There was a quote from pastor Brian Zahnd that was going around on Facebook. It read:
“We all make errors in our theology; you and me both. So my recommendation is to err on the side of love. Why? Because… God is not doctrine. God is not denomination. God is not war. God is not law. God is not hate. God is not hell…God is love.”Brian Zahnd
And while on the surface I agreed with this sentiment, the more I read it, the more it bothered me. There was a subtle, trojan-horse kind of lie buried in this quote that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Then, after I noticed some of my friends on Facebook using this quote to justify sin, I realized what the problem was.
First, it is true that God is love, but we have manipulated the definition of love in our society to mean something very close to “permissiveness.” The faulty thinking is that if you really love someone, you let them do what they want. But we know that isn’t what real love looks like. Good, healthy parenting doesn’t let kids do whatever they want. That kind of permissiveness leads to all kinds of personal and social problems. And if enough parents buy into this faulty definition of love, as we have seen in our own culture, it creates society-wide problems.
In good and healthy marriages, spouses don’t say, “Sure, do whatever you want, sleep with whomever you want, go wherever you want and stay out as late as you want.” This level of permissiveness is not loving. It is the opposite of love.
When people equate “love” with “permissiveness” this quote gets twisted into meaning, “If you aren’t sure what to believe theologically, then just go with the theology that is most permissive. Because, after all, that’s what God is like. He’s the cool parent that lets you do what you want because He ‘loves’ you so much.” You can see the problem here, right? Permissiveness isn’t loving.
The second problem with this quote is that while it is true that God is love, it is only part of the truth about God. The other reality about God that must be held in tension with “God is love” is the truth that “God is holy.” We could just as easily say, “We all make errors in our theology; you and me both. So my recommendation is to err on the side of holiness. Why? Because God is Holy.” Actually, scripture does say something pretty close to this.
“But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.'”1 Peter 1:15-16
All manner of heresy in the Church has been created by not holding tensions. By holding one truth without the other, we fall into false teaching. We must hold together the truths that Jesus was God and man, not one over the other. We must hold together the truths that God is immanent and transcendent, not one over the other. We must hold together the truths that God is sovereign and He has given us free will. Over and over again, the fullness of truth in the Christian life is really about holding two paradoxical truths together in tension.
We must hold together the truth that God is love and that God is holy, not one over the other. The reason Jesus went to the cross is because God is love and God is holy. The reason someone had to pay for sin is because God is holy. The reason Jesus paid for our sin is because God is love.
God is not a permissive, single dad. God does not choose between being holy or being loving. He is both loving and holy simultaneously and continuously. God is not “okay” with our sin. God hates sin. God is holy. God doesn’t want sin to separate us from Him, and since He knows that is exactly what sin does, He paid the price for our sin so that He could draw us near to Him. God is love.
We would never recommend to someone to “err on the side of Jesus’s divinity over His humanity,” or to “err on the side of Jesus’s humanity over His divinity.” We would never recommend to someone to “err on the side of God’s transcendence over His immanence” or “err on the side of God’s immanence over His transcendence.” This sort of advice is nonsensical. To experience the fullness of what is true of God we must hold both simultaneously.
And the same is true of the nonsensical advice to “err on the side of love” as if leaving holiness behind somehow honors a holy God. It doesn’t! Don’t err on the side of love if doing so leaves holiness in the dust. Love should include holiness and holiness should include love. They are inseparable.
I see this Brian Zahnd quote being used a lot for people who are confused over the LGBTQ issue and whether homosexuality is sinful. Basically, people are saying if you aren’t sure about the homosexuality issue then err on the side of love (and of course by that they mean permissiveness).
I wish they meant love your LGBTQ friends regardless of your understanding of the sinfulness of their sexual choices. But they don’t. Usually, they mean to create the false dichotomy between love and holiness. What is forgotten is that to encourage holiness is loving because it is encouraging us to imitate God with our whole lives, including our sexuality. Why not err on the side of the truth of scripture? Jesus is The Truth. Why not err on the side of holiness? God is holy. All of these–truth, holiness, love–are things we can lean into because they all are attributes of God.