A response: Is it wrong to treat some sins differently?

by Robert A.J. Gagnon
Posted on Saturday, May 11, 2013, at 8:50 am

Barnabas Piper in his column yesterday, “This sin but not that sin,” comes down on himself and others for making too much of Jason Collins’ affirmation of a homosexual life. I understand from where the writer is coming and partly agree with him. He is right to advocate that we should speak the truth of Scripture with love and humility, conscious of our own failings. Piper is also correct to warn that critique of homosexual practice should not lead to ignoring non-homosexual offenses. Yet he is also seriously misguided at two points, one lesser and the other greater.

First, Piper claims it is easier to speak out against homosexual practice than against divorce and fornication. Maybe it is true of the world he lives in (evangelical sub-culture). It is certainly not true of the world I live in. I can speak as someone who has published extensively on the issue of the Bible and homosexual practice.

Second and more importantly (and misguidedly) Piper alleges that homosexual practice is no “different” from any other sin in any respect.

Would he really write the same kind of column if Jason Collins had “come out” as someone who was a polygamist or, worse, as someone who is in a consensual relationship with his mother or sibling or, worse still, as someone in a sexual relationship with a child? If he did “come out” as one of these things, would Piper really have written that such behaviors are a “speck” compared to our own “planks”? Would he criticize those who regard such acts as more unnatural or severe in God’s eyes? I very much doubt it. Let’s get some things right:

  1. All sin, any sin, can get one excluded from the kingdom of God if one believes that one can enter on the basis of one’s own personal merit and apart from faith in Christ, who alone made amends for human sin. In this sense homosexual practice is like all other sins.
  2. All sins can be forgiven, but repentance is required, “early and often” (like voting in Chicago). There is no justification by faith apart from being “in Christ,” which must be understood as living a life under the controlling influence and power of the Spirit. Otherwise, one’s faith is not saving faith but merely an intellectual assent to the truth.
  3. The more severe the offense, the greater the outreach of the church should be to call offenders lovingly to repentance and the path of life, not to hate or scorn those engaged in such offenses.
  4. Some sins, by virtue of being more foundational violations of God’s ethical standards, are more severe than others. Saying this does not excuse any sin nor justify hateful reactions to those who commit greater sins. It simply underscores the absurdity of claiming that all sin is equal in all respects before God. Cutting in line is not the moral equivalent of Hitler’s killing of 6 million Jews, and anyone who argues that it is has lost his or her moral compass. Having sex with one’s mother is worse than gluttony or slight gossip. Is this not obvious?
  5. Homosexual practice is a direct violation of what Jesus understood to be the foundation for all intra-human sexual ethics—“male and female he [God] created them” (Genesis 1:27)—not merely violation of a principle built on that foundation (like limiting the number of persons with whom one is allowed sexual intercourse to one lifetime, at least till “death do us part”). As an attempt to find a sexual complement or counterpart in a person who in terms of gender is already a structural same, it is regarded in Scripture as something particularly abhorrent to God (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13) and a dishonoring of the stamp of gender placed on every human being (Romans 1:24-27). A comparable, though still somewhat lesser, sexual offense would be a consensual sexual relationship between a man and his mother (another instance of intercourse with someone who is too much of a formal same, here in terms of kinship).
  6. Remarriages after invalid divorces are wrong. Sex outside of marriage is wrong. Adultery is wrong. Patterns of unrepentant behaviors such as these can put self-professed believers at risk of not inheriting God’s kingdom. Nevertheless, these facts do not alter another fact: Namely, that some sexual offenses are worse. Polyamory is worse than remarriage after an invalid divorce. Incest even of an adult-consensual sort is worse still. And homosexual practice trumps even adult-consensual incest by reason of its greater unnaturalness and its attack on the foundation of sexual ethics upon which prohibitions of incest and polyamory are predicated.
  7. We can be sympathetic to the difficulty that those who experience same-sex attractions face in managing such impulses in a way that honors God. At the same time, it is precisely because of the severity of the offense that the church ought to react clearly and unequivocally to any accommodation to such an offense.
Robert A.J. Gagnon

Robert is an associate professor of New Testament at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

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