HATE AND THE TOLERANCE OF SEXUAL SIN
Leviticus 19 is the key “love your neighbor” section of the Law of God. Verse 17 of that chapter contains this requirement, translated literally “You must not hate your brother in your heart; you must absolutely reprove your fellow, and not neglect sin on him.” The New Century Version offers this more colloquial but accurate rendering of the meaning of the verse: “You must not hate your fellow citizen in your heart. If your neighbor does something wrong, tell him about it, or you will be partly to blame.” Ezekiel 3:18 is a prophetic allusion back to this truth, and states the principle more chillingly: “When I say to a wicked man, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his evil ways in order to save his life, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood.”
Frank, uncompromising confrontation regarding sinfulness is a component of the neighbor-love Jesus commanded and practiced (Matthew 22:39). He added (v. 40) that ALL of the Law and the prophetic calls to return to the Law’s goodness and justice, in essence an extended application of Leviticus 19:17, were affirming and illustrating such love for God and, by extension, for mankind. This idea has long been neglected, both in less-than-loving ways of dealing with sinful brothers and, even more commonly, in failing to love sinful brethren through proper confrontation.
Confronting sin should always be a fearful thing for a fellow sinner. If sin is confronted with vindictiveness or smug self-satisfaction (obviously not motivated by a love impulse and unheeding of our own failings), the likelihood is that the sinner will not “hear” the warning, being too distracted by the hatefulness of the one giving the warning. In fact, the sinner may be inclined to participate in the spite by sinning all the more. That is, no doubt, why God placed the necessity for warning in the midst of other examples of neighbor-love. No love – no real warning.
And here is where it gets tricky, because we live in a culture of “broadcast immorality”. Because of the pervasive nature and appeal of media, marginal forms of sin, particularly sexual sin, can be sympathetically packaged and repeated until they achieve moral equivalence in popular culture with traditional norms. When sin itself is in dispute, ALL warnings may be deemed divisive rather than constructive. In this context, almost ANY confrontation of sin, loving or not, will likely be considered hateful.
Western culture turned a corner on sexual sin beginning in the Sixties, with the Free Love movement, whose anthem is the unfortunately catchy “Love the One You’re With” (ironically penned by Stephen Stills, a revered artist whose folk-rock anthem Suite Judy Blue Eyes grieved the infidelity of his own “true” love, Judy Collins). Experimentation and “self actualization” were the order of the day and are now lauded by the intellectual class, themselves participants in those heady days of “emancipation”, who patiently maneuvered to assume positions of power within the academy and in media, largely motivated by a desire to change the world for the “better”. The result is a media-oriented society that has marinated nearly exclusively in a romanticized view of “open” sexuality, taken a “no-fault”, permissive approach to pre-marital sex and divorce, and made “marriage” of homosexuals a matter of “civil rights” and “social justice”.
Because many creative types often resist or attempt to overturn convention, the rise of a media-saturated society gave rise to the possibility of subversion of the relatively uniform older “mass-market”, “Puritanical” attitudes toward sexuality. But because media are financed by consumers, the subversives had to content themselves with a “long view” of societal conversion. The “frog in the pot” would need to to be heated ever so gradually to avoid his escape from the boiling process.
Two generations after this process began, a more aggressive approach is palatable, as well as an active process of marginalization of those who resist. The prevailing notion is that while perhaps, just perhaps, it is better for traditional approaches to sexuality to be the norm for utilitarian reasons, those who deviate have both the right to do so and, indeed, are driven by genetic predisposition or their own histories to do so. This “therapeutic” approach is aimed primarily at affirmation of the fait accompli, or at most to attempt gentle reconstruction.
The aggressiveness and assumptiveness of broadcast immorality and the pervasiveness of the “new morality” in the academic realm has created a strong impetus for academic theologians to try to square the circle and integrate the permissive view of the elite into their teaching. Generally, this is accommodated by a narrow focus on Jesus’ teachings detached from His fidelity to His Father’s law (sometimes termed “red-letter” Christianity) and even in marginalization of the Epistles as specific and applicable only to their immediate audience (except when Paul is being denounced outright as having inserted his own neuroses into the Scriptural record). Between the media-saturation of their upbringing and the reinforcement of their education (and sometimes in their “devotional” groups), many 20 and 30-somethings are resistant to teachings on sexuality that seem confrontational.
Often, ardent bible-believers rightly feel beset on every side by these cultural assumptions. As a result, their responses may reflect frustration and fear. There is little doubt that some churches have merely condemned and discarded rather than compassionately attempting to firmly, lovingly and patiently convict sexual sinners of sin and judgment to come. But it is also important to note that excommunications of believers over sexual matters were relatively rare at one time, not so long ago, because open sexual sin and divorce were also far more rare. Certainly, some people simply left the church altogether in to pursue forbidden relationships, but many more endured unhappy situations, sometimes finding reconciliation but often simply hanging on in order to maintain relationships within what was a far less fluid society, socially and within the church. At one time, if there were ten churches in a small town, they were likely to be of one mind on these matters, and the larger society was largely of the same mind.
A question rarely asked in churches in our therapeutic age is which was better, the old way or the new? We roll our eyes at the chaste depiction of the marriage bed in 50s and early 60s television shows – “For Pete’s sake, Ricky and Lucy and Rob and Laura slept in separate beds! How silly!” But the chaste depictions in such shows reflected not repression, but the dominance of a Christian assumption in society. As a result, sexual sin in that era was dealt with uncompromisingly and “harshly” within the church (which in our era might include simply speaking unequivocally about it as sin), but I believe that the result was arguably that there was far less of it, begging the question as to whether, in light of the pain and misery that have accompanied a societally permissive view finding its way into the church doors, a “harsher” view is ultimately more loving by causing folks to more actively avoid sin, suppress sinful urges, and sometimes simply “hang in” in tough situations, saving themselves different but often far greater pain, regret and generational damage. As philosophy and politics professor Jay Budziszewski of the University of Texas puts it: “My generation may have ordered the sexual revolution; theirs (his students’, with whom he has ongoing interaction on these topics) is paying the price. I am not speaking only of the medical price of sexual promiscuity…I am speaking, for example, of broken childhoods. What is it like for your family to break up? What is it like to be passed from stepparent to stepparent to stepparent? What is it like to grow up knowing that you would have had a sister, but she was aborted?…A young man remarked in one of my classes that he longed to get married and stay married to the same woman forever, but because his own parents hadn’t been able to manage it, he was afraid to get married at all.” (1)
And while no doubt innocent or repentant parties to divorces sometimes wrongly suffered or felt isolation from churches full of intact marriages, the relative scarcity of and stigma attached to divorce meant that churches had less “practice” understanding how best to love such folks. Today, the church is so awash in broken marriages that the impetus is to generally operate under a “don’t ask, don’t tell” regime. The church has largely “moved on” to new sexual issues, such as how best to love homosexuals. This unfortunately leaves many divorced people with unresolved issues that cause them grief and leave them in need of assurance and redemptive comfort or others in need of repentance.
Within modern society the answer regarding whether the suppressive approach toward sexual sin was proper or beneficial is “of course not! People simply did their sin underground or struggled unnoticed with severe self-loathing, knowing there was no one to confide in or who would understand. It was tantamount to slavery!” And while it was often true that people kept their sin or the pain caused by others’ sin to themselves, unnecessarily bearing burdens alone that God and his Church can shoulder, whether it was any more damaging than a confused, indulgent response such as is common these days remains an open question. For to be sure, mental health issues, including depression and suicidal ideation, abound in the gay community, including in such affirming and supportive environments as The Netherlands and Denmark (2).
As the sensitivity meter regarding acceptable sexual relations has moved steadily toward “full”, to the point that even a majority of young adults in conservative evangelical churches have little problem rationalizing premarital sex (at least in certain forms), society, and at a degree of remove, the church, having previously reached detente with rampant divorce, has become ready for the next step in the progression. In our era, that step is the “normalizing” of homosexual relationships. If we are missing the tension that is building in congregations over this issue, we simply aren’t paying attention.
With “grace” conflated to “loving” acceptance or indulgence for the sake of peace and under threat of hurt feelings (perhaps as close to a capital offense as exists in the therapeutic age), it is important to understand that the context of the older “square” sexual norms in which the unhappy enduring of damaged marital relationships occurred was one of near universal condemnation of or aversion to homosexuality. The no-compromise approach occurred with an assumption that the person so engaged was aware that they were sinning. And, by the way, the same was true of adultery and sex outside of marriage. There was none of the permission seeking (or granting) rationalization that has emerged over the past 30 years or so. One of the “winning” arguments for the acceptance of homosexuality in the church is that it is hypocritical to single out one sexual sin for condemnation when we are tacitly accepting most others.
Can there be any question that more and more people have been lured into the “devil’s bargain” of sexual sin by its popularization and, in the case of Internet pornography in particular, its availability and anonymity? Even some of the most extreme forms of sexual sin — those termed abominations in Scripture, particularly homosexuality — have become common currency in social conversation, to the point that few if any Christians will have an option to avoid interaction with or friendship with practicing homosexuals (and with a upcoming movie with an sympathetic approach to incest being favorably reviewed, or sitcoms like “Big Love”, the hit Showtime drama about polygamy, can widespread acceptance of these be far behind?). As a result, there are issues faced by modern Church that only correspond to those faced by the early Christians in engaging with and/or converting from a debauched pagan culture. Given this, there is a valid reason to look back at the prescriptions of early Christianity regarding sexual sin.
The paradigmatic example for the biblical approach to the strains caused by the intersection of Christians from different cultural backgrounds has to be the famous Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). The issues in that episode arose over the pressing of the need for a “Jewish” step in the conversion process — that of circumcision — which remained a problem as Christianity expanded throughout the Roman Empire and diaspora Jews and pagan converts increasingly interacted. In prescribing a solution to the tension, the Council determined, significantly, that, while converting pagans had no requirement in the New Covenant to be physically circumcised (circumcision now being the heart circumcision rendered through the Spirit, prophecied of old), abstaining from sexual immorality WAS a minimal requirement for fellowship, presented as a corollary to faith in Christ for forgiveness from sin and ongoing sanctification.
Indeed, for many Gentiles, sexual sin would have undoubtedly been a key basis for conviction when the Gospel was preached. In the Epistles, Paul’s unrelenting linking of sexual sin with unbelief, even as standards for eating food associated with idol worship relaxed in Gentile-dominant communities, indicates that sexual purity and uncompromising teaching regarding the behavioral “markers” of repentant believers was a constant in a church that operated in a similar atmosphere of sexual permissiveness to today’s.
The early Church expanded into cultural territory that, for all its absence of technological amplification, was as sex-saturated as Western society has become. The Church of today can learn much from the fast-expanding Church of the early centuries of Christianity. The questions are the same: Did (or do) people come to Christ and remain in sin as a lifestyle (a question Romans 6:1 emphatically answers for us)? What, if so, is the point of conversion? Conversion from what? “From unbeliever (in Christ) to believer,” one might say. Okay, but what do we BELIEVE about Christ? What is the point of His appearing, His sacrifice, His resurrection? What’s the big deal? As Paul tells it in his run-up to his presentation of the Gospel in the first three chapters of Romans, the big deal is SIN and the righteous wrath of a Holy God, and a key marker of sinfulness is attitudes toward and engagement in sexual sin.
Jesus, the second, fully obedient Adam (Romans 5:18, 1 Corinthians 15:45), stands in for mankind as the focus of God’s wrath against sin, thus saving the repentant from the rightful “wages” of their sin. If we are not sinners, we have no need of Christ’s sacrifice (Luke 5:32) . If we are sinners, we must die to and be resurrected from a lifestyle of sin to live IN CHRIST (Romans 6:3-5 -being joined to Him, assuming His name – His righteous identity as God’s approved, resurrected, “beloved Son”), or remain under judgment. If we are not preaching judgment, we cannot preach the gospel, because the gospel is ESCAPE from judgment and escape from enslavement to a sin lifestyle (Romans 6:6).
Unlike many of today’s evangelists, Paul certainly does not seem to have been reluctant to mention the idea of judgment in an evangelistic context before pagan audiences. When he was presenting the case for Christ before the Roman procurator Felix, Paul preached “righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come.” (Acts 24:25). Paul was clear that there is a consequence to sinning, that there is such a thing as objective righteousness that brings human flourishing, and warned against resisting the provision of Jesus Christ to deal with our sin and of the Spirit to bring our conduct under control for our own good and that of our neighbor.
Ultimately, we must ask ourselves and others: who is God? Is He sovereign Lord of Hosts, or a kindly “old man” who dotes on wayward children, desiring that they continue willfully sinning so that grace may be continually poured out (Romans 6:1)? Can we come to Him or please Him without fearing Him? Can we ignore what He says is righteous or unrighteous? Does He change His mind about such things? Is his standard affected by what the majority or what the “wise of this world” (1 Cor 1:20) or the “opinion leaders” or “hipsters” think? If He is sovereign and if He judges sin against an absolutely consistent standard of righteousness, can we love one of His creatures, created in His image and marring that image in a sinful lifestyle, and not warn them of judgment to come and offer them pardon and relief through faith in the Christ’s atoning work and submission to Christ’s loving Lordship? Do we offer them the Way that leads to flourishing and true satisfaction, or leave them in a futile struggle for “self-actualization”?
What is love, in the context of a Holy God’s appropriate wrath against sin? What is hateful? How we answer is an indication of where our faith is placed and who or what is our Lord.