecute, or to love less. Therefore, according to Scripture, Christians cannot love God while detesting, persecuting, or loving others less. Elsewhere John stated:
But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.…And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love [agapaō] one another. And this is love [agapē]: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love. (1 John 2:5-6; 2 John 1:5-6 tniv)
In Scripture walking in love, which is ethical purity or social holiness and justice, are joined inextricably to personal holiness. Peter characterized the Christian life as one of obedience, holiness, reverence, and love for one another (1 Pet. 1:14-25) and associated them as follows:
Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other [philadelphia, affection for each other], love [agapaō] one another deeply, from the heart. (1 Pet. 1:22 tniv)
Peter arranged the Christian qualities or virtues in the order of increasing importance, with self-giving love at the pinnacle: faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual affection, and love (2 Pet. 1:3-8).
Paul connected “love…for each other and for everyone else” (1 Thess. 3:12) with being found blameless and holy before God (1 Thess. 3:13). First Thessalonians 3:13 (nasb) begins “so that” (eis), thereby preserving the causal relationship present in the Greek between verses 12 and 13. In the Ephesians passage in which right relationships are applied to family life, Paul calls believers to end the desires and practices of the old self (4:17-32) and to “walk in the way of love” (agapē) (5:1-5), light (5:6-14), and wisdom (5:15-20).
Walking in love distinguishes the new self from the old self (cf. Col. 3:1-14). It consists of compassion, humility or submissiveness, kindness, gentleness, patience, forbearance, and forgiveness (Col. 3:12-13). The striking similarity of these behaviors to the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) is not accidental.
Walking in love is the indispensable ingredient of right relationships and connects the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the Great Commandment. When walking in love is excluded from interpersonal interactions, the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the Great Commandment are separated, resulting in wrong relationships. Thus social ethical demands are associated with right relationships here and now.
Salvation as gift and demand—Jesus is Savior and Lord
Salvation is the process that begins at conversion/regeneration (Luke 19:9; Tit. 3:5), continues in sanctification (1 Cor. 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:9), and culminates with glorification (Rom. 10:9; 13:11; 1 Pet. 1:5). This entire salvific sequence can be described metaphorically as the maturing and ripening of a “fruit” that progressively manifests the Christlike qualities described in Colossians 3:12-13 and Galatians 5:22-23. This is walking in love; it is loving God and loving neighbor. It is God’s way of producing “fruit” in others.
The gift of new life in Christ must not be separated from the demand, to live as Christ lived. Any disconnection at this fundamental level of belief creates a social-ethical void and opens the door to subsequent “biblical” defenses of a multitude of evils, including “cheap grace,” human slavery, racial segregation, apartheid, and execution of “witches.”13
The Bible teaches that justification and sanctification are God’s initiatives and that a relationship with Jesus Christ is gained by grace through faith (Rom. 3:28; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9). The Bible also teaches that justification (cf. Rom. 2:13; 8:33; Eph. 2:10) and sanctification include both gift, to which one responds by faith, and demand, to which one responds by obedience (Matt. 3:8; 5:16; 7:15-21; Rom. 2:6; 1 Cor. 3:8; James 2:14-26).14
Thus justification and sanctification are not merely spiritual phenomena. God justifies and sanctifies human beings for a purpose—to “do good works” (Eph. 2:10) here and now. Moreover, “in Christ,” which for Paul includes one’s relationship with Jesus Christ and one’s relationships with others in the body of Christ,15 Jew and Gentile, slave and free, and male and female are equal (Gal. 3:28). Embedded in both justification and sanctification is God’s demand that Christians perceive and treat Jew and Gentile, slave and free, and male and female as spiritual and social equals.
Although there are not two different kinds of faith, faith “is openness of mind, heart, and life to God to receive what he has to give and to yield what he demands.”16 Election must not be separated from concrete obedience. In this new creation (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15), Jesus is Savior and Lord (Acts 2:36), and there is never a time when he is Savior and not Lord.
The holistic view of Jesus as both Savior and Lord includes both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of right relationships and both the present and future aspects of God’s kingdom. The heavenly orientation or vertical dimension reminds human beings of the particular reality that salvation is a gift, and the personal, spiritual, and future aspects of right relationships are brought into focus. The earthly orientation or horizontal dimension reminds human beings of the particular reality that salvation is a demand, and the social, physical, and present aspects of right relationships are brought into focus.
Christians must preserve a proper balance between gift and demand. It is outside biblical perspective to stress either the vertical dimension or the horizontal dimension of right relationships to the point that the other is distorted or eclipsed. Salvation is both personal and social, both spiritual and physical, and both future and present.
Perversion of right relationships
Without a holistic understanding and application of the doctrine of salvation, justification is often reduced to gift alone and salvation is viewed primarily, if not exclusively, as a past transaction with a future hope. Thus salvation can be privatized and spiritualized to the point of no longer having a concrete social ethical application.
About this biased belief, which first occurred early in Christian history,17 Ernest T. Campbell observed:
When the saviorhood of Jesus is stressed to the neglect of his Lordship as the Christ and all that implies, the gospel is distorted, and Christian living becomes an indulgence in privilege easily divorced from responsible ethical behavior. We are summoned to obey as Lord the one whom we gratefully receive as savior.…The earliest Christian creed of all is the terse affirmation, “Jesus Christ is Lord.”18
When Christian faith is privatized and spiritualized, treatment of others is considered merely logical and optional outgrowths rather than integral and indispensable components of our ongoing personal relationship with God. Separating gift from demand can quench what God wants to accomplish in and through a person.
Some behaviors are evil and outside God’s plan of right relationships even if they fall within the broad compass of existing church and/or civic law. For example, in this country, executing “witches,” usually women, and owning human slaves were sanctioned by both church and state. According to Scripture, the behaviors of Christians are not circumscribed by the outer boundaries of ecclesiastical edicts and/or secular statutes but by the teachings and deeds of Jesus, the paradigm of right relationships, and the teachings of the apostles.
David Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981), minister of Westminster Chapel in London for twenty-five years, noted:
Holiness and love must go together.…To be holy does not just mean the mere avoidance of certain things, or even not thinking certain things; it means the ultimate attitude of the heart of man towards that holy, loving God, and, secondly, our attitude towards our fellow men and women.19
The wrongful separation of holiness and walking in love or social holiness has been perpetuated for centuries, and it has opened the door to “biblical” justifications of numerous persecutions by some Christians against other Christians and non-Christians. This notion remains firmly embedded in the thinking of many believers where its social conscience often manifests in a militant “Christianity.”
In his book, When Religion Becomes Evil, Charles Kimball concluded:
Whatever religious people may say about their love of God or the mandates of their religion, when their behavior toward others is violent and destructive, when it causes suffering among their neighbors, you can be sure the religion has been corrupted and reform is desperately needed.20
The kingdom of God, which includes God’s reign all day every day in the hearts and lives of those for whom Jesus is Savior and Lord, is the reign of right relationships. In the Great Commandment, Jesus taught that right relationships consist of the vertical dimension, loving God, and the horizontal dimension, loving others.
The rending of the temple veil at Jesus’ crucifixion symbolized the destruction of the barriers to right relationships that hierarchically partitioned humankind on the basis of ethnicity, class, and gender. The resurrection made right relationships a possibility for all people and an imperative for those for whom Jesus is Savior and Lord. Thus right relationships among human beings are egalitarian. Jesus also connected the two dimensions of the Great Commandment, and he taught that its heavenly and earthly aspects are not to be separated.
However, in the overly privatized and overly spiritualized belief system held by many Christians over the ages, salvation is understood primarily as a past transaction with a future reward, and the here-and-now aspect of this process can be divested of its concrete social-ethical demand to love others.
When this happens, Christ’s Saviorship is separated from Christ’s Lordship, and holiness, which is presented in the New Testament as having both personal and social aspects, is separated from walking in love or ethical purity. This theological disconnect creates the social-ethical void that can become license for persecuting others, such as the mistreatment of women, that is outside God’s plan of right relationships.
As participants in God’s kingdom, Christians must model right relationships by their personal and social behaviors in the church, home, and world, and proclaim to the world the good news that it is possible for all people to be in right relationship with God and with each other.
In the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:2-17), right relationships can be divided into two sections. The first four commandments concern the relationship between God and humankind, and the last six concern the relationship between human beings and other human beings. See T. B. Maston, Biblical Ethics: A Survey (Cleveland: The World Publishing Co., 1967), 18-19.
Commenting specifically on Micah 6:8, T. B. Maston said, “In this verse is united the strictly religious (vertical) and the ethical (horizontal), which is typical not only of prophetic religion but also of the basic teachings of both the Old Testament and the New Testament.” Maston, Biblical Ethics, 58.
- See Frank Stagg, Polarities of Human Existence in Biblical Perspective (Macon, Ga.: Smyth & Helwys, 1994), 7-32.
- The title of this essay is a paraphrase of “the kingdom of God is the kingdom of right relationships,” which I first encountered in Gordon C. Hunter, When the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down (Waco: Word Books, 1970), 30, 34 and Bruce Larson, The Relational Revolution (Waco: Word Books, 1976), 84.
- See, for example, Gerhard Uhlhorn, Christian Charity in the Ancient Church, trans. Sophia Taylor (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1883), 58; William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956), 308-309; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 221.
- Findley B. Edge, A Quest for Vitality in Religion: A Theological Approach to Religious Education (Nashville: Broadman, 1963), 84.
- Deuteronomy 10:12-13 is an excellent passage of the expectations of God’s people. They are “to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees [the Ten Commandments] that I am giving you today for your own good.”
- Findley B. Edge, The Greening of the Church (Waco: Word Books, 1971), 29-37.
- In addition to the obvious ethical orientation of mishpat, the Hebrew words tsedaqah and chesed also have major ethical overtones. When applied to human beings, tsedaqah includes right social, ethical, and religious conduct. Chesed, which occurs about 250 times in the Old Testament, is more difficult to translate into English. Included among its various renditions are ‘mercy,’ ‘compassion,’ ‘lovingkindness,’ and ‘steadfast love.’ Chesed also is similar in some respects to charis and agapē, the Greek words for grace and self-giving love, respectively.
- Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Galilee Doubleday, 1999), 64.
- John E. Phelan, Jr., “Women and the Aims of Jesus,” Priscilla Papers 18,1 (Winter 2004): 7-11.
- Josephus described the sequence of selective access to the Women’s Court, Israelites’ Court, and Priests’ Court as follows: “… on the east quarter, towards the sun-rising, there was one large gate, through which such as were pure came in, together with their wives [Women’s Court], but the temple further inward in that gate [Israelites’ Court] was not allowed to the women, but still more inward was a third (court of the) temple [Priests’ Court], whereinto it was not lawful for any but the priests alone to enter. Josephus, Ant. 15.11.5.
- To distinguish pre-conversion Paul from post-conversion Paul, the former is referred to as Saul. Paul’s life-changing Damascus Road experience is treated here in the traditional sense of his conversion to Christianity.
- The nature of Saul’s relationship to God and others is apparent in several passages (Acts 9:1-5; 22:3-5; 26:5; 26:9-11; Gal. 1:13-14; 1 Tim. 1:13).
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer coined the phrase “cheap grace” to refer to the misapplication of justification in which the sin, but not the sinner, is justified. The “dissociation of election from concrete obedience” results in cheap grace. James W. Woelfel, Bonhoeffer’s Theology: Classical and Revolutionary (Nashville: Abingdon, 1970), 78-79, 168.
- Frank Stagg, New Testament Theology (Nashville: Broadman, 1962), 80-121; Stagg, Polarities of Human Existence in Biblical Perspective, 149-161. See also Edge, The Greening of the Church, 29-37.
- Evelyn Stagg and Frank Stagg, Woman in the World of Jesus (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978), 163-64.
- Stagg, New Testament Theology, 119-20.
- Uhlhorn, Christian Charity in the Ancient Church, 210.
- Ernest T. Campbell, Christian Manifesto (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 15.
- D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1974), 203, 207.
- Charles Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 39.