What's the Difference Between Love & Charity in the New Testament?


Every now and again I thumb through my copy of the King James Version of the Bible. Beyond the "thee's," "thou's," and words that end with "th," the word that sticks out most to me in that translation is the word "charity" where other translations use the word "love."

For example, in 1 Corinthians 13:13 in the King James Version reads, "And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity." That same verse in the very popular New International Version reads, "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love."

In all, the King James Version uses "charity" 29 times to translate the Greek word agape. On other occasions, however, that same version uses "love" to translate that same Greek word.

What's the difference between love and charity in the New Testament?
When the word agape is used in the context of vertical action (God toward man and/or man toward God), it is translated as "love."

When the word agape is used in the context of horizontal actions (man toward neighbor or enemy), it is translated as "charity."

It is certainly acceptable for modern translations to replace "charity" with "love," but I don't think it's preferable. The word "love," as we use it today, carries more than one meaning. We say we love ice cream. We say we love our family. We say we love our wives. We say we love God. We say we love music. You get the point.

Where we have one word, "love," the Greeks had four words:
agape was the word used to identify love that was selflessly committed to the well-being of another;
phileo was the word used for the non-sexual affection of those sharing a strong bond, like "brotherly love;"
eros was the word used for romantic feelings, like "being in love;"
storge was the word used for fondness of someone/something through familiarity with them/it.
(see The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis)

Besides the subtleties that are screened out when we use the word "love" in all those contexts, we have also developed a mental framework that equates love with abstract passivity. In other words, to a large degree, love has become a cerebral practice.

"Charity," on the other hand, captures the contours of concrete activity that are implied when agape is used in the context of horizontal (person to person) action. Of course, "charity," is not without its own cultural baggage - images of dropping coins in red containers at Christmas time come to mind. But charity encompasses more than that.

Charity means participating in tangible acts of loving-kindness toward all others (friend or enemy) in unconditional and self-sacrificial ways.

Or to put it simply, to practice charity is to be compassionate. This is the insight of Marcus Borg who notes, "'To be compassionate' is what is meant elsewhere in the New Testament by the somewhat more abstract command 'to love'" (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, 49).

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8 Responses to What's the Difference Between Love & Charity in the New Testament?

  1. I didn't realize the discrepancy in the translations (taking today's language into context.) I'm still reminded about a conversation we had many years ago around the use of the word *awesome* to describe God. We have, as a culture, diluted *love* as we have *awesome*. Calling God awesome and calling a game awesome does not elevate these things we call awesome to God-like level, but actually diminishes God to lesser things. Thanks for this reminder that we need to make sure our words have meanings that are unintentional, but can be detrimental.

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  2. Love requires the ways of charity.Charity is carefree and equal importance toward others by sharing and act kindly.As love helps demonstrate that action through an eternal bond which is deep,truthful,and serious.Charity can be one thing,but the love for it is up to you.

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  3. "Deep, truthful, and serious." Nice word choice to highlight the significant implications that love carries for our common life.

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  4. Charity is an act of love

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  5. To describe God's Love or Charity is to personify Jesus through words even though those words can never fully embrace the love our God has for us.

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  6. Love is different from charity. God loves man now that's LOVE. Now, man loves God that's Charity. We love God by loving our brothers. By walking in Charity we walking in Love.

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  7. If we had more Justice, we'd need less Charity.
    (I've forgotten who said that)

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