The Church and Summum bonum

Summum BonumRecently, the term summum bonum was brought to my attention. The phrase is a Latin expression meaning, “the highest good” and is used to designate what is of ultimate importance in life.

Jesus spoke to this in Matthew 22:36-40 when he identified two commands that comprise the greatest good. We are to love God with our entire being and love our neighbor as ourselves. The highest good, the summum bonum is love.

The question that comes to mind is whether an outsider that visits my church quickly perceives that love is the summum bonum of the group. I have been in many churches that would agree that the two great commands are the highest good, but struggled to live that out.

In actuality, other things can usurp the place that the great commands should have in our life and worship. For example, I have seen the following “goods” take the place of love:

  • Doctrinal correctness
  • Adherence to a set of rules
  • Loyalty to a particular Bible translation
  • Loyalty to a particular worship style
  • Material prosperity
  • Social standing

I’m sure that my readers could add to the list (feel free to do so in the comment section below).

My intention is not to point fingers or to present myself as above all this, because I am not. In my own life, I struggle to “keep the main thing the main thing.” While it is easy to understand that love of God and love of neighbor are the highest good, it is difficult to live this out.

When a visitor comes to your church, what would they perceive is the summum bonum of your group? Does the visitor feel loved? Does the visitor see the work of God in the lives of the congregants?

If the real summum bonum of the church is anything other than love, the only proper response is repentance. Jesus told the church in Ephesus:

“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Revelation 2:4–5, ESV)

The point is that since it is easy to get off track, as individuals and in our church groups, we must be intentional about seeking to live out the two great commands. If those who visit our churches perceive that we hold love as the highest ideal, even when we fail to live it out, then we have something attractive to offer.

The Apostle John tells us that we love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). When we understand the Gospel, when we understand that God loves us despite our rebellion and failures, when we understand and accept the forgiveness made possible by Jesus, that understanding should impact how we interact with each other.

In short, when we respond in love to those around us, we are modeling how Jesus responded to everyone. By loving others, we point to Jesus, the author of love. That is the highest good that we can offer.