On false compassion

The challenge when debating a liberal Christian is that he is bound by neither Scripture nor tradition but sentiment. He is therefore free to embrace both sin and sinner, and thereby appear more loving, more magnanimous, than his opponents.

This magnanimity carries a subtle condescension, as in the first sentence of Dave Barnhart’s recent essay, “How Being a Pastor Changed My Thinking on Homosexuality:”

“I managed to make it through college, seminary, and grad school with most of my prejudices intact. I won’t overstate my bigotry: ‘I had gay friends,’ but I was the kind of person who would use that phrase when defending my prejudices.”

The implication is that if you disagree with Barnhart about the pliability of gender, the acceptability of homosexual sex, and gay marriage (something he only tacitly admits supporting in the midst of ingratiating himself to one of his commenters), then you are a bigot. It’s a forgivable error, given that hostility toward gays is the trait most commonly associated with Christians.

It’s highly problematic all the same, at least insofar as we might expect a pastor to understand Christian dogma to the point that he does not bless what God condemns. But perhaps that is too high an expectation these days. Now you are deep if you quote a few lines of Scripture to support your heartfelt point. Barnhart, for example, quotes the 23rd chapter of Matthew to argue that Christians have, like the Pharisees, bound their brethren with the overly heavy burden of refraining from homosexual sex and marriage. The implication is that these burdens are unbiblical, though in the very same passage Barnhart cites, Christ says: “Whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do…” Christ’s point, in other words, is not that the Law is invalid, but that the Pharisees obeyed it only as show, and did nothing to help their flock live righteously.

No matter, because Barnhart is making a point here, the totality of Scripture be damned, and his point is that, if Jesus said “My burden is easy and my yoke is light,” that must mean, when we put it next to those isolated verses from Matthew 23, that he aims to decrease the rules. And if Jesus himself diminishes the law, well, we fussy Christians who want to hold to all that stuff about homosexual behavior in Leviticus and Romans and elsewhere are being like the Pharisees.

It all makes sense if you want it to make sense, regardless of the reality that Christ also said that He came not to change an iota of the Law, regardless of the traditional understanding that when He speaks of the light yoke He doesn’t mean that the Law is obliterated, but rather that He bears it, and He therefore bears us, and strengthens us to live rightly.

All this is problematic because both Scripture and Christian tradition are remarkably clear about homosexual sex, and only heroic semantic acrobatics can cast doubt on this reality. Homosexual sex is condemned in Old and New Testaments (every Christian should humbly pause and remember, at this point, that gossip is likewise condemned), and at no point before modern times has any church within shouting distance of orthodox shores ordained homosexual marriages.

Christians who would alter (or bow out of the dispute about altering) this tradition have taken two routes. One is to cast doubt on the Scriptures themselves. Science progressively reveals, they say, the falsities of the Bible. Tossing out Scripture, we are free, in the words of Bishop John Spong, to achieve “a new humanity.”

The other method is to evoke the serpent’s question: “Did God say?” We see this in the response of popular Christian writer Shane Clairborne to a question about homosexuality:

“I think we have to begin by acknowledging that part of the reason this is a difficult topic, and part of the reason we have disagreement on it, is because Jesus never really talks about it directly.”

This is a refinement of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, in which the red words are preeminent. Sola scriptura rubra. Its proponents seem to imagine themselves closer to the original Jesus than all we fussy dogmatics, though in imagining as much they commit the further dogmatic error of forgetting that Christ is a member of the divine Trinity, of one will with the Father, who breathed out to us the Scriptures, according to St. Paul and the councils at Constantinople and Nicea.

But these are small matters, these days. American Christianity is, like the market economy in which it is rooted, a matter of personal choice. And to be fair, it is Christians—I number myself among them—who have enabled the popularity of ear ticklers like Dave Barnhart and Shane Clairborne. Too many of us, too often, have acted in hatred toward homosexuals, or treated them with cold indifference, or failed to denounce widely followed church leaders who acted with hatred and indifference. We failed to distinguish actions from persons, and to remove the planks from our own eyes first, and in demonizing homosexuals we not only sinned grievously, we strengthened the standing of men who are so swelled with self-serving compassion that they happily alter “tired theology,” as Barnhart calls it.

It’s a false compassion. It’s not a “suffering alongside,” but a denial of the faith. It offers its intended beneficiaries neither the fullness of the Church nor of Christ, and it misleads a generation of young people who have enough love and good sense to reject the hatred they’ve detected in too many of their elders, but who have been no better trained in doctrine. Its corrosive effect will not be limited to this one small corner of Christian dogma.


  1. Bridge

    It’s interesting that you see this compassion and attempt to read the details in the light of the metanarrative of Scripture as a denial of the faith, there is no mention at all of your faith in the agony of describing your own marriage falling apart and how hard it is to parent in the wake of that sadness. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/goodletters/2012/07/coming-home-to-fatherhood/
    Your words here sound so cynical and pompous, in such contrast to your vulnerability in the face of your own perceived failures. But then I think that cannot be what you intend, to hold others to a standard to which you do not hold yourself. And then I remember there is more to your story than your public face, just like there is to the stories and faith of those you critique in this post. And I pray we learn to listen better and remember that in the end, the internet is not a great place for these kinds of conversations.

  2. Post

    Bridge, I intended neither cynicism nor pomposity, and I apologize for giving offense on both fronts. I think compassion is the order of the day, but not to the point that we fail to challenge people engaged in false teaching.

  3. Beth

    “The challenge when debating a liberal Christian is that he is bound by neither Scripture nor tradition but sentiment.”

    Is this Tony Woodlief, or an imposter? If someone made a blanket statement like this about conservative Christians you’d be all over it.

    One thing I can say about Shane Claiborne is that he is a doer of the Word as he understands it. He may err along the path, but he’s on the path of obedience. I think Jesus would rather have the obedience than the exactitude in correctness. “A denial of the faith?” Please.

  4. Tony

    I would only take issue with a blanket statement were it false.

    I am sure Claiborne does many wonderful things in pursuit of his faith. I’m not sure, however, that God distinguishes, as you imply, between obedience and error. It is impossible to be obedient to the Word of God, in fact, if one is in error about what it directs one to do. Which is entirely my point.

    Of course I don’t think Claiborne or Barnhart or others in their strain stand fundamentally in opposition to Scriptures, nor do I imagine many of their actions are more sinful or disobedient than my own, or yours.

    But here’s the thing. Their method of exegesis is fundamentally flawed, and they have positioned themselves as shepherds of flocks. This is no small matter. By advocating a practice of selective Scripture interpretation, they invite the people who follow them to become apostate not just on gay marriage, but on other matters. They have the luxury of deviating on a few matters because they were well trained — children trained by their method, however, will not be so constrained. The path from a compassionate Barnhart to an utterly heretical Spong is not so long or crooked as people imagine.

  5. Marc V

    In my weekly (or is it weakly?) reading I went through Matthew 19 and it shed more light for me, giving Jesus’ authoritative word on marriage AND homosexuality. It is red-letter stuff.

    Perhaps Christians can somewhat blunt the “sting” of denouncing homosexuality by equating it with fornication. Both happen in the church, both are sins that weaken the church, both need the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome.

  6. Post

    What’s happening is that a phalanx of preachers have arisen to cleverly denounce both the authenticity and authority of scripture, at least in the areas where they find it unsuitable. So long as someone comes to scripture with a willingness to depart in the face of any sting, there are plenty of church leaders willing to welcome them with the lie that God did not really say what we think he said. Ear tickling, I’m afraid.

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