What’s Love Got To Do With It? [Understanding the Distinction Between ‘Agape’ and ‘Philo’ Love]

Rev. Robert Fleischmann, National Director, Christian Life Resources


In July 1984 pop singer Tina Turner released a hit song, “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” It won a Grammy Award in 1985 and became the title of a 1993 movie about the life of Turner and her escape from an abusive relationship with her husband.

Although an important milestone in Turner’s career the song hardly carved out new territory in society’s misunderstood notion of love. Turner’s song called it “a second hand emotion.” Elton John wondered if you can “feel the love tonight.” Dolly Parton crooned that she would “always love you.”

Songs about love are really not about love at all, but rather about affection, longing, goose-bumpy types of emotional thrills at the thought of someone who means a lot to us. This love runs hot, it runs cold, it runs lukewarm. It brings tears of joy, tears of depression, screams of excitement and hollers of disappointment.

The Bible, however, speaks of love in two ways. There is the family and friend type of love. It is the word translated in the Greek language as “philo.”

You perhaps know it well from the city name, Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love.

The Bible addresses a “greater love” that uses an entirely different term than “philo.” That term is “agape.” A descriptive passage of love is found at John 15:13, Greater love [“agape”] has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

What is the difference? Unlike “philo” which can come and go like a casual friendship, “agape” is much more. Yes, it is a “greater” love but more than that it is love characterized by commitment. It is the commitment that prompted God to sacrifice His Son. It prompts someone to sacrifice his life for a friend.

This “agape” love is the greater love. It is characterized by commitment even when people are not so loveable. Don’t forget how God demonstrated “agape” love, But God demonstrates his own love [“agape”] for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

God is more than a friend or a loved one. He is the committed One. He is committed to saving us and protecting us. He is committed to the point of sacrificing the life of His own Son. Pretty incredible when one considers He did so “while we were still sinners.” In other words, He loved us while we were most unlovable.

Understanding this “agape” love is critical in understanding Biblical love as it relates to life and family issues. Let’s look at family issues for a moment.

A couple decides to get married. Why? Marriage is more than two people declaring love. Remember, that kind of love also exists among friends and other family members. Rather, in marriage the couple decides to make a commitment to each other. In the rite of Christian marriage each person commits to faithfulness and abiding care “as long as you both shall live” which is not subject to the mere whim of emotion and affection.

Read through Ephesians 5. There the Apostle Paul draws an analogy between the love that exists between a husband and wife and the love that exists between Christ and the church. The directive for husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church is a reference to “agape” love.

So when does marriage end if not by death? A classic discourse between a couple in a dissolving marriage is “I don’t love you any more.” That may be the sad truth. The “philo” type of love that is often rooted in emotion may have disappeared. Heartache, disappointment, and frustration may have turned an emotional high into an emotional low, and the “philo” type of marriage may be gone.

This, however, does not dissolve a marriage because the Christian marriage is not rooted in “philo” love but in “agape” love. That love is characterized by commitment, rooted in the promises made at the time of marriage.

Deserting a marriage or committing adultery are the ways a marriage is dissolved, not because of a breakdown of “philo” love but because of a breakdown in the commitment. Desertion and adultery represent a dissolution of the commitment or pledges made at marriage. “Agape” love is taught to us first by God who remained determined to care for us now and eternally despite the fact that we know our sins make us unworthy. God, however, is committed because of His own promise to send our Savior and to take care of our daily needs. A person can fall out of “philo” love but cannot walk away from “agape” love in marriage when it was rooted in promises. Promises are broken; they don’t dissipate like “philo” love.

This committed type of love profoundly affects life issues as well. As a person’s health diminishes so also may one’s “philo” love for them. That, however, does not change the “agape” love of commitment. It may be argued that a spouse no longer loves (“philo”) another spouse who is suffering from advanced dementia. That may be true, but the “agape” love of commitment still remains despite the changing nature of our emotions.

God’s love for all people is an “agape” love. It is a love that is consistent and enduring. It is a commitment that brings to culmination the hopes and faith of believers.

Consider the thoughts expressed in the great “love” chapter of the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13. It begins as follows:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

What kind of love is spoken of here? If we cling to love as nothing more than an emotion, then can we really say someone needs love to give speaking in tongues some pizzazz that it otherwise lacked? Can we really say a person has nothing if he or she lacks emotional love, even when there exists a faith that can move mountains? Doesn’t giving everything to the poor and a willingness to sacrifice sound like intense love to you? It is commitment to God and His will and His Word that provides meaning to tongue-speaking, mountain-moving, and sacrificing for others. This is not a “flash in the pan” kind of love. This passage points directly to “agape” love which is strong and committed from beginning to end.

Read on — it gets even more challenging:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

There is a lot of romantic charm in this section. Yet, the real point is easily missed. Love may be patient and kind, but those are characteristics of love — not definitions. Love is not envious, not boasting, not rude, not self-seeking, not easily angered, and not keeping a list of wrongs are all characteristics of true love (“agape”). But these descriptors are the result of “agape” love, not the definition of it. If this passage is a reference only to “philo” love it would be a fickle love indeed. No, this passage points to a far greater love as can best be seen in the final verses of the chapter:

Verse 8 says: “love never fails.” Then, verse 13 goes on to say that this love is greater than faith and hope. Think about it. Why are some people going to hell? It is because they do not have faith. Yet, we are told that love is greater? Why? It is because this love (“agape”) is rooted in commitment. Our hope is for eternal life. Our faith is in God who sent Jesus to win for it. Our commitment is the unwavering devotion we have to God so that no matter what obstacles we face we are committed to God. Our faith has conquered our passions. We don’t wait until we “feel” right about God. Our faith has created a resolve, a determination, a commitment, a perseverance, and a responsive love to God that sees things through to the end, always confident that God keeps His promises.

That is why between faith, hope, and love — love remains. When we see it through to the end we don’t need faith and hope because we have inherited the object of our faith and hope: eternal life and salvation through Christ. It is our commitment to God and our unyielding confidence in His providence that remains.

The Apostle Paul described his relationship with God as follows:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

This love is far more than just affection. This is “agape” love that perseveres throughout all challenges.

The world constantly wrestles with the meaning of true love. People look for it in great relationships in which everyone is happy. The true meaning of love, however, goes far deeper and translates into an unyielding commitment. God looks for us to have this commitment for Him, for our spouses, and for others who need consistent, committed, and determined love that does not fall prey to the changing nature of emotion.

What’s love got to do with it? The answer the world offers is predictably superficial. The answer from Scripture is clear. True love (“agape”) is a love unlike what we commonly see in this world. It is a love that lasts forever.


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