Organic Discipleship - A Biblical Model for Love Relationships

Dennis McCallum

This model is loosely based on my notes from an approach to relationship taught in the 1970's by psychiatrist and former missionary, Dr. Ralph Ankenman. His approach has never been published to my knowledge, and I may have changed his material quite a bit at points.





The key to success in one's emotional life is expressing victorious, mature love output, rather than getting love input from others. In other words, no matter how those around us behave or treat us, we are always able to express love, and in non-clinical cases this should eventually result in improved emotional health. In this paper, we look for a biblical definition of love at its best.

Biblical Love Defined

As we argued in Organic Disciple Making, the biblical ideal of Christian love could be defined as:

"A commitment to, with God's power, give of myself in every area for the good of another."

While the general idea of caring about another, and seeking ways to give of myself for that person's well being is simple enough, we should also carefully consider four specific aspects mentioned in scripture as characterizing mature love relationships. To express biblical love at the highest level, these four aspects should all be present and balanced. The four aspects are:


We will examine each of these aspects in turn. Most people tend to have weaknesses in certain aspects more than others. But by creating strategies for change, you can help people strengthen their weak areas. As you read, consider whether your disciple might need work on any one of these aspects.

The Sacrificial Aspect

The sacrificial aspect of love is based on passages such as Mark 10:45 where Christ explains that "The Son of man did not come to be served but to serve." Here, positive servitude is seen as the example of Christ—complete willingness to give of one's self for the good of another. In John 15 Jesus says, "Greater love has no man than that he lay down his life for his friends." We see that Christ did live this way. But we must also see that he commanded believers to "love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12; 13:34).

Such servitude does not require that the other person even request help. Initiative in serving is an important component of Christ-like love because, although "no one seeks for God," we find that, "while we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly." (Rom. 5:6) Put differently in I Jn. 4:19, "We love because he first loved us." This means that the idea of positive servitude is an active, rather than a passive concept. The lover is not responding to love demands, he/she is seeking ways to serve and meet needs. Initiating love is part of our sacrifice.

Sacrificial initiative also means that biblical lovers won't complain that, "no one has called me on the phone," or that, "It's always me who has to do the asking," etc. To the Christ-like lover, initiative is always viewed as an opportunity, not as a burden. The creativity and work needed to come up with new ways to initiate love giving are part of the sacrifice of love.

Self-sacrifice means that I have waived all personal rights within a relationship. Christ certainly had basic human rights such as justice and equality. Yet these were voluntarily waived when he allowed himself to be crucified while innocent. We do not find Christ complaining that "It isn't fair" as the nails are driven into his hands. Mature Christ-like love, then, rejects the idea that "I have a right to be treated in such-and-such a way," and instead, has not only accepted the unfairness of life, but sees self-sacrifice as more important than fairness.

Fairness is still a useful concept to mature lovers, because some relationships should be governed by fairness rather than self-sacrifice. Examples might include business dealings, crime and punishment, and a just war. Most of these relationships are not love relationships, and deal more with social ethics (for government or institutions) than with individual ethics (for personal relationships).

Self-sacrificial servanthood is probably the most central theme in biblical ethics. When viewed from this perspective, we see that biblical love is not primarily a feeling of affection for another, although it is certainly compatible with affection. Instead, love is primarily the action of serving another (see John's definition of love in I John 3:17, where love is seen less as a feeling and more as an action). Such serving action can be rendered whether feelings of direct affection are present at the moment or not! Because giving love is a matter of willing commitment rather than the presence of a feeling, our definition of love begins with the phrase "commitment to give of one's self. . .."

The Forgiving Aspect of Love

Another implication of the imitation of Christ is the idea of forgiveness. Jesus emphasized the need to forgive others (Mt. 6:14,15; 18:21-35). Therefore, bitterness, remembering of wrongs and retributive acts are excluded from our understanding of authentic biblical love (I Cor. 13:5; Eph. 4:32).

God's insistence that we forgive others is based on the fact that he has forgiven us, and just as his forgiveness covers all sin, our forgiveness has to be complete and without exception (Col. 3:13 "Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you."). Therefore, Christians who relate to God on the basis of his forgiveness, while at the same time insisting on the right to refuse forgiveness to others, are fundamentally hypocritical. Stated positively, the recognition of our own sins and the depth of God's forgiveness provides motivation to voluntarily forgive others.

Unresolved anger and resentments involving current or past wrongs can be highly disruptive to relationships. Resentment and hate are terrifically draining emotionally, and these are sure to follow when we fail to forgive from the heart. The depression and hostility resulting from lack of forgiveness can manifest itself in other relationships as well as in our functional lives, rendering us unable to complete demanding tasks and reducing our reliability. We should also be clear that failure to forgive, and the resulting bitterness and resentment are all sin, according to the Bible.

The Disciplining Aspect of Love

However, forgiveness does not imply passivity in the face of evil. Practicing Discipline is also an important aspect of biblical love. According to many passages, real love includes the responsibility to discipline, admonish, rebuke, or oppose others for their own good (Mt. 18:11-14; Rom. 16:17; I Cor. 5:5-7; II Cor. 7:8-12; Gal. 6:1; Col. 1:28; 3:16; I Thess. 5:14; II Thess. 3:6,14; I Tim. 5:1,2; II Tim. 2:24-26; 3:16,17 Titus 1:13; Heb. 12:5-12; III Jn. 9,10; etc.). When dealing with Christians, we should be guided in the application of discipline by the desire and goal of seeing other's conformed to the image of Christ. Christians are also called to grow up to "the fullness of the stature of Christ" (Rom. 8:29; Eph. 13-15). When dealing with non Christians, we still have a basis for discipline, mainly focusing on general principles of relating which we can negotiate with others for the common good.

Discipline in love must be carefully differentiated from any principle of justice or fairness. The point in discipline in love is not to punish fairly for wrong-doing, but to help the other person change for the better. Therefore, the believer is free to be "unfair" in the sense that more grace may be shown than would be warranted by the other's attitude or actions. Likewise, different people can be treated differently even though their actions are identical. When practicing discipline in love, our focus is toward the future (seeking redemptive change), whereas the focus of justice is on the past (matching the punishment to the crime).

Discipline in love is never the product of an angry loss of self-control. Discipline is a carefully measured response to observed behavior or attitudes. Anger may be incorporated into a disciplinary discussion for the sake of emphasis. However, such anger would be an "anger without sin" (Eph. 4:26) because it is not a selfish reaction to the violation of one's personal rights. Like Jesus, who demonstrated anger when cleansing the temple, we may realize that some people will listen only when we demonstrate a certain level of indignation.

In our earlier definition of love, the disciplinary aspect can be seen in the phrase, "for another's good" rather than simply, "for another." This is because what another wants and what that person needs may be completely different.

The Emotional Aspect of Love

The emotional needs of other people are important as well as their practical needs. Therefore, true biblical love is committed to meeting legitimate emotional needs when possible and appropriate. If we serve others in a cold and unfeeling way, we are loving sub-biblically. The examples of Christ, who wept for the sheep of Israel who had no shepherd, and who wept at Lazarus' tomb, as well as the many examples of nurturing emotion found in the writings of Paul both demonstrate the importance of emotional encouragement, disclosure, empathy and compassion. Scripture calls on believers to be "kind and tender-hearted" and to speak words that edify (Eph. 4:29,32).

According to the biblical picture of love, our focus is not merely on trying to constantly feel strong sensations of affection, sorrow, or ecstasy for another. Rather, our focus is on expressing these emotions based on the truth. Thus, emotional expression can and should go beyond the immediate feeling of the one expressing it. The larger context of the relationship may dictate that I express affection and care, even when I do not feel spontaneously compelled to do so. Such expression would not be manipulation or dishonesty, because what I express is actually true, and because I am expressing it in order to give, not to take. In fact, expressing nurturing emotion often more truly reflects the truth about a relationship than would a lack of such expression.

In theory, as we learn to express emotions, the present experience of those feelings becomes more frequent and real. As in other areas life, believers can find their feelings coming into line with what they know to be true. The emotional aspect of giving in love is expressed in our earlier definition by the phrase, ". . .in every area. . .." This phrase is important for those who would give in other areas, but who would not easily give emotionally.

Those who are already strongly emotional may need to consider how they express emotions as well. Negative emotional expressions should be controlled. If we feel justified in "venting" our feelings, even though they are unedifying or even destructive to others, we are practicing a selfish form of love alien to the Bible. Likewise, if we demand that others express certain emotions in certain ways we violate the concept of sacrificial love mentioned above. These are love demands, which are antithetical to the notion of self-giving.

On the other hand, we might find it appropriate to take loved ones to task for their lack of emotional expression, but only if such confrontation is for his own good. Anyone who cannot express caring emotion has a problem with will inhibit relationships. Therefore as seen earlier, we may be moved by the principle of discipline in love to approach others with their need to change lest their own relationship (perhaps including the ones with us) suffer.

Deficiency patterns in love: "Love Spheres"-- Who We Love

When helping people to relate maturely, we can refer to "love spheres." Love spheres refer to our patterns of choices regarding whom to love. Two terms are used to describe this area: the Tribal love sphere, and the Diffuse love sphere.

The Tribal Love Sphere

Some people form relatively few relationships and remain in those relationships as long as possible, even if they are destructive. Such people usually selfishly cling to old relationships because they find the process of building new relationships burdensome or even frightening. In extreme (though not unusual) cases, some people's circle of relationships is no larger than the nuclear family.

This type of relational pattern is could be called tribalistic. The term tribalistic comes from oral cultures where members of other tribes are often viewed as sub-human. Tribes commonly use the same word for both the name of their tribe and for "human being." When people look at the world this way, they have little interest in relating to members of other tribes on a personal level. Relationships with outsiders are usually limited to a very superficial level involving business or diplomacy.

Many Westerners demonstrate the same mentality, defining their family as their "tribe." Relationships with those outside the tribe are neither sought nor welcomed, except on a very superficial level. People outside the tribe are treated virtually like symbols rather than actual people. Meanwhile, relationships within the tribe are expected to completely meet all relational needs. Such expectations are really love demands, and other family members may feel burdened and suffocated because they can never fulfill such demands.

When tribalistic people need to form new relationships (perhaps because one's tribe is gone), this presents a serious problem. Overly tribalistic people will have difficulty forming new relationships, reaching out to the lost with God's love, using their gifts in ministry, and valuing people outside the tribe.

When we try to help people relate maturely, we realize some people naturally lean toward a tribalistic pattern of relating. Strangely, we observe that narrowness in relational life is often connected to a general narrowness or rigidity in most areas of life. Tribalism in non-relational areas of life is called "functional tribalism." The functionally tribalistic person derives a sense of security from "sameness." Even though the status quo may not be particularly satisfying, it's better than changing to something new. Therefore, tribalistic people tend to live with a great deal of routine in their lives. The same schedule every week and every day will tend to be comforting to the tribalistic person, while not knowing what is going to happen next causes anxiety. The diffuse person (see below) would feel trapped by the same routine that makes tribal people feel secure. For functionally tribal people, messiness is very disturbing, while a diffuse person often has no problem with messiness. This characteristic rigidity may extend into all areas of life, reflecting a desire for structure and predictability. The tribalist's insistence on a strict routine may interfere with the need to adapt to new conditions at work or elsewhere. In extreme cases, the tribalist may eventually lose the ability to function in any but one way.

This desire for predictability may lead to a form of relating based on controlling loved ones. The tribal person may interpret another's submission to their control as love. Yet, as the love feelings resulting from control of, let's say, the other's schedule wears off, the tribal lover feels the need to exert further control in other areas just to keep up the same feelings. Those who love tribalists may end up jumping through incredible hoops to avoid punishment.

In marriage, this desire for control may also result in a variety of sexual dysfunctions. These could range from the need to have sex in only one way, to complete frigidity or impotence when the person feels unable to enter into an intimate, yet uncontrollable situation requiring improvisation and vulnerability. Paradoxically, some tribalists may come to interpret their spouses agreeing to sex as submitting to control. They then may begin to constantly demand sex as a sign of love.

Control is a key word for understanding the tribalistic love sphere. Extreme tribalists often develop control-related neuroses. Various phobic complexes can result from the inability of the tribalist to control some aspects of the environment. Anxiety can come to play an increasing role as the tribalist worries that he/she may lose control of the situation or of the future.

Family members who realize that they are expected to meet all of the tribalist's needs often feel repelled. Ironically, tribalists often end up with quite alienated relationships even within their own tribe. The in-grown environment breeds relational ill-health, in-fighting, and simmering resentments. Hysterical episodes sometimes afflict extreme tribalists who feel they are losing control.

The Diffuse Love Sphere

The diffuse person is the opposite of the tribalistic. Diffuse people demonstrate a tendency to become quickly involved in a new relationship, and to immediately feel "close." However, they typically fail to invest sufficiently in the relationship especially after the initial enthusiasm wears off. Relationships tend to become "boring." As relational problems arise, the diffuse person often finds it easier to form a relationship with someone else than to resolve problems in existing relationships. Of course, even tribalistic people may decide to form new relationships in some cases, but the diffuse do so much more often. The result is usually a series of superficial relationships. In extreme cases, diffuse people may never actually form any relationships at all. They may simply meet people and interact on a sub-relational level, seeking stimulation which they interpret as love.

Just as the tribalistic individual desires structure and control in life, the diffuse person desires stimulation and freedom. Lack of stimulation leads to boredom, restlessness and often resentment toward loved ones. Diffuse people may find stimulation in either the functional area (video games or job changes) or in the relational area (moving from one romance to another).

Present Love Feelings vs. Permanent Love Values

When working with people to achieve balance and maturity in their relational lives, we may refer to the stimulation sought by diffuse people as "present love feelings." Diffuse people falsely believe that the cravings within, such as the need for drug intoxication or public acclaim, will lead to happiness. But we know that they really long for present love feelings--the present sense of being loved. Present love feelings are evident when teenagers "fall in love." Such feelings are tangible sensations of excitement which generally cannot be maintained over a long period of time. To the diffuse person, present love feelings are love. Anything else is an unsatisfying imitation of the real thing.

Tribalistic people appreciate a different type of love feeling referred to as "permanent love values." The sense of security and relaxation that some people feel when sitting around their parent's or their own house in a familiar chair, with family members around them, are examples of permanent love values. Although we experience little sense of excitement associated with such love values, and often little overt emotional response at all, tribalistic people find such situations very attractive.

As diffuse people pursue present love feelings, they may develop assorted emotional disorders. Typical types of disorders are drug addiction, alcoholism, obesity, and inability to succeed at a job, finish school or complete other complex tasks. This is because the failure to build deep relationships results in a sense of boredom, emptiness. or void which demands solution. The diffuse person typically reacts to such feelings by seeking stimulation. The particular type of stimulation sought may vary, but any satisfaction derived thereby will be only temporary. Diffuse people who turn to intoxicants for stimulation will take more and more in an effort to achieve the same temporary level of excitement, often resulting in addiction.

In marriage, a diffuse people may refuse to invest in a relationship now considered "old hat." Diffuse spouses may struggle with constant feelings of dissatisfaction in the marital sexual relationship because it isn't as stimulating as other immoral relationships, or even as the married relationship was at the beginning. Divorce is very common among diffuse people for the obvious reason that their spouses are dissatisfied with the level of involvement in the marriage, and/or the diffuse one becomes convinced that another person would be more rewarding than the present spouse. Diffuse people are prime candidates for adultery. Their spouses often complain that they are never home.

Balanced Love Spheres

When helping people learn how to love maturely, our goal in the area of love spheres is neither to eliminate tribalistic or diffuse tendencies, but to achieve a relative balance between them. A mature biblical lover should be able to build deeply within a tribal framework, while retaining both the ability and the desire to establish new relationships and care for those outside the tribe.

The scriptural mandate for such a balance is clear. Jesus critiques extreme tribalists in Matthew 5:46, where he rejects the idea of "loving only them that love you." This is sub-biblical selfishness because it ignores the needs of those outside one's family or affinity group. Likewise, the Pharisees' attempt to evade responsibility to love outsiders was rebuked by the example of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). All of the passages that call for outreach to the lost (cf. Matthew 28:19) are also, by implication, against excessive tribalism.

Excessive diffuseness would be antithetical to the biblical call for deep love relationships, such as Eph. 5:25-29. The principle of "remaining in that condition in which you were called,"(I Cor. 7:20) is antithetical to excessive diffuseness also. Stimulation is a poor substitute for real love.

Balance can be enhanced by two means: 1) Learning to appreciate the missing love sphere, and 2) Recognizing and limiting excesses in the preferred love sphere. We will consider practical ideas for both of these later.

When dealing with love spheres, we may encounter a confusing twist, especially with men. Some people are functionally tribalistic, and relationally diffuse. Others are relationally tribalistic, and functionally diffuse (although this is more rare). In the first case, the man will be a rigid, dominating family man, but also may have an occasional affair with his secretary. The functionally diffuse will have no interest in new relationships, but continually begins new hobbies, sports, or maintain a gambling habit for stimulation.

Some people are already relatively balanced in the area of love spheres. These people's problems are likely in other areas, such as failure to give in all areas, or failure to forgive or discipline.

Applying the concepts in this model

When trying to help people grow in true, biblical love we usually follow a progression:

  1. First helpers must spend time understanding the tensions and pain in their friends' lives During this process, you should "invest" relationally because the resulting love feelings will be a key motivator in change.
  2. Next you help your friend develop a theoretical and doctrinal understanding of his problems and of biblical ideals in the relational area. Attempting to change others without them understanding and agreeing to the goals involved usually amounts to manipulation rather than biblical instruction and admonition.
  3. Finally, if you can persuade your friend to take appropriate action (often involving relational activities in community) it could provide an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to bring in permanent change.

For instance, a friend who is unbalanced on the tribal-diffuse continuum should engage in activity that will tend to strengthen the opposite value. So, the person who is diffuse and addicted to stimulation (or present love feelings) may need to spend measured periods of time during the week in a situation involving routine, low stimulation (but not unimportant) work, and/or permanent love values. He may need to try building a lasting relationship with another, and learn how to resolve problems, persist in giving, and not move on to an easier, diffuse relationship.

Depending on the level of tolerance already present, the period of time may have to be quite short and infrequent at first. The helper may have to accompany his friend in this activity to insure that there is no faking, and to make it easier. For example, it may be that the diffuse person does not know how to spend even one hour studying without talking or doing something else. You should be willing to join your friend for an evening combining a period of quiet study with a period of social stimulation afterward.

A wise discipler should seek to assure that there are tangible rewards to such activity. If diffuse people are convinced of the rightness of discipline and consistency in their lives, and they see valuable rewards coming from investing in low-stimulation activity, they will likely build more affinity for such activity, and be able to branch out into other, similar areas. Eventually, tangible rewards may become unnecessary as your friend begins to enjoy a disciplined way of life and the fruit that naturally flows from it. However, it would be easy to underestimate the amount of time needed for such a transition. Careful and patient work is called for in effecting lasting change in these patterns of living.

In a similar approach, you could teach permanent love values through a combination of counseling, teaching, and practice. A married couple with one or both partners exhibiting diffuse imbalance, (a poorly developed appreciation for permanent love values) may be asked to practice a carefully structured evening of involvement.

Since the goal of the evening is to develop habits in the area of tribalistic love values, the environment should be relatively controlled. There should be no interruptions from outsiders, which usually means the phone should be off the hook. If the couple have children, the evening might be partly devoted to family tribal activity including the children. They could prepare special dinners, and tell stories, or other activities that are not rich in stimulation, but are rich in family "togetherness" values. After the children go to bed, the couple should engage in a period of interaction that you plan beforehand.

Since such couples have often lost the ability to talk to each other, or may never have developed it in the first place, specific plans are usually necessary. Some men may have little idea how to initiate and sustain a conversation that make their wives feel loved. Here you may have to suggest the specific types of questions that would lead to a constructive period of communication. Typical questions that might bear fruit could include:

"How have you been feeling this week?"

"Why do you think you have been feeling that way?"

"How have I made you feel this week?" "Why?"

We can anticipate that a relationally weak man will find it very difficult to ask these questions and carefully listen to the answers. Of course many kinds of discussions could lead to understanding and love feelings on the part both spouses. Sometimes, the wife may be urged to spend some time working with a husband who interprets working together as love, or engaging in other activity that he interprets as "fun" (i. e. love feelings).

These examples should suggest how you can creatively match an understanding of relational deficiencies with creative projects devised in advance. Many other types of projects can be used depending on the situation. For instance, single people can be urged to relate more deeply with roommates.

If you use care in developing a progression of projects, your disciple should gain substantial relational experience focused at the area of his/her weakness. Although we will realistically never see a complete change of personality, and weaknesses will always remain, sometimes even minor movement in these areas leads to considerable relief in troubled people's lives. Disciples should be urged to build life-long habits along the lines of healthy relational patterns in precisely the areas they are weakest. Walking Christians who succeed in this long-term outcome report remarkable relational improvement.