It’s, perhaps, obvious that no one can conduct a meaningful discussion about courtship and marriage, much less about divine redemption, without invoking the central definition of love. For believers, that love is defined by the standards set forth in Scripture. For unbelievers, it provides the only hope for a better life. As Oscar Wilde once put it, a life without love “is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead.”
Throughout history, love has always been an important theme in human culture. The ancient Greeks believed the experience of love, in its many contexts, to be so significant that they enshrined different aspects of it in their lexicon of words to describe it.
Of all of the Greek terms for love, only two are found in the New Testament, agape and philos. That’s because these two words were the most applicable to the concepts of redemption and rightful community among Christian believers. In the Bible, they take on further nuances not found in the classical Greek literature, though their basic meanings are compatible when the original terms are stripped of their polytheistic and cultural contexts.
Recently, while studying 1 Corinthians 16, I discovered, to my surprise, that everything I thought I knew about the distinctions between agape love and philos love was turned upside down. I had held the traditional view, namely that agape was divine love, an unconditional redemptive love that superseded all other forms of love, including the human “brotherly” love of philos.
I’d long had the impression that agape love alone mediated man’s salvation. Alternatively, philos love was an earthly experience of valued friendship that rightly facilitated the Christian walk. After all, haven’t we been told that this human kind of love, though very useful at a practical level, nonetheless does not rise to the level of divine agape love in demonstrating the redeeming quality of God’s saving grace? Yet we discover that, together, these two forms of love are necessary to bring to life the singular phenomenon of a loving Christian community. It was a paradox that begged closer examination.
While these traditional ideas seemed to correspond to a sort of theological consensus in much of the church community, they are not, in fact, in alignment with the argument of the Apostle Paul. Nor, for that matter, are they in alignment with many other passages found elsewhere in the New Testament. After commanding the Corinthians to love (agapao) one another in everything they did (1Cor. 16: 14), Paul ends his letter to the Corinthians with the astonishing revelation that, if we do not love (phileo!) our Lord, we are eternally accursed (vs. 22), meaning we are subject to everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord. In effect, he flipped the expected terms. Instead of talking about loving one another with phileo love and loving the Lord with agape love, he switched the expected script and reversed the usage of these two terms.
As it turns out, both agape love and philos love have surprises in store for the believer who wants to know exactly what these terms mean regarding the Christian faith.
So, how are these two terms actually related to each other?
In John 3: 16, we read that God so loved (agapao) the world that he gave his only begotten Son to die in our stead. That’s precisely what we would expect from the text. But, just three verses later (John 3: 19), we read that “the Light has come into the world and men loved (agapao!) darkness rather than the Light.” Here the verb agapao is unexpectedly employed to describe the outright embrace of worldly pursuits. The truth is that there are 15 other verses in the New Testament that also speak of loving evil, using the Greek word, agape, usually in its verb form (e.g., Matt. 24: 12, Luke 6: 32, Luke 16: 13, Luke 11: 43, John 12: 43, 2Tim. 4: 10, 2Pet. 2: 15, 1John 2: 15). Moreover, some form of agape love is regularly expressed in Scripture by unbelievers (e.g., John 3: 19, Matt. 5: 26, 6: 24, 24:12, Luke 6: 32, 7: 42, John 12: 43, 2 Pet. 2: 15 as well as by believers (e.g., Matt. 22: 39, Luke 7: 1-9, John 13: 34-35, John 15: 12-13, 1 Cor. 16:24). As we would expect, it’s also expressed by God Himself (e.g., Matt. 3: 17, 17: 5, Mark 9: 7, 10: 21, Luke 6: 27, John 3: 16, 35, 10: 17, 11: 5, Ro. 5: 8)..
Thus, we see that agape love is not limited to divine activity alone. Equally important, the object of agape love can be either good or evil, animate (loving God or loving others) or inanimate (loving wealth, the praise of men, positions of power, or otherworldly concerns). In many of these cases, the use of the term, agape love, runs completely contrary to the popular understanding of its meaning.
In general, agape love reflects the loyalty and fidelity of total commitment. It is volitional in that it’s a choice to honor or value someone (either God or another person) just as it is a choice to value something inanimate (such as wealth, position, or power). As applied to relationships, agape refers to loving others for their intrinsic worth, for who they are as God’s creation, apart from any behavior. Like God’s love for us, agape love means we hold nothing back in our loving of others.
When applied to our relationship with God, agape love is an expression of how God loves us and how He bids us to love him. He showed his love by his willingness to sacrificially give completely of himself, holding nothing back. To discover the abundance of this grace for ourselves, he asks only that we, too, be all in, fully committed to accepting his incomprehensible love. There’s no half-way with God. That’s also true about his command to love our neighbor.
But, it’s of great importance to realize that we can also love evil in the same way, with the same intensity and the same commitment. The key differentiating factor is the object toward which such love is directed.
Activities arising from agape love are basically selfless acts of the will that are separate from emotions. Agape love can (and often is) commanded of us since feelings are not necessary for its expression (i.e., you can command specific behaviors, but you can’t command feelings).
In short, agape love emphasizes the choices we make in conducting our lives (1 John 3: 18). For example, we can choose to be kind to someone without necessarily feeling an emotional bond with that person. Or we can choose not to be rude or not to hold grudges against others without necessarily feeling affection or warmth toward them. If you carefully examine the characteristics of agape love summarized in 1 Cor. 13, you will quickly notice that all of them are attitudes and behaviors we can either choose to practice or not to practice. There are actually no feelings described there at all! This surprises a lot of people who customarily think of love as largely, if not strictly, a feeling.
Because it is independent of its object, you can practice agape love without waiting to feel affection or emotional bonding before you act. To the church at Corinth, that was important because the ill will felt between the Jews and the Greeks in the church was not going to disappear easily. It was too culturally embedded to expect change overnight. The deliberate, conscious actions of agape were going to be required first. Thus, the reason for the detailed description of it in 1 Cor. 13.
Since such love is not dependent on the merit of the person loved, the Corinthians no longer had any excuse for failing to love one another. As Paul pointed out earlier, Christ’s love for them was likewise not based on anything of merit they had done. That was the essence of grace, namely, unmerited favor.
You can see, then, how agape love gives the act of loving intentionality. Righteous behavior, honor, and esteem are its watchwords.
It’s important to understand, on the other hand, that philos (or phileo) love is every bit as central to genuine love as agape. The main difference is that phileo love is emotionally directed to others in a search for a durable intimacy. It’s never directed to an inanimate reality, like wealth or people’s praise, as agape love can be. So it can never have something in mind of malevolent intent. Instead, it focuses on the purity of emotional warmth, feelings of affection and longings for a relationship, and a growing life attachment to the one with whom it is experienced. To phileo someone means to cherish, to be fond of, to affectionately embrace, to delight in that person. In short, phileo adds the richness of emotion to the experience of love. It’s in this way that we come to truly desire to serve the ones we love. It’s not merely obedience to a principle.
Therefore, philos love gives the experience of love its passion. Devotion, tender feelings of affection and intimacy, and deep friendship are its watchwords.
Together, agape and philos love represent two different dimensions of the same redemptive love. Both describe the nature of true loving, only different aspects of it. The nature of agape love is specifically described by what it does in enacting God’s will, while the nature of philos love is described by how it feels, that is, by what our emotional bond compels us to adore. One is established on the foundation of choice and the other infuses that choice with the pleasure of close fellowship. This suggests that, while there is an equivalency of importance, it is with a distinction in kind. Thus, if we love God by loving others, we can either say we agape God as we phileo people or we phileo God as we agape people. Each term is used when the biblical author wants to emphasize a particular dimension of authentic love.
So, in 1 Cor. 16: 22, we see that phileo love, like agape love, is a pivotal part of belonging to God. Why is this so important? It was Paul’s argument in this passage that it’s because our passion for Jesus proves the fundamental sincerity and reality of our commitment to him, thereby providing the external evidence of our faith.
This passion should extend to all who are in Christ’s orbit as well. If you say, for example, that you love Christ but hate other Christians, as the Corinthians did, there is an important disconnect somewhere. After all, the authenticity of loving others is directly connected to authentically loving Jesus.
There is also a lesson in all of this today for solidifying our marriages and our relationships with significant others. What is true of Paul’s teaching here on the sincerity of one’s devotion to Christ is equally true of the sincerity of love in courtship and marriage. The tenacity of our commitment to our marital partners is made real by the passion we display in our companionship. One is the foundation for the other, but the viable edifice of our union is dependent upon both.
How often have you heard a couple complain that the “fire” in their relationship seems to have gone out and, as a result, are beginning to question their commitment to each other? The loss of passion is one of the first signs of trouble in a couple’s marriage. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they are beginning to bicker all the time, only that they are no longer finding the pleasure they once enjoyed in each other’s company. They are feeling a loss of emotional connection and are slowly drifting apart. As insidious as it is, it’s what often happens when we fail to faithfully attend to our marriages. Remember, the greatest threat to the vitality of our love is not hatred, nor is it an angry conflict. Rather, it’s the spreading cancer of indifference. We simply lose interest in the relationship. It’s this loss, more than anything else, that renders us vulnerable to temptation.
What does God’s invitation to love in 1 Corinthians mean for us today? We have the same God of grace as Paul and his listeners had. We, too, are urged to be stalwart in our love and to emulate our Lord as grace-givers to our spouses, to our children, to our colleagues at work, and to our fellow believers at church. The powerful duo of agape and philos love beckons us, not only to eternal life but to better, more forgiving and tenderhearted relationships among one another here on earth.
It’s the only appropriate prelude to the happiness of spending eternity basking in the matchless love of our Savior.