The problem with this as a moral strategy, which is a routine refrain for the traditionalist view of homosexuality, is that it is nearly indistinguishable from hate the sin and the sinner. If we have to reduce moral views into sound-bytes then we ought to prefer “welcoming but not affirming” or, as I will suggest below, something far more potent.
Someone wrote me this note:
Exactly what does it look like to, as they say, hate the sin and love the sinner on this issue? This problem obviously exists with other sins, but I think this particular situation causes me the most angst. How do I love my homosexual friends and neighbors without appearing to approve of their lifestyle?
Here’s my response.
First, I know very few — if any (and I can’t think of any) — who have meaningful relationships with gays and lesbians who would dare think of their “strategy” with such persons in such terms. Instead, those of us who have relationships with gays and lesbians use first and family names for such people. So, I call her “Michelle” or “friend” or him “Mike” or “friend.”
Second, it is nearly impossible — and I may be understating it — to use a sound-byte like this and not identify the gay or lesbian with the term “sinner.” Now, this cuts both ways: either you refer to everyone as “sinner,” which would not make for much meaningful conversation, or you refer to no one as “sinner,” unless your purpose is to single gays and lesbians out as singular sinners of our day. (I’m not speaking here theologically, as in “all have sinned” for I believe in that sense we are all sinners.)
Third, we have to ask about the intent of the strategy: Is it to single out homosexuality as the cardinal sin or is it — for those who believe homosexuality is not God’s will and design — to minister to and mentor and guide away from what one believes to be sinful? If the latter is the intent, I doubt very much that the sound-byte will be of any use whatsoever.
Fourth, I don’t believe there is a gay or lesbian in the world who doesn’t know what the Bible says in its traditional interpretation. And the Bible neither uses this sound-byte nor is it that un-nuanced in its statements. To be sure, ever since Boswell’s famous book that contended that homosexuality in the Bible was not addressing committed, faithful relationships of a same-sex type, there have been those who say, “I know what you think the Bible says, but the Bible really says this … and therefore you are wrong.” But, even those who have come to such conclusions know full well what the traditional interpretation is. (My favorite, readable book on this topic is by Chad Thompson.)
Fifth, I’m a Trinitarian — and for me that means I believe fully in the Holy Spirit. And while I firmly believe it is the Christian’s responsibility to teach orthodoxy and the Bible and what we believe the Bible teaches (with both firmness and sensitivity), I know that most people don’t change simply by arguments. People change behaviors as a result of a complex of factors: Bible, tradition, authorities, friends, time, counseling, loving relationships, experiments … and let’s not forget that we believe that humans are only made whole as a result of the Spirit of God’s refreshing re-creations. But it’s pretty obvious to most of us that gays and lesbians who follow Jesus don’t all of a sudden — and they too have the Spirit — find it easy to become heterosexual. Do we believe in the Holy Spirit? If so, let’s let the Holy Spirit transform people and let’s wait for the Holy Spirit to do Holy-Spirit work and let’s not try to do what is not ours to accomplish.
Sixth, a blog-friend of mine (Jamie Arpin-Ricci) reminds me that a fear of affirming homosexuality permeates the Christian community whenever one of us encounters a gay or lesbian. Trust me when I say this: the homosexual community isn’t worried about Christians affirming homosexuality. (I’m a bit back to the fourth point, but this point deserves to be addressed.) Jesus, after all, was not known for being soft on sin but he was known for being big on loving relationships. Jamie writes me this: “I don’t feel the need to make it clear to my gay friends that I don’t approve of their lifestyles anymore than I feel the need to make it clear to my Muslim friends that I disagree with their beliefs. When it comes up, each situation is unique, requiring sensitivity and grace.” I agree.
Well, these are my thoughts on the sound-byte strategy of “love the sinner, hate the sin.” I prefer the Jesus Creed: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. You might be surprised how gospel-ish that moral strategy and sound-byte of Jesus can be.