For years now, one of the major apologetic verses for Christians has revolved around Jesus’s teaching to “judge not.” This teaching of Jesus, typically ripped out of context from Matthew 7:1 and Luke 6:37, has been used to thwart any attempts to apply God’s law and standards to the lives of people. If you were to suggest someone was living sinfully, they could respond with “judge not” and neutralize the threat with stunning effectiveness, even though the original context warned against making judgments with a double standard.
While this popular tactic has been employed by non-Christians and also nominal Christians uninterested in walking in obedience, there is a new teaching of Christ which has become a weapon not just of defense but offense: “love your neighbor.”
On July 11, 2021, Vice President Kamala Harris said “I do believe that the act of getting vaccinated is the very essence—the very essence of what the Bible tells us when it says, ‘Love thy neighbor.’” For many government officials, this biblical teaching was used to provide a spiritual reason for getting the vaccine. What is the sinister implication behind these statements? Disobedience to the biomedical security state is disobedience to Jesus. Even evangelical leaders, through Biologos, issued a statement with the title “Love your neighbor, get the shot!”
1. Later this month, Canadian pastor Jacob Reaume will engage this credal statement for the COVID vaccine.
How did we go from “judge not” being the most common verse used to bludgeon others into tolerance to “love your neighbor?” In what follows, I will answer that question.
“Love Thy Neighbor”: How the Bible Is Being Weaponized Against Christians
As the culture has moved from a place of neutrality and ambivalence towards open hostility to the teachings of Christ, and as Christianity is now seen as a negative social mark, a more active weaponization of the Scriptures against Christians is becoming increasingly common. “Judge not” was very popular within a more libertarian mindset. It was very popular to abuse this phrase when Christianity was more dominant culturally to neutralize the threat of biblical orthodoxy. They just wanted to be “left alone.” If I’m not a Christian, I don’t need to submit to God’s laws, so please leave me alone and stop judging me. But we’ve moved from a neutral “judge not” culture to a hostile “love your neighbor” culture.
Now, with Christian dominance in culture waning, our culture is still using the words of Jesus without being bound by the moral authority of his teachings. Ironically, people actively use the teachings of Christ to enforce the teachings of secularism—apparently, the most effective false teaching uses biblical language. With the rise of expressive individualism and the craving for safety and security today, people are more likely to use “love” and “loving your neighbor” to not only justify their sins and selfishness but to compel others into approving of sin. “Judge not” was more speaking to power. “Love your neighbor” is those in power speaking down to those they are trying to control. If the best way to “love your neighbor” is to make them feel safe, even if what you’re doing does nothing to make them safe, then it is completely justified, so the argument goes. What is important is that others feel safe.
This is done under the biblical language of being “selfless” and “laying down your rights.” “Love your neighbor” has cultural currency even if cultural Christianity is on the decline precisely because our culture is haunted by Christ. “Love your neighbor” is about compliance to certain edicts, while “judge not”’ is used to justify leaving people alone. As one worldview has waned and another ascended, this nascent secularism seeks a transcendent religious text on which to base obedience. What better text than the Holy Bible, which served as the bedrock of our civilization’s construction? Again, the irony is thick: the teachings of Christ become weaponized against Christians themselves!
What Does Love Thy Neighbor Really Mean?
But what is the original context to “love your neighbor”? In Matthew 22, the Pharisees and Sadducees are busy trying to lay traps for Jesus. They bring him various challenges to see if they can catch the Messiah in a contradiction or deviating from God’s ways. A lawyer, one of the Pharisees, comes to test Jesus asking “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And Jesus said to him,
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. (Matt. 22:37–39)
Jesus is not creating a new law. He is summarizing and distilling the Old Testament, as revealed in the Law and Prophets. The entire Old Testament is upheld by these two laws—to love God and to love your neighbor. These two foundational principles shape our interpretation and use of God’s law. It’s therefore comical when people who have no interest in God’s law take a verse from the Old Testament and use it to apply to whatever they want. That is a very dangerous way to “use” God’s Word.
Indeed, far from just using God’s Word, Jesus rightly reads and applies Leviticus 19, a passage well recognized as a summary of the Decalogue. As he considers Moses’s words, Jesus was not interested in destroying or abolishing the law of God but fulfilling it (Matt. 5:17). Leviticus 19:18 states “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” The essential interpretive concept and reality which informs our love for others is Yawheh’s authority and exclusive power to save. Jesus is taking Leviticus and using it in this context with the lawyer who is putting him to the test to rebut him and show him the comprehensive nature of God’s law.
By contrast, when Gavin Newsome flaunts loving your neighbor in Mark 12:31 as support and advertisement to help people get an abortion in California, you know that something has gone awry. It has been suggested over the last two years that if you are going to love your neighbor, you need, nay must, get the shot, social distance, and mask up. But what if these measures fly in the face of God’s law which teaches us that only the identifiably sick need to practice measures of isolation to prevent community spread? If God has defined loving your neighbor, and if the very measures and goals of the biomedical security state contradict God’s definition, then perhaps we should not be so boisterous to read into God’s Word binding declarations about what is most loving from secular authorities.
2. If we learned anything from the COVID mandates, it was the fact that Christian scholars need to do more work on something called “biopolitics.” Coined by Michel Foucault in the late 1970s, biopolitics is a discipline that investigates the way governments use their powers of coercion to secure health, hygiene, and public well-being.
Loving your neighbor as yourself is a summation of the law of God. It is defined, constrained, and fleshed out by what is in God’s law. God defines what love is. “Love” is not a nose of wax to conform to the latest laws and preferences of the world. We don’t get to insert into God’s law what we believe to be most loving. We can deduce from the principles in God’s law what is most loving. However, pastors and Christians today often settle for a truncated view of God’s law in which its only purpose is to show us that we are sinners in need of grace. But the law is also pedagogical, and even beautiful.
Instead of teaching the law with its three uses, Christians too often simply gloss over the instructive nature of God’s law and settle for platitudes on what is most loving. Furthermore, we rarely hear of the importance of God’s law to teach Christians and the nations they inhabit all that Christ has commanded. God’s law is the standard, and we should declare that it is so to all people. When Jesus commanded that we are to “[teach] them to observe all that I have commanded you,” he did not intend for us to skip over the law or teach in contradiction to God’s revealed will (Matt. 28:20). He intended for us to show how Christ fulfilled and upheld the law.
When people try to force their unbiblical political agenda onto the Bible, we should reject this. The Bible should shape society and politics. But woe to us if we try to use the Bible to justify secular beliefs about what is most loving. Attempting to contort “loving your neighbor” to secular ideas of the common good which run contrary to God’s law is in fact “hating your neighbor” and it is the opposite of obedience to God. For those who suggest such contortions of God’s law and the teaching of Jesus such that it leads Christians to sin, it would be better for that teacher to be drowned in the sea (Matt. 18:6).
The Good News of the Law
Christ is the key. He is the fulfillment of the law of God, and reading the law lawfully, as Paul puts it in 1 Timothy 1:8–11, requires students of the Bible to move from law commanded to law fulfilled. This is the good news. Without Christ, our understanding is darkened and we are unable to comprehend the teachings of God and their application for us today.
It is no wonder that in a hostile world, “love your neighbor” has become the weapon of choice to inculcate approval to the ways of the world. But, in the hands of wise and prudent Christians, we proclaim the good news that Christ has loved us and how we in turn obey God by loving our neighbors. We obey God’s commands because we know that God’s ways are the way that leads to the blessing of all people. In loving our neighbor as God commands, we advance the gospel to the ends of the earth, teaching the nations to observe all that he has commanded.