There is no greater power on earth than the love of God, evidenced in the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ. Of course, this gift is only given to Christians.
I heard a United Methodist pastor preach this recently, and I called him a few days later to ask if this is what he truly meant to say… if this is truly what he believes. He let me know, emphatically, that this is his understanding of the Christian faith. God’s love is available to all, but it’s up to us to accept or reject it, and there is a very narrow, very specific set of behaviors that prove whether you are a Christian or not. It doesn’t matter what we say — anyone can say they believe in God or Jesus — it only matters that we align our behaviors with a carefully selected list of “dos” and “don’ts” from the Bible.
I asked for a definition of “unconditional” and was told it is “a universal and all-inclusive love that knows no boundaries or limitations.”
I was cool with this, but pushed to then say, “doesn’t all-inclusive include everyone?”
The pastor pondered for a moment, then said, “well, it is true for those who accept it.”
I countered, “so there are limits and boundaries that it can’t cross?” “Oh, no. I can cross them, but God won’t force his love on anyone.” “But what if I accept God’s unconditional love, but don’t act in a way that someone else defines as acceptable?”
“You’re talking like a gay person? You can’t be a gay Christian. If you’re Christian, you aren’t gay. If you’re gay, you aren’t a Christian.”
“Let’s not go there. Let’s stick with something easy, like divorce. I’m divorced and I am a devout Christian, even though the Bible is pretty clear. At no point in the painful process of divorce did I feel I was exempt from God’s unconditional love.”
“Well, this is a bad example. Divorce is unfortunate, but it doesn’t mean you can’t be a Christian.”
“So, the list of behaviors is up for editing? We can put on it and take off it anything we want to?” I asked.
“Of course not. I’m only talking about the really destructive and undebatable sins, like murder.”
“So, a murderer can’t experience God’s unconditional love?”
“He can if he repents and never kills again. But a Christian won’t commit murder — if a person says they are a Christian but they murder, then they really aren’t a Christian.” he explained.
“And that means that God doesn’t love him?” I asked.
“No, that means he rejects God’s love.”
“So, God’s unconditional love is conditional upon our acceptance?” I asked.
“Absolutely not! God’s love doesn’t change, and it never depends on anything we do. We either accept it or reject it.” he said.
“So, we determine whether we are loved or not? That sounds conditional to me.”
“Listen. God IS love. God can’t be anything but love. God has never done anything at any time in history that is NOT love,” he patiently explained. “God’s love just IS, but that doesn’t mean we receive that love. There are millions of people who reject this love.”
“And so the love goes away… That sounds like God stops loving those who reject God’s love. And you said that the gift is “only given to Christians.” I claimed.
“What I should have said is that only Christians receive the love.”
“But, do you really believe that? And then you said that it really doesn’t extend to all people who believe in Jesus as the Christ, but only a subset of Christians that behave a certain way.”
“You have to be a true Christian to fully experience the love of God.”
“Okay, what about Matthew 25 — the sheep and the goats. Don’t you think this passage indicates that everyone should receive the love of God — that we should extend God’s love to everyone just as we would to Jesus the Christ?”
“That’s a perfect example of what I mean. Jesus says, “as you do to the least of these my brethren or my family, you did to me. He’s only talking about Christians. Our only obligation is to our brothers and sisters in Christ.” he explained.
“But that’s an interpretation. That all depends on where we choose to draw the line that defines “us” from “them.” I believe the family of Christ includes all who are created in the image of God — all people on earth.” I said.
“You can think that, but that isn’t biblical. We don’t have responsibility for every person on earth. We have an obligation to evangelize them, but if they reject us, they’re on their own. Our scriptures aren’t universal — they apply to Christians.”
“So,” I tried once more, “God’s love is conditional. It only extends to those who accept it.”
“Yes, it isn’t the love that is conditional, only our acceptance.”
I can’t begin to explain all the problems I have with this young pastor’s theology and attitude, though I think I understand his argument. It closes the door to so much. It limits our potential for healing and transformation in the world. It constrains God’s power based on human judgment. It decides who is “in” and who is “out,” based not on eternal truth but human whim. It also gives us an excuse to give up on people. I’ve been wrestling with this conversation for weeks, and it still troubles me. A Christianity that is exclusive, divisive, judgmental, and yes, I’ll say it, conditional, can’t take us where we need to be. At least, that’s what I think.