Love and Truth: Do We Sacrifice One for the Other? (2 John)

posted by R. Fowler White

In Scripture, Christians are called to devote themselves both to truth and to love. But can we pursue one without sacrificing the other? To get the bottom of this question, it helps us to reflect on John’s second letter. For our purposes here, we’ll understand the sender, the Elder, to be the Apostle John and the recipients, the elect lady and her children, to be a congregation and its members (as a whole and in its parts) or perhaps a mother church and the congregations born (planted) out of it.

The letter’s opening (2Jn 1-3) stands out for the way John describes the recipients’ relationship to himself and to others. First, he indicates how the recipients are related to him: whom I love in [the] truth. John most probably means that his love for them is not merely sincere, but is consistent with and required by God’s revealed truth. It is a love based in the truth they share. In fact, he will confirm this in 2Jn 7, 9. Second, he describes in a most striking way how the recipients are related to others: all who know the truth love the elect lady and her children in [the] truth. And why is this the case? He tells us: because of the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever (2Jn 2). In other words, they were bound in love because they were bound in truth. The love they shared was based in the truth they shared. After expressing his gratitude that these believers were living according to the truth despite opposition (2Jn 4), John takes up his exhortation in 2Jn 5-11.

John is careful to start off his appeal by establishing the link between truth and love. Basically, he says, “live your lives in keeping with love, just as y’all are living your lives in keeping with truth” (2Jn 5). Commitment to truth will bear fruit in commitment to love, and devotion to love will bear fruit in devotion to truth. Before moving on, John emphasizes, as he does elsewhere, that this duty to love is not new, novel, innovative, or even original with the Apostle himself. It’s the same obligation we’ve heard from the beginning. Whether we’re talking about the teaching of Jesus during His earthly ministry (Jn 13:34), the code of Moses at Sinai (Lev 19:18), or a duty binding even on Adam and his children (1Jn 3:11-12), our duty to love is a longstanding responsibility.

After John briefly reminds us of our duty to love, he states his reason for recalling that duty: For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist  (2Jn 7). Adding to his portrait of the deceivers, he says in 2Jn 9 that every heretic goes too far, goes beyond the bounds of truth—the teaching of Christ—documented by His Apostles. False teachers are often heard quoting some new word from the Holy Spirit to take us beyond the Apostles’ eyewitness teaching. The Holy Spirit, however, does not take us beyond the teaching of the Apostles. He gives us light to accept and abide in the revelation He has given. It is for this reason that we’re to devote ourselves continually to the Apostles’ doctrine. It is also for this reason that serious Christians will learn from the history of doctrine: that dimension of church history is the locus of the Spirit’s work of illumination, telling us where the boundaries of orthodoxy have been historically. Certainly, only Scripture is the rule of Christian faith and practice, but the church’s historic confessions and creeds are a help to us. They guide us as we strive not to progress beyond the Apostles’ doctrine but to progress in it.

Notice then that to lay the groundwork for the believers’ proper attitude toward heretics and their heresy, the Elder has deftly linked love and truth. He insists that genuine Christian love will discriminate against those who oppose the truth. Indeed, authentic Christian love means protecting ourselves and others against deception by false teachers. John reminds us that just as adherents to Christian truth know that love matters, so devotees to Christian love know that truth matters. Therefore, the Elder tells the elect lady and her children—congregations of Christ’s church—to watch themselves (2Jn 8), maintaining their composure as they work firmly but patiently with those who oppose God’s revealed will (cf. 2Tim 2:24-26). Such vigilance, John says, is particularly necessary for a congregation because to allow heretics or heresies to go unopposed puts the fruitfulness of that congregation’s own ministry in jeopardy. In fact, John says more: he highlights what a congregation should never do in response to a false teacher: do not receive him into your house (i.e., your house church) or give him any greeting (2Jn 10). To get John’s point here, we need to bear in mind a few critical features of hospitality in the biblical world: it wasn’t about inviting someone into our home for coffee or even a meal.

One feature of ancient hospitality is that it was commanded by God (e.g., Heb 13:2) and was directed toward traveling strangers (e.g., Gen 18:1-8). Remarkably, our hospitality, particularly toward itinerants such as the Apostles, will be one criterion of our judgment by the Son of Man, the King (Matt 25:31-46). Second, hospitality sent a message to those who saw it practiced: it announced that Christians who hosted itinerants were sponsoring them and affirming their standing as Christians to outsiders. In fact, part of hospitality was to welcome itinerants, a greeting that amounted to recognizing their good standing as Christians (cf. 2Jn 11). In short, Christians showing hospitality to itinerants was an act of shared Christian love.

With that background in mind, John is quick and emphatic to add here that hospitality to itinerant strangers is never to be indifferent to truth. His point to the elect lady and her children, then, is clear enough: “Don’t show hospitality to known false teachers or their disciples. To do so would be to give them a platform to promote their heresies and thus to become complicit in their evil deeds.”

So, says the Elder, let those entrusted with the ‘ministry of the keys’  in Christ’s church (cf. Matt 16:19) be careful to protect those in their charge. Just as they examine prospective members and officers of a congregation, so let them also examine itinerants such as missionaries and guest speakers. Let them also carefully counsel individual families on their response to itinerant heretics lest their homes become a snare of the devil. Why do this? Because Christians are devoted both to love and to truth. In other words, authentic Christian love means always protecting ourselves and others against false teachers and their teachings.

1 Comment

  1. January 26, 2023 at 11:06 pm

    […] Read More […]


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