Does “Love Thy Neighbor” Require Accepting All Behavior?

Bill Maher, who is a television entertainer, is no friend of religious people. His regular attacks on anything religious are often couched in jokes and ridicule. He has stated in public that:

  • Christians have been twisting the Bible to make “love thy neighbor” mean “hate thy neighbor.”
  • Supporting a strong military violates the command to turn the other cheek.
  • People who practice loving their enemies are true Christians. An example is Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi.
  • When Jesus says “do not repay evil for evil” and “do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you,” he precludes anyone from supporting war.
  • Jesus was always non-violent. Therefore all true Christians would be non-violent.
  • If anyone ignores Jesus commands to be non-violent, which includes in all respects, you are hypocritical and not a Christian.

Slightly more serious atheists regularly make claims that opposing pro-LGBTIQP laws is hypocrisy because Christians are to “love thy neighbor.” Opposing these laws is not treating others with kindness, love, and compassion.

Although usually not stated directly, the general idea seems to be that these reasons give atheists a sufficient basis for ignoring Christians and their message. They seem to also be saying that if Christians renounce any people or viewpoint, and do not embrace every type of people in love, then we are bigots and not Christian.

Several responses are in order.

First, Maher, as an atheist entertainer, has the right to say what he pleases. However his claims are couched in jokes which go beyond humor into ridicule. The statements above are couched in language not fit for polite company, yet has his guests and audience snickering and laughing. The claims are apparently to be considered valid, and not merely instruments of a comedy routine, yet when presented without the jokes, they ring hollow. Does he seriously not see the difference between what the Bible passages say to individuals and what a Christian can support for national policy? It seems he is merely using these ideas as a platform for ridicule and exaggerated humor simply because he disagrees.

Certainly he would not agree that it should be our public policy in the US that if a policeman sees a thug beating a woman, the policeman should stand in line to be beaten also. Certainly he would agree that we should apply the Biblical principles in ways that are balanced with other concerns of life. If not, then I hereby request that Maher send me his entire life’s savings, for the passages he refers to call for just such an action on his part. If he does not, then he is just as guilty as the Christians he criticizes.

It is telling that his comments are bitingly sarcastic and aimed at ridiculing religious people. While hypocritical Christians are not excused, he seems equally guilty as the claims he is making against them. If he were not holding to the Biblical ethics he criticizes, he would not be upset that Christians violated the ethic. It would seem that he does hold to the ethic of loving his neighbor, but his ridicule shows that he is not doing so himself, the same type of hypocritical act that he is railing about.

Second, the simplest answer to his criticism is that Jesus presents an interpersonal moral system, not a mandate for national defense or public social policy. We can be sure of this because the passages he seems to be referring to are as follows:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18)

I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.  And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.  Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (Matthew 5:39-42)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-45)

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:17-19)

Yet the Bible also contains passages such as the following:

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. (Romans 13:3-5)

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. (1 Cor. 5:1-2)

And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. (John 2:15)

If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows. (1 Tim. 5:16)

For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (1 Thess. 3:10-12)

There are more, but these are ample to prove a point. The main criticism of the atheists here is that Christians should be loving, not judging, giving to all who ask, and not fighting back when attacked. They are not to be disrespectful of people with which they disagree. While the first set of passages do teach these ideas, the second set qualify them. Christ himself took a whip and physically struck the religious leaders. We are not to give money to people who could make their living by working. The government has the authority and responsibility to punish evil, even of “the sword,” which in context includes capital punishment. Churches are commanded to remove sexually immoral people from their midst. God has a wrath and will punish evildoers, and the government is in God’s place on earth for this purpose.

Therefore taking some passages without the balance of others is skewing the truth and mishandling the teachings of the Bible. The passages brought up by Maher and the atheists are clearly for an interpersonal moral system, not one that necessarily must be followed in every single instance by church and national leadership.

Third, even if Christians are hypocritical, it does not disprove the fact that God exits, the truth of the Bible, or the need to trust Jesus. It is a non-sequitur to hold that since Christians do not follow the commands of the Bible, then the entire Christian message can be dismissed. In fact, the Christian message includes that all are sinners and disobey God, including those who attend church. The fact that Christians disobey God merely proves the Bible true when it claims that all are sinners (Romans 3:23).

Fourth, the main part of the passages to which Maher is referring are from the Sermon on the Mount. A careful reading of the entire gospel, not merely a few passages, shows us that the Sermon on the Mount is giving a kingdom ethic, a moral system from a divine perspective. It is impossible for sinful humans to follow it perfectly. As examples, in the same passage Jesus tells us that if we call anyone a fool at any time in our life, then we are guilty enough to go to hell. If we look at someone with a lustful eye, we are guilty of adultery. If that is not enough, Jesus concludes with “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) Even the most self-righteous person would have to admit that he is not as perfect as God. Everyone is therefore guilty.

The point of the sermon on the mount is to show us ethics from God’s perspective, demonstrating to us that we are all guilty of disobeying God. It is an ethic so high that no human can keep it. If the atheists are trying to hold Christians to the standard of the Sermon on the Mount, then we admit our guilt. We then ask Maher and his cynical friends “how are you doing at keeping it yourself?” If they are honest, they will admit equal guilt. Their irreverent, impolite ridicule demonstrates their guilt for all to see.

This brings us to our last point. We Christians have the benefit of having our guilt erased and do not stand condemned. This is because Jesus, while showing us our guilt, also paid the price Himself, freeing us from all guilt and shame. 1 John 1:9 tells us that if we confess our sins and trust Him, we are cleansed of all unrighteousness. No one, not Martin Luther King, Jr., nor Gandhi, nor anyone else, is a Christian because of loving his neighbor, or giving money, or any other work. We are all too guilty for that to do any good. Instead, we are Christians because we trust Jesus and ask His forgiveness.

Christians and atheists alike would do better to realize their own guilt and submit to God for mercy. Jesus is the only one who lived a righteous life, and if we want life, we get it through Him.


About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
This entry was posted in Atheism, Bible, Bible Questions. Bookmark the permalink.

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