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Rev. Patrick S. Cheng, Ph.D. Headshot

"Love The Sinner, Hate The Sin" And Other Modern-Day Heresies

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"Love the sinner, hate the sin." Anti-gay Christians often use this slogan to force lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people to change their sexual orientations and gender identities. Popular methods of "change" include mandatory celibacy, reparative therapy, expulsion from homes and churches, and even acts of physical violence, up to and including the death penalty. For these anti-gay Christians, it is much better for LGBT people to pay a small price in this world rather than to suffer the consequences of eternal punishment in the next world. All this is done, of course, in the name of "loving" the sinner.

As an openly-gay Christian theologian and minister, I believe that the slogan of "Love the sinner, hate the sin," no matter how well-intentioned, is theologically unsound. Not only is this an unbiblical concept, but it is also not workable in practice. In fact, when it comes to LGBT sexualities and gender identities, I contend that this slogan is actually a modern-day version of gnosticism, which was condemned as heretical by early Church theologians such as Irenaeus in the second century.

First, "love the sinner, hate the sin" is an unbiblical concept. Many people think that this is a divine command, but it actually doesn't appear anywhere in the Bible. Although God clearly "hates" sin in the Bible (sane in Hebrew and miseo in the Greek), God never demands that we carry out this hatred on God's behalf. God is perfectly capable of addressing the sins of others without needing our third-party intervention. Those who truly believe in "hating sin" probably should focus more on hating their own sins (i.e., first taking the log out of their own eyes, as Jesus says) instead of hating the sins of others. (See Matt. 7:5 and Luke 6:42.)

Indeed, Jesus Christ did not subscribe to "love the sinner, hate the sin" when it came to his own actions. He simply loved the sinner. Period. Throughout the gospels, Jesus loved -- and indeed hung out with and even broke bread with -- sinners such as tax collectors and sexual outcasts. He physically touched those people who were considered too unclean under the Levitical laws to come into contact with "normal" society. In fact, Jesus was roundly criticized by the "respectable" people of his day for welcoming sinners into his circle of followers. He upset the religious and political authorities so much that they eventually arrested him and put him to death.

Jesus never made repentance a precondition of loving sinners. Rather, he loved sinners unconditionally, even to the point of risking his own physical safety in defending them from the self-righteous. (See, e.g., John 8:11.) This is a far cry from those Roman Catholic bishops who have denied communion to openly-LGBT people and their allies, as well as those Protestant ministers who have strategized with anti-gay politicians in Uganda and other countries to impose the death penalty on sexually active LGBT people. If any people have failed to "welcome the stranger" as Jesus commanded (see Matt. 25:35), it would be these religious and political leaders.

Second, "love the sinner, hate the sin" simply does not work in practice. It may sound appealing to love LGBT people while also hating their sexual practices, but it is rarely -- if ever -- possible to separate the act from the person. Despite their best intentions, most Christians who "hate the sins" of same-sex acts or transgenderism inevitably end up hating LGBT people as well. Period. The rhetoric of "loving the sinner" is precisely that; it is often nothing more than a wink and a nod that gives people permission to commit brutal acts of spiritual and physical violence against their LGBT sisters and brothers.

Indeed, I have been amazed (but not surprised) at the nasty responses that I've received on my recent article about rethinking sin and grace for LGBT people. By far, the ugliest responses have been from self-identified Christians. For example, one person sent me an unsolicited message in which he called me a "schismatic" and a "heretic." Not only did he accuse me of embracing one of the "four sins that cry to Heaven for Vengeance," but he said that I was "tragic" for wanting to change God's laws to accommodate my "earthly desires of the flesh." Another person sent me a lengthy and vulgar missive about the proper use of sexual organs, bodily fluids, and excrement. Do these sound like people who "love the sinner"? Is it not even possible to have a good-faith theological discussion about sin without being subject to such vitriolic attacks?

Third, I contend that people who advocate "love the sinner, hate the sin" with respect to LGBT people are actually the ones who are the modern-day heretics. In my view, these people are nothing more than contemporary versions of the gnostics who were condemned by the early Church. The gnostics, strongly influenced by Platonic philosophy, believed in a dualism of the spirit and flesh. That is, spirit was good, whereas flesh (indeed, all matter) was evil. For example, the heretical religious thinker Marcion (d. 160 C.E.) believed that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures was in fact evil because that "god" had engaged in the "evil" act of creation! (Even the great theologian Augustine of Hippo was a Manichaean dualist before his conversion to Christianity, and in some ways he never entirely gave up that world view. See, e.g., De Civitate Dei at 14.6.)

Traditional Christian theology, going at least as far back as Irenaeus in the second century C.E., has condemned such dualism because orthodox doctrine understands creation to be good and that God has created humanity in God's own image and likeness. This is why we profess in the Nicene Creed that we believe in "one God" who is the creator of "all that is seen and unseen," including the gift of human sexuality in all of its forms. And that is why the central revelation of Christianity involves the incarnation, or the goodness of the Word made flesh. Indeed, of all the possible ways of reconciling Godself to us, God chose to take on the form of human flesh. To paraphrase the Eastern Orthodox concept of divinization, God became human so that humans could become divine.

As such, I believe those Christians who "hate" LGBT sexualities and gender expressions while allegedly "loving" LGBT people are nothing more than modern-day gnostics. It is simply not possible to divorce one's sexuality or gender expression -- LGBT or otherwise -- from one's spiritual self, particularly if such sexualities and gender expressions are rooted in the love of God, the love of the other, and the love of the self.

Those of us who walk the Christian path should reject the modern-day heresy of "love the sinner, hate the sin," especially when it comes to LGBT people. Instead, we should focus on the two great commandments of (1) loving God with all of our hearts, souls, and minds, and (2) loving our neighbors as ourselves (see Matt. 22:37-40). Nothing more and nothing less. We should spend far less time worrying about how to make others repent, and far more time worrying about our own repentance, or metanoia. If we truly believe in a gospel of grace as opposed to a cult of works-righteousness, then we should believe that God -- and not humans -- will take care of the rest.

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