By Caleb Kaltenbach
Michael was crying in my office. He had come in just a few minutes before our young adult worship service began. Tears were already stained on his cheeks and his eyes were bloodshot. On the other side of the desk, he sat down in a chair and buried his face in the palms of his hands. Quickly, I came from around the desk and sat next to him.
He was a sophomore in college and had moved to the LA area from Northern California. He was always a little more quiet, but was accepted and welcomed to our church.
“What’s going on bro?” I asked with my hand on his shoulder.
No reply, just more crying. I tried prodding a little bit more to find out what had happened. I imagined one of his friends was just killed; a parent had cancer, or something. Luckily I wasn’t preaching today, because it was now fifteen minutes or so into the worship service. I consider myself compassionate, but it was time for him to start spilling his guts.
“Michael, tell me what’s happened? Why are you so upset?”
For the first time since coming in, he removed his face from his hands. He looked at me and said, “I’m a sinner and my parents hate me!”
“Huh?” I replied. “I believe that we’re all sinners. Why would your parents hate you for that?”
He proceeded to tell me that he had come out to his very conservative Christian parents. Ah! Now, it made sense. I always wondered if Michael was same-sex attracted, but he had never come out to me. I guess he just did. I could already imagine the conversation and how it went down. He began to tell me everything—and it occurred just as I had thought. What made it worse was that he had his coming out conversation with his parents over the phone, instead of in person.
Their response was less than what he desired. Inappropriate and unintentional words and sentiments were exchanged as the tense conversation grew. But one phrase stuck with him. One sentence that his parents meant as a comfort was translated in his mind as an insult. It was a line that I had come to despise.
Love the sinner, hate the sin.
Even typing the phrase gets me worked up.
If there was ever a phrase I wish I could cut out of society, this is one of them.
I believe that this phrase has added to lost relationships, divided families, lonely holidays, depressed feelings, and so much more.
This phrase is emotionally tied to the individual saying it, the person receiving the words, and the God who is represented by the phrase. When you have God and different people involved, the conversation shouldn’t be reduced to a single phrase. Consider the phrase from the different perspectives.
I understand the theological idea this phrase tries to convey, but it fails miserably. Scripturally, sin is so tied with each person individually. When you read the Bible, there are many times when God deals personally with people's sin because it is personal to Him. Sin is something that flows from our heart, manifested in our actions, destroys our life, hurts others, and separates us from God. If there is anyone that can really separate the sin from the sinner, it’s God. Actually, Jesus accomplished that on the cross, right? God Himself endured the penalty of our sin on the cross so that the consequences of sin wouldn’t be applied to us. On the other side of this early life, we find the fulfillment of truly be separated from our sin.
However, in this realm, it just doesn’t work, right? Even though we’re saved in Christ, we still have to deal with the sin that dwells in us. Paul unpacks this tension in Romans 7. When you read what he writes in that chapter, you can definitely relate—because we’ve all been where he was. Sometimes on a daily basis we feel the battle.
The Listener’s Perspective
Think about the person hearing you say “love the sinner, hate the sin.” They probably don’t think that same-sex intimacy is a sin. What they hear is you categorizing them and reducing them to a phrase. Sorry, but people aren’t that simple. A single phrase like that doesn’t resolve any tension. I know many people in the LGBT community who see same-sex intimacy as a small catalyst of why they identify as LGBT. Everyone is a mosaic of experiences, joys, upbringings, pains, and so on. Most people who identify as LGBT see it as identity or it’s just who they are. In other words they think, “You've just called me sin itself!” In the same way that it seems hard scripturally to separate sin and sinner—for the hearer it’s difficult to separate orientation from identity.
Many Christians want people to not identify by their orientation. When we think that identifying as “gay” is mainly about who one has sex with… we’ve reduced the person and done to them what we don’t want them to do. Ironic, huh? In our culture, people are so defined by their behavior. Labels are wrong, categories marginalize, but we still use them on a regular basis. Even the most well meaning Christians use labels and categories to help define people and understand how to relate to them, etc.
A Good Perspective
Maybe instead of trying to define the tension of truth and grace with a single phrase, we should let the tension remain? Hear me on this… I’m not saying that we shouldn’t love the person and ignore what the Bible says about holy living or vice versa. I am saying that perhaps it would be good to listen, be a good friend (or family member), continue building a relationship, and wait for God to open doors for difficult conversations. It could be that God is at work in their hearts in ways that we don’t see and if we try to fix the “theology of the tension” or “emotion of the tension” we might be creating pain that doesn’t need to be.
There’s just too much baggage with this phrase (love the sin, hate the sinner)… so let’s just lose it.
Instead, say things like:
- God loves you and so do I
- I love you no matter what
- Your or my sexual orientation doesn’t have impact on my feeling for you
- I’m in your corner and praying for you
- This changes nothing about us
- While we might disagree, it doesn’t alter our relationship
Let’s just love people… the way Jesus did.
Caleb Kaltenbach is the Lead Pastor at Discovery Church in Simi Valley, CA & the author of "Messy Grace." Caleb shares his story of growing up with gay parents and the hatred his family experienced from Christians. He admonishes followers of Christ to learn how to love those in the LGBT community without compromising biblical truth.