When Love with Limits Isn’t Love at All: Thoughts on Exclusion in a Time for Inclusion

A door opens to light. Image courtesy Peshkova/shutterstock.com
A door opens to light. Image courtesy Peshkova/shutterstock.com

I’ve always cringed when I hear someone say, “Love the sinner but hate the sin.”

In the end, I don’t quite know how to do that. I get the sentiment, and I think it basically comes from a well-intentioned place. Essentially, when someone says this, I think they’re trying to be kind and caring for the person above and beyond any kind of vice or sinful deeds that person has committed. You know: Man, I really love Steve but I hate his alcohol addiction. Deborah is a wonderful friend but her tendency to gossip is really not so wonderful. James has a heart of gold but I just can’t condone his adultery.  

We love and affirm people but we don’t affirm the things they do that hurt themselves, others, or are an affront to God’s dream for them and their God-given potential.  

But sin is not just the things we do (or do not do — there are both sins of commission and omission). Sin is something we can’t quite shake. While we’re first created good, as Desmond Tutu has reminded us, we certainly fall short (always be sure to remember Genesis 1:31 as the first word and Genesis 3 as the second).

Sin is a reality of our brokenness this side of Jesus’s return and that fully realized realm of God where there will be shalom and no one will hunger or cry anymore. Sin isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. So many want to make it out to be a laundry list of "don’ts" along life’s way — our faith, in the end, teaches us that it’s so much more than that.  

Cornelius Plantinga gets at this deeper understanding of sin in his must-read book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin: 

"God is, after all, not arbitrarily offended. God hates sin not just because it violates his law but, more substantively, because it violates shalom, because it breaks the peace, because it interferes with the way things are supposed to be.  ...We may safely describe evil as any spoiling of shalom, whether physically (e.g., by disease), morally, spiritually, or otherwise. ...In short, sin is culpable shalom-breaking. This definition may strike some as disappointingly formal: it tells us how an act qualifies as sin, but it doesn’t tell us which acts qualify in this way."

As St. Paul says in the letter to the church at Rome, "Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…" (Rom. 3:23-24). 

So I reject the whole notion of love the sinner but hate the sin — it misses the Gospel point that we are more than our inadequacies or things that we’ve done or not done that have missed the mark. We are better than our sin — we are created in the beautiful image of God.  

In the conversation around LGBT matters in the church we are stumbling along a bit — not quite sure how to move forward amidst the sweeping winds of change and acceptance. Quite frankly, many of us think that the Holy Spirit is creating this blessed mess of things: calling us into a new reality, in line with God’s dream for each of us, rooted in the arc of Scripture.  

While some might say that we should love the LGBT sinner but hate the sin, some are saying things even more subtle than that — mini-microagressions that may welcome the person but not affirm their sin or, as we would argue, the person’s true God-given identity. It’s now in vogue for many churches to remix the “love the sinner hate the sin” lyric into something more appealing, less offensive, and somewhat hospitable. Some churches will say they welcome anyone, and take great pride in how inclusive they are of gay and lesbians in the church — but only up to a point.

Earlier this week Gabe Lyons tweeted out Julie Rodgers' recent Q Women talk, "Freedom Through Constraint." In her 19-minute talk, Rodgers, a chaplain at Wheaton College, shares her story of realizing that she was gay and called to celibacy. It’s vulnerable stuff. After watching Rodgers' talk, I’m more convinced than ever that we must honor God and community-discerned convictions. Rodgers is most concerned with people expanding their understanding of "us-vs.-them" into telling a better story. 

Julie Rodgers says, "I believe one of the ways that [we] can begin to change this conversation about sexuality is telling a different story of what it means to be known and loved and [to] belong … about the beauty of a life that is sold out to passionately following Jesus and living out the vocation he has given to us."   

I agree — our stories are better than trite tropes and vanilla understandings of our human possibilities. After all, St. Paul himself argued that singleness (celibacy!) was a higher calling than Christian marriage (see 1 Corinthians 7:8).  

Here’s where I, as a white married heterosexual pastor, disagree with Julie — some of us, no matter our sexual orientation, are called to singleness and celibacy, and some of us, regardless of our sexual orientation, are called to marriage and family.  

That’s why David Gushee’s language on this is so important.

“We must invite LGBT Christians into the rigorous covenantal ethic of historic Christianity (nothing less, nothing more; no celibacy demand, though certainly respect for that decision) ... It's time for us to drop our exclusion of LGBT people from family, from church, from membership and leadership,” he said to a group of over 150 Evangelical Covenant Church pastors at a gathering we held outside our annual Midwinter Pastors Conference.

The Covenant Church (my church family for 18+ years) welcomes gay and lesbian Christians up to a point — we officially welcome but do not affirm our sisters and brothers who happen to be gay yet seek covenantal, Christian relationships and family. We welcome LGBT Covenanters to attend, tithe and give to the church — but when it comes to leadership roles or marriage, we turn them away. Or greet them with silence.

At our gathering last Thursday I heard countless stories of LGBT Covenanters who simply wanted to share their testimony of being created and called by God to be themselves after years of never being heard: the pastor who privately came out to me as gay. The youth pastor who considered taking their life after being rejected for many jobs after seminary. The fourth generation pastor’s kid who hasn’t stepped into a Covenant church for 20 years yet still feels like God is calling them to service. The camp counselor who was last year rejected for simply telling the truth about their orientation. The conservative pastor unwilling to be deterred by friends who voice concern about the company he keeps and the books he reads on the subject. The chaplain who just can’t help themselves but goes against the church’s teachings in order to welcome and truly, authentically, include.  

These are not just sinners who sin. These are people, dear friends — sisters and brothers! — who every day fall short of the glory and dream of God, but nonetheless push forward in faith and prayer. These are members of the body of Christ, followers of Jesus, who are included in the purposes of God, day by day and with each passing moment, servants of the unfolding emerging transformation of the Divine to which each of us are invited.

We belong, not because of what we did or did not do or how we may fall short, but simply because God includes us.

Adam Phillips is pastor of Christ Church: Portland, a new church plant in Portland, Ore.

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