Friday, July 5, 2013

Silly Things to Say..."Love the sinner; hate the sin."

Hold on to your hats folks; this one's bound to make me all kinds of new friends.

"Love the sinner! Hate the sin!"

This particular catchphrase is rather popular among the evangelical crowd, as well as outside it (as evidenced by its appearance on even Catholic church signs). It finds its most frequent application in discussions of homosexuality, where Christians are advised to take a public and vocal stand against the behavior of homosexuals (the "sin"), while embracing the homosexuals themselves (the "sinners"). 1 

However, fear not: I'll not be dealing with that controversial issue here.

Instead, I want to question the assumptions of the sentiment itself. I do not deny that it has somewhat prestigious beginnings. Apparently, its origins are in Augustine, though in a different form, and later it even gets quoted favorably by Gandhi. 2 

Nonetheless, I think it's a worthless, and often offensive, thing to say. Here's why.

First, the saying often masks what is actually being communicated. While evoking thoughts of Christian love, it smuggles in the idea that such love is compatible with (or even entails) openly confronting what we take to be the sins of others. However, this idea has no grounds in scripture, and is in fact in direct opposition to the teaching and practice of Christ.

Now before I get a bunch of angry responses about how Jesus and Paul confronted sin, and how pointing out someone's sin is "the most loving thing you can do," let me clarify.

Those who use this cliché often confuse judgment and discernment. The Bible says a lot about both. In fact, the sin of judgmentalism is one of the most frequently mentioned sins in the New Testament. Here's a sampling of passages clearly condemning it:

Matt. 7:1-5
John 3:16-17
John 8:15
John 12:47-48
Rom. 2:1
Rom. 14:4-13
1 Cor. 4:3-5
James 4:11-12

The word translated as "judge" or "condemn" in these verses is "κρίνω," which means literally to separate or divide. Unfortunately, the Greek doesn't distinguish between the various senses of the word, and we are left to figure it out from context. Two such senses are "judgment," which is unilaterally condemned in the New Testament, and "discernment," which is often prescribed. Most English translations, however, just use the word "judge," which has produced all manner of confusion because Americans aren't generally fond of discerning intended meaning from context.

Here are some instances of κρίνω which would probably be more helpfully translated as "discern": 3

Luke 12:57
John 5:30
John 7:24
1 Cor. 5:12
1 Cor. 6:1-3 4

There are many differences between judgment and discernment that I could elucidate for you, but that would take us too far afield. Here it will suffice to point out that discernment deals with things (e.g. objects, ideas, etc.), while judgment deals with people. Additionally, their fruit is different: discernment creates compassion and closeness, while judgment creates revulsion and distance. The take-home point is that discernment is compatible with love; judgment is not. 5

Thus, another way to get at my point is to say that the platitude, "Love the sinner; hate the sin," pretends to encourage discernment, while in fact encouraging judgment. My evidence for this is that one almost never hears it uttered except from people who think we ought to be making a bigger deal of particular sins. People who really are focused on loving sinners have no need of the second half of the statement. It's only folks who need to make their hatred for sin public for some reason that bother saying this. In other words, only an urge to judge would compel anyone to say such a thing.

And this is a great irony indeed, for the sin of judgment is the first and greatest sin in the Bible, the very reason Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden, and the only thing God saw fit to forbid them. It was for the "knowledge of good and evil" that we fell. It was for the ability to judge for ourselves what was right.

Hopefully, the danger of this adage is becoming clear. If not, I have one more criticism. 6

While the first criticism was about the motivation for using the cliché, this second is more about its theoretical assumptions. What I mean is that it suggests that sin is somehow separable from the sinner.

Now, again, some clarification is in order. I am of course not suggesting that sin is what we are at our most basic level. If that were true, then redemption would be impossible, as there wouldn't be anything to redeem us to. No, the Bible is very clear that we were made good and beautiful and valuable, bearers of love and the image of our Creator. Sin is a later accretion, and one that Jesus died to rid us of.

What I am saying is that in our fallen state, it makes no sense to distinguish between sin and the sinner. To speak of one is to speak of the other. This phrase is only applied (or at least, only rightly applied) to those outside the church. After all, those inside are already redeemed. So, when Paul says things like "Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it," 7 it makes sense because he has been redeemed, and is now separated from his sin nature. The sinful part of him is the part that still lives "according to the flesh," rather than "according to the Spirit." 8

But to speak of a sinner as separate from her sin when she is not yet "in Christ" is nonsensical. What makes her a sinner is that she sins. Continually, habitually, without hope for change or knowledge that she needs it. For all intents and purposes, she is her sin. Again, this is not meant metaphysically (at least not by me), but soteriologically. This is what the reformers meant by saying that prior to Christ, we are all "dead in our sins." 

Søren Kierkegaard notes that sin is a "state," and that it "enters" the human race anew with every individual decision to sin. 9 A "state" is just a way of beinga condition or modeof a thing at a given time. So the sin of a sinner prior to redemption is just one description of what the sinner is. She is, in her sinful state, defined by her choices, since her own will is still set before the will of God. This is just what it means to be "in sin."

So, in addition to being a smokescreen for our own judmentalism, this slogan is actually theologically vacuous.


Lastly, isn't there just something about it that doesn't quite feel right anyway? When I read the New Testament, I see Jesus surrounded by sinnerstax collectors, prostitutes, drunkardsthe very sort of people that are usually on the receiving end of judgment by the religious type. And yet these people flocked to Jesus of their own volition. They liked being around him. This leads me to ask, "How come they don't like being around us?" We are His bride after all, meant to represent Him until He comes back.

Might it be because we can't stop hating the sin long enough to actually start loving the sinner?

1 I'm sure it also gets applied in other contexts, but it is telling that this is by far the most common.

2 See here:

3 I don't mean to here suggest that the translators are in error; who am I to stand in judgment over them (pun very much intended)? I am merely suggesting that for theological purposes, it is more helpful to read these verses as connoting discernment, which is positive, rather than judgment, which is negative.

4 These verse lists were drawn (mostly) from a 2002 sermon series by Greg Boyd on love and judgment. That series can be found here. See especially the third sermon in the series. Highly recommended.

5 This does not, however, mean that discernment should always be expressed. In fact, if it is to be consistent with love, it almost always should not be. (One important point here is that commands such as "speak the truth to one another in love," etc., are written in the context of small house churches, made up of people who are committed to discipling one another in every area of life. But that is a blog for another time. See sermon series just mentioned.)

6 I should perhaps note that the following is purely my own thought, and so may be a bit more controversial than the preceding. Nonetheless, I think I am on solid ground.

7 Romans 7:20 (but see whole chapter)

8 See Romans 8.

9 See his Concept of Anxiety.

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