“Calling all sin sinful”

July 19, 2012

There is an interesting debate happening at Christianity Today over some recent public remarks made by the president of Exodus International, an organization that supports gay Christians who seek to be faithful in their sex lives. In this thoughtful interview with The Atlantic, the president, Alan Chambers, said that Exodus is not about “curing” homosexuals of their sexual orientation—what the organization’s many secular critics often call “praying away the gay.” He said that “99.9” percent of the time, gay Christians will continue to struggle with same-sex attraction. He said,

We’re here to support people who are in conflict at the place where their attractions meet their faith… Our goal isn’t to snap our fingers and pretend those struggles don’t exist. But we have a conviction that same-sex sexual expression is incompatible with a healthy Christian sexual ethic. It’s not that we don’t have attractions. It’s just that we have a priority higher than our sexual orientation.

I don’t find these words controversial or surprising, especially given what I read and reflected on after reading Wesley Hill’s beautiful memoir about living as a celibate gay Christian. What landed Chambers in hot water, however, was his response when asked by the interviewer if he believes that a gay person “won’t go to hell, as long as he or she accepts Jesus Christ as personal savior?” He responded [emphasis mine]:

My personal belief is that everyone has the opportunity to know Christ, and that while behavior matters, those things don’t interrupt someone’s relationship with Christ. But that’s a touchy issue in the conservative group I run with. And there are definitely differing opinions on it. I don’t think you could even look at any one denomination and find that everyone believes exactly the same thing.

On the other hand, I do believe there is a right and wrong. I believe there is clarity on the issue of all sexuality in the Bible — on every aspect of it.

Let me say first of all that, if I were him, I wouldn’t have said it like that. (On the other hand, he was speaking extemporaneously to an interviewer who was likely unsympathetic with his views. Cut him some slack!) Of course any sinful behavior potentially “interrupts” our relationship with God. Forgiveness is available, but we need to repent and resolve to change by the Spirit’s power. The consequences of persistently failing to do so are spiritually dangerous. I agree wholeheartedly with Ben Witherington, a fellow Wesleyan and scholar who said this, in response to Chambers:

One cannot save one’s self by certain patterns of behavior but one can certainly impede or even destroy one’s relationship with God through sin whether moral or intellectual sin. God’s saving grace and forgiveness is not cheap grace, and it does not rule out such a possibility.

As Witherington rightly says, our salvation isn’t complete when we first receive justifying grace and new birth. It’s complete only on the other side of resurrection. Backsliding and falling away from saving faith, as Wesley warned, is a frightening possibility. To say the least, it isn’t pastorally helpful that increasingly loud voices within the church say, contrary to scripture, tradition, and reason, that homosexual behavior isn’t sinful. (I’ve obviously written and said a few things about that over the past several years.)

At the same time, however, I’m sympathetic with Chambers. He was asked, in so many words, if gay Christians who, unlike him, live in a same-sex, monogamous relationship are, as a result, going to hell. And he said, in so many words, no.

How is that not the correct answer? For one thing, we don’t get to say who does or doesn’t go to hell. God makes those decisions—which is fortunate for us. As even the curmudgeon Jonah well knew, God is “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2).

Also, Chambers is correct to discern, in this followup essay he wrote for CT, that many evangelical critics are singling out homosexual sin.

For anyone to point at one group of people with a certain set of proclivities and condemn them for those things while exonerating (or ignoring) another group with over proclivities is hypocritical and inconsistent. Can a believer persist in willful pride and still inherit the kingdom of God? Can a believer persist in willful alcoholism and still inherit the kingdom of God? Can a believer persist in willful gluttony and still inherit the kingdom of God? Can a believer persist in willful heterosexual pornography and still inherit the kingdom of God? If you aren’t consistently and regularly calling all sin sinful, and calling all people (including yourself) to holy living, then how can you do so for those living homosexually? And, if you are unwilling to pronounce the same eternal sanctions on all willful sinning believers as you do on the gay and lesbian willful sinner, how can you justify that?

His insight about “willful sinning believers” is, I think, on point. None of us Christians, I hope, wants to commit sin. But the fact is that we do sin, willfully or not, consciously or not. And we often excuse our own little sins—even sins like pride, which the Church has always identified as the chief sin. Sin is pervasive and it has great power to deceive us regarding the ways in which we commit it. The fact is that all of us will likely die with unconfessed sin for which we haven’t repented. To believe otherwise is to underestimate sin’s power.

Yet we Christians hope and believe that, in spite of our sin, we have a Savior whose suffering, death, and resurrection provide a way for all of us who call upon him to be saved.

7 Responses to ““Calling all sin sinful””

  1. Susan Taylor Says:

    Brent,

    We can agree on the points you make in this posting–especially this quote from Chambers’ essay for CT:

    “For anyone to point at one group of people with a certain set of proclivities and condemn them for those things while exonerating (or ignoring) another group with over [other] proclivities is hypocritical and inconsistent. Can a believer persist in willful pride and still inherit the kingdom of God? Can a believer persist in willful alcoholism and still inherit the kingdom of God? Can a believer persist in willful gluttony and still inherit the kingdom of God? Can a believer persist in willful heterosexual pornography and still inherit the kingdom of God? If you aren’t consistently and regularly calling all sin sinful, and calling all people (including yourself) to holy living, then how can you do so for those living homosexually? And, if you are unwilling to pronounce the same eternal sanctions on all willful sinning believers as you do on the gay and lesbian willful sinner, how can you justify that?”

    We can also agree that we don’t get to decide who “goes to hell”, as that’s God’s decision–thanks be to God,

    I think if Christians of all faith traditions could hold fast to and live out Chamber’s quote above, we would find that we could pay less attention to the “speck in each others’ eyes” and instead focus on loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. It’s the loving ourselves that we cannot often accomplish, and I believe that the exclusion of people not like us is a reflection that we do not love ourselves–we live in fear and pride.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Susan, I’m confused. Are you saying that, for example, my position on homosexual behavior reflects my inability to love myself? It can’t simply be that I’ve carefully thought it through, and I believe that our church’s position is the correct one?

      As for focusing on loving our neighbor, I agree! If sin is spiritually harmful, then it would be unloving not to say so. Also, I don’t think the “speck in the eye” argument is the best one for you to make. As I’ve said in the past, if people on the pro-gay side concede that homosexual behavior is a sin, then both sides of the debate are very close to reaching agreement. What I hear on the pro-gay side, however, is that there’s no spiritual problem whatsoever with L, G, B, or T. Right? That God is completely indifferent to one’s sexual orientation?

      Or, when you talk about exclusion, are you referring to something else?

      • Susan Taylor Says:

        Brent,

        My main point is that too many focus on believing that homosexuality is sinful while not realizing that there are multitudes of sin categories that one could choose to “fixate” upon. I believe that fear and pride are motivators that are often an indication that someone does not really love themselves, and I believe that fear and pride are often at the root of the fixation that some Christians have when it comes to homosexuality or sexual orientation.

        Yes I believe that for those who love God and seek God’s will and claim the Christian faith that one’s sexual orientation does not exclude them from God’s love, grace, embrace, mercy and forgiveness.

        Is that clear?

  2. brentwhite Says:

    Not really. I don’t think you’re dealing with the heart of the matter. It’s not simply, “Does sexual orientation exclude people from the God’s love, grace,” etc. We likely agree on that—that was sort of the point of my blog post. The heart of the matter is the reason “too many,” in your words, focus on homosexuality as a sin. We focus on it because, in a very recent development in the history of Christian thought, many people in church are saying that same-sex sexual behavior is not a sin at all.

    In other words, it’s not simply a case of, “Well, I struggle with lust and you struggle with sinful pride. So who am I to judge you for being sinfully proud when I have my own problem with lust to worry about.” This is what you appear to be saying. But that can’t be right. Because in this case we both agree that lust and pride are sins—although we may disagree over the extent to which we struggle with it.

    This isn’t the nature of the problem in church regarding homosexuality. Because if I buy into the pro-gay argument, then I reject the idea—which for 2,000 years the universal Church has found rooted in scripture—that homosexual behavior is a sin—that one’s sexual orientation can be misdirected because of sin; that God could create us with the intention of being male and female for each other, and that any deviation from that represents a spiritual problem.

    You didn’t answer my question about God. Do you believe that God is completely indifferent to our sexual orientation? That the words of Genesis 1-2 about God’s creating us male and female for each other—reaffirmed by Jesus in Matthew—are merely incidental to Creation, and that scripture may as well have said that God created any two adults in a monogamous relationship for one another, irrespective of the sex organs or reproductive systems that God gave them?

    So answer that question: Is God indifferent to sexual orientation? Even if you say, “I’m not sure,” then that should at least give us pause before we march headlong toward a radical change in the life of our church.

    • Susan Taylor Says:

      Brent,

      To be completely clear, yes, I believe God is indifferent to sexual orientation. God is indifferent to gender. God is indifferent to race and ethnicity.

      I am going to paraphrase Kathleen Norris as I think she says it eloquently:

      In Christ, the mystery of Christ, offering the truth not as a thing but as a way, an opening on the path between the spirit and the letter of the law. Between pushing for precision and exactitude in matters of faith and practice, and knowing when to leave well enough alone. Between a practical and loving tolerance and the insidious voice of sin speaking in our hearts, offering us self-justification for our harsh judgment of other people. A way between an anything-goes morality and rigid, unforgiving moralism. A way of forebearance,

      Susan

      • brentwhite Says:

        How does this not represent a dualistic rejection of the physical? That I have this particular body with these physical characteristics is of no consequence to the God who created me this way?

      • Susan Taylor Says:

        I am not rejecting the physical. I am embracing it, and I fully believe that God, as in the description of David having a heart for God and Samuel hearing that God looks at our hearts and not our physical being when sent to anoint David as the next king of God’s people, looks at our hearts when it comes to our relationship with God.


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