It's a common complaint. The cry of "why aren't Christians more loving?" can be heard from many quarters: atheists, those who are 'deconstructing' their faith, or from disillusioned Christians. Even Gandhi said, "your Christians are so unlike your Christ."
So what's the problem? Here are 6 reasons why Christians aren't more loving.
1) No-one's perfect? If you ask many Christians, the answer to this complaint is simple: "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23). In a nutshell, they might say, Christians are no different from anyone else – we all make mistakes and we're all imperfect. Similar responses are "we're all sinners" and "church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum of saints."
These statements are undoubtedly true. There is no perfect Christian. But if you look at it from the perspective of the outside world, it seems fair to ask why when Jesus said "love thy neighbour," we don't put more effort into it?
2) The negative stereotypes are sometimes unfair. Before I had spent much time in the church, I believed that Christians were awful and hypocritical. But when I look back, this was based on a stereotype rather than my own experience. I'd had little contact with Christians, and the little I had was mostly positive. Yet, from somewhere I'd picked up a very negative image. From paedophile priests, to conservative gun-toting Americans, to hypocritical Anglicans – I believe it was endless negative films and news coverage of the worst of the church that had given me this impression.
When I started attending church, there's no doubt there were dysfunctional people who weren't the best examples of Christ. Yet, there were a few who had a kind of love that I'd never seen before, and who genuinely sacrificed their lives on behalf of others. There were some genuinely happy and intact families, which was new to me.
My experience of churches is that however imperfect, most of them are a lot more loving than the world outside it. The book "Christians are hate-filled hypocrites, and other lies you've been told" gives statistics that back up my experience, and argues that our bad reputation is often undeserved.
Prejudice exists against all groups and Christians aren't exempt. Having said that, if you've had a bad encounter with one of the worst examples, then it's understandably harder to see the statistics.
3) Loving is hard. Having now had more than a decade of being a Christian, and therefore making attempts to become more loving and obey Jesus, I know it's not as easy as it looks. I started from a pretty low bar, and I had a lot to learn. As I went on the path of following Jesus, I found that there are an awful lot of obstacles in the way to genuinely loving people. I can say that I'm a more loving, accepting, honest person than I was before I became a Christian. However I still fail every day, and I'm aware there's a long way to go. Anyone who met me on a bad day - such as certain call centre workers, or some who've hurt me – could justifiably say I'm not loving enough.
Often, people don't realise the hurt they've caused other people, or if they're confronted, are too defensive to take responsibility. It's all part of the difficult journey to learn what love really looks like. Ultimately, we are all learning how to let God take charge, take away our character flaws, and fill us with His love.
4) Churches are always going to attract unloving people. Churches, being places that are deliberately trying to love and be open to all, are actually likely to attract much less loving people than the average. This is because unloving people are usually hard to love, and so don't find a welcome in many groups in society. They can be prickly, or just plain confused. Yet in church they sometimes (hopefully!) find acceptance, both from God and from the people, and so they stick around. However, these tricky customers don't always give a good impression. Our goal is to make a home for unloving people, and help each other on the road to growing in love as we learn more of God's love for us.
5) Church members can have ulterior motives. Unfortunately, there are people who are attracted to church, and even to leadership, for reasons other than wanting to follow Christ. Some use Christianity for entirely selfish purposes, such as cultivating a 'good image' in society. At the most devious, those who wish to abuse children might attend or seek leadership for their depraved motives.
There are also people at church who subconsciously have no real intention of following Christ, but find it meets other needs. For some, it's a social club, or a way to get their children into a good school.
Narcissism is a much commented on phenomenon in our culture, and it seems to be generating some particularly self-involved and uncaring people. When such people pretend to be 'Christian', it can cause a lot of damage. The children who observe their much-admired "Christian" parent put on a great act of kindness and respectability at church, only to see them go home and abuse their family, are observing a narcissist in action, and suffer greatly.
We never know where a person truly is in their relationship with Christ, so it's not fair to judge. But we're always going to have people in church who are not genuinely committed.
6) Who gets to define love? Some aspects of lovingness are cultural or personal choice. Some cultures have a high value placed on 'tough love' and so licentiousness would be seen as unloving, and stern warnings are given for perceived bad behaviour. However in most parts of Western culture, restricting or criticising others' lifestyles is seen as unloving. These are very different ways of viewing the world. The Bible gives some clear guidance and boundaries. But how it is played out in different cultures is open to interpretation to some extent.
One of the biggest divides in what is considered "loving" is political. For those on the left, voting for parties who give generous welfare benefits and welcome all migrants is loving. For those on the right, this would be unloving towards poorer taxpayers and those living in troubled communities – or even to the welfare recipients or migrants themselves. And while this is an essential discussion to have, many political Christians seem to have completely lost the ability to debate such issues without being uncharitable.
The nature of what love really looks like, and how to be more loving, are vital questions for a Christian. We need to talk about it more. However, first of all, we really need to learn how to love each other well, even when we disagree!