By Bruce Lowe
The Three Sins
When we say to homosexual persons, “We love the sinner but hate the sin; go clean up your act and then we will welcome you,” what they hear us say is, “you” are sinners and “we” are not. Since we know that everyone is a sinner, what do we mean? “You are great sinners and we are little sinners”? Or possibly, “Well, everyone knows what your great sins are, but ours are hidden”? This is all ridiculous, but isn’t it easy to see why gays and lesbians hate this statement? I believe many of our church members (heterosexuals) honestly think that same-gender sex is a worse sin than any they commit, so much worse that homosexual people cannot be welcomed into our churches, or if welcomed to visit, never affirmed in their homosexuality. Can we be sure that such a judgment is right?
As I related above, some people take the story of Sodom as evidence of the sin of homosexuality. Sodom, destroyed for its sinfulness with fire and brimstone from heaven (Gen. 19:24), is mentioned 28 times in the Bible outside of Genesis as an example of sin at its worst, but the only time we are told any detail of Sodom’s sins is in Ezekiel 16:49, and this verse seems to sum up clearly the Bible’s categories of sin.
It says, “The sins of Sodom were …” So Ezekiel’s statement should be most instructive to us. Ezekiel names three types of sin attributable to the people of Sodom.
The sin first-named is pride and its companion, haughtiness. We didn’t expect that; this isn’t one of the vicious, unspeakable things we attribute to criminals and perverts. Ezekiel first names the sins of the spirit. Now we recall that the sins of the spirit were the sins for which Jesus so condemned the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the “back to the Bible” people of Jesus’ day, organized originally for just that purpose. They went regularly to worship services, they knew their Bible thoroughly and they tithed faithfully. (Do we wish our churches were full of people like that? Yes, Does that say anything abut us?) But Jesus knew their pride and hypocrisy and said such was their great sin, so great they could not get into his kingdom because of it. It was their sins of the spirit that condemned these people who otherwise were so exemplary.
The problem for us about sins of the spirit is probably that most of the time we are not conscious of them. We go to church and study the Bible and give to the church; we must be pretty good people, But if, like the Pharisees, we are not conscious of our sins of the spirit, then maybe we are like the Pharisees. Religious editor Marv Knox recently wrote that “insidious enemies—such as greed, apathy, self-interest and hate … threaten us all.”[i] — all sins of the spirit. And the list could go on. We all know that we are not free of the sins of the spirit. They must be great sins for Jesus to condemn them so—our great sins.
Ezekiel then says that the people of Sodom had been blessed with abundance, but they did not help the poor and needy. These are sins of omission. Are we guilty? Maybe we are not sure because, as with our sins of the spirit, we are not really conscious of our sins of omission. But surely we must realize how much we have failed to be what God has expected of us, and how much we have left undone in God’s kingdom work that we could have done, and how indifferent we have been to the needs of those less fortunate than we are when the Lord expected us to help them.
I ponder this one sin of omission that Ezekiel speaks of here—not helping the poor—and have a feeling of great guilt. Both the Old and New Testaments have so very much to say about helping the poor, that someone has said no one will ever get to heaven without a recommendation from the poor. But my hands have never been dirtied by working with or for the poor, nor has my bank account suffered. Should most of our church members feel the same guilt? But partly it’s not their fault; we preachers have not preached and taught about this responsibility God expects us to take. So the sin of us preachers is multiplied in this, our sin of omission. And this is only one sin of omission. When we add all the others …. I often think that surely our sins of omission must be our greatest sins. Or do I think that because I am so unconscious of my sins of the spirit? I don’t know, but I am certain that our sins of omission are very great.
Finally Ezekiel says of the people of Sodom that they did detestable things before God. These are the sins of commission. These we are more conscious of, but we probably still think that we are such good people, we don’t commit many of them. I read of a woman who said she had not sinned for 43 days. Incredible, almost, that someone could have that concept of sin. But is that rather close to the concept of many church members? Why did our Lord give us a model prayer that could be prayed every day and that included “Forgive us for our sins”?
When homosexual sex is sin, it is the sin of commission, the third sin Ezekiel mentioned and, since we would expect him to name the worst first, it must not be as great as our sins of the spirit and of omission. But we have to remember it is not the act itself, it is the heart that God judges, and our sins of commission undoubtedly have their source in our sins of the spirit. Any of our sins probably involves the totality of our being. Surely we must realize we are all such great sinners in God’s sight that we cannot possibly point a finger at anyone else and say “Sinner”? Is this why Jesus said, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matt. 7:1) and why Paul said, “You have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself” (Rom. 2:1)?
If we do believe gays and lesbians are sinners, we may think that affirming them in our church fellowship is going soft on sin. Just the opposite. It is recognizing that we are all such great sinners in God’s sight that we can never judge any other’s sins as worse than our sins. If we, sinners as we are, can be part of the fellowship of the church, then homosexual men and women, if they are considered sinners, can also be part of the fellowship. The criteria for their being welcomed is in their love for the Lord, their desire to worship and serve him and to have fellowship with us, the same criteria we have for everyone else.
Philip Yancy in his splendid little book, What’s So Amazing about Grace?, tells of the prostitute who was so sick of her life that she went to a counselor for help. In the course of their session the counselor asked her if she had thought about going to church. She was appalled at the thought. “Of course not,” she said. “I feel bad enough about myself now; how would I feel among those people?” Then Yancy notes that when Jesus was on earth, prostitutes and such sinners were attracted to him. The Pharisees criticized him harshly for that very thing. And Yancy wonders why church people today, Christians who are supposed to be like Christ, repel instead of attract these people. Perhaps our churches are wont to say that we must project an image of what is right and moral in this world. Oh, so we must mean that if Jesus attracted these people, he did not project such an image. We are without defense. Until we become more Christ like, the prostitutes―and lesbians and gays―will never want to come to us. Yet, do we not realize that we cannot be less sinful than they? Then why do we judge them as we do?
Even Richard Hays, a
conservative theologian who believes homosexuality itself is sinful, insists
that gays and lesbians must be taken in and affirmed by our churches,
saying, “Unless we think the church is a community of sinless perfection, we
will have to acknowledge that [gay men and lesbian women] are welcome along
with other sinners in the company of those who trust in the God who
justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). If they are not welcome, I will have to
walk out the door along with them, leaving in the sanctuary only those
entitled to cast the first stone.”[ii]