Excerpt from the book, “The Utopia of a Strange Love: When the Love of God is Mishandled” by Tavares D. Robinson, Watchman Publishing
The Agape Deception
“God’s love for me is agape, and it is unconditional.” This phrase has been used so repeatedly among believers that to speak anything contrary is like signing one’s own death warrant. Men whom we have admired throughout the ages have written books and preached sermons on the love of God which have shaped and developed our views concerning this subject. What are some of the things that we have learned? From such men, we have learned that there are four levels of love: eros, storge, phileo, and agape. Eros is love that extends from the heart, and it is romantic in type. Storge is the kind of love that is founded on family loyalty and duty. Phileo is brotherly love; it is humanity’s love for one another and the lesser form of love when compared to agape. Lastly, there is agape love. We have been taught that this is the highest form of love—the type that only Christians can exhibit as it is selfless, divine, and unconditional. But is agape really unconditional? Is agape divine love? Is phileo the lesser love?
In this chapter, we will look at agape and phileo, due to the frequency of their use today. As stated, agape has been commonly taught as divine and unconditional love, while phileo is a lesser form of agape—brotherly love. How did the concept of unconditional love originate? Before we move forward, I believe it’s important that we first define unconditional love. The dictionary says, “It is the acceptance of a person without them meeting any conditions. Affection that has no limitation. To cherish someone regardless of their character.” Is this what the Bible teaches? Clearly not. Does God extend His love toward all mankind without partiality? Yes. John 3:16 states that “for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” But to define it as unconditional is misleading and eternally dangerous.
“Unconditional love” has never been a biblical concept. It was first coined by a German psychoanalyst named Erich Fromm in 1934. The idea was further developed in his successful 1956 book, The Art of Loving. Fromm rejected all forms of authoritarian government including God’s. He viewed the God of the Old Testament as a self-seeking authoritarian. He was a vowed atheist who vehemently argued against the teachings of the Christian faith. He believed that man is the measure of all things. He taught that a person must love himself, accept himself, and esteem himself in order to reach his highest potential. He believed that a father’s love was always conditional—while a mother’s was unconditional and couldn’t be forfeited by sins or transgression. His ideas were later refined in the 1960s by a famous humanist psychologist named Carl Rogers.
Rogers’ parents were devout Protestants, and he enrolled in seminary school but later dropped out and abandoned Christianity for New Age mysticism. Rogers, skilled in the Greek language, defined agape as unconditional, but termed it “unconditional positive regard.” It is the basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does. It is to always approve someone by setting aside your personal opinions and biases. It is the ability to isolate behaviors from the person who displays them. Does this sound familiar? How many times have you heard someone say, “God loves the sinner but hates the sin”? Is this biblical? Yes and no. If you are making reference to His love for the sinner in that He gave His Son for the sake of redemption, then yes. But if it’s used to justify and accept wayward behavior without accountability, then no. You cannot separate sinners from their sins. What made them a sinner is their sin. God does not cast the sin into the lake of fire. He will cast the person who died in their sin into the fire.
This view of agape is contrary to apostolic teachings. It is humanistic psychology which is the workings of seducing spirits influencing the wisdom of men. Paul warned the church at Colossae concerning this issue: “And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him. Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness. Don’t let anyone lead you away with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ” (Col 2: 6-8).
As stated previously, phileo is a type of love that has also been distorted in our time. It is said that phileo is shared mostly by the worldly and unregenerate. The words agape and phileo have become something like urban legends, anecdotes based on hearsay and widely circulated as true. In the church, many things have been said about these terms that are untrue. Whereas phileo has been taught as brotherly love, it has also been taught that only those who are not Christians express it. In that way, it is a lesser form of love than agape. Yet some Bible texts teach otherwise:
For the Father loves [phileo] the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed (John 5: 20).
So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love [phileo] is sick” (John 11: 3).
Then the Jews said, “See how he loved [phileo] him!” (John 11: 36).
No, the Father himself loves [phileo] you because you have loved [phileo] me and have believed that I came from God (John 16: 27).
So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved [phileo], and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (John 20: 2).
If anyone does not love [phileo] the Lord, let that person be cursed! (1 Cor. 16: 22).
Those whom I love [phileo] I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent (Rev. 3: 19).
These scripture verses and others clearly show us we have been taught a distorted view of phileo. Yet even greater damage has been done to agape. We have been led to believe that agape is God’s divine love. And because it is divine, we have been told it is unconditional and never ceases. First John 4 has been used to convince the masses that this is absolutely the meaning of agape:
Dear friends, let us love [agape] one another, for love [agape] comes from God. Everyone who loves [agape] has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love [agape] does not know God, because God is love [agape] (1 John 4: 7-8).
These verses use agape in reference to God five times. If this reference could be taken alone, we could indeed hold that agape means divine love. But what is missing is correlation. How does 1 John 4:7-8 correlate with other texts referencing agape? It is highly important for us to learn this principle. Imposters and deceivers will steadily increase as we approach the return of our Lord, and Peter left some weighty words on this in his second Epistle to the church:
And so, dear friends, while you are waiting for these things to happen, make every effort to be found living peaceful lives that are pure and blameless in his sight. And remember, our Lord’s patience gives people time to be saved. This is what our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him—speaking of these things in all of his letters. Some of his comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture. And this will result in their destruction. You already know these things, dear friends. So be on guard; then you will not be carried away by the errors of these wicked people and lose your own secure footing. Rather, you must grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. All glory to him, both now and forever! Amen (2 Pet. 3: 14-18 NLT).
Other verses besides 1 John 4: 7-8 show us that agape can mean different things than divine love or unconditional love:
Woe to you Pharisees, because you love [agape] the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces. (Luke 11: 43)
No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love [agape] the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (Luke 16: 13)
This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved [agape] darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. (John 3: 19) . . .
for they loved [agape] human praise more than praise from God. (John 12: 43)
Demas, because he loved [agape] this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. (2 Tim. 4: 10)
They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Bezer, who loved [agape] the wages of wickedness. (2 Pet. 2: 15)
Do not love [agape] the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves [agape] the world, love [agape] for the Father is not in them. (1 John 2: 15)
Paul Prophesied These Days Would Come
In the previous verses in which all of them use a form of agape, it is impossible to translate agape as divine love or love from God. Is it divine love that we love money or human praise? Is it the love of God that men desire darkness? Is it really God’s love that we love the world—or seats in the synagogues? In 2 Samuel 13 there is the story about Amnon having love for his sister, Tamar. In the Septuagint, the translation of the Old Testament into Greek, the word used four times to describe Amnon’s love for Tamar is translated agape. Verses 14-15 say, “But he refused to listen to her, and since he was stronger than she, he raped her. Then Amnon hated her with intense hatred. In fact, he hated her more than he had loved her. Amnon said to her, ‘Get up and get out.’” If agape means God’s love, or divine love, how could it lead to rape?
If the scripture text does not fit, the teaching or doctrine is not legit! Do men love darkness unconditionally? Did Demas love the world in a divine way? Do people have a God kind of love for money? People love darkness, the world, human praise, and money because these things bring them something back in return. They certainly don’t love them unconditionally.
We can use the same vocabulary, but if our vocabulary has the wrong definition, we will worship another Jesus. Paul warned that “if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough” (2 Cor. 11: 4). J. C. Ryle (1816–1900), the first Anglican bishop of Liverpool, wrote, “There is a quantity of half-truth taught by the modern false teachers: they are incessantly using Scriptural terms and phrases in an unscriptural sense.”
Why does Satan work to convince the church that God’s love is unconditional? It is in order to promote lives of disobedience, to remove the fear of God, and to strip away the belief of God’s wrath. The enemy ultimately desires us to nullify Jesus’ death on the cross. If I am convinced God’s love is unconditional, I can pick and choose what scripture to obey. There is no reason why I should repent and be converted. I can live my life to please myself, and I can live without conviction. Why would God require a Lord-and-slave relationship?
To summarize, phileo means to cherish, to be fond of, to take strong delight in, or to like well. The word is associated with intense endearment, although brotherly love and unregenerate love is a stretch. Paul’s closing remarks to the Christians in Corinth should make us rethink the idea that phileo is a lesser love: “If anyone does not love the Lord, let that person be cursed!” (1 Cor. 16: 22). Agape, on the other hand, means to esteem, to honor, to value, or to respect. Agape represents devoted love for someone or something. Agape love is an act of the will, not the emotions, and it should not be defined as “divine love” or the “God kind of love.” According to the scriptures, agape is not always unconditional. God functions in both phileo and agape types of love. It is vital we divorce ourselves from erroneous teachings concerning God’s love.