Loving Your Neighbor Might
Not Mean What You Think It Means
by Stuart DiNenno
“Love your neighbor as yourself” sounds like a simple teaching to understand, does it not? Yet many Christians have an understanding of this principle that actually negates it.
It is important to understand that Christ’s doctrine to “love your neighbor as yourself” cannot be separated from His doctrine “as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise”, as the former describes the principle and the latter describes the proper way of applying the principle. How are we to love our neighbors as ourselves? By doing unto them as we would have done to us.
Of course, everyone understands “love your neighbor as yourself” because we all naturally love ourselves. “no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it.” We are all actuated by a principle of self-love and so it is easy for us to understand that we are to have a similar love for others. But every Christian knows that putting this simple doctrine into practice is not so easy, and it does no good to merely understand the precept if one does not also understand how to properly put it into action. And there is certainly much confusion regarding the application of it. A common misinterpretation of “as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” is that this means we are to treat others as if they were us; but in fact it means the opposite: we are to treat others as we would expect to be treated if we were them. This distinction is very important because it requires that we consider their circumstances, dispositions, and actions rather than just treat them as if they are clones of ourselves. The question we ought to ask ourselves when determining how we should act toward others is not “How would I want to be treated if it were me in this man’s situation?” but rather “How would I expect to be treated if I were this man in this situation?” And the reader should note that it is not how we want to be treated but how we ought to expect to be treated. Men often want something that they have no right to expect, but we have no obligation to give it to them and, in fact, may have a duty to deny them of that which they desire, if what they desire is harmful to themselves or others.
A case in point is a faithful Christian in a position of authority having to deal with a man who is a hardened anti-Christ and is doing things that are highly destructive to the peace and welfare of family, church, and nation. Is the Christian to treat this evildoer as if he were like himself — that is, another faithful Christian? Certainly not. He is to treat the man according to what he is — an enemy of God. And he is to treat the man according to biblical principles of justice, which he should also expect to be applied to himself if he were of the same anti-Christ mind and doing the same malevolent things. The proper question for a Christian to ask himself when determining how to treat such a man is not, “How can I treat this man as if he were me?” but “What treatment would I expect to receive, if I were an enemy of God and His church doing these same destructive things?” To do the former is to foolishly pretend that the man is something other than what he is, and if that results in him continuing unhindered in his evil, then it is to be a partaker in his sins.
And even among equals, meaning our fellow Christians, we do not have the obligation to treat them as if they were us standing in our shoes. Rather, we must treat them as we would expect to be treated if we were them standing in their shoes. An example of this is in an incident on Facebook where I recently had someone chastise me for removing his comment from below a post of mine on my own page. This man claimed that I had done him wrong because I didn’t give him a chance to express his opinion on a certain biblical matter and he pointed out that I also wouldn’t be pleased if someone had not given me that same opportunity elsewhere. Because of this, he accused me of breaking the Golden Rule of doing unto others as we would have done to ourselves. But this is a misapplication of the principle expressed in The Golden Rule, and the fact that I might have been similarly displeased if someone had censored me likewise, though quite possibly true, is irrelevant. I, being the owner of the page, have an exclusive right to determine which comments on it are beneficial and which are not. If I believe a comment is erroneous and going to bring contention to the discussion, which was the case, then I am certainly within my rights to delete it. The proper application of The Golden Rule in this matter is to allow others to have that same right regarding comments on their own pages and to expect them to also censor comments they believe to be erroneous and likely to bring contention to the discussion. But this principle does not require me to allow the posting of any Christian’s comments on my page without exception, as if he were me.
In summary, “doing unto others as you would have done to yourself” does not mean that we are required to extend the same rights to all men as if they were us under our circumstances; it requires that we empathetically put ourselves into the place of others and treat them according to the way we would expect to be treated if we were them under their circumstances.