Many years ago I read Arundati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things. Set in Kerala, India and centering around a set of twins as children in 1969 and adults in 1993, the book explores the tragic consequences of the caste system and its “Love Laws.”  Although the story begins in 1969, Roy informs readers that the story actually began thousands of years ago “in the days when the Love Laws were made.  The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how.  And how much.”  

The “Love Laws” influence the characters’ development and interactions in numerous ways.  The twins are treated as “less than” because their Syrian Christian mother had married (and then divorced) a man of a different caste and religion.  A vindictive, petty aunt had become embittered by her unrequited love of a Catholic priest many years previously (and her conversion to Catholicism in a misguided attempt to win his love).  After the twins’ mother is caught and severely punished for an affair with an “untouchable”–the only truly loving relationship portrayed, but impermissible under the Love Laws because of the lover’s caste—she unwittingly sets off a chain of events that leads to the drowning of the twins’ cousin and the execution of the untouchable (falsely accused of murder).  

The book’s title and the concept of “Love Laws” have stuck with me over the years.  When I hear people describing limits on “who should be loved, and how, and how much,” I wonder if they are unwittingly confusing the God who is Love with a much lesser god—a God of Small Things.  


The God of Small Things and his Love Laws played a starring role in Tuesday’s BYU devotional, during which Dallin Oaks spoke about BYU’s need to be “different” from the world:  “Those who deviate from a majority are often made to feel like ignorant holdouts on subjects where everyone else is more enlightened. When higher education or the world in general call upon faculty to vary from gospel standards, do we ‘dare to be different’?”

As his primary example of the ways in which BYU has been “different” from the world, Oaks spoke at length about his efforts in the 1970’s to resist “extreme federal Title IX regulations.”  Oaks, who was president of BYU at the time, stridently resisted Title IX regulations–testifying against them in Congress and then, when they passed, contesting their validity and claiming various exemptions for the University.(1)

After recounting this, Oaks asked “[w]here would BYU and other Church-related colleges and universities be today if BYU had not dared to resist the government’s 1974 proposal to significantly expand its control over private education?”  Given that the federal government readily agreed that BYU was exempt from any challenged requirement, this question seems a bit overly dramatic.  And, while Oaks did not address more recent Title IX investigations at BYU regarding its differential treatment of LGBTQ students, those were dismissed earlier this year.  

In any event, it’s disappointing to me that BYU’s fight against civil rights laws (however valid that may have been) is the example Oaks chose to give about how BYU has been and must continue to be “different” from the world.(2)  To make matters worse, he re-emphasized his oft-used theme that we must not love others too much:  “The love of neighbor — however important — does not come ahead of love of God and obedience to His commandments. If we truly love God and serve Him as He has taught us, we will love our neighbor as God loves him or her and as He would have us love and serve them.”

This isn’t new coming from Oaks, who has often talked about the subordination of the “second” commandment to the “first” when addressing why we cannot support same-sex marriage.  But its appearance and framing in these remarks raises two issues I’m interested in discussing. 

First, is Oaks’ formulation of the Love Laws correct? 

And second, even if it’s correct, is this really the most important and effective way that BYU (and by extension its faculty, students, and alums) can manifest its distinctive religious character?   


Does the commandment to love God supersede or conflict with the commandment to love our neighbor?

Oaks regularly (but without ever really explaining why) makes two assumptions:  

  1. Occasionally the commandment to love God will conflict with the commandment to love our neighbor, and 
  2. In the event of a conflict, the commandment to love God must prevail at the expense of the commandment to love our neighbor.  

I think both assumptions are wrong.  They are contradicted by (a) the plain meaning of the relevant scriptural text, (b) explanatory material provided by Jesus regarding the meaning of the second commandment, and (c) the nature of Jesus himself.  

(1) The scriptural text does not support Oaks’ position.  

As a fellow lawyer, Oaks should know that the first place we look for an interpretation of a “law” (or, here, commandment) is the text itself.(3)  The exchange is addressed specifically in each of the three synoptic gospels, so let’s first review those texts.  

Matthew.  In Matthew, Jesus answered in response to the question “which is the great commandment in the law”:

“That shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it, That shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and all the prophets.”

Mark.  Mark also contains an account of this exchange, but it differs slightly.  When asked, “Which is the first commandment of all,” Jesus responds:

“The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength:  this is the first commandment.  And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  There is none other commandment greater than these.”   

Luke.  The account in Luke is a somewhat different context because it is not the original account of Jesus describing these laws, but instead of another person doing so in response to Jesus’s question.  However, it is still interpretively helpful and significant.  In Luke’s account, Jesus is asked by a lawyer how to inherit eternal life.  Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer, asking him, “What is written in the law? How readest thou?” 

The lawyer answers, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself.” 

In response, Jesus affirmed “Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.”  

The lawyer then asks Jesus “who is my neighbor,” which Jesus answers with the parable of the Good Samaritan.  But I’ll address that later. 


Together, do those texts support the idea that the first commandment–to love God–is more important than the second?  I don’t believe so.  Oaks seems to rest his argument on Matthew’s language “This is the first and great commandment.”  This isn’t compelling, though, for several reasons.

First, I find it important that the phrase “this is the first and great commandment” is only included in Matthew’s account.  This doesn’t occur in any of the other accounts.  In Mark, it simply lists the commandments as “first” and “second” in sequential order.  In Luke, they are not even particularly distinguishable as separate.  Although the statement in Luke came from a third person, Jesus did not correct him to make sure he understood that loving God was different from or more important than loving one’s neighbor; on the contrary, Jesus affirmed, “That hast answered right.”  I would be reluctant to hang an entire textual interpretation of the meaning of what Jesus teaches are the most important commandments on one phrase occurring in only one of three accounts.  

Second, even taking Matthew on its face as a definitive account, neither using the word “great” to describe the first commandment nor ordering it first means that it is superior to the second.  As to “great”, Jesus uses the word “great”–not “greatest.”  (OK again, I realize Jesus didn’t actually use the word “great” because he didn’t speak English, but if Oaks is going to rely on that I will start there.)  Great is an adjective, not a superlative.  Calling the first commandment great doesn’t mean that the second is less-great.  

The order is not dispositive, either.  Second in presentation does not mean second in importance.  Second can be a neutral, sequential way of ordering multiple ideas.  (I have used “second” or other methods of organization several times in this post, but I was generally not implying anything about the relative weight or importance of the second point compared to the first.  Rather, I’m trying to be logical.)  Indeed, listing the commandment to love God first here makes sense because it tracks the organization of the Ten Commandments, which would have been a reference point (the first five of which are commonly understood to relate to loving God, and the second five to loving one’s neighbor).  I don’t want to get into a tangent there, but I don’t know that murder (the sixth-listed commandment) is worse than dishonoring parents or not keeping the Sabbath holy.  YMMV.  

Third, and most critically, Oaks’ interpretation completely ignores that in both Matthew and Mark, Jesus describes the second commandment as “like unto” the first.  “Like unto it” could mean a number of things.  It could mean equally important.  It could also mean that the commandments are essentially saying the same thing:  that loving our neighbors is not a commandment subordinate to or even separate from the first, but is in fact the means by which we love God and fulfill the first.  This interpretation is consistent with other scriptures where Jesus taught that “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”  Not only does this militate against the idea that the first commandment is more important than the second, but it also suggests that the first and second commandments should never actually come into conflict.  If they do, you better take a really hard look at whether you might be wrong about one or the other.   

(2) Jesus’ further explanation of the second commandment contradicts Oaks’ interpretation.   

Not only does the plain language fail to support Oaks’ interpretation, but the best explanation we have of the meaning of the second commandment–the Parable of the Good Samaritan–actually supports the interpretation I’ve offered here.  In Luke’s account of Jesus’ discussion with the lawyer, the lawyer (seeking to trap Jesus, perhaps even to trap him into saying that one commandment is more important than the other), asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In response, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.  Critical to understanding the meaning of that story is realizing that one reason that the Priest and the Levite “passed by on the other side” from the “half-dead” man on the road to Jericho is because touching the man could make them ritually unclean; “[o]n this reading, the priest could be seen as more concerned with the tenets of his religion than with the common humanity that he shared with the victim.”    

In the parable, then, the priests faced a dilemma:  do they show their obedience to God by following purity codes (they were not to have come into contact with death, hence they moved to the side of the road), or do they violate these purity codes to help a dying man?  Does the injunction to love their neighbor supersede those religious purity codes?  

Jesus resolves this dilemma clearly.  The pure priest and the Levite are not the heroes of the story.  The impure Samaritan who serves his neighbor is–and the lawyer is told to “go, and do thou likewise.” 

(3) Oaks’ interpretation creates too small a god.   

Finally, Oaks’ interpretation is simply not consistent with the Jesus that we read about in the scriptures.  I’ve covered this topic (the clash between purity and compassion) elsewhere, but Jesus taught and practiced a politics of compassion in his parables, his teachings, and his own associations that went directly in the face of purity codes and laws.  

Oaks’ interpretation is also inconsistent with the God that I know and love. I simply do not believe in a Heavenly Parent who would ask their children to hurt each other in order to honor the parent. If I had to choose between asking my children to love each other or asking one to harm the other in order to prove their love to me … well, I would consider myself a pretty terrible mom if I chose myself. God is not so petty and insecure that he would demand loyalty from some children at the expense of others.


This leads to my second question. (Second not in importance, but in logical order :-)). Is fighting for the right to discriminate really the most important and effective way that BYU (and by extension its faculty, students, and alums) can manifest its distinctive religious character? 

I doubt Oaks and I will ever see eye-to-eye on the interpretation of this scripture, and I also recognize that he and others may sincerely believe that the way to “love” others is to teach them the true doctrine of heternormative temple sealings.  He thinks he is being loving by teaching what he believes is the “true” doctrine of marriage.  Even so, I think there have got to be better ways for BYU (and anyone associated institutionally or personally with the LDS Church) to manifest its distinctive religious character. 

To be clear, I fully agree that a Christian university can and should have a distinctive character; I attended a Jesuit university as an undergraduate and loved its emphasis on the liberal arts, education, service, and the required theology classes.  I also agree that as Christians we should distinguish ourselves “in happy ways” as we follow Jesus’ counsel to “let our light so shine before men that they may see our good works and glorify God.”  And, to his credit, Oaks did tell a story about his brother-in-law treating another child with kindness (oddly ending the story with an update that the bullied child became an important executive, as if this somehow justified the kindness?(4)) and mentioned the need to minister to “marginalized groups.”  

Unfortunately, other ways of being Christian seem to have taken a back seat to fighting for the freedom to discriminate.  This is not particularly new; long ago, I stopped attending events for an association for LDS attorneys I used to participate in because every single event was about how it was our unique role and responsibility as LDS lawyers to fight for religious freedom against gay marriage.  Just a few weeks ago, I attended a BYU alumni event where the speaker, whose topic was how BYU’s identity / heritage as a religious institution should shape it, focused on criticizing “woke” culture, bemoaning Title IX protections for trans and nonbinary students, and encouraging us to continue to fight for religious freedom (including the freedom to be hateful).  

These events are frustrating to me not so much for what the speakers say (although I could use a break from the culture wars), but for what the speakers do not say.  I would actually love to engage in a conversation about what Christian students, professionals, lawyers, and universities should do differently than the rest of the world.  How should we be using our time, talents, education, and other resources to live as Jesus lived?  How are BYU students magnifying the University’s motto of entering to learn, going forth to serve? I actually did have many such discussions as a law student, but those pre-dated Prop 8.  Since then, the focus seems to have shifted and landed squarely on our opposition to gay marriage as the defining characteristic of the LDS Church and its institutions.  

We, and BYU, are the poorer for it.

Do I care if BYU seeks religious exemptions to Title IX?  No, I get it.  Do I care if some Church members work on religious freedom?  No, I also get it, but I certainly wish they’d spent as much time on actual religious freedom issues (like persecution abroad)–and as Sam Brunson wrote, I think their focus here is going to come back to haunt them.  

But what I really wish that they could actually meaningfully engage with what it means to be a Christian student, scholar, teacher, professional.  That discussion seems much more valuable and meaningful to me than another explanation for why sometimes BYU has to be mean to people.  


One of Jesus’s most distinguishing characteristics is the way in which he crossed purity boundaries in an inclusive table fellowship with the impure.  BYU and Oaks are turning that on its head, attempting to distinguish themselves by the way in which they enforce purity boundaries–their version of “Love Laws,” a heteronormative caste system that forbids and punishes loving relationships between queer people no matter how pure the love or healthy the relationship.  This isn’t Jesus of the God of Love; it’s the god of small things.  That story didn’t end well, and I fear that this story won’t, either.

  • Have you read the God of Small Things?  I reread it sometime later, but it’s been years.  I need to read it again now.  There’s a controversial piece that I didn’t address here but that I think I finally understand.  IYKYK.   
  • Why do you think Oaks addressed Title IX in a devotional? 
  • Do you agree that there could ever be a conflict between loving God and loving others?   When and how? If you have any resources to interpreting the “two great commandments” please share. I couldn’t find much when I looked. (This surprised me, but I also didn’t have that much time to look.)
  • If you were to give a speech to BYU students and faculty about how to be distinctive from the world, what would you focus on?  What are some ways you’d like to see the University or other LDS institutions or people be “different” from the world based on their commitment to follow Christ?   


  1. Specifically, in a notification of non-discrimination required by Title IX and in a letter to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Oaks (a) objected to the legality of Title IX as it pertained to private educational institutions, (b) stated that contrary provisions notwithstanding, the University would continue to make inquiries into such matters as pregnancy and terminations of pregnancy in order to enforce its moral code, (c) stated that the University would continue to enforce sex-differentiated dress and grooming standards as those “properly express God-given differences” between the sexes; (d) objected to any requirement to provide co-educational housing; (e) stated that private donors would continue to have the right to select recipients on the basis of sex; and (f) objected to funding requirements for athletics (a common objection).
  2. Addressing Title IX exemptions to students in a devotional is an odd choice.  It’s not as though students have any say in whether or not BYU obtains those exemptions–one wonders what BYU students are to do with that information to become more Christlike in their everyday living. But isn’t the first time that a General Authority has given an “example” in a speech that addresses a controversial issue while pretending to be about something else; Nelson did the same thing a few years ago in a BYU devotional where he gave a speech that didn’t claim to be about the exclusion policy but, in fact, was.  I also wonder whether BYU is bracing for future Title IX battles and trying to shore up its legal positions and public support.  
  3. Of course, the scriptural text doesn’t mean that Jesus actually spoke those exact words, but for the moment we’ll assume that’s the case.
  4. Anyone else think this story was weirdly elitist?