If only Jesus had been loving towards his opponents! In his “Seven Woes” sermon directed at the Jewish and religious elite and recorded in the 23rd chapter of Matthew, he calls the scribes and Pharisees “hypocrites,” “children of hell,” “blind guides,” “serpents,” and a “brood of vipers,” who were in danger of “being sentenced to hell.”
Why did he have to say such mean, nasty things? If he had just loved them and accepted them as they were, those scribes and Pharisees would have realized the error of their ways. Didn’t he know that the gospel of Christ is a message of unconditional love and affirmation, not one of judgment and condemnation?
Such a reflection, I hope, is patently ridiculous for Christians. We believe Jesus is the son of God. Being omnipotent and omniscient, he can evaluate men’s hearts and intentions, and dispense judgment, as he pleases.
Yet such a twisted perception of the Christian faith, and particularly what constitutes real Christian love, is visible in recent critics of the United Methodist Church’s recent decision to maintain its doctrines on queer marriage and clergy and strengthen discipline for those who defy church teachings. Lesbian Methodist pastor Hannah Adair Bonner and Methodist layman Adam Mill make the same mistake, conflating Christian love with unconditional acceptance of sin. They also uncharitably vilify their opponents, which is a bit ironic given their call for “love, love, love.”
An Ironic Lack of Charity
Bonner projects herself, and her particular camp within the United Methodist Church, as firmly planted on the side of love. She speak of her overtures to more traditionalist Methodists: “We strove to help them understand our love and to be loving to them, despite the pain they caused us.”
Bonner thinks it’s the LGBTQ-supporting Methodists who truly exemplify the love of Christ. Those who believe LGBTQ behavior to be immoral, sinful, and unbiblical are definitely not being loving. The piece ends with the pastor declaring, in the wake of her defeat, that she will no longer beg people to love her.
Yet for someone trying to embody authentic Christian love, Bonner’s argument is laced with a lack of charity, another word for love. For example, she presumes her traditionalist opponents were unwilling to listen to her side, observing: “the traditionalists revealed themselves to be unaffected. They had come to make their will known, not to listen and be swayed.”
But the only “evidence” Bonner has to substantiate such a claim is that they didn’t accept her arguments! Did Bonner come to the conference to listen to the traditionalists, or to make her own “will known”?
Elsewhere she bemoans that her rainbow stole “elicited eye-rolls from some of the self-described traditionalists.” This can hardly be called persecution. Consider the martyrdom accounts of Christians burned at the stake, or the persecution of my good friend Michael DSouza, a Pakistani Christian who has been repeatedly brutalized by Muslim extremists. Michael would be very happy if all his faith had elicited were some eye-rolls.
Similarly, Mill writes that he doesn’t “go to church to listen to pastors tell other people they’re going to hell.” He claims “there are churches where the pastors will list the ways sinners will barbecue in the hereafter to the schadenfreude delight of the congregation. That’s not how it works in our church.”
I’ve attended a fair number of evangelical, mainline Protestant, and Catholic churches over the years, and I’ve never witnessed a pastor who delighted in talking about Hell. Such religious communities do exist, Westboro Baptist being perhaps the most famous. But Westboro is famous precisely because it’s such an anomaly. Mill’s is an uninformed caricature of the many Christian churches that believe LGBTQ behavior is sinful.
Bonner accuses the traditionalists of “splinter[ing] our church” by refusing to accept LGBTQ behavior as positive. This ignores the fact that pro-LGBTQ theology is a remarkably recent phenomena in the history of all Christian faith traditions, and could just as easily be accused of being the real disruptive force in the church.
A Twisted Understanding of Love
There is a more fundamental misunderstanding of what constitutes true Christian love in both Methodist writers’ thinking. Bonner declares: “We queer clergy begged our fellow Methodists to love us. They voted no.” Mill similarly states that his church is defined by “loving our gay neighbors too.”
Yet those who disapprove of celebrations of sexual sin being foisted upon their Christian institutions are not necessarily being unloving. Apparently in Bonner’s worldview, if one doesn’t explicitly affirm her sexual choices and identity, one is incapable of loving her. This reasoning is reminiscent of the teenager who tells her parents they don’t love her because they won’t condone everything she does.
As noted above, for 2,000 years, there has been a remarkably consistent consensus among Christian traditions that homosexual behavior is immoral. These traditions have taught that to discourage people from engaging in harmful acts isn’t unloving, but a demonstration of real love.
My three kids are constantly doing things they think are great but will ultimately cause them or others great pain, or inhibit their human flourishing. My lack of intervention in the midst of their poor decisions would be a failure of love.
Moreover, as Rod Dreher has noted, do such critics of traditionalists actually think theological conservatives enjoy hurting LGBTQ church members? Of course not. But we take our cue from Christ himself, who, after healing or forgiving sinners expressly tells them “sin no more” (c.f. John 5:14, 8:11).
Painting her opponents as persecutors and herself and her allies as martyrs, Bonner adds: “We strove to help them [the traditionalists] understand our love and to be loving to them, despite the pain they caused us.” Yet how many of these traditionalist Methodists would explicitly say they possess no love for Bonner?
Having known many great traditionalist Methodists over the years, I speculate very few, if any. I think they’d be more likely to emphatically declare that they love her, and would aspire to love her as Christ loved them. Many people who either identity as gay or lesbian (e.g., Eve Tushnet, Wesley Hill), or who were transgender (Walt Heyer) have been able to accept that Christ’s love for them is not a blank check to disregard God’s commands.
Bad Arguments Begat More Bad Arguments
Let me turn now more directly to Mill’s arguments. He says “Methodism generally has always been more of a ‘should’ church, not a ‘shalt not’ church.” Yet the Bible is filled not with polite suggestions, but commandments, including explicit ones about right sexual behavior.
Moreover, this thinking is undermined by the reality that even the most tolerant organizations still draw plenty of firm lines, including the dictum that one “shalt not” be intolerant! Presumably Mill wouldn’t want to be affiliated with a Methodist church that only politely suggests that its members not lie, cheat, steal, and murder.
Mill then argues that because his congregation includes many people having sex outside marriage, and because it rejects polygamy and slavery, this justifies church approbation of LGBTQ behavior. Yet this thinking is morality via majority opinion. This is foolish and dangerous.
It implies that slavery would be acceptable in a society where a majority of people approved of it, or that a majority consensus could determine to eliminate the mentally ill. Sexual immorality, polygamy, and slavery are wrong because they are objectively immoral, and one will be hard pressed to find anywhere in Scripture that encourages any of them.
Indeed, the Bible consistently shows that polygamy caused all manner of problems for those who practiced it. Scripture also shows that the Jews possessed the most just legal system of any that existed in the ancient world, including a demand for the periodic freeing of slaves.
Mill also makes a commonly heard claim that the church has evolved over time, and that accepting LGBTQ behavior is just the latest evolution. Yet the examples he gives (circumcision, diet, etc.) are all in relation to the ceremonial or civic law of the covenant people (Jews), not the moral law, which governs such things as sexual behavior. Jesus never abrogated the Ten Commandments—indeed, if anything, he expanded their scope during the Sermon on the Mount.
Mill ends by stating that he liked church better when it “was about Jesus and not politics.” But sexual morality is not first a political issue, but a personal and societal one. Indeed, Mill should consider St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in which the apostle rebukes the Corinthian church for immorality, including fornication (sex outside natural marriage) and incest.
True Love Can Be Tough Love
Bonner writes of “people who told us to our faces that we were unfaithful to the scriptures and a danger to the church — people who denied that we were worthy to preach in the pulpit or be wed at the altar.” The paradox for Bonner, Mill, and apparently for many who hold similar views about sex, is how so many Christians can say such things, while maintaining their love for those same persons.
Fortunately, Jesus offers us an example of exactly how this can be done, every time the gospels relate to us a story of him rebuking someone for their sins, unbelief, or immorality. As biting as his condemnations of the scribes and Pharisees could be, he never stopped loving them. That gives this sinner, who also needs to be rebuked plenty of times, the confidence that tough love is still true love.