Love the sinner, hate the sin.” That’s a well-worn Christian mantra, an expression of conviction that even while we stand firm on what constitutes right and wrong, we will continue to love those who do what is sinful. We use the expression to affirm love for others even while expressing that their sin is really, truly wrong.
The expression works in many contexts. I can love the alcoholic even while hating the alcoholism or, more rightly, hating the episodes of binging and acting out. “I love you. I really do. But I hate that you continue to indulge in these episodes of binge drinking and I hate the way you behave when you’re drunk.” This is the stuff of Intervention, the stuff of Dr. Phil. I can love the thief even while hating that he imperils his safety and freedom by taking what is not his. “I love you, but I hate that you keep stealing from people.” Non-Christians look at things much the same way, though they do not frame it with the word “sin.” We all know that there are times when we can disapprove of a person’s actions even while continuing to love and value that person.
“Love the sinner, hate the sin” works in many contexts, but Christians are learning that there is one context, one very important context, in which it does not work quite so well. Some things that the Bible says are sin are very closely tied to a person’s identity, to their very understanding of who they are. There are not a lot of alcoholics who say, “I was born an alcoholic and will always be one. At heart, that’s who I am.” There are not a lot of thieves who declare that theft is an integral part of their identity and who celebrate it as the deepest part of their self-understanding. There are not parades to celebrate alcoholism and thievery. These are sins to be sure, but they are not the kinds of sins by which people identify themselves. Even those who do these things tend to acknowledge that they are wrong and try to clean themselves up by moving past them.
But other sins are very closely tied to identity. The Bible is clear that homosexuality is sin. As the designer of humanity, as the designer of gender, God has both the ability and the right to tell us what is consistent with his will and what is radically inconsistent. Homosexuality is inconsistent with his will and, therefore, sinful. Christians have long held this and have sought to hate the sin even while loving the sinner. Those words may help the Christian as he thinks about that particular sin, calling him to affirm the wrongness of the sin and at the same time to affirm the value of the person who commits that sin. But this phrase brings no comfort to the homosexual; because his sexuality is so closely tied to his identity, it is nearly impossible to believe that I can truly love him, even while I reject his sexuality. My words in effect say, “I love you; I hate you.”
A growing number of Christians are calling on us to understand that we’ve made this whole issue a little bit too simplistic. We’ve made it a little bit too neat and tidy and haven’t really pushed ourselves to look at homosexuality in light of culture’s celebration of it. They are by no means calling on us to abandon what we believe or to reject what the Bible says. Rather, they are helping us see it from a clearer, more realistic, more helpful perspective.