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Hating the Sin but Hating the Sinner

How should the church respond to homosexuals? Recently, the Huffington Post published an article in which the author lamented the church’s attitude toward homosexuals, his main point being that while Christians readily admit that everyone is a sinner, homosexuals are really the only group of people that receive the “sinner” label.  This, in turn, leads to homosexuals feeling like outsiders within the church. The author feels this is not an acceptable response, and is therefore led to the conclusion that he can no longer “hate the sin, but love the sinner.”  You can read that article here.

The view represented in this article has gained a lot of traction among Christians in recent years. While this is partly due to conviction, I can’t help but believe that a large segment is just exhausted… exhausted over the arguing, exhausted with being labeled a hate-monger, exhausted with the church telling them how they should act and think, but not seeing any progress in the world. In other words, if they have responded to homosexuals the way the church has told them is the biblical response, then there should have been a cultural decline in homosexuality. There hasn’t been, of course, which leaves the church scratching her head and pursuing new courses of action, whether it be redefining homosexuality in moral terms, or redefining what the church’s role is supposed to be toward sinful lifestyles.


The first question we should ponder, then, is what exactly is the biblical response to homosexuality? Or rather, what is the so-called biblical response that doesn’t seem to be working? Well, as the article above indicates, “hate the sin, love the sinner” very neatly sums up the church’s approach to this issue. As the article also points out, though, this approach has not had much success. One of the reasons is because these are actually two approaches that are confused as one. Because of this, one aspect of this approach often gives way to the other; either the “hating the sin” side is going to create a harsh love (“I love them by telling them their sinners”), or the “loving the sinner” side is going to soften the sin, as we see in the article. Rather than these two approaches working together to bring repentance, though, they have actually created sides that are frequently butting heads with each other and struggling to define the church’s role in addressing sin.The problem, as I see it, is a categorical one. Because the church mistakenly believes that there is essentially one way to address homosexuality (“hate the sin, love the sinner”), they mistakenly believe that this approach is to be used in all arenas – whether in the church, through public discourse, or in our personal relationships. Rather than only one category, or even two categories conflated as one, I suggest that there are (at least) three avenues for cultural engagement: 1) Ecclesiastical – which primarily refers to the act of worship, 2) Prophetic – which is a public address of by a representative of the church through various outlets, and 3) Relational – which is how the church interacts with the community on a personal level.

One of the benefits of recognizing the different arenas is it allows for boundaries to be drawn around what the intentions and expectations are for those who engage in them. This is a major problem in the “hate the sin, love the sinner” approach, because the reach far exceeds the grasp in most cases, and the results rarely meet the expectations. There’s also a failure to understand how these arenas work together and even their hierarchal structure. This last point is especially important, as the Prophetic and Relational fields must flow out of the Ecclesiastical. In fact, the reason why the church is having such a hard time with this issue is because of a failure to understand how worship works.

Word and SacramentWorship is where the baptized followers of Christ gather to offer themselves to Christ through confession, praise and thanksgiving. One of the primary aspects of worship is Word and Sacrament. These two things cannot be separated – they work together. A lot can be said about this, and I refer you to a previous article where I talk a bit more about this, but for the sake of this post I want to focus on judgment. When we submit ourselves before Christ in worship, we are offering ourselves as living sacrifices. One of the roles of preaching is that the Word is supposed to cut us apart – much like the worshipper did to their offerings in the Old Covenant sacrifices. Essentially what is happening is we are being torn apart, so that we can be put back together again. This is where Communion comes in – it puts us back together through the eating and drinking of bread and wine. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is a celebratory meal – it confirms that we have peace with God through union with His Son. The ritual of Word and Sacrament works to cultivate us into better Christians. Every week we come to God broken, confessing our sins. He breaks us further, puts us back together, and accepts us – strengthening us for the next week’s tasks – and sends us out. When we come before God on the Lord’s Day, we are coming to be judged. This is a good thing because we are confident in the work of Christ. If the liturgy is done right, then we know that our sins our confessed, the work of Christ has been done in us, and that God loves us. Not only have our sins been forgiven, but, though the Lord’s Supper, we’ve been strengthened to be more able conquerors of our sin in the week that follows.

Now, we all come to church as sinners. Every day we sin against God. Much like Paul, we do the things we don’t want to do, and do not do the things we wish to do. I get angry with my kids. I disrespect my wife. I lust and covet. The list goes on and on. There is, though, a difference between this type of sin and homosexuality. Yes, we can all agree that even the smallest sin is enough to separate us from God, but this doesn’t mean that all sins are equal. One way to qualify sin is to ask whether it’s a lifestyle. I may hate myself for giving in to my lusts, but at the end of the day – even a particularly bad day – it’s not a lifestyle. I repent with the hope that tomorrow I will be more obedient. I go to church with the hope that Christ will strengthen me through Word and Sacrament. However, if I have given in to my lusts in such a fashion that I am having an affair with another woman, well, I can’t expect things to get better simply because I confess and repent. In fact, if I carry on an affair while continuing to bring myself before God in this manner, there are at least three things that could happen: 1) I should expect some sort of physical discipline from God (1 Corinthians 11:30), 2) I should expect my church leadership to discipline me – perhaps even excommunicate me (1 Corinthians 5) and 3) I should expect my heart to be hardened. We can’t remain neutral before God. If we open ourselves up to be judged by our Creator, we should expect transformation. We will either grow to love Him, or grow to hate Him.

The problem, of course, is that so few churches actually practice Word and Sacrament properly. On the one hand, the problems with the “hate the sin, love the sinner” stem directly from this. Because the church doesn’t have the proper liturgy to deal with sin, the church has fashioned her liturgy after the Prophetic and Relational models of engagement. There is a time and place for the church to tell the world that homosexuality is a sin and there is a time and place for the church to love her neighbor. There is also, though, a time and place for the church to present herself before God in repentance and awe in order to be changed and charged with the task of doing those two things.

On the other hand, we are doing homosexuals a serious disservice by keeping them from the church’s proper liturgy. What they need is to be invited into a church where they will be loved, but will be expected to meet the demands of discipleship (baptism and obedience). What they are getting, instead, are churches issuing prophetic warnings against their lifestyle without any hope of healing, or churches compromising in order to pacify them. The importance of the Prophetic realm is that it tells the world that the church believes homosexuality is a sin. The importance of the Relational realm is that it shows the world that we love them and want what’s best for them. The importance of the Ecclesiastical realm is that it provides the opportunity for change that they will not get anywhere else. To be honest, without Word and Sacrament, there really is no “hating the sin, loving the sinner.” If you do not offer them the chance to present themselves before God to be transformed – either for good or ill – you are not loving them.

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