Loyalty is a theme we find frequently in relationships and in society. What should Christians make of “loyalty”?
We understand loyalty as feelings of support and allegiance; we generally associate loyalty with faithfulness and dependability. We desperately yearn to have people in our lives who would prove loyal to us no matter what may come.
We would naturally expect to find many passages of Scripture which would discuss loyalty. And yet when we consider older and more formal equivalent translations, “loyal” or “loyalty” does not show up at all, or very infrequently.
Should we thus understand God has not spoken about or addressed loyalty? Not at all! A lot of translations have preferred to use other terms like “faithfulness” as opposed to “loyalty” in such contexts. In fact, the Hebrew term hesed, often translated as “lovingkindness” or “steadfast love,” is perhaps best understood as “loyal love”: commitment to one in a covenant relationship with a feeling of warmth toward those with whom the covenant has been made.
Hesed is one of the fundamental characteristics of disposition YHWH displayed toward His people. Continual emphasis on the Psalms would communicate to the people of God no less than these two truths: YHWH is their Creator, and YHWH displays hesed, or loyal love, toward His people. YHWH displayed His hesed in His creation and His deliverance of His people from Egyptian bondage (e.g. Psalms 104, 105). His people did not display such hesed toward Him, but served other gods (e.g. Psalm 106); YHWH judged them in His righteousness, yet continually displayed hesed toward His people. That Israelites survived the trials of the second half of the first millennium BCE and many sought to serve the God of Israel when Jesus of Nazareth was born powerfully testified to YHWH’s hesed toward His people. We can certainly speak of God’s hesed in terms of loyalty: God proved loyal to His people, even though His people were not always loyal to Him. Because He remained loyal to His people, His people endured despite persistent persecution and trial.
The Greek language had no term quite like hesed; thus, in the New Testament, Jesus and the Apostles communicate a similar message of hesed in terms relating to God’s mercy and faithfulness (e.g. 1 Corinthians 10:13). “Faithfulness,” in particular, is consistent with “loyalty.” God faithfully fulfilled all He had promised through the prophets in Jesus of Nazareth (cf. Hebrews 6:1-20); as Israel was given reason to trust in God and prove loyal to Him since He proved faithful and loyal in rescuing them from Egyptian bondage, so now all have reason to trust in God and prove loyal to Him because He has rescued us from sin and death in Jesus’ death and resurrection (cf. Ephesians 2:1-11).
Thus we do well to understand “loyalty” as a dimension of “faithfulness.” As faithfulness is part of the fruit of the Spirit, thus also would be loyalty (Galatians 5:22-24). Paul affirmed Christians as having a citizenship from above in Philippians 3:20; Christians certainly ought to have great feelings of support and allegiance to what God is accomplishing in His Reign in Christ, and thus we should be loyal to God and to Jesus.
Loyalty in relationships is a highly prized virtue, and it remains one Christians generally do well to maintain. Marriage covenants can only thrive when spouses remain loyal to one another. The friend who “sticks closer than a brother” (cf. Proverbs 18:24) is difficult to find anymore. Far too many people have bought into “transactional” friendships: they maintain superficially robust relationships with people as long as those people provide some kind of benefit or resource to them. Once that benefit or resource is gone, however, so often is the relationship. Far too many find out they have very few friends, if any, when they undergo significant moments of crisis and trial. We can lament our lack of loyal friends, but all we can do is to be the loyal friend for others (cf. Proverbs 27:10). We can see how so many people today are internally and spiritually wasting away for lack of loyal relationships, and in general we do well to be loyal Christians, spouses, parents, children, friends, and associates.
Loyalty can be good, but it is not always so. It might be hard to imagine how faithfulness or loyalty could be bad things, but we must always remember how faithfulness and loyalty are not inherently virtuous; their virtue is based on what, or to whom, one proves faithful and loyal. Many people proved loyal to Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich; we do not find their faithfulness and loyalty to him and to what he stood for as virtuous! Loyalty, like faithfulness, can become weaponized by the powers and principalities and the forces which they have empowered to become an ugly perpetuator of deep evil, injustice, and unrighteousness.
Such does not mean God has commended disloyalty any more than He has commended faithlessness. God has not called Christians to prove disloyal or faithless; instead, God always exhorts Christians to a higher faithfulness, a greater loyalty to Him and to His purposes.
In this way we can understand how we can navigate loyalty and faithfulness. Christians should prove loyal and faithful to God in Christ and in their relationships. There will be times in which we will have to present hard and difficult truths to friends if we are really loyal to them; it may not feel like loyalty at the moment, but if we seek their best interest even when they do not for themselves, we will have to inflict those “faithful wounds” (cf. Proverbs 27:6). Many might delude themselves into thinking those who are truly loyal to them will encourage them in their self-harm; they are looking for flatterers more than loyal friends. Nevertheless, if we abandon friends in difficult moments, or because we have disagreed with them on some life decisions, we prove disloyal to them; we may have to faithfully witness to them things they do not want to hear, but we are not excused from continuing to love and care for them as we have opportunity.
As Christians we will be continually challenged in terms of competing loyalties. We know we must always be loyal to God, His purposes, and His truth. We should be loyal to God’s people and manifest loyalty to His church. But what happens when some people of God are accused of heinous sins? We must be careful lest we abandon a brother or sister in a time of great distress, but we must also be careful lest we privilege our loyalty to our brother or sister over our loyalty to what is faithful and true in God in Christ. We must also be careful lest we allow our loyalty to institutions, movements, and ideas to supersede and hinder our loyalty to people and God in Christ. Institutions come and go; God and His people will endure forever. If the powers and principalities seduce us into proving more loyal to our ethnicity, tribe, ideological companions, or any other concept or group than to our fellow people of God, have they not undermined in us the work God is attempting to accomplish in Christ (cf. Ephesians 3:1-12)?
Christians therefore ought to be a people known for their loyalty. They must prove loyal above all to what God is accomplishing in His Reign in Jesus. They will manifest loyalty to God’s people and in their relationships. Christians should never display disloyalty; instead, they will at times be marked by privileging their higher loyalty to what God has done in Jesus. May we all prove loyal to God in Christ and obtain the resurrection of life in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry