by Canon Simon Butler, Vicar of St Mary’s Battersea, Prolocutor of Canterbury
My old friend and fellow Archbishops’ Council member Ian Paul and I engaged in a minor online debate this week about “Things Jesus Never Said”. In its course, I remarked that one of the things Jesus never said was that old Evangelical nostrum, “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Ian felt it had what he calls “the warrant of Scripture”, while I felt it unhelpful. As a result of the exchange, I said I would write something for Via Media this week and Ian would respond soon on his own blog, Psephizo.
It’s a timely matter to reflect on. Some Evangelical commentators in Britain and the United States have recently distanced themselves from what was, for many years, almost an article of faith within that tradition. As we prepare in the Church of England for the General Synod’s engagement in the Shared Conversations, this phrase is bound to be used at some point by someone and it certainly shapes a lot of attitudes. As one former diocesan bishop said to me once (not realising that I was gay myself), “we must love the sinner but hate the sin, Simon. But never forget that these people (yes, he used those exact words) are sinners.”
The more time I spend in pastoral ministry, the more I realise that we humans are, as Psalm 139 puts it, “fearfully and wonderfully made.” We are all a mixture of saint and sinner, whether we are believers or not. I always remember a story of Gordon Oliver’s from my theological training about distributing Holy Communion to his congregation. As he gave the sacrament to each person, he found himself mentally acknowledging both the brokenness and sin he knew in the life of each person he pastored, and their belovedness in Christ. The doctrine of creation and the doctrine of the fall start by a commitment to human goodness and the complexity of real humanity that is both a gift in creation and a consequence of sin.
Because of this goodness and complexity, it seems to me almost impossible to separate a person’s identity from their actions. For readers who find it hard to accept those of us who are LGBT it is important that you recognise that this is something really important to us. But not just for us: it is an important truth for everyone. The older I get, the more I realise the depth of my own brokenness and the profound gift of the love of God in Christ. But my identity and my actions are so interwoven that any attempt to distinguish one from the other – which is what “love the sinner, hate the sin” rather simplistically tries to do – is doomed to failure. It may make sense as a theological cliché, albeit rather an unsophisticated one, but psychologically it is damaging and harmful. Nowhere in Scripture are we commanded to hate any person: I have never yet heard an adequate argument which convinces me that, at the level of pastoral psychology, hating sin doesn’t result in hating people.
But it also seems harmful to those who use it. Behind the phrase can easily lurk an air of spiritual superiority, the implication than one set of sins is more serious than another (LGBT Christians know this more than most: we have been the target of this phrase’s use more than any other group by those who like to use it). Like that diocesan bishop, what can easily be revealed is a sort of hierarchy of sinfulness, and therefore of human worth, and a qualification to the command to love that is at the heart of the radical teaching of Jesus. I have never yet met a Christian who doesn’t possess a sort of inner inventory like this. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is a contributing factor in the subtle qualification of the absolute call to love.
I have recently been through the most testing experience of my parochial ministry. I am grateful to God for the support and prayer of many people. It was a truly testing time and one that required me to have a good look at myself, my attitudes and behaviour. Naturally, sinfulness played a part. But, now I am beyond that testing time, I find myself unable to say that it is possible to separate my sinfulness from my giftedness; indeed, the former is in some way a consequence of the latter or, as my work consultant put it, my gifts with the volume turned up too loud. Western, juridical models of atonement, based as they are binary views of sin and goodness, fail to acknowledge such a profound reality and, at some level, prevent us from overcoming (befriending?) the fallen, shadow, sinful aspects of ourselves. A more Eastern perspective – of sin as a disease or a divided heart – allows us to see ourselves not as victims of an angry God, but as the beloved of a worried Parent, who can be loved into befriending and finding wholeness in the parts of ourselves where sin can so easily master us.
Love the sinner, hate the sin? No thank you. I’ll just stick with “Love”. Love covers a multitude of sins.