It’s unfortunate that legitimate and complicated disagreements sometimes are boiled down into defensive catch-phrases. In many religious discussions, one of the most common catch phrases is “love the sinner, hate the sin.” It’s also one of the most polarizing.
When people use this phrase, I believe they see it as an affirmation that they do love. I think I’ve used the phrase myself in the distant past, and I’m pretty sure that’s how I meant it. But as surely as it sounds like an affirmation when the words leave your lips, it doesn’t sound at all that way when those same words hit someone else’s ears. At least it doesn’t to me and many people I’ve talked to about it.
Here are five reasons why I think the phrase needs to go away.
It’s Irrelevant to LGBT Christians
Those of us who value our faith and who are also queer normally make one of two decisions. Lifelong celibacy (or in the case of bisexual people not pursuing relationships of the same gender) or affirming same-sex relationships. The same is true of people whose internal sense of gender is different than their biological sex. They either don’t transition their gender because they believe it’s wrong, or they do because they believe it’s right.
So the phrase “love the sinner hate the sin” is not relevant to LGBT Christians at all. It’s coming from a naive straight standpoint. It fails to consider the real lives and the real decisions LGBT people are making.
It’s About Criticizing, Not Listening
There is implicit criticism in this phrase. It’s found in the words “sinner” and “sin.” The sin addressed isn’t a universal failure, but something specific. These days that particularly sin is usually one that applies to sexual and gender minorities.
Criticism in-and-of itself isn’t bad. But when you challenge someone’s life choices, dialogue works better than indictment. Too often this phrase is used to justify one’s right to criticize someone else while remaining aloof from critique themselves. After all, if I love you what is there to criticize?
But when you are calling out someone’s behavior, you would do well to consider that they have the right to defend their behavior. They also have the right to call you out in return.
You are casting judgment, and casting judgment is not morally neutral behavior.
If you are calling something sin and it turns out to be a holy expression of love, you are the problem. In opening judgment on someone, it’s only right that you leave that opening for them to evaluate in return.
Using this phrase often signals unwillingness to dialogue. If you are not open to dialogue, this is not a conversation.
It’s Often Love in Words Only
In my experience, the “love the sinner” part of this phrase is not an announcement that acts of loving kindness are coming my way. It isn’t a statement of commitment to understand and address the challenges the LGBT community faces on a daily basis.
Even if telling a sinner they are sinning is considered an act of love, you’re missing the mark if that’s all the love you’re showing. I’m guessing the primary way you feel loved is not when someone tells you you’re a sinner.
When we love someone well, verbalizing our love should be confirmation of something that’s already clear. LGBT people get criticized by traditional Christians for having wishy-washy ideas about love, for using love to justify behavior. That criticism can also be turned around.
Back up your profession of love. LGBT people are often willing to back their love up with a life of commitment and monogamy, with the formation of family, support, and caring. That sounds like real love to me. So if you are traditionalist, what are you willing to back your love up with? It must be more than words.
It Implies That Theology is Unrelated to Love
On the face of it, the phrase is true despite its clear problems. But lurking beneath the surface is a logical problem. It implies that your theology and your love are separate subjects.
There are people who love me despite believing that I’m wrong. But from my perspective as an affirming Christian, their love is despite their theology, not because of it. Good theology is loving in-and-of itself, regardless of how it is delivered. Delivering wrong theology in a loving way doesn’t make the theology loving, it just wrapping paper.
Try this on for size: “I love you, I just don’t approve of you marrying a black man, and I feel sorry for your kids.” At this moment in time, most of us can agree that such convictions are inherently un-loving. I’m disgusted I even typed such a sentence. But for a queer person like myself who has full affirmation from God that the way I love is good and holy, you could substitute “a woman” in that sentence. It sounds just as hateful to me.
Thoughts have power. Ideas have meaning. Some thoughts and some ideas corrode love. Can you demonstrate why calling me a sinner because of my sexuality is love? That would be a convincing argument, and if non-affirming Christians are right it should be true.
It’s Against Jesus’ Teaching
As Tony Campolo pointed out, Jesus’ teaching is more like “love the sinner, hate your own sin.”
Matthew records these words of Jesus in Matthew 7:3-5 (ESV):
“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
It would be refreshing if the church thought about it’s own sins towards LGBT people instead of obsessing with what it believes are our sins.
Here’s what I suggest instead of using this phrase: Engage in meaningful dialogue. Don’t settle for quips and sound bites. If you believe someone you love is making a horrible mistake, I understand that saying so could be one part of love, but it should be one part of many. You will have a more receptive audience if you avoid this phrase. Provide tangible care and seek understanding first, and share your concerns once you’ve earned the right.