Perfect Love in Community
Commentary on 1 John 4: 17
In verse 17 John begins to deal with love at its highest, that is, “love [that] has been perfected.” Our immediate inclination is to understand this in terms of what John Wesley understood by being “perfected in love.” In Wesley’s usage, this meant that Christian perfection does not consist in not doing this or that, but simply in doing all things out of love. However, here the Epistle is not referring directly to such perfection. What the NRSV translates as “perfected” can also be translated as “reaching its goal.” It is not so much a matter of love being flawless, as we usually understand perfection, but rather of love being brought to its goal, producing its intended results, and in this sense being fulfilled or completed.
Significantly, in verse 17, as this love is brought to its ultimate goal, John does not say that this happens in us, but among us. There is no room here for the individualism that is so prevalent in our culture, and even in our understanding of Christianity. As has already been noted, this Epistle employs the plural “we” and “you”—in its plural form, as in “ye”—almost exclusively. The only uses of the singular “I” are those in which John refers to himself. Up to this point, however, the use of the plural “you” and “we” could be understood as simply a form of addressing individuals collectively. For instance, to say that God abides “in us” could mean that God abides in each believer. But to say that love has been perfected “among us” means that such perfection is attained only collectively.
The “beloved community” of which Martin Luther King and so many others have spoken so eloquently is not just a gathering of individuals who are beloved. While individuals are certainly loved, it is the community that is beloved, and its members are loved precisely as members of it. Thus, by affirming that the perfection or fulfillment of love takes place “among us,” John is making it clear that it is not a matter of each one of us being loved by God, and then coming together to express that love, but rather of our being part of a community that is beloved of God, and being loved precisely because we are part of this community.