Part 15: Why Affirming Homosexuality Means Redefining 'Love'
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (May 3, 2016)
The following is the fifteenth in a series on Homosexuality and God's Merciful Love. You can follow the entire series here.
Christians down through history have defined in different ways the "love" that Jesus commands us to practice. But central and essential to them all is the idea that love is a selfless and generous seeking of the good of others, even, if need be, at the expense of one's own temporal good. The mother caring for her children, the father laboring to support his family, the missionary dying as a martyr for the sake of the spread of the gospel, the artist sculpting and painting to bring delight, wisdom and insight to others — authentic Christian love takes a thousand forms, but the essence of it is always the same.
However, what happens to the concept of "love" when we use the word to refer to gay relationships, and to "affirming" those relationships? It's meaning radically changes.
For example, in his book Interpreting Toward Love, Protestant pastor Peter Fitch endorses a statement of a lesbian activist that the Church should be a place of inclusivity and boundless hospitality: "If the Church is not welcoming to all, it is not welcoming at all" (p.80). Again, Fitch writes: "I sometimes refer to our church as the island of misfit toys, a phrase I remembered from an old t.v. special. The implication is that we all have 'stuff' and there is no need to give anyone a hard time" (p.90). He even attributes this attitude to Jesus our Savior, for Jesus allegedly said to him in prayer one day: "None of the people you have doing these things [that is, taking leadership roles in your congregation] including yourself is perfect. Not one of them is entirely sexually whole. How can this [i.e., homosexuality] be any different?"
Meanwhile another Protestant pastor, Kevin DeYoung, asks (and answers) essentially the same question in his book What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality?:
We all fall short of the glory of God. We're all desperately in need of God's grace. But God's grace is unconditional, and the church is supposed to be a place for broken people, right?
Yes and amen. We all need to be forgiven. We all need grace. The church is supposed to be full of sinners. But — and here's the rub — the communicant membership of the church, like the membership of heaven, is made up of born again, repentant sinners [NB: Catholics can agree, in so far as we are all spiritually "reborn" in baptism]. If we preach a "gospel" with no call to repentance, we are preaching something other than the apostolic gospel. If we knowingly allow unconcerned, impenitent sinners into the membership and ministry of the church, we are deceiving their souls and putting ours at risk as well. If we think people can find a Savior without forsaking their sin, we do not know what sort of Savior Jesus Christ is. ...
No doubt the church is for broken and imperfect people — broken people who hate what is broken in them and imperfect people who have renounced their sinful imperfections. If those with same-sex attraction are being singled out for repentance, the solution is not to remove forsaking of sin from the gospel equation, but to labor for a church community where lifelong repentance is the normal experience of Christian discipleship (pp. 98-99).
Perhaps the great Protestant martyr under the Nazi regime, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said it best: preaching a gospel of grace without repentance, and a Christian discipleship of Jesus that costs nothing, is simply pandering "cheap grace." It's not the life-changing gospel by a long-shot!
Moreover, do we really want to say that the Church should be "welcoming to all"? How about unrepentant slum lords and drug pushers, pimps and human traffickers, wife-beaters and rapists, embezzlers and child abusers? Again, the key word here is "unrepentant." The "Kingdom of God" is indeed a free gift, and open to all — but to all who "repent and believe the gospel" as Jesus said (Mk 1:15). Our Lord also taught in his parable that only those who have on the proper "wedding garment" (the garment of baptismal grace, kept pure and without stain by good works and virtue, according to the ancient Fathers in their commentary on this passage: St Augustine, St. Ambrose, St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory the Great) — they are the only ones who can enter the feast of the kingdom (Mt 22:11-13), while those who refuse to listen to the Church and who refuse to repent, Jesus said, should be treated as "Gentiles and tax collectors" (not irrevocably condemned, but given some "reality therapy": pastorally excommunicated for their own good, and then sought out as lost sheep. See Mt 18:17). Surely, Jesus is able to distinguish between broken and imperfect people who sometimes fall into sin and subsequently repent, and other people whose underlying attitude is "I am what I am" and "I will do it my way," and who insist on taking their identity in their sins, their inner wounds or their brokenness.
This brings me to the accounts in Peter Fitch's book of the poignant and joyful "coming-out" of two young Christian adults. It is not an uncommon occurrence these days. In the former case it led to a standing ovation at a Christian university from the staff and students, and in the latter case to a letter by which Peter was "moved more than I can say."
To be honest, I have a very different reaction when I hear such stories about Christians "coming out": I just felt sad for them.
In this case, here were two young people who decided to define their identity in terms of their brokenness. This relieves psychological tension (temporarily), but leads neither to deep healing nor to deep sanctification. It seems that they adopted the public stance that to "love" them means "accepting me as OK just the way I am."
But they are not OK. None of us are.
As a result of the fallen and broken condition of humanity, some of us are inclined toward alcoholism, some toward melancholy, some toward irascibility, etc. — all of us struggle with habitual sin, and everyone is bound or crippled in some way from being able to love naturally and freely. Rather than seeing their homosexuality in the light of God's revelation (and, I would say, in the light of philosophy and the sciences too) as their own share in the brokenness of humanity — the condition of original sin and its effects (or as one Catholic author put it, the "original wound") — and rather than seeking to find in our Lord what healing they can, and the sanctifying grace to overcome their problems, they chose their own path. They convinced themselves that God made them gay, thereby tying their identity and self-worth to their homosexual condition.
This is very sad, because now it means that when anyone tries to convince them that they cannot find true fulfilment and peace of heart along that pathway, they will interpret it as an attack on their identity and their human dignity. But according to Scripture, Tradition and Reason, "homosexual" is not who they were made to be: they are children of God, his sons and daughters, made in His image, bought with the price of His own blood, and invited to know Him and be loved by Him forever. That is who we really are. Again, our sins and our brokenness do not define us. What defines us is who we were made to be, by God's free gift and gracious love.
In short, authentic Christian love does not say "I'm OK, you're OK," but "None of us is OK, so let's go to the Beloved Physician together to become whole again."
In order to justify his "acceptance" of homosexual unions, however, Fitch seems to lapse into what I am sure (because I know him personally) is not his normal mode of pastoral approach. Namely, he adopts an adolescent concept of love. Adolescents typically insist that to "love" them properly means to affirm whatever they do, and the identity they are fashioning for themselves. The adolescent typically says: "If you tell me that you are concerned about me because you believe that the way I am living will not lead me to fulfilment and peace of heart, but ultimately to spiritual, psychological and physical harm, then you are not loving me, because you are not affirming and accepting me the way I am." On the contrary, real love and friendship is willing to "speak the truth in love" (Eph 4:15), even when others may find it uncomfortable to hear.
Nowhere is this adolescent concept of love more evident to me than when Fitch tells us in his book that it is impossible to "hate the sin and love the sinner." On pp. 96-97, for example, on the basis of a book by Richard Beck, he actually throws aside 2,000 years of Christian Moral Theology, for almost the entire heritage of Christianity is based precisely on our capacity to do just that—as Jesus did! When Jesus was dressing-down the Pharisees for their legalism and their hardness of heart, wasn't he hating their sinfulness, but loving them anyway (with the challenging, tough-love that they really needed)? If we cannot hate the sin while loving the sinner, what becomes of our capacity to "love our neighbors as ourselves"? C.S. Lewis explains this in Mere Christianity:
For a long time I used to think of this as a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life — namely, myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact, the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things. Consequently, Christianity does not want us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery. We ought to hate them. Not one word of what we have said about them needs to be unsaid. But it does want us to hate them in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves: being sorry that the man should have done such things, and hoping, if it is anyway possible, that somehow, sometime, somewhere, he can be cured and made human again (Book III, ch. 7).
Next Time: Love and Truth Go Together
You can follow the entire series here.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.