After having given much time and space for people to comment on the same sex marriage debate, I feel the need to add my voice to the conversation. It is a political hot button right now, and will continue to be for many years to come. This decisive topic threatens to tear our American culture apart. For me this issue is a personal one because some of those close to me identify as LGBT. My viewpoint is that of a pastor that is interested in connecting with unchurched people.
In my generation (Gen X) same sex marriage was generally considered a fringe issue. But continued pressure and a concerted effort by a very vocal minority has brought same sex marriage and the LGBT lifestyle to the forefront of American culture. The result is that Millennials (born 1980 – 2000) and Gen Z (born in the 21st Century) have grown up with this as a reality. Whether or not you agree with the issue, younger generations are, for the most part, quite comfortable with “alternative lifestyles” and practices. This will have an impact on our churches as these generations gain seats at the decision-making table.
Many good people stand on both sides of this issue. But how would Jesus have responded? Thankfully there are some good examples in the Gospels (the biographies of his life). I don’t think there are any easy black and white answers, but we can at least find some principles to guide us as we navigate such issues.
In John 8:1-11 we find an account that demonstrates Jesus’ heart for outcasts. The religious authorities had caught a woman in the act of adultery, so they disrupted Jesus’ Temple teaching session by dragging her in front of him (probably still wrapped in a sheet). These “alpha males” demanded instant justice – she must be stoned! But they were really just trying to trap him. (Jesus must have had a reputation for mercy).
Jesus bent down and started writing with his finger in the sand, completely ignoring the woman’s accusers. They were infuriated! They demanded an answer: “What do you say?!?!” He continued to ignore them, still writing in the sand. They repeatedly insisted that he respond. Finally he straightened up.
When Jesus spoke, he had everyone’s attention. He spoke directly to the religious leaders. “Anyone here who has never sinned can throw the first stone at her,” he said, and went back to drawing in the sand. Slowly they started to walk away, beginning with the oldest.
After awhile Jesus straightened up. He looked at her and asked, “Woman, where are they? Has no one judged you guilty?” She answered, “No one, sir.” He replied, “I don’t judge you guilty either. You may go now, but don’t sin anymore.”
Before we go any farther, I want to be clear that there are some fairly consistent boundaries in the Bible concerning this issue. And they define the way I believe. But the purpose of this article isn’t to judge. It’s to examine how the Church should respond to those many Christians consider to be “sinners.”
What did Jesus do?
I think there are some great principles we can draw from this story.
First, it was never about this woman. This was about pushing Jesus into a corner to trap him. Yes, this woman had crossed a clear biblical/moral line. In the eyes of the good, moral, religious people she had broken the Law and, therefore, deserved judgment. But she was nothing more than a pawn. The religious leaders conveniently ignored the fact that her partner should have also been judged with her. After all, when it comes to pushing their agenda, such “power brokers” use people, and then discard them once their objectives have been achieved. In their eyes the ends justify the means. People are expendable, so long as the goal is reached.
So many people caught in the middle of such controversial issues are nothing more than lightning rods. They are used by both the pro- and anti- agenda tribes to prove their point. Often they don’t want to be in the spotlight but are thrust into it by the media. They become unwitting spokespersons for others that don’t have a big enough platform on their own to spread their message. Many of these agenda groups are actively looking for a test case to try in the court of public opinion. The real victims are those whose lives are turned upside down by being in the wrong place at the wrong time – becoming in the same moment objects of praise and of scorn.
I also think many in the religious crowd (the unscrupulous leaders notwithstanding) truly believed they were doing the right thing. The Law of Moses was quite clear about the issue of extra-marital sex. It was to be dealt with summarily in order to prevent its spread throughout society. Then, as now, the real issue was whether or not the biblical definition of marriage would be held aloft as the gold standard.
The true believers were trying to protect their culture, and this woman – in their eyes – was hellbent on destroying it. She was an example of the breakdown of society. And her apostasy had to be stopped. So they joined in the call for her to be stoned.
Finally, we can’t overlook the fact that Jesus defended the woman. She was broken. Any dignity she once had was long gone. She fully expected this Rabbi to side with her accusers.
But to him, she wasn’t just a pawn to be used in a cultural game of chess. She was a person created in God’s image, and worthy of love, honor and acceptance. Even as he defended her from those that were pronouncing judgment, he called her to turn her life around.
It’s important to note that Jesus didn’t disagree with the conclusions of the religious leaders. He never implied that she wasn’t guilty. And He never disagreed about the appropriate consequences. In fact, he called her lifestyle “sin.” But with the religious leaders He pointed out the fact that we are all broken. If they themselves were sinless, they were qualified to pronounce judgment on her. It was as if he was drawing a proverbial line in the sand and asking them to choose which side they were on.
You know the crazy part of all of this? Jesus was the only one who had the right to throw that first stone. He had lived a sinless life. He was utterly devoid of ulterior motives. But Jesus instead chose mercy.
I grew up with the phrase, “Love the sinner but hate the sin.” That works great in principle, but honestly, in practice it’s often hard to differentiate between the two. People so identify with their lifestyle that many believe when I disagree with (or don’t approve of) their lifestyle I am rejecting them. For me to disagree with someone doesn’t mean that I hate them, or think I am better than them. It’s simply disagreement. Likewise, when someone disagrees with me, that doesn’t make them a hater. It means they think differently than me. And we need to learn to be okay with that.
No amount of yelling, arguing, signs or billboards will solve the problem. Conflict only becomes constructive when I first put myself in the other person’s shoes – when I try to see the world through his/her eyes. This is what grace does. It allows us to see the other person, not as an opponent, but as someone created in God’s image, and therefore, worthy of love, honor and acceptance. It is not unreasonable for me to accept someone as a person while not agreeing with his/her lifestyle. Remember: Those on the other side of this issue feel as strongly about it as you do. Taking the step to build a relationship with someone who thinks/believes differently than you will help you see them as human, rather than the enemy.
What would happen if we, as the Church – the earthly representatives of God and His grace – actually did this? How would it change the conversation? How would it impact our communities? What kind of a difference would it make in our country and our world?
How should we respond?
So how should we approach this issue? I believe our starting point is to become more like Jesus. The Apostle John, an eyewitness to Jesus’ life, writes that he was “full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) It can’t be all grace or all truth. The secret is in the balance. Jesus offered the woman grace, while at the same time embracing the standard set forth in God’s Word (Law).
Next I think we need to take Jesus’ words to heart: “First, take the log out of your own eye; then you will see clearly, so that you can remove the splinter from your brother’s eye!” (Matthew 7:5) We need to remember that we are all broken and in desperate need of God’s help. Before we start condemning someone (or even looking down on them) we need to be honest with ourselves about our issues.
Then I think we could accomplish more if we would all just choose to dial back our emotions on this issue. As the old saying goes: “Cool heads will rule.” The Bible puts it this way: “A gentle response defuses anger, but a sharp tongue kindles a temper-fire” (Proverbs 15:1), and, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing…” (1 Peter 3:9)
Jesus refused to be drawn into a confrontation. To be like Jesus means to be proactive, not reactive.
Let me leave you with one final thought: It’s hard to be angry with someone you’re actively praying for. Praying for someone helps you see them from God’s perspective, which helps you tap into His love and compassion for them. And choosing to serve them will more than likely open the lines of communication between you. Don’t just pray for the other person. Pray that God will help you see the big picture as well.
The same-sex marriage debate and LGBT rights issues most certainly won’t be resolved overnight. But if we can keep our emotions in check and our hearts right, treating those that disagree with us with honor and respect, we can be a voice of reason in this often explosive conversation.