On Telling Gay Persons to ‘Go and Sin No More’

March 12th, 2014

Being a self-identified, Bible-loving evangelical, I am often asked how conservative Christians should relate to the LGBT community. Despite my general lack of interest in these conversations, I find myself always being asked one “what if” question after another.

• What if my gay friend wants me to make a cake for their wedding? 
• What if I throw a party and my gay friend wants to bring his/her partner? 
• What if my gay friend is getting married and wants me to attend? 
• What if the gay person at work wants to be my friend? When should I make it clear that I’m against their lifestyle? 

When it comes to such questions, it’s amazing to me how much a relationship can change the tone of the inquiry. When coming from a Christian who has a friend or family member who is gay, there is often a desire to be faithful to their moral convictions but also be faithful to their relationship with their friend or family member. But when coming from a person without said relationship, there’s a higher percent chance that fear or anger will be an undercurrent (though this is not always the case, contrary to popular opinion). Nevertheless, at minimum, without a relationship, ethical abstraction or emphasis on principles can sometimes short-circuit mercy.

In both cases, whether a friendship exists or not, I’m inevitably asked the question, “Don’t I have a responsibility to tell gay persons to ‘Go and sin no more’”?

The following is my usual answer to that question. Please note that herein I am not attempting to change anyone’s mind about their ethical position. I am beginning where people are and am trying to push the conversation forward in a healthy way. You can judge whether or that is accomplished.

First, we need to take a quick look at John 8:1-11* to help us with an answer, as that’s the actual passage where Jesus tells a sexual sinner to “go and sin no more.”

John 8 opens with a group of theologians coming to Jesus holding a woman caught in adultery, the punishment for which is the death penalty (Deuteronomy 22:22). And these theologians have chosen stoning as their mechanism of death. Further, as if that’s not terrifying enough, they actually force her to stand before the crowd gathered at the temple. They do not merely want her to die, they want her to be shamed.

They bring her to Jesus in order to test and see whether or not he will be faithful to scripture. They want to know if he’ll be biblical. Will he remain faithful to the text? This is exactly why they remind him of “what Moses commanded,” as if Jesus didn’t already know that. They want to see how Jesus’ comments will contradict God’s word, so they then say to Jesus, “Now what do you say?”

Jesus doesn’t even initially respond. He simply bends down and writes something in the dirt. Then he says, “If any of you are without sin, you can be the first to throw the stone.”

Putting their stones down, these men walk away, from the oldest to the youngest.

Jesus is left standing with the woman all by himself.

She is on the ground before him, but he stoops down and lifts her up.

Through a couple questions he makes her aware that her accusers are gone and that no one—not even him—is condemning her.

Only then does he finally say, “Go and sin no more.”

Now, how does this oft quoted text help us understand when conservative Christians should feel free to tell their gay friends to “go and sin no more”? Here are a number of observations:

1. Notice Jesus stood up for this clearly guilty woman before her “justified” accusers. Everyone knew she was guilty of adultery, but Jesus actually stands up for her, anyway. 

2. Notice Jesus puts his own life at risk for her. When a group of angry religious people are literally about to enact the death penalty, it takes some extreme bravery to stand between them and a person who is objectively guilty of violating a biblical law. 

3. Notice Jesus is more concerned with pointing out the accusers’ sin than in pointing out her sins. He wants to show that they are sinners, too. They think their sins are of lesser offense to God, but Jesus is pointing out that he’s not too concerned with “who has sinned worse” than someone else. 

4. Notice Jesus establishes, first, that he does not intend to condemn her. And that no one, therefore, is able to condemn her. 

5. Notice Jesus takes the time to lift her up off the ground – a symbolic action of great compassion. He is literally pulling her up out of the dirt and mire of all that condemnation and shame. She is a person, not an object lesson in biblical ethics. 

6. Notice Jesus does all this publicly, so that everyone can see that he does not condemn her. 

7. And notice, therefore, that Jesus has earned the right to then say to her, “Go and sin no more.” 

So, if you’re a conservative Christian and you’re concerned with when you need to tell your gay friends to “go and sin no more” here are a few things to do first.

• Stand up for your gay friends. Stand with them over against even other Christians who would use the Bible to shame them.

• Put your own life and reputation at risk, if necessary. Christians ought to be the first people standing between gay persons and Westboro Baptist Church and the like. 

• Understand, for all your desire to tell your friend that they are a sinner, they already know what you believe. So believe me, without you telling them of your moral convictions, they’re already well-aware. They’re more concerned with whether or not you’ll love them anyway. 

• Be sure to make just as passionate a stance against the sins of God’s people. If you’re just pointing out everyone else’s sins, but you’re not equally passionate – if not more passionate – about pointing out the sins (especially the sexual sins) of the church, then you’re being a hypocrite. This hypocrisy costs the church moral authority with people outside the church. 

• Let your friend know that you know you don’t sit in the judgment seat. They need to hear you say that you are not their judge, jury, and executioner. 

• Don’t make an ethical object lesson out of your friend. This is a lot easier if you’ve gone out of your way to make sure that you have a genuine friendship with them. It’s hard to make an “object lesson” out of someone you care about. 

• Do not be ashamed to show affection and compassion publicly. 

Then, after all that, if your conservative moral principles require that you say something, only then have you (maybe!) earned the right—not to condemn (you’ve already given up that right)—to challenge them to “go and sin no more.” I know that the well-intentioned conservative Christians just want to remain faithful to their interpretations of scripture. And I know they are concerned about appearing to morally compromise. But when I read this passage, and when I see Jesus partying with those society considered the worst of sinners, I can’t help but think that Jesus was intentionally trying to appear to be a moral compromiser. I’m not asking conservative Christians to give up their morals or values. But I am saying that if you have not loved intensely enough to at least appear to others that you’re morally compromising, maybe you haven’t loved enough.

Have I missed anything else in the passage that might help push this conversation forward in a healthy, godly manner?

*It should be noted that John 8:1-11 is of questionable origins. Many of our best biblical scholars do not think this story was part of John’s original writings. 

Tom Fuerst blogs at Tom1st.com. You can subscribe to his blog via email here.

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