“The world does not understand theology or dogma, but it understands love and sympathy.” – D.L. Moody
1517 – The start of the one of the greatest years in Church History: the Reformation. Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses in Wittenberg. The whole course of history changed.
1526 – The year the New Testament was printed in English. It was one of the greatest years for the English speaking world.
These two years alone are considered greatest among other years in church history. Sure, there are some others we could include, but these two especially stand out.
What makes something great? It isn’t the year itself. 1517 is a cool number. 17 is a prime number. But, by itself it isn’t the greatest. What makes something great is what happens or what characterizes that year.
So what makes a Christian great? What out of all the characteristics of being a Christian is the greatest?
“Greatest” in the Bible
There are many places in the Bible that mention the term “Greatest”. From a quick search using the Christian Standard Bible (CSB), I found 31 uses of the word “greatest.” We see arguments on who is the greatest (Luke 9:46). We find “greatest” being used in context of looking at a crowd of people (Acts 8:10). We also discover the questioning of which law is the greatest (Matthew 22:36-38).
But, is there a passage describing what is the greatest characteristic that should be found in a Christian? Yes! It is the passage that we hear at weddings and dating couples memorize as they pursue each other. It is the passage we sometimes make a list of in order to fulfill this one characteristic. It is 1 Corinthians 13.
You probably even guess this passage before I revealed it. In fact we could go through each aspect of what love is. However, I want to skip over that. Look at 1 Corinthians 13:13. Faith, hope, and love are the three Christian characteristics we see listed. But, which one is the greatest one? You know the verse. However, do we practice it? Or have other things usurped its throne?
The Greatest Being… Theological Debate?
As one who has been through seminary, theological debating is a key component in seminary. I remember many debates (some I was involved in) over theological or ministerial issues: dispensational vs. covenant theology, issues in calvinism, Bible translation debates, church music debates, church practice debates, Christian involvement in social issues debates, etc. This list could go on and on and on.
There are so many books written about these debates. We pick a side and spend hours studying up and filling our holsters with our “silver bullets.” When we come across another Christian not from our camp, we take that opportunity to engage in “theological interrogation.” It isn’t about who the person is or what they enjoy doing. Usually we go straight for the jugular, “What do you believe about (fill in the blank)?” Then if that person disagrees with us, we hold them in suspicion and keep “those Christians” at an arm’s distance.
However, is this attitude and debating the greatest characteristic of a Christian? Did Jesus say the world would know us as His disciples by how well we can study theology, debate theology, and hold “the right position”? John 13:35 does not read that way. Even though studying theology and understanding doctrine is a good thing (II Timothy 2:15), it isn’t the greatest characteristic of a Christian.
The Greatest Being… Our Political Fight?
When you turn on the news and check your feed on social media, politics tend to be one of the most trending topics (or could be the most trending topic of today). We get involved in our country’s politics. We get behind a candidate or political party. We have issues we fight to see changed or kept in our country. We protest, write Facebook posts, tweet, wear MAGA hats or other attire of one party or another, and we associate with people depending on political views.
However, is this the greatest characteristic of being a Christian? Understandably, there are good causes to fight for and injustices to right, but is this the defining characteristic of a Christian?
In Romans 13:1-7 we are called to submit to governing authorities and respect them. In 1 Timothy 2:1-2 we are urged to pray for our governing authorities. However, Titus 3:9 hold an interesting command. We are commanded to avoid disputes about the law; which in this case is referring to political law due to the context being about Christians relating to those outside the church. Paul tells Titus such disputes are worthless and unprofitable. We may think about Acts 5:29 in regards to Christians and politics. However, that is a much longer discussion and you can read my article on it: Playing the Card.
1 Corinthians 13:13 does not read, “And these three things remain: faith, hope, and politics. The greatest of these being politics.” That would be adding to Scripture.
The Greatest Being… Our Separation?
Could the greatest characteristic of a Christian be our separation? Separation, here, is referring to how Christians distance themselves from the lifestyles and practices of the world. The key verse for this being I John 2:15-17. We are told to not love the world or things in the world. We are to be living sacrifices to God and not conformed to the world (Romans 12:1-2).
Again, is this the defining and greatest characteristic of a Christian? Does Jesus say the world will know us as His disciples by what we are separated from? Recheck John 13:35. That is not found in there. In fact, in John 17:15-18 Jesus requests the Father not to take the disciples out of the world, but instead send them into the world. As it comes to our generation of believers, Christ prays we would be known to the world by the love the Father has shown us in Christ (John 17:23). Even in our various practices of living for Christ, according to Romans 14:13-23, we are to live by a law of love.
Forgetting to Love: The Greatest Characteristic
A rose thrown to the ground. It is a symbol of rejection. A man gives his girlfriend a rose. She throws it onto the ground and runs after the man on the motorcycle. This image is common in our romantic genres of books and movies.
A rose given is a symbol of love. When we see it, our hearts melt and we may begin to tear up. Did you know God has given us a rose? He gave us a symbol of love: Jesus – the crimson red of his blood, the nail-pierced hands reaching out to us, the incarnate God living among us to redeem us.
Yet, how have many of us responded? We have cast God’s rose to the ground and ran after theological debates, rule keeping, political agendas, and diligently keeping a separation from the world. This is not a definitive list. Many more things could be added.
It is sad to see many Christians leave the church due to the hurt caused by other Christians. “But don’t leave the church because of some hypocrites,” say many. But, why are we using this statement as an excuse to allow the nasty interactions that happen in churches and Christian institutions?
When will Christians stop body shaming each other? When will Christians stop being suspicious of each other? When will Christians stop making fun of those with disabilities? When will Christians stop grading each other by their own standards? When will Christians stop “one-upping” each other? When will Christians stop… (you fill in the blank)?
When will Christians begin to come along side each other and love each other? When will Christians befriend and support? When will Christians be willing to pick up God’s rose from the ground and give it to another?
There are many of us who secretly guard instances of Christians hurting us. We want to leave because Christians have become known for other things rather than love. The constant stabbing of brothers and sisters in Christ creates compassion-closed calluses. In order to open these calluses, we need to be willing to help the hurt learn to love again.
The greatest characteristic of a Christian is love. It is not just telling the truth in love. It is a love to help the hurting, to hug the crying, to befriend the other, to reach out. It means we do these things without a Gospel tract in the other hand. Our love is showing Christ to others, and letting the Holy Spirit do the convicting and the transforming. Wait for the time to give the Gospel. One act of kindness doesn’t mean they are ready to hear.
The greatest of these is love. Pick up God’s rose. Who do you need to give it to? Who needs that text, call, hug, or gift? Who needs you to love them? Hurt Christians are callused. The lost world is watching. What do we do first? Is it love? Or is it another?