“Love … believes all things.” (1 Cor. 13:7)
Significance of the Context
The church in Corinth was a divided church. Members identified with diverse camps of thought within the congregation; each group claimed its spiritual leader as superior. Not surprisingly, this segregation had turned them into a quarreling church (1 Cor. 1:11-12). This disunity was evidence of spiritual immaturity (3:1-3), and Paul addressed it in the letter we call 1 Corinthians.
In this letter, Paul responds to the primary issues of these spiritual children by teaching a Christ-centered theology. Questions of identity, sexual morality, eating choices, church gatherings, and arguments about the resurrection are all answered through the lens of the crucified and resurrected Jesus.
Within Paul’s discussion of the gathering of the body, we receive the theological goldmine often referred to as the “Love Chapter.” Paul didn’t write Chapter 13 to be read at weddings and hung on our living room walls. Rather, within the context of a letter that confronts disunity, 1 Corinthians 13 contains specific condemnations of a church’s unloving attitudes. For instance, there were some members, enabled by the Spirit to speak in other languages (ch. 14), who paused their tongues-speaking to quarrel unlovingly. Such tongues-speaking was really just noise. These members were not being patient or kind; rather, they were being envious and boastful (1:12; 1:31, 5:6) In fact, they were committing numerous unloving actions which Paul condemns in his depiction of true love.
Paul’s teaching that love “believes all things” confronts the sectarianism and mistrust that plague our political and theological landscapes.
Love is a broad word. When feelings of affection and acts of selfless devotion can both be assigned the same action verb, it becomes necessary to specify Jesus’ command to love one another. Specifically for this article and for our culture, we will focus on Paul’s teaching of a love that confronts the sectarianism and mistrust that plague our political and theological landscapes when he defines love in verse 13: “Love … believes all things.”
Understanding the Phrase
What does it mean that Christian love “believes all things”? Surely this is not a call to gullibility! In Acts, the apostles exercised great discernment when liars and charlatans threatened to mar the reputation and purity of the church (Acts 5:1-6; 8:18-19; 19:13-15). Therefore, “believing all things” cannot be taken in its broadest sense.
We cannot come to a definitive conclusion by looking at the original language, either. The Greek word πιστεύω (pisteuo) simply means “to believe.” Just like in English, it can refer to believing a person’s report (Acts 11:20-21) or trusting in someone’s word or character (Numbers 14:11). We as believers (same root word in Greek and English) believe the report about Jesus’s resurrection and in His saving promise. Therefore, when love “believes all things” in 1 Corinthians 13, the meaning must be determined by something more specific than the words used. We need to look at the context.
To help us understand what Paul is saying here, let’s look again at the Corinthian issue he was addressing. These immature Christians were bragging about their spiritual parents (1:10-12), distinguishing between the theological emphases of the ones who had baptized them (3:1-3). They were suing one another in court (6:1). People were witnessing other believers eating meat offered to idols (1 Corinthians 8) and drawing unfair conclusions about their motivations (10:30). Paul defends his own apostolic authority against those who would challenge him (1 Corinthians 9). Later, Paul tells them that they must not diminish the value of someone else because of their seemingly lesser spiritual gift (12:21). Every believer is essential to the body. It is to these believers that Paul says, “Love believes all things.”
Believing the Best
When Paul told this church that love believes all things, he was calling for them to replace their sectarianism, vindictiveness, criticism, and distrust with a love that is characterized by its believing the best of others. He says, “Don’t put people down for their spiritual ancestry or theological emphases in order to raise yourself up. Peacefully resolve grievances without going before a civil court. If you see someone eating meat offered to idols, don’t assume them to be an idol-worshipper. Trust in my (Paul’s) own report and authority and believe in someone else’s value who has a different spiritual gift than you possess.”
Here is the point: Christian love constrains us to believe the best of each other. We don’t assign wrong motives to each other or condemn each other based on our partial information. To “believe all things” is to give each other the benefit of the doubt when someone who lacks Christian love might be led to believe the worst.
To “believe all things” is to give each other the benefit of the doubt when someone who lacks Christian love might be led to believe the worst.
This phrase is highly applicable today when the spirit of the day is division and demonizing of our opponents. The classic application of this phrase might involve a scenario of seeing our brother walking out of a bar and assuming they were there to pass out tracts. That is a legitimate application. But just like Paul did with the church in Corinth, let us pinpoint more specific and painful ways we may fail to do this in the church today.
1. Differences in Theology
Christian love believes the best of Christian siblings who have different theological views. Sometimes, however, we assume the worst of those who are within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. As Wesleyan-Arminians, this most often comes to light in our portrayal of our Calvinist brothers and sisters: “They are fatalistic. They make the Great Commission unnecessary. They don’t care about sin. They have no assurance of their salvation.” Do we realize that some Calvinists do the same when they describe us? “Wesleyan-Arminians deny the sovereignty of God. They don’t trust Christ’s promise to protect and guard us. They wrongly profess to be perfect.”
Mischaracterizing our theological “opponents” is a violation of Christian love. Yes, we can—and must—teach about the potential dangers of theological positions, but our unity in Christ should motivate us to refrain from assuming that everyone who disagrees with us has embraced the worst potential outcomes of their theology. Further, to view such individuals as opponents makes it too easy for us to vilify them. They are the ones we are called to love as brothers; Satan is the one against whom we are called to wage war.
Mischaracterizing our theological “opponents” is a violation of Christian love.
This also applies to how we view many Roman Catholics in America. I recently toured a Catholic church with colleagues in my ministerial association. The priest, my friend Harry, described practices and beliefs that were far more consistent with our views than what I had been led to believe. Many Catholics happily acknowledge that salvation is by grace through faith and not by works. I heard him make a fine distinction that allows them to honor Mary and ask her to mediate for them without making her an object of their worship. Yet many Protestants would automatically label Roman Catholicism a Mary-worshipping cult, not even recognizing the variance in practice and belief that places many Roman Catholics well within the bounds of orthodoxy. Do we continue to teach against wrong practices? Of course! But do we also extend Christian charity to anyone who is seeking to live a life of faith in Christ? I hope so!
This is not a call to abandon our theological convictions and embrace every teaching we encounter. Rather, it is a call to avoid exaggerating the severity of others’ theological errors in order to ensure the proper catechizing of our students or parishioners. It is a call to address other positions honestly rather than as beliefs only fools would hold. It is a call to refrain from assuming the worst of our brothers because of the possible implications of their beliefs. It is a call to befriend Christians from other theological persuasions in order to gain a better understanding of their beliefs and the genuineness of their love for Jesus.
2. Differences in Politics
This principle of Christian love also applies to our political positions. I have met Christian Republicans who cannot fathom the possibility of a modern Christian Democrat, and vice versa. The challenge here is not to determine which group is correct, but rather to correct our “fathoming.” If we cannot imagine a scenario where someone, even though disagreeing with us politically, is a Christian, we must learn to live out a Christian love that “believes all things.”
Not every modern Christian Republican is a sin-excusing, reality-denying, poor-neglecting racist. Some positions of the Republican Party are compatible with Christian values. When a believer considers these positions to be the most important ones, they may legitimately choose to identify as a Republican, even though no earthly political party perfectly aligns with the values of God’s Kingdom.
In the same way, not every modern Christian Democrat is a baby-killing, values-undermining, slothfulness-affirming, church-opposing hater of this country. Some positions of the Democratic Party are compatible with Christian values. When a believer considers these positions as the most important, they may legitimately identify as a Democrat, even though, just as with the Republican Party, their values also fall short of God’s kingdom values.
Did some Christians tolerate President Trump’s shortcomings in order to affirm the policies he advocated that benefited the church? Do some Christians favor the Democratic party’s healthcare policies as a pathway to fewer abortions, rather than voting towards a court-initiated answer? Do some Christians examine race relations in this country and conclude there is no inequity? Do some Christians value the humane treatment of illegal immigrants more than border security? Do some Christians view religious liberty as the right to practice Christianity in public places, while some view religious liberty as the right of everyone to avoid being forced to endure someone else’s practice in a public place?
Inevitably, every one of us disagreed with one of these positions. The goal of stating these positions in this way was not to suggest that any one of them is correct but to demonstrate a charitable way to present a Christian brother’s position without making it seem they must be morally corrupt. The question is not whether we can buy into each way of thinking, but whether Christian charity demands that we allow a Christian sibling to think that way without automatically condemning them for disagreeing with us.
Even if we find it difficult to understand how another Christian could disagree with our political affiliation, we are called to a love that believes the best.
Even if we find it difficult to understand how another Christian could disagree with our political affiliation, and perhaps especially when it is difficult, Paul calls us to demonstrate a Christian love that believes the best about the other. We do so by listening to each other’s perspectives with the purpose of truly understanding, rather than simply in order to construct a rebuttal. We also show this kind of love by ensuring that our political positions are not unduly elevated to the same status as our core Christian beliefs and by humbly recognizing that there still may be gaps in our own understanding of how the principles of God’s Word apply to our culture.
3. Differences in Application of Lifestyle Principles
What does it mean to “believe all things” in relation to the application of lifestyle principles? In some congregations, any divergence from that church’s classic interpretation of a teaching of Scripture causes people to label the person (as in 1 Cor. 1) as worldly, carnal, or having forsaken what they know to be right.
But is this a necessary conclusion? Perhaps there could be a sinful motivation for the change in practice, but if Christian love “believes all things,” should we not give such an individual the benefit of the doubt that they are truly seeking how to please God in their lives until they clearly demonstrate otherwise?
Perhaps a change in this practice would help many churches retain their young people who do not conform to their teaching. Paul instructs the Philippians (2:12) to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling now that he is not there to teach them. Unfortunately, it seems that many have emphasized the “fear and trembling” part to the drowning out of “work out your own salvation.” The result is that many do not even attempt to find how God wants them to live out Scripture’s teachings, or those individuals who do strive to learn are cast away for their apparent sinful motivations in forsaking “the way.” This culture of conformity and judgment is a sure recipe for failure in multi-generational ministry.
A culture of conformity and judgment is a sure recipe for failure in multi-generational ministry.
Instead, we must believe all things. We must believe the best of our young people when they are trying to figure out how God wants them to live. We cannot load them with guilt and condemnation when they stray from how God called us to live. Rather, we must affirm the faith they evidence and lovingly teach them the plain truths of God’s Word. In order to evidence a love that believes all things, we must allow differences in the application of biblical teaching without passing judgment.
From a merely human perspective, believing the best of one another is one of the most unnatural things we can do. We all believe we are correct in our positions—otherwise, we would change them! But as believers who are called to love one another in this way, we must consciously look for ways to view and cast our Christian siblings in the best possible light. It is when we do this that the American church will begin taking the steps of recovery from the same disunity that plagued the church in Corinth. In so doing, we will also regain the distinctive that Jesus said would mark us: our love for one another.