An article in the Los Angeles Times on April 2, 2006 told the story of XXXChurch.com, a ministry outreach to those caught up by pornography. They wanted to have some Bibles printed that had this on the cover: “Jesus Loves Porn Stars.” The Bible publisher wouldn’t go along. According to the article, “The publisher said that while it applauded the outreach to those who make a living off pornography, ‘the wording is misleading and inappropriate for a New Testament,’ according to a letter the pastors received from the executive in charge of standards at the nonprofit Bible publishing company.”
“Misleading and inappropriate?”
The Bible publisher would doubtless have had NO trouble with this phrase: “Jesus loves sinners.”
But they, like many Christians, seem to lose their minds if you insert a specific sort of sinner that is loved in place of the generic word.
“Jesus loves rapists” or “Jesus loves murderers” or “Jesus loves the self-righteous pricks at certain Bible publishers” doesn’t seem as reasonable somehow.
Why is that?
Because the radical nature of what Jesus did for us isn’t reasonable. Paul wrote:
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Romans 5:7-10)
Jesus loved us and gave his life for us when we were his enemies. He died for all the people that give us the creeps. He died for those of us who give others the creeps. We can do nothing to contribute to our salvation. But he loves us anyhow.
It is amazing the number of Christians, even publishers of Bibles, who apparently don’t really believe the gospel message or understand just how uncomfortably radical it is.
Pastor Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) of Topeka, Kansas has made himself notorious by picketing the funerals of gay people with signs announcing that the recently deceased is burning in Hell. He also maintains a website which proclaims that God hates homosexuals. Jimmy Swaggart was preaching and commented, “I’m trying to find the correct name for it . . . this utter absolute, asinine, idiotic stupidity of men marrying men. . . . I’ve never seen a man in my life I wanted to marry. And I’m gonna be blunt and plain; if one ever looks at me like that, I’m gonna kill him and tell God he died.” His audience laughed and cheered.
People like Phelps or Swaggart will trot out a collection of biblical passages to try to prove that God hates certain people who sin in ways that they find particularly reprehensible. However, the fundamental problem with the use being made of their favorite passages is that every last one of them is being taken out of context, both their specific context in place, as well as the broader context of the biblical revelation.
They very conveniently ignore what Jesus told us. When questioned about what the greatest commandment might be, Jesus had a very simple answer:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40).
Jesus tells those who wonder what the Bible is all about that it all boils down to two things: loving people and loving God. That seems a bit inconsistent with the spin that Phelps and Swaggart would like to put on things.
A few years after Jesus, the Apostle Paul would write the same thing to a group of Christians in Rome:
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)
I believe that any interpretation of the Bible which results in a conclusion contrary to this basic tenant of love is necessarily wrong. No ifs, no ands, no buts. Thus, I believe that suggesting that God hates, rather than loves sinners, creates an absurdity: a contradiction with the very theme of the Bible, as well as Paul’s explicit and inconvenient words that I quoted earlier from Romans 5:6-8, insisting that in fact, God actually loves sinners.
The Apostle John also had some clear words that he wrote to some Christian friends of his:
“If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (1 John 4:20-21)
Some will try to tell me, I suppose, that John’s words mean that we are only supposed to love our brother. And who is, our brother? Those who believe like us, of course.
I would suggest that those who believe that narrow definition of “brother” are exactly like the expert who, in response to Jesus’ suggestion that he should love his neighbor asked “who is my neighbor.” Jesus’ response was the well-known story of the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:25-37)
The problem for us moderns is that Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan doesn’t really resonate with us. What is a Samaritan, anyhow? Samaritans were apostates from Judaism. They were the result of mixed marriages between Jews and pagan idolaters who had moved into Palestine during the period of the Babylonian captivity. They were forbidden the ability to worship in the temple and so had to make do with their own shrine. The religious establishment despised them and pronounced them horrible, irredeemable sinners.
So let’s update things. If Jesus were asked the same question today, his response would be to tell the story of how a Baptist preacher and a famous televangelist ignored the rape victim in the gutter, in contrast to the good gay, black transvestite from San Francisco who helped her.
If Christians are going to hate the gay community, then they need to be consistent and hate the liars, the backbiters, the gossips, the hypocrites, and themselves, too. Maybe they should put up a few pickets around the neighborhood supermarket that caters to all those gluttons.
But maybe I just don’t get it. Maybe there is something wrong with me so that I simply don’t understand why certain sins get singled out for special condemnation, while others are not. Maybe I should recognize that only certain sins are useful for fund raising, while others aren’t. Admittedly, I can see that it would be hard to get Christians motivated to march in the streets against sloth.
Me, I think if we’re going to start picking on a specific sort of sinner, then we can’t stop there. We need to pick on them all.
But Jesus died for sinners. He didn’t come to pick on them. How did John put it? “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)
All of us are sinners (when was the last time you walked on water?), and that’s what we’ll all be—every last one of us—till the day we die. Are certain sinners irredeemable? Whosoever will may come, but wait, if you’re gay, you’ve got to clean up your act first? But you gossips and gluttons, come right on in? Since when has the church become an exclusive club? Are we supposed to have bouncers at the door making sure everyone has a tie and that they’re “the right sort of people” before we let them in?
Maybe I just don’t understand the gospel and the mission of the church. But I don’t think so. I think it’s the haters—those who demonize certain sinners—that just don’t get it.
I was reading in my newspaper recently about some pastors standing outside the courthouse and protesting against gays getting married, reading Bible verses at them, and denouncing both those who went in to get married, as well as the government officials who were doing the marrying.
I’m a bit puzzled as to how this condemnation is part of the Great Commission. How does this lead to the evangelism of these particular sinners? In the past, Christians persecuted Jews and Moslems. Now Jews and Moslems are the two most difficult groups to reach with the gospel. For some odd reason people that feel your hatred and get persecuted aren’t much interested in what you’ve got to say about your religion after that. So why do so many people who call themselves Christians not catch wise? (and, you know, actually practice what they claim to believe?)
I’m wondering what Paul would think about it all. Perhaps he would say, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” (1 Corinthians 5:12)
It also seems to me that Jesus’ approach with sinners was somewhat different than how these Pharis—um, preachers and their followers—are operating. In fact, I seem to recall that Jesus saved his venom for people who were doing just the sort of things the preachers like Phelps (and many others) are doing (Matthew 23 comes to mind).
Why are so many modern Christians more like the Pharisees than like Jesus?