James Travis Young
Humans are created to love one another through covenantal relationships that defy tradition, legal definitions, and unify all people in Christ Jesus.
We are created to be relational.
This begins even with our physiology: we have skin that feels, eyes that see, mouths that speak, noses that smell, and ears that hear. Our ability to process these billions of signals not only navigates our interpersonal communication, but how we actually understand and interpret the world around us.
We are fearfully and wonderfully made so that our relationships with one another define our relationship with our creator and the world he created.
This isn’t a new concept or theology. Starting in the beginning with the Genesis account, although everything God had created was good and humanity was “very good,” a world without human relationships was not good enough in God’s sight: “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18, NIV).
This had nothing to do with gender roles or physical anatomy—quite simply, no other creature God had made could be a worthy human partner except another human. Indeed, rather than establishing any sexual dynamic whatsoever, Adam identified Eve’s qualities in terms of how much she was like him, describing her as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23a), truly made of the same substance.
Adam saw her not for what made her different, but what made them the same.
Without basic human relationship, our lives are “not good;” but when we find connection with others, we can become greater than the sum of our parts.
This partnership portrayed by scripture is not exclusively sexual, nor is it limited to marriage as we may understand it today. Although its importance supersedes gender roles and legal definitions, it is remarkably simple yet profound:
Love is the central and supreme theology of the whole of scripture, and functions as the universal core of our connection with one another and our creator. It is the greatest commandment Jesus ever gave, the source from which any other law must flow. Without love, we are nothing.
That doesn’t mean that every relationship is loving. There is no love in abuse or suffering, much less degradation, malice, or wrath. And many classical definitions of love seem callow, even narrow and limiting—from Augustine’s “desire” to the overemphasized Greek concepts of agape, eros, philia, etc. that many modern Christian authors have capitalized upon. However, beyond and including these varied arguments, a singular quality does emerge: that love is expressed in relationships by seeking to do good.
Of course, that is deceptively simple. Because we are created to be relational, love is a response to others that, “by seeking to do good,” encompasses more than mere intentions, but actions, for the purpose of positive outcomes.
This is reflected in how God expressed his love to humanity through covenants:
- He proved his love for Adam and all humanity through a covenant of grace.
- God loved Abraham, and blessed him and his descendants with covenants including entire nations of people, generations of kings, and the promise that God would use Abraham’s people to bless all humanity.
- By covenant, God gave Moses and the Israelites redemption through commandments.
- David was given rest from his enemies, and promised that not only would God’s love never be removed from him, but that his kingdom would endure forever through a covenant God ordained.
- Of course, Jesus himself is the fulfillment of the New Covenant: a high priest greater than Aaron, a king greater than Solomon, and the perfect sacrifice once for all.
In the same way God used the commitment of covenants as expressions of loving relationships, according to scripture, humans too used covenants as commitments to express love for one another.
For example, Jonathan loved David so much that scripture literally says that his very soul was joined with David’s (1 Samuel 18:1), and Jonathan’s response was to commit that his love would last forever. This was a covenant not only to David, but to God as well—a commitment scripture records that each man even affirmed with one another a second time (1 Samuel 20:16-17). Their commitment extended beyond the grave with the promise that their future generations would always remain at peace with one another.
Ruth made a covenant with her mother-in-law Naomi that “where you go, I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16b, NIV). Like Jonathan, Ruth’s covenant was not merely to Naomi, but to God too. And also as with Jonathan and David, Ruth promised her commitment even unto death (Ruth 1:16-18).
With each of these examples, just as how Adam saw Eve for how they were the same, these people loved someone else as they loved themselves. According to the synoptic gospels, Jesus paraphrased Leviticus and described loving your neighbor as yourself as like loving God above all else, that no other commandments are greater than these.
How can we “seek to do good” in loving relationships? We love others as ourselves.
Loving others as ourselves is the key to Christlike love—everything else depends upon it, and nothing should diminish it. This simple commandment should be the guiding theology behind how the church as a living body with the mind of Christ should interpret all relationships.
Unfortunately, many in the church have charted a different path. Somehow, we have culturally and theologically determined that the standard for loving relationships should be tethered to a legal definition—specifically marriage.
To be abundantly clear, nothing in scripture implies that marriage is bad or a faulty institution. But because marriage is intended to serve a legal rather than loving purpose, it remains a limited and ultimately inferior lens that is out of focus with Christ-minded loving relationships.
Historically, marriage was a legal framework to establish rights and responsibilities, and that is consistent with its presentation in scripture. Many biblical passages codify marriage and its purpose in ancient society; these topics range from establishing the legitimacy of children so they may receive an inheritance, or what distinguishes a wife from a concubine, to which household tasks women are obliged to undertake.
It is correct that in most antiquated cultures, marriage was an institution that legitimized ownership. That isn’t a quality that should be romanticized in any way, and instead should be understood in terms of how men in those cultures considered wives as property. (Indeed, a Hebrew word we commonly translate in English as “husband” does technically mean “master.”)
Of course, times have changed…right?
Laws are still how marriage is advanced in the church and in most cultures worldwide, for better or worse. For example, it was not until 1967 that the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled that any law banning interracial marriage was unconstitutional. And while some may reason that laws are not truly driven by community standards, consider that Gallup found nationwide public support for interracial marriage rose from only 4% in 1958 to 94% in 2021, while the percentage of people who self-identify as Christian plummeted drastically over the same period.
Then there are many who rightly point out that the doctrine and polity of the Church is not bound by the laws of any nation. Unfortunately, the Church of the Nazarene has always considered marriage the biblical definition of loving relationships. This is backwards. Marriage should not define loving relationships—loving relationships should define marriage.
These words are not intended to dilute the institution of marriage, but to elevate marriage to the biblical standard of relational love: seeking to do good by loving one another as we love ourselves.
Well-intentioned denominational leaders have expressed great fear that society is challenging or redefining marriage, but the more we idolatrize marriage the less we demonstrate covenantal virtues of love.
On June 26, 2015, the SCOTUS ruled that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples, and required all states in the union to perform and recognize marriages of same-sex or opposite-sex couples. The very same day, the Board of General Superintendents of the Church of the Nazarene released a statement declaring that “divine truth has not changed” and stated that a life of holiness is “characterized by holy love and expressed through the most rigorous and consistent lifestyle of sexual purity.”
By equating the legality of same-sex marriage with sexual impurity, our denomination reinforced the common perception that Christian evangelical denominations condemn homosexuality. To be clear, being heterosexual and married doesn’t make your heart pure, the Holy Spirit does: this is the difference between theology and legalism.
It is not marriage that must be defended, but love in the face of human fear. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18, NIV).
As a denomination, we betray our amazing heritage as pioneers in the theology of love when fears dictate doctrine instead of faith. It is time for us to defend relational love for the sake of unity in Christ.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote:
“Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:23-28, NIV)
If we are truly in Christ, every legalistic barrier must be toppled from the inside out. When we attempt to create any divisions within the church, we are not in Christ. If we are all one in Christ Jesus, there are no exceptions, no identities that may be excluded. In Christ, no one is too old, too young, the wrong race, or class, gender, pronoun, or sexual orientation.
Christ’s standard of relational love must be applied consistently to every person and every part of scripture that would inform our doctrine and theology. It’s more than understanding that the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah are about sexual violence, not same-sex attraction, and Levitical codes seeming to prohibit same-sex partnerships merely address fears regarding dying lineages and hygiene concerns in ancient times, or that every New Testament reference to what is called “homosexuality” in English translations actually condemns non-consensual acts between adults and children rather than adult same-sex intimacy.
The problem is so many in the church feel the need to determine what is and isn’t sinful by codifying sexual immorality, because it is easier to talk and write about laws than it is to love and accept people you do not understand.
Divine truth really hasn’t changed, but applying a theology of love can and should reorient our perspective of scriptural narratives in ways that challenge and grow us. For example, when held to the standard of “seeking to do good by loving one another as we love ourselves,” many Old Testament depictions of sexuality seem abhorrent—such as Moses commanding his soldiers to kill all Midianites but spare female virgins for themselves, strongly implying sexual violence (Numbers 31), or the Israelites avenging the rape of a single woman by sanctioning the rape of six hundred more (Judges 19-21). In contrast, love does not dishonor others, is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs, and does not delight in evil.
Love is not self-seeking, but Lot’s daughters got him drunk and raped him without his knowledge to preserve their family line (Genesis 19:30-36), and Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute to trade her father-in-law sex in exchange for a goat so she could secretly birth his heir and remain in the family (Genesis 38).
Love is patient, love is kind, it always protects, always trusts, and in “love stories” like Shechem and Dinah (Genesis 34) and Samson and Delilah (Judges 16), consent is utterly absent.
Tomes of laws and codes written before the birth of Christ do not keep us pure, nor do articles, statements, or press releases. The pursuit of such is madness and folly, a chasing of the wind, but love never fails. There is no substitute for covenantal love.
This love is not bound by law or tradition, gender, chromosomes, or pronouns. We love because God first loved us. He sees us, knows us, and loves us for who he made us to be: he sees our true colors, his love in us, beginning with the first humans, and what they saw in one another.
To accept relationship with Christ incarnationally is also accepting those he loves, those he calls his own, those who are known by his love. When we come to the table, we are connected to one another and to Christ by taking the bread and the cup, joining with him and one another as disciples in love.
It is the very mission of the Church of the Nazarene: to make Christlike disciples in the nations, to cultivate this loving connection we have with Christ in one another. This includes anyone at the table—even those we may not understand or agree with—seeking to do good by loving one another as we love ourselves. Jesus said this is like loving the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
This sacred connection of the bread and the cup we were created to share relationally has been forsaken by some. Many have found themselves at tables where their only mutual connections are fear and prejudice, tables that will eventually be overturned.
Every kingdom divided against itself will be destroyed, but Christ is not divided.
To truly all be one in Christ, we must comprehensively affirm the LGBTQ+ community. That is what Christlike relational love requires.
Our true colors are what we will be known by, and this is love.
James Travis Young is an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene making Christlike disciples alongside his wife, Mandie, in Galveston, Texas. A lifelong Nazarene, Travis has served in several active ministry roles including pastor, church planter, and teacher, and his writing has been featured in several publications.