Why Secular Culture, Progressive Christians, and Traditional Christians Disagree on What It Means to Love Others

For Valentine’s Day last year, my husband and I exchanged notes with fifteen affirming words that describe one another. One of the words my husband chose for me included a qualification: “Adventurous (unless there’s danger).” When I first saw it, I thought he was joking. How adventurous can a person be if there’s no danger? But he defended his questionable choice of a compliment by clarifying that he loves how I embrace the idea of adventure, even if I eventually panic when doing something.

One case in point: scuba diving. Before my husband and I had kids, we decided to get scuba certified. To do so, you start by taking classroom lessons. It was in those lessons—before my big toe had even touched the water—that I started having second thoughts. The complexity of diving even caused my normally fearless husband to have some trepidation.

Nonetheless, we continued, and there was one lesson we still laugh about today. The book said something like this: “Before you get to the dive site, discuss the dive objective with your buddy. If you’re planning a photography dive but your buddy is planning a trash clean-up dive, the two of you will bring very different tools and want to do very different things.”

Trash clean up? Photography? Our only objective as dive buddies was to not drown. The idea that the two of us would ever get to a point where I might show up to the boat with a litter grabber, only to have my hopes dashed by my husband revealing an exciting new dive camera was ridiculously funny. For years now, whenever we need to make sure we’re on the same page about something, we say, “OK, I was just making sure you weren’t planning to pick up trash while I was planning to photograph a lobster.”

One of the greatest barriers to civil conversation between people with different worldviews is when they don’t stop to determine whether they have the same objectives in mind.  Oftentimes, they think they’re on the same page—“Hey! We both want to scuba dive!”—but in reality, one group means they want to pick up trash and the other means they want to do underwater photography. Love is one of the most common subjects where this happens today.

What Does It Mean to Love People?

Nearly everyone today appeals to the moral necessity of loving one another. In fact, I’d venture to say that the greatest sin in the mind of popular culture is not loving others. If someone says or does something publicly that the cultural love police deem unloving, that person will be raked over the coals.

Not only does our culture assume that the importance of love is self-evident, it assumes that the definition of it is as well. Phrases like “love is love” and “love is all you need” are plastered on t-shirts, billboards, and bumper stickers to remind us all of how simple love should be to understand.

When we’re talking about rescuing a puppy from a tree or heroically saving a child from drowning, people generally do agree on what a loving response is. But the shallow simplicity of bumper sticker slogans is revealed when we begin asking other kinds of questions:

  • Is it loving to take your child to a drag queen story hour in order to teach them about “diversity”?
  • Is it loving to encourage a 5-year-old biologically male child struggling with gender dysphoria to start living as a girl?
  • Is it loving to make sure a pregnant teenager can get an abortion?

For many in our society, the answer to these questions is as simple and self-evident as the answer to the question of whether to rescue a drowning child: “Yes these actions are loving…and if you can’t understand that, there’s clearly something wrong with you.”

In reality, however, these questions require a more nuanced discussion of what it means to love others.

The Christian Definition of Love

In Matthew 22:36-39, a pharisee asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment of the law?” Jesus replied,

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

If Jesus says one commandment is the greatest, it implies that any other commandments should be obeyed within that context. In this case it tells us that what it means to love others depends on what it means to first love God.

This is why Christians so often clash with culture on what love is—we have different objectives. Christians strive to love others given God’s standards. The secular world strives to love others given self-defined standards.

Secular and Progressive Christian Definitions of Love

In a godless worldview, there’s no higher-than-human moral authority. As such, there can be no objective morality that applies to all people; right and wrong are necessarily reduced to personal preference. It’s logically consistent within such a view to affirm the individual as the ultimate standard of his or her morality. (The irony, of course, is that many people with this worldview condemn the Christian view of love as wrong rather than affirming it as an equally moral personal preference.) In this view, it’s not possible to both love a person and not affirm their choices because love equals affirmation. In essence, secular love is wanting for others what they want for themselves. Godly love is wanting for others what God wants for them—even when that’s not what they want for themselves.

Perhaps surprisingly at first blush, this divergent understanding of love isn’t limited to disagreements between secular society and Christians. Progressive Christians and “traditional” Christians (those who hold to historic Christian teachings) often disagree as well—with progressives holding a view of love that looks much like that of secular culture. They often disagree with traditional Christians on moral issues and chastise them for rallying around specific biblical teachings rather than simply “loving others” as Jesus did.

How can there be so much difference between Christians in our view of love?

Ironically, it’s because of the same reason that secular culture and traditional Christians disagree: We have a different view of God.

Even though progressive Christians believe God exists and would presumably agree it’s important to love him first in their lives, they often have a different understanding of what it means to love God because they have a different understanding of the Bible; progressive Christians vary widely in their views of its authority, inspiration, accuracy, and modern application. When you remove the working assumption that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, the very definition of God goes up for grabs. What it means to love God first will depend completely on what you pick and choose to believe about who he is and what he’s revealed about his moral requirements of us. Just as in a secular worldview, what it means to love others effectively becomes subject to one’s self-defined standards.

When we take these factors into consideration, it’s actually not surprising at all that secular culture, progressive Christians, and traditional Christians disagree on what it means to love others. Our respective understandings of love necessarily vary with our respective understandings of God—whether he exists, and if he does, who he is and what he’s revealed.

There’s little chance that mainstream society will get to a point of acknowledging the nuances of love in this way. “Love is love” and other simple mantras will continue to proliferate because they have an emotional pull and require little thought. As Christian parents, however, we have a responsibility to help our kids understand these things more deeply. When they don’t, they’ll undoubtedly feel the burden of people accusing them of being hateful for holding views consistent with a love for God–and in some cases, those accusations will even come from other Christians.

Just as with scuba diving, identifying and understanding people’s objectives makes all the difference in the world.   

[This post contains partial excerpts from chapter 10 in my soon to be released book, Talking with Your Kids about Jesus—“What did Jesus teach about loving others?” Each of the 30 chapters has a step-by-step conversation guide to help you explain critical concepts like these to your kids! Preorder now and receive it on the release date of March 31!]