“Neighbor love,” “loving one’s neighbor,” and “love for one’s neighbor” are everywhere in Christian discourse about social ethics. How could they not be? The principle comes from our Lord Jesus Christ in such places as Matthew 19:19 and 22:37–39, Mark 12:30–31, and Luke 6:31. 

Last year, I wrote a long-form essay explaining the moral logic of loving one’s neighbor and what such a principle entails. The general thrust of my argument then was that loving one’s neighbor is a principle that calls us to will the good of others. In our interactions with others and in society, we are to cultivate flourishing and not privation. It might as well be the equivalent of Aquinas’s first principle of practical reason applied to social ethics. We should seek to do no harm to others. It is both a scriptural principle and a natural law principle. 

But crucially, it is just that—a principle. On its face, it is not a policy prescription. If you survey its use in contemporary Christian ethics, however, it is used to justify virtually whatever policy preference one wants justified. If not carefully weighed and considered, it easily becomes a wax nose that can be shaped in whatever way one wants to get the outcomes one prefers. 

Consider the ways that loving one’s neighbor can be invoked: in defense of COVID-19 quarantines, same-sex marriage, LGBT rights, paying taxes, public healthcare, wearing masks, thriftiness, gun control, environmentalism, and, yes, eating vegetables. A simple Google search shows how far this logic goes. 

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You get the point: “Love of neighbor” is an ad-lib or choose-your-own-adventure approach to Christian ethics. Take one’s desired outcome and reason backward from it under the supposition that loving one’s neighbor requires unfettered support for the cause at hand and, voilà, all ethical deliberation is complete. 

Confusion over this matter stems from confusion over the Bible’s moral language. 

In the Bible, there are moral “genres.” There are clear moral rules, like “do not murder.” A rule has a fairly clear application that offers specificity. There are also moral paradigms, like the Good Samaritan. A paradigm offers an exemplary template one should replicate or embody. Then there are moral principles. A principle is like the glow of a candle. The burning wick is the clearly stated principle while the glow emanating from the wick illuminates in all directions. A principle does not dictate an outcome, but rather informs the moral deliberation around it. 

Here’s the problem with the sort of moral analysis that comes with ceaseless invocations of “love of neighbor”: it confuses a general moral principle for a specific applied outcome. Its temptation is seen most frequently in confusing a moral principle for a moral rule. 

Love for one’s neighbor should, of course, undergird all Christian ethical decision-making. But love for one’s neighbor is a principle. It should motivate us to care for our neighbors but does not specify, by itself, what the care looks like. It does not give us guidance on precise applications of what actions are required to love one’s neighbor (even if some actions are clearly incompatible with loving one’s neighbor). It offers a framework by which to evaluate the rationale for one’s actions. As I said, some actions are clearly prohibited by this principle. For example, I see no way to reconcile loving one’s neighbor with allowing for their termination through abortion. 

Let’s take another example we saw on repeat in recent history: loving one’s neighbor means taking, and encouraging others to take, the COVID-19 vaccine.  

Allow me to lay the critique I’m making on others to myself.  

In December 2020, I co-wrote an essay in these pages about why love for one’s neighbor should lead one to take the COVID-19 vaccine.  

Upon reflection, I now regret making the argument in the manner that I did, for all the reasons I have cited above—I went farther in applying the principle than what the Bible specifically calls for. I now think I was wrong, though well-motivated in my wrongness. 

Consider alternative perspectives: others could refuse to take the vaccine and invoke loving one’s neighbor. For example, it is reasonable to conclude that one could love one’s neighbor by not participating or encouraging others’ participation in a vaccine regime they believe was unsafe, rushed to market, or was complicit in some evil. That’s not my position, but it is a reasonable concern. However, my argument could be read that an individual was unloving if one did not take the vaccine. I genuinely regret that and apologize for my error. 

The article made allowances for conscience freedom for those who did want to take the vaccine, but it saddled the consciences of those refusing to take the vaccine with the burden of justifying their refusal. This was unfair and done under a “love of one’s neighbor” principle. 

I want to be clear about what I am, and am not, apologizing for: I do not regret recommending the vaccine. I remain convinced that taking the vaccine lessened the severity of COVID in affected patients. I do not regret the essay’s analysis concerning the vaccine’s safety, efficacy, complicity, and compliance. I regret only the “love of neighbor” element to our argument.  

I also want to be clear that I am not condemning my co-authors, both of whom I esteem and respect immensely. They are free to make the argument they believe they should make. They are free to disagree with the argument I am making right now. My conscience, however, has brought me to the conclusion for which I write. 

The Christian should wake up every day with the full intention to order his whole life to love others in both a general and particular sense.


I regret invoking the love for one’s neighbor as one of the motives for taking the COVID-19 vaccine. I prioritize intellectual honesty and intellectual consistency. My views on this have changed upon reflection. When I err publicly, I need to correct my error publicly. 

My error in this situation has led me to broadly rethink how evangelicals invoke this principle for public ethics. Here is my conclusion: we need more restraint when appealing to the love of one’s neighbor when supporting our causes. I am not calling for us to have less concern for loving one’s neighbor. I am calling for us to have greater restraint in exercising certainty that love for neighbor necessarily entails support for one’s particular cause. 

Without more restraint, more abuse is possible. We also need to consider in any moral event how someone’s understanding of love for neighbor could lead them to a different conclusion than your own. 

For example, I could justify supply-side economics and consumption taxes in the name of loving one’s neighbor if I really wanted to do so. After all, is it not more loving to have a lower unemployment rate, which I think supply-side economics better achieves? Is not a lower tax rate more loving to one’s family budget than regimes with income taxes that are typically much higher? Is it not more loving to insist one own the fruits of his own labor instead of surrendering a portion to the government by the threat of force? A person who supports wealth redistribution could also argue that material relief for the poor is evidence of loving one’s neighbor. Who, then, is right? Who is wrong? Who has loved their neighbor the best or least? 

This logic, when extended, can reach morally ambiguous and disturbing ends. If you wanted me to, I could justify dropping the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki under the “love your neighbor” rubric. One could argue that it’s more loving to my neighbor by preventing millions from dying in a land invasion of Japan.

And herein is the problem. To justify supply-side economics and consumption taxes is biblically attenuated. It stretches biblical principles beyond recognition. I could make arguments for both from the Bible, but my stridency in making such arguments is less clear than the Bible’s opposition to abortion. To be clear: I prefer supply-side economics and consumption taxes. I may think the Christian who disagrees with me is wrong, but they are not sinning or unloving.  

Now, I can imagine the critic reading this piece and saying, “Well, how expected and callous it is that some conservative Christian is seeking to diminish the command to love one’s neighbor or to narrow its application.” 

But no such thing is in view whatsoever. The Christian should wake up every day with the full intention to order his whole life to love others in both a general and particular sense. 

Loving one’s neighbor is a moral imperative. How best to do so, however, is more complex than just recklessly citing this principle as immediate justification. All my point amounts to is a plea for caution. 

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