Like that old Johnny Lee song, “Looking For Love,” I’m afraid some of us (myself included) have been “looking for love in all the wrong places.” In Romans 12:9, we are commanded to “love without hypocrisy,” which is immediately followed by the command to be “kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love” (12:10a). Thus, three words that can be translated “love” or “affection” are put into play in these two verses:
- agape, which refers to the love Christians must have for all people, including their enemies,
- philia, the love one has for friends, and
- storge, the love one has for family members.
In fact, “kindly affectionate”(philostorgoi) is a combination of philia and storge. This is the only place this expression is found in the New Testament. It denotes the kindred love of family or humankind and defines more specifically the character of the “brotherly love” (philadelphiāi) which it amplifies so that the exhortation is for us to love our brethren in Christ as if they were members of our own family, clan, or race. For the Jews and Gentiles of Paul’s time, this was no small thing.
Over the years, we have all heard sermons and lessons on the “uniqueness” of agape; namely, how it is a “different” kind of love than philia or storge. It is, we are told, the highest form of love, having more to do with the intellect than those emotions and feelings we frequently associate with love. But is this true? Is this really what the Scriptures teach? I, for one, no longer believe so. In saying this, it is important to understand I do not deny that the three words mentioned are different, or that they may be nuanced toward one aspect of love rather than another. Instead, what I’m denying is that agape is an entirely different kind of love than are these others. But, if we continue to insist on thinking of agape as somehow different from philia and storge, this difference is to be seen in that it alone encompasses all aspects of these other two terms, which, when taken together, teach us what it really means to love one another as God loves us.
What’s the rub, then? Well, perhaps it’s this: instead of accurately defining the true meanings and nuances of agape, philia, and storge, we’ve actually been engaged in an elaborate exercise of semantical gymnastics designed to make us feel better about ourselves when we claim to “love” our enemies, even when we know we’ve never quite “cared for” them very much at all, or at least not like we care for those in our family, our village, our tribe, our clan, our “race.” So then, is agape really more intellectual than heartfelt? We certainly like to think so. After all, such an interpretation allows us to think we can agapao even our enemies, even though we don’t have to be very fond of them. Oh really? Let’s take a look at what Thayer’s Greek Definitions says about the verb agapao: “1) of persons, 1a) to welcome, to entertain, to be fond of, to love dearly.” Of the noun agape, Thayer says: “1) brotherly love, affection, good will, love, benevolence.” So make no mistake about it, when Romans 12:9a says, “Let love [agape] be without hypocrisy,” and follows it up in 12:10a with “Be kindly affectionate [philostorgoi] to one another in brotherly love [philadelphiāi],” we have a divine commentary on what agape is all about, and it isn’t just some sort of intellectual “I’ve got your best interest at heart, but don’t you think for a moment, you dirty rotten scoundrel, that this has anything to do with the tender affection I’ve reserved for others, not you.” No, no, no, this is not, and never has been, what loving God and each other is all about.
You may be thinking, “What’s he trying to say and what does this have to do with me?” Well, EVERYTHING! I say it this way because it truly does have everything to do with you, me, and every other person who claims to be a Christian. For unless, and until, we love everyone, as God does, we are not yet what we were created in Christ Jesus to be. In this regard, it is helpful to note that the “without natural affection” of Romans 1:31 in the KJV is translated “unloving” in the NKJV. The Greek word is astorgos. This informs us that those whom God gives over to a reprobate mind are not able, in such a state, to render the kind of love of neighbor (and this includes enemies of every sort) God requires of His children. The decision, then, is ours. We can be, with the Lord’s help, what God, the Father, created us in His Son Christ Jesus to be, or we can continue to think and act the way we used to before being redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus Christ and born again of His Spirit.
I haven’t written this to personally shame anyone. Instead, I wanted to make others aware of something that took me a long time to get squared away in my on mind/heart. I had been reading over, around, and through this truth for many years before it was introduced to me in August 2001, shortly before Anita and I moved back to Kenya, East Africa and just before 9/11. I couldn’t believe it then, nor for several years afterward. This is because I had bought, “lock, stock, and barrel,” into the idea that agape was a uniquely different kind of love than philia or storge. I had preached on it and even written various articles on it and could exegete (sic) John 21:15-18 right up there with the rest of them. But eventually the work of learning could no longer be postponed, and a crisis of conscience forced me to finally deal with the fact that I had bought, “lock, stock, and barrel,” into an interpretation that had relieved me of my God-given duty to love my neighbor with the concern and tender affection I reserved for my immediate family and closest friends, and this even when such a one was my enemy. Yes, it is certainly easier (i.e., more “natural”) to love those closest to me with fond, tender affection, always having their best interests foremost in my heart. But just here is the point: The lord calls me and every other Christian to a higher standard than this. The truth is, He wants me to love everyone like I love those closest to me. The truth is, He wants me to love my neighbor, my brother, my enemy like I love those who are near and dear to me. The truth is, He wants me to love everyone like He tenderly loves me with kindly affection. Is this easy? No. Is this something I’m now striving to do? Yes. As a result, I can tell you I’ve begun to understand and experience things I had never before quite understood or experienced. To God be the glory, now and forever. Amen!