Practical Theology Article

Implications of the Uncontrolling Love of God for Preachers, Leaders and Pastors

The Prodigal Son

He let him go.

Although I’ve read the story of the prodigal son hundreds of times and preached on it almost as often, I’d never noticed this before.

The father, despite loving his son with all his heart and yearning to be with him, is ready to let him go. Although he knows that his renegade child will probably hurt himself with this flight into supposed freedom, the father consciously decides not to hold his son back.

Many artists’ interpretations of this scene picture expulsion from the father’s house—the angry patriarch throws his son out, not caring what becomes of him and then throws the money after him—an understandable reaction when one considers the fact that the son’s demand to receive his inheritance early was equivalent to wishing his father dead.

And yet, the parable told by Jesus shows us a different picture. It doesn’t give the impression that the son is sent away, berated and ashamed, but rather that the father bids him farewell with a heavy heart.  He doesn’t want to lose him, which is why he waits on the doorstep, desirous of his return; still, he satisfies the wish of his youngest child and lets him leave.

The Uncontrolling Love of God

In his book, The Uncontrolling Love of God, Thomas Oord has postulated a model of God’s relationship to the world, revolving around essential kenosis. Oord describes a self-sacrificing God—abstaining from any element of control yet untiringly wooing creation, in love.

This love defines everything that God says and does and is embedded throughout Jesus’ entire life. Jesus loved people without compromise, accepted them unconditionally and challenged them to become part of the revolutionary movement we call the church. In doing this, he never once used any manipulation, control, or force.

Like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus too showed a willingness to let go. Yes, he calls people to follow him and establishes authentic friendships, but he refuses to become their sectarian guru, seizing control over their lives. At one point, as most of His followers leave Him after one particularly hard-to-digest sermon, He turns to His twelve closest disciples and gives them also the opportunity to leave Him “You do not want to go away also, do you?”[1]

In view of God’s self-revelation, one might say: In Jesus Christ we encounter a God who woos us with an unyielding love; and because He loves us He will never take us by force. He seeks our voluntary agreement to His love and that’s why He’s also ready to let us go.  So, what does this example mean for us, practically, as a church?

Preaching without Manipulation

God’s uncontrolling love obliges us neither to push nor to lure people into a relationship with Him, but rather to communicate the gospel in such a way that an encounter with His love is the focus.

If we want to reflect the essence of God’s love in our churches, then we must first look at the ways in which we talk about Him and call people into discipleship.

It’s difficult to ignore that Jesus was able to brazenly challenge others without ever resorting to threats, fear, or moral pressure. Apparently, Jesus didn’t find it necessary to prove to people how sinful and in need of salvation they were in order to convey his message; He didn’t lecture society’s misfits about their sins to set them straight; rather he stopped for a bite to eat with them, transforming their hearts with unconditional love. The only people who Jesus actually warned about their lifestyle were those specialising in judgement and the application of moral pressure to others.[2]

I fear that evangelicalism has moved far away from this example. As a child of the movement, I am well acquainted with the ways that evangelicals keep their sheep inside their fold—one hand warning of the dangers of this world, threats of a fall from faith, and exhortations to moral integrity; the other promising full and successful lives, rooted in superiority.

It’s become common practice in most evangelical tracts, books and courses to begin the communication of the gospel by showing people how lost they really are, making their lives miserable. Many evangelical churches try to make faith more attractive with all sorts of additional promises. We don’t appear to trust Jesus, Himself, to reveal to people their brokenness and to awaken their desire for forgiveness and healing through His unconditional love. Apparently, we just can’t imagine that an encounter with God’s overflowing love is enough to call forth people’s fascination and commitment.

There is a significant danger in forcing or manipulating people into a relationship with God. The Son of God who became man didn’t try to push people into becoming disciples through warnings of impending disasters, nor did He lure them with guarantees of success. The gospel is all but missing in scenarios such as these, but proclamation of the gospel that has itself been taken captive by the love of God will put love firmly in focus. It won’t need any reinforcement—either from fear factors or guarantees of success.

Leadership without Control

God’s uncontrolling love forbids the sort of leadership that instrumentalises people and leads them into a spiritual dependence. It sets us free to meet people outside of hierarchical barriers and to build life-affirming community with them.

It’s not only the way we proclaim the gospel that is affected by the knowledge of the uncontrolling love of God, but also the way in which we as leaders deal with our team members and congregation—not to mention how we understand our responsibilities in the church!

The Jesus described to us by the gospels always met people on their own level. Although He understood Himself to be leader and teacher to His disciples, still Jesus always respected their autonomy and personal dignity. He didn’t just put them to work as effectively as possible in order to reach His goals, He built a living, life-changing community with them as His friends. Jesus didn’t promote a culture of intimidation and mute obedience. When he gave His followers tasks and spoke out their callings over them, He did it on the precondition that they followed Him freely.

As those with responsibility for the local church, it would do us good to maintain this attitude in our lives today: leadership according to the measure of God’s uncontrolling love cannot afford to lead people into spiritual dependency nor to put team members to use to reach the proclaimed vision of the church in a way that underestimates their personal dignity and autonomy, as if they were horses pulling the cart of the church’s vision. To clothe leaders in an aura of untouchability and superiority, allowing no room for critique or opposition, is especially contradictory to the essence of God’s love revealed by Jesus. If the Son of God Himself meets us on our level, what right do we as Christian leaders have to claim any sort of superhuman status? Whoever takes that love shown to us by the Messiah from Nazareth as his or her role model, that person will refuse to use power-plays and to immunise his or her authority against criticism with spiritually—embellished arguments—he or she will instead find the courage to meet team members and congregants without hierarchy and place his or her own gift of leadership in the service of the community.

Goodbyes without Guilt

God’s uncontrolling love sets us free from the pressure to keep everybody and lose no one – it lets people go free in the sure and certain hope that God’s love will win back their hearts.

If the latter point gives us, as leaders, certain responsibilities, it also leads to a liberating, unburdening insight. Jesus’ behaviour with His disciples, those closest to him, as well as with his more distant followers, makes it clear that He didn’t weigh Himself down with the need to be able win and keep all those He encountered.

This is truly remarkable. 

I’ve been in church leadership for long enough to know just how much people leaving the church can burden and stress a leader. Members of the church who leave the body or even stop believing; whole families and groups of young people who leave or slowly distance themselves from the community: every departure can feel for some pastors like an accusation against their leadership abilities. “If I’d taken more care of those individuals, if I’d decided this or that in their favour, if I’d trained our small group leaders or welcome team better” they think—then these people might still be with us…

That could well be the case. I don’t want to dispute that certain departures from churches can be explained by the inabilities and mistakes of their leadership. We have to look this reality in the face. At the same time, however, we shouldn’t forget that Jesus Himself lost many followers. After a successful start to His public ministry, which bestowed on Him a growing crowd of followers; the Good Shepherd’s ‘herd’ reduced alarmingly as the mood about Him began to change. With increasing pressures, the number of followers shrank—during His last days in Jerusalem even Jesus’ closest disciples left Him. Christians will agree very quickly that these losses were not due in any way to inability or mistakes on the part of the Messiah—and we should ponder this fact deeply: According to the example given by Jesus, it’s possible to do everything right as a leader (love people with an uncompromising love, make all the right decisions, never miss any opportunity to encourage and promote) and yet still lose people.The reason lies in the essence of an uncontrolling love that doesn’t force or manipulate someone into relationship, nor make them dependent on itself, but rather lets the other go free.

And so the circle closes once more back to the parable of the prodigal son: the father lets the son go, just as Jesus let His disciples and followers go. The father’s farewell from his renegade son and Jesus’ readiness to let His followers go are both accompanied by a broken heart, but God loves us too much to force us into relationship with Him. He aches for our voluntary participation and would rather wait for our return than ever forcibly hold us to Him…


Thankfully, this isn’t the end of the story.

One day a figure appears on the horizon and the father can no longer hide his excitement: the son is returning! The father’s uncontrolling love had let him go—but he had never lost hope and runs towards the returning prodigal: “for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”[3]

The same applies for Jesus Himself. Even in His darkest hour, abandoned by his followers and closest friends, He was far from giving up hope in them. Life as God’s church, according to Jesus as role model, means trusting God’s uncontrolling love more than all pressures and attempts at manipulation. It means never giving up hope that God’s love will saturate people’s hearts and kiss awake their desire to enter freely into relationship with this ever-loving God.

The last picture that God’s love paints for us isn’t that of the son running away—rather it’s of the father embracing his son as he returns.

The author would like to thank Nicci Vaughan for the translation from German to English.

This article was first published on:

[1] John 6:67 (LEB)

[2] See Matt. 23

[3] Luke 15:24

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