Why hating the sin and loving the sinner is an inappropriate response to homosexuality
This is based on what I sent to my father, who is a minister, when he kept saying that my sexuality was “very difficult” for him. I thought that other people might find it useful even though it is a few years old.
To help you through (it is a LOT longer than my posts usually are), it’s in these main sections.
- Sinful identity
- Why homosexuality is not a sin
- The fruits of homophobia
- Paul sometimes contradicts Christ
- What would the church look like without homophobia
- Personal experience
The ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’ approach depends on the idea that non practising homosexuals are not ‘sinning’. This is nonsense. We do not become homosexual or heterosexual only in the moments when we are engaged in sexual activity. Sexuality is part of our identity; it infuses our thoughts and informs our responses in a whole variety of situations. If homosexuality is a sin, a homosexual person is sinning even when he or she is not having sex. Hating the sin then, cannot be separated from hating the ‘sinner’.
To form a truly Christian approach to homosexuality, we must accept that it is not a sin.
Homosexuality is not a sin:
- The teachings of Christ – Generally in the debate about homosexuality, we forget that homosexuality is not mentioned by Christ, nor is it included in the Ten Commandments. This would suggest that, despite the concern of the modern church with this issue, it is not a major consideration of God’s.
- Biblical context – There is not only a great deal of evidence to suggest that condemnation of homosexuality in the Bible was exclusively linked to condemnation of competing religious practices, but also several positive examples of positive representations of homosexual relationships, two of which come from Jesus’ own family in the stories of Ruth and David (see especially 2 Samuel 1: 19 – 27 and see Jonathan Loved David by Tom Horner)
- Biblical interpretation – Christians today pick and choose which elements of the Bible they class as fundamental. Many of our modern practices would be considered unthinkable by Christians of past ages. For example, we not only allow women to enter churches with their hair uncovered (1 Corinthians 4: 11 – 16), we also allow them to talk and even become leaders (1 Corinthians 14: 34 – 35). This is not to suggest that because one element is ignored, others may be also, but that Christianity is a living religion which exists within modern culture. As education and understanding evolve, so too do the practices of religion. It should not be forgotten that biblical interpretation has been used in the past to uphold practices, such as the trading of human beings, which we would now consider deeply sinful.
- Confusion of aesthetics and morality – Although a practice may be distasteful to you, it does not mean that that practice is a sin. The church long ago gave up attempting to dictate sexual practices between married people; the same attempt should be abandoned in the case of homosexual people for the same reasons.
- Fearfully and wonderfully made – the Bible tells us that God created us exactly how he wanted us to be. The fact that there are homosexuals in countries like Uganda should be clear evidence that homosexuality is not a choice, if the social costs of homosexuality in more liberal countries were not evidence enough. Science shows little evidence that homosexuality is the result of childhood trauma, in fact, there is increasing evidence that homosexuality is biological. This would mean that homosexuals are part of God’s plan, and that God loves His homosexual children just as they are.
By their fruits you shall know them
The fruits of homophobia, which has its root in the teaching of ‘hate the sin and love the sinner’, are exclusion, hatred, violence and murder. In its mildest forms, that of tolerance rather than acceptance, there is a focus on one element of an individual’s life rather than the quality of the whole. The fruit of this teaching is exclusion.
On a larger scale, the church devotes a large amount of energy to this issue, energy which would be better and more constructively expended elsewhere. Neither this condemnation nor the division resulting from the debate about homosexuality is glorifying God or advancing His kingdom on earth.
Christ left clear instructions about the function of Christians, and by extension, the function of the church. We are commanded to love one another (Matthew 22:9). We were not called to enforce the law of the church upon one another. When we attempt to do so, we generally break the two great commandments left by Christ. We also teach our children, homo- or heterosexual, that there are limits to the love of God, and that they are condemned for things which they cannot change.
Paul and Christ
As I have said above, we tend to pick and choose which elements of Paul’s teachings we apply to our lives. Many of the great social movements towards equality have been opposed by the church based on the teachings of Paul, but in the end the church has been forced to recognise that a substantial amount of Paul’s teaching was written for the audience of his time, rather than for our time. Think what the reaction would be today if the church were to apply Paul’s teaching on slavery in Philemon (Philemon 1: 12) and send a Togolese boy back to slavery in a Ghanaian cocoa farm, or recommend the return of an Eastern European sex worker to the gang that brought her to this country. The recent changes regarding the status of women in the church have also been the result of a re-evaluation of Paul’s teaching.
There is no denying that Paul was a great theologian, and that his elaboration of the life and teachings of Christ form the basis of Christian theology. However two important factors must not be forgotten. Firstly, Paul, as Saul, was a member of a privileged elite. His social teaching stresses the importance of mercy to those lower down the social order, but also of unquestioning submission to those above. Secondly, Paul did not anticipate that social structures would be in place for much longer as he lived in daily expectation of the second coming. Social justice was simply not important to him. Christ, on the other hand, was radically critical of those in the upper echelons of power and did employ violence against those who oppressed or excluded ordinary people (Matthew 21:12). Thus the teachings of Paul often conflict with the teaching and action of Christ.
If we measure Paul against Christ, we should be able to judge where his writing is culturally influenced and where he is genuinely elaborating the word of God. Christ had ample opportunity to condemn homosexuality, yet He did not. Therefore, when Paul writes about homosexuality, he exceeds the example set by Christ, just as he did when he wrote about slavery and the social order.
If homosexuality is not a sin…
Let us consider what the church would be like if it accepted that homosexuality is not a sin, and that all human beings exist on a spectrum of sexuality, with some being homosexual, some heterosexual and some bisexual.
It would be inevitable that a schism would occur. It is possible that the schism would fall along national lines. This is nothing new. The church has weathered such divisions before. They have generally occurred when one section of the church moves closer to the word of God, while another section clings to dogma.
Homosexual men and women would retain the acceptance and love of the congregation as a whole. Some of them would become church leaders, some of them would be involved in mission and ministry. None of them would need to conceal their identities in order to follow God’s plan for their lives. As accepted and valued members of the congregation, they would form role models for younger homosexuals.
Homosexual marriages would be recognised and celebrated within the church. Homosexual marriages would be subject to the same accountability and support as heterosexual relationships, giving them greater stability and minimising risks of abuse and infidelity. The process of recognising the roles, duties and supports given to marriage by the church community would strengthen the institution of marriage in the whole community.
Children of homosexual parents would be accepted into the church community without experiencing intolerance. The authority of homosexual parents would be upheld by the church, enabling their children to grow up within the church community and following Biblical precepts. Parenting roles would be re-evaluated, placing emphasis on the need for active, engaged parenting rather than adherence to traditional gender roles.
Within families, homosexuality could be spoken about honestly and openly. Parents would be aware that homosexuality was not a result of their parenting, freeing them from needless guilt. They would also accept homosexual offspring and encourage their talents rather than trying to ‘prevent’ or ‘cure’ their homosexuality. Homosexuals would retain the bonds and support of family life. Parents would doubtless monitor dating behaviour and encourage young people of all sexualities to refrain from inappropriate intercourse. Parents of homosexuals would support each other, recognising that homosexual offspring and their parents face different challenges.
Both heterosexual and homosexual members of the congregation would understand that God’s love is limitless, and that it is possible for all believers to strive to live following the teachings of Christ in all areas of their lives.
If the church were to speak out about the persecution of homosexuals across the globe, it could bring support to an amendment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which would protect the lives of homosexuals around the world, thus connecting the church once more with the advancement of fair and humane behaviour. This connection would revitalise and reinvigorate the Christian message with the immediacy and relevance it lacks presently in the public’s perception.
It is too late for some – My personal experience
For many homosexual believers, myself included, growing up in an openly homophobic church has caused what I believe to be irreparable damage. I do not believe that I have a place in the church. It is only recently that I have been able to believe that I could have a place in God’s heart.
Although I was aware that I was attracted to women from the age of 15, I did not deliberately act on these feelings for another 15 years. I knew that admitting to being a lesbian could cost me my faith and my family. I tried to be straight, but was not very good at it. I didn’t stop trying, no matter how miserable I was. In the end, I went through months of near suicidal depression before I realised that whatever the cost, it could not be as bad what I was going through. As soon as I was honest with myself, I felt as though my whole life acquired new meaning. Every aspect of my life; my work, my friendships, my ability to cope with adversity, blossomed as I was no longer expending so much energy in trying to be something I wasn’t.
During this time I made no attempt to reconcile my faith with my sexuality. It was not until I met my future wife that I began this process. She also had had a religious upbringing, and yet was adamant that God loved her just as she was. For the first time I considered the possibility that I might be acceptable to God just as I was; a lesbian. The journey back to faith was long and convoluted, in all of it, my wife was my guide. Eventually we gave God the opportunity to take away our relationship if it were not in His plan. It was a very real possibility as we needed a visa to proceed with our civil partnership. The visa came through. Since then, God has provided exactly what we have needed when we needed it in order for us to grow and become strong as a couple.
So on one hand, I am in a relationship which has been showered with blessings by God, and on the other a church which claims that it is sinful. At best, I think Christians can only tolerate me, so long as I am not too open about my sexuality. If I cried in church, I believe that most Christians would think it inappropriate for my wife to comfort me. I would not trust Christians to uphold my honour in front of my children if I were not present. My response has been to keep faith, but to avoid the church.
Jonathan and David: Tom Horner (I think the writer here gets a little over enthusiastic in some of the later chapters, but explains the need to read the condemnation of homosexuality in the context of the time)
The Church and the Homosexual: John J McNeil (not very exciting, but covers quite a few of the arguments)
Note: I used ‘homosexual’ here, my internal jury is out about the term. It does have negative medical connotations and tends to negate bi and trans experience, but it is the term my dad understood so I used it. It must be remembered that this post was written several years ago and things have changed a bit since then.