When disgust eclipses compassion: evangelicals and homosexuality

In a recent post I defended believers whose genuine compassion causes them to show concern about homosexuality among believers. Unfortunately, there is another common response to homosexuality, often accompanying and getting mistaken for the compassionate type, that I find much less defensible.

It’s apparent to most believers, at least intuitively if not deductively, that some sins are “worse” than others. Fudging the truth (lying, intentionally misleading, etc.) is not considered to be as bad as theft, theft is not as bad as murder, murder is not as bad as voting Democratic (a little joke there), etc. Even the many Christians who would support the idea that all sins carry equal weight before God as a result of their belief in His perfectionistic criterion admit that, in the temporal realm anyway, some sins carry greater consequences than others. Even in the Torah, the severity of the punishment often fluctuated according to the crime’s varying severity.

We are more horrified that even somebody incapable of rape (a quadraplegic, say) might idly desire to commit the act than we are if he actually committed another sin such as shoplifting. This is because physical violence and actions with painful or irreversible consequences are generally what burdens us the most when we evaluate how unacceptable sins are. At any rate, this is what most of us would say are our main criteria: yet no matter what we say, there are certain exceptions.

Yes, we are generally more offended with sins that harm innocent victims; we’re also likely to be especially offended by behavior for which we cannot fathom the temptation — temptations to do unnatural things. As with teetotalling Baptists looking at Presbyterians, what really sets us off is when the person doesn’t recognize as sin that which we recognize to be sin, especially when s/he openly embraces it.

But a lifestyle commitment to sin doesn’t alone account for the reactions most evangelicals have toward homosexuality. For instance, Christians are likely to feel worse about someone embracing homosexuality than we are that s/he has unapologetically embraced a negative attitude manifesting with a slanderous tongue about others. I have known plenty of this latter sort of Christian and cannot help concluding that they have the potential to do much more damage than the former. Should the amount of grief we feel over each not be divvied up accordingly?

I think a huge part of it comes down to being disgusted by something reckoned to be unnatural. This disgust is often masked by righteous indignation: Christians will often pretend that they’re reacting toward sin in the same way that they think God does. Those who believe that God wants to smite all sinners will egg God on toward doing so. But others are much more nuanced and subtle. To these, sin is something that disturbs us and grieves us. If we, like God, are of purer eyes than to behold sin, we will be disturbed by sin. How can true believers ignore what we believe to be true?

But is this really the way Jesus taught us to respond to sin? Looking at the Gospels, I feel safe saying that our right to be “disturbed” by someone’s sin stops where our empathy for the sinner is compromised, at least in areas in which the only victims are those involved (and probably other areas, too). In the South especially, we’re much likelier to try to befriend a person with a chronically bad attitude in order to “love them out of it” than we are to befriend, for the same reason, a homosexual whom we’re disgusted by.

My guess is that we easily mistake our visceral reaction to the thought of homosexual sex for a righteous indignation toward sin. But visceral reactions did not stop Jesus from fellowshipping with “tax collectors and sinners”, including prostitutes whose chosen lifestyles are clearly condemned in Scripture. (I also guess that those who feel the most convicted by my other guess have already begun to justify their emotions on some other basis.)

Whatever the misused “judge not” teaching in Scripture means, I think it’s safe to say that it’s not at all scriptural to put ourselves in God’s seat to be affronted, offended, or otherwise similarly aggrieved by every sin according to His (supposed) perfectionistic criterion. Only a being without sin has that right, so we certainly can’t claim it.

I think there’s a good argument to be made from the Gospels that Jesus’ response to sin was always compassion that eclipsed disgust, except perhaps for those situations in which the sin was taking advantage of innocents. For example, the cleansing in the temple is a scarcely questioned historic fact, but we don’t have the whole picture if we take John’s commentary (“Zeal for your house has eaten me up”) to mean that Jesus was offended because they were mocking God. In what way were they mocking God? Was it the fact that they were exchanging money in the temple? Where’s the Torah regulation against that? The consensus seems to be, rather, that Jesus was exhibiting his OT prophetic credentials: he was offended by the moneychanging because they were “thieves” in that they were taking advantage of the poor who had to buy animals to sacrifice, and because they had the audacity to do so in God’s house of all places! Do modern Christians, especially those deeply aggrieved by other Christians not condemning homosexuality, ever display their ire for that sort of injustice?

The main group Jesus regularly showed his disgust for was the Jewish leadership, and there is no doubt that this was because he was so deeply offended that those who were supposed to be shepherding the people were instead condemning and casting them aside because of their perfectionistic criteria. Like those upset by Jennifer Knapp’s sins, Jesus’ dispute was with those within the community of faith, but unlike Knappgate, it was because of a disregard for the helpless perpetrated by those whose self-righteous disgust for unrighteous living eclipsed their compassion.

I can certainly imagine Jesus finding cause to fashion a whip to scourge many modern day houses of worship.

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  • “Only a being without sin has that right [to be affronted, offended, or otherwise similarly aggrieved], so we certainly can’t claim it.”

    Why is it given that you can't judge other sinners if you are yourself a sinner? Suppose I coveted my neighbor's wife… can't I judge another who did the same (as I would judge myself), or a murderer?

  • “Christians will often pretend that they’re reacting toward sin in the same way that they think God does.”

    “I can certainly imagine Jesus finding cause to fashion a whip to scourge many modern day houses of worship.”

    Interesting.

  • travisjacobs

    The United States particular aversion to anything openly sexual also plays a role.

  • You've got a talent for pointing out areas in which I'm not clear enough. 🙂

    I'm not at all sure that “judging” is the same thing as feeling personally affronted. My point is that it's as incongruous as a half-Jew being anti-Semitic; black pots should not be offended that some kettles are black

    One more analogy: a man whose own house overlaps a property boundary cannot justifiably claim a legal grievance if the neighbor occasionally wanders across the line to his property. As far as justice and judgment goes, yes, the neighbor may be trespassing, but how nonsensical would it be for the person whose own house violates the property boundary to claim to be personally grieved?

  • The problem is not so much the attempt to react toward sin in the same way God does, but when it's done with an inaccurate understanding of how God does, and when so doing itself results in sinful attitudes.

  • Good point, Travis.

  • So, it's really one being without sin of the same kind or greater, isn't it? I mean, I may have fibbed, but that doesn't mean I can't be offended when someone punches me, right? (Or is violence not a sin? I have never heard that it is.)

  • So, it's really one being without sin of the same kind or greater, isn't it? I mean, I may have fibbed, but that doesn't mean I can't be offended when someone punches me, right? (Or is violence not a sin? I have never heard that it is.)

  • zoonance

     All Sins Equal?
    It is not uncommon to hear or read the statement, “all sins are equal.” In other words, if I drive one mile per hour over the speed limit, I may as well have exterminated millions of people in the eyes of God. If that’s true, we should teach our children that disobeying us by taking a cookie from the cookie jar makes them just as guilty as a murderer. I believe that this line of thinking is basically incorrect and ignores matters of the heart, common sense, and what the Bible teaches. It also paves the way for a society in which dangerous criminals are not punished and character is ignored. After all, if we are all equally wicked, we can’t discriminate between a good person and an evil one. We couldn’t know Adolf Hitler from John the Baptist. Both should be allowed to lead a country or baby sit our children. Right?It is true that all sins separate us from God. Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death…” All sin leads to death and judgment without Jesus, but does that mean all sins are equal? I believe the Bible teaches they are not.Are All Sins Punished in the Same Way?The Old Testament tells us that God assigned different penalties to certain sins. This suggests that certain sins differ in seriousness. Under the Old Testament law, a thief paid restitution; an occult practitioner was cut off from Israel; one who committed adultery was put to death (see Exodus 22 and Leviticus 20).Luke 11:23-24 says, “If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” Because these people refused to soften their hearts, Jesus tells them that they will have an even harsher judgment and punishment than two towns destroyed for their wickedness. Are Some Sins Worse than Others?In 1 Corinthians 6:18, Paul says, “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body.” The Holy Spirit inspired Paul to express that sexual sin is different from other sins. Because the sin is against the human body, Christians commit the sin against the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. Paul said, “All other sins are outside the body.” This distinguishes sexual sin from coveting, for example, because coveting is a sin done outside the human body. Jesus suggested that some sins are worse than others when he told the Pharisees they were straining at a gnat (something little, but still bad) but swallowed a camel (something bigger and worse). “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23: 23 – 24).The words, “the more important matters of the law,” clearly point out that all commands, though each needing to be followed with the same enthusiasm, are not of equal significance. The statement, “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” is also applied in the same way. “Gnat” implies small sins, while “camel” refers to larger ones. Remember Jesus’ words to Pilate? He said, “The one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin” (John 19:11). The phrase, “greater sin,” is there in black and white (or red in the Red Letter Edition). Pilate tried to release Jesus because he could see He had done nothing wrong. Jerusalem’s religious leaders should have known better. Jesus should have been welcomed as the one who fulfilled the prophecies, but the crowd amazed Pilate by demanding the death of the innocent Jesus. Jesus made it clear that those who should have known better held greater guilt. Jesus “came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him”(John 1:11). Pilate’s sin did not compete with theirs and so Jesus told Pilate that the ones who handed Him over were “guilty of a greater sin.”As is true in the case of the Jews, who should have known better than Pilate, where God grants loving blessings and rare opportunities, He also demands greater responsibility. One who knew his master’s will but didn’t fulfill it will suffer more than one who didn’t know (Luke 12:47,48). In Matthew 7:3 Jesus mocks someone who struggles with great sin but takes it upon himself to “fix” another person who commits a less serious sin. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Basically Jesus said that those who commit and struggle with worse sins ought not to “nit pick” those with lesser struggles. Clearly, Jesus used an example of two things not equal in size or severity to each other when he compared a “speck of sawdust” and a “plank.” Some sins reveal a heart that is farther separated from God and bring harsher consequences than others. John told us that anyone who hates his brother is a murderer. God’s law convicts me for even thinking about killing the neighbor whose weed poison destroys my wife’s roses. But if my sin remains a thought and I don’t actually kill him, he is still alive. I have demonstrated restraint by resisting the desires of my temporary rage. That’s something that should separate Christians from the world. Our desires may sometimes be similar to those in the world, but Christians should try to do what is right by listening to the Holy Spirit rather than our egos or hormones. In the case of my neighbor, I would be wrong to say, “Thinking about it is just as bad as actually killing him.” Likewise, I obviously shouldn’t say, “I’ve already thought it, I might as well murder him.”We Shouldn’t Justify “Smaller” SinsAll sins deserve God’s judgment, but not all receive the same judgment. We face danger, however, in attempting to justify our sins by their size. Every sin will lead us to hell if we don’t have the grace and forgiveness of Jesus.God Offers ForgivenessEvery sin—no matter how large—can be forgiven and swallowed in God’s infinite ocean of grace. Just as God forgives those who turn from their wicked ways, so should we. God offers salvation to even the most wicked. 1 John 1:7 tells us “The blood of Jesus purifies us from every sin” (1 John 1:7). God is willing to forgive all! “Copied from Grace Centered Magazine “http://www.gracecentered.com/are_all_sins_equal.htmI share it because it at least complements the discussion.  Mike

  • Zoonance

    http://www.gracecentered.com/are_all_sins_equal.htm

    Sorry, Some of my final comments got cut off.  I shared this because it at least complements the discussion.   This is a wonderful blog!  I commend the participants.  Mike