A third way in the church’s ethics debates

Our world seems to have lost the ability to understand nuance. Rather than finding a balance between two important points, we tend to pick one side and try to pummel the other into submission. Watch the debates about any political issue, and you’ll quickly see how much both sides ignore each other while they talk shout past each other.

Sadly, we see much of the same in the church today. The same issues keep coming up, and the same points keep getting made, but all to little effect. I’d like to suggest that we can divide the church in most of today’s ethical debates with one simple line. I’ll call it the grace-and-truth line.

The Grace-and-Truth Line

Our grace-and-truth line is causing all sorts of silly fractures in the church. One side talks a lot about living like Jesus, the other talks a lot about believing the Bible. One side focuses on God’s love, the other on God’s holiness and justice.

Grace people fear legalists and Pharisees who force people to live by their own artificial rules. Truth people fear universalists and antinomians who disregard God’s moral law.

In ethics debates, the grace people usually are optimistic about humanity. They receive everyone as good people, acceptable as they are––everyone except, perhaps, the truth people. The truth people usually are pessimistic about humanity. They generally seem to view everyone as sinners in need of reform––everyone except, perhaps, themselves.*

You may find my black-and-white depictions unfair—guilty of the very thing I’ve said is our problem. Many people operate somewhere toward the center of these. Actually, we all suppose that we are right at the center of any tension like this, striking the perfect balance. But even for those who aren’t fully black or white in the balance, it’s worth asking ourselves if we’re over-representing one side and neglecting the other.

How Tony Campolo tries to navigate grace and truth

Tony Campolo tells a moving and heart-breaking story about his conversation with a mother whose gay son committed suicide. He makes a strong point. The phrase “hate the sin, love the sinner” has been abused to condemn people’s actions from a distance. But while it’s easy to lob stones at sin from afar, it’s difficult to love people from that distance. As a result, many Christians’ hatred of sin has prevented them from coming near enough to “love the sinner.” Remove that, and the phrase simply becomes “hate the sin.” In fact, it begins to appear like, “hate the sin, hate the sinner.” All truth, no grace.

Campolo says that we should love the sinner and hate our own sin. Whenever we have gotten rid of the sin in our own life, then we can begin talking about the sin in our brother’s or sister’s life. Though he doesn’t say it, I get the impression that Campolo really means to say that we’ll always have our own sin to deal with first, so we should never talk about someone else’s.

Campolo’s motto is about grace for others, truth for ourselves. That’s not a bad corrective for those of us who are quick to give ourselves grace (every mistake has a good excuse) and to apply truth to others (they’ve got to do better).

Is Campolo’s solution sufficient? I don’t believe so. In fact, I think “Love the sinner; hate your own sin” is no better than the original, nor is it more biblical. In some ways, it’s less. Let’s look at another option.

Maybe the problem is that we believe one line divides grace and truth. What if, instead, we could be full of both?
Maybe the problem is that we believe one line divides grace and truth. What if, instead, we could be full of both?

Full of grace and truth

John’s gospel introduces Jesus by saying that he came to the world “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus offers grace to a woman whom the people are ready to condemn: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then he offers truth to her as a woman who needs to repent: “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:2-11).

Jesus acquits the woman from the people’s condemnation, then condemns her actions and tells her to change. Could he have neglected either and been more loving? Or do we find his perfect love only at the intersection of full grace and full truth?

The problem with the truth-teller isn’t that he chastises people about their sin, but that he often doesn’t love those he chastises. His offer of grace is insincere, or lacking entirely. He suggests that he might give grace and hospitality once a person will accept the truth, but surely not before.

The problem with the grace-bearer is that, wishing to defend the sacred worth of the person, she’ll often defend his indefensible actions, as well.* Endorsing another person’s wickedness and self-destruction is surely one of the most hateful things humanity has ever tried to pass off as love.

On loving people and hating sin 

No, Jesus never said, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” But he did say, “there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10). And James wrote, “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:20).

I’d like to ask Tony Campolo how he expects us to ever turn a sinner from the error of his way if we’re never supposed to bring it up. I’d like to ask him why I shouldn’t hate anything that’s leading someone toward death.

A beloved friend of mine has cancer. I hate that cancer. I hate all cancer from a distance, but I particularly hate his cancer, because it’s trying to kill him. If I hated no one’s cancer but my own, what a selfish person I would be!

Even more, then, I hate sin. I hate all sin from a distance, but I particularly hate the sin of those I love, because it’s trying to kill them. I hate my own sin for the same reason. If we don’t hate our own sin, we’re fools, running toward destruction, even while we claim to be warning others away from it. But hating my own sin doesn’t prevent me from hating others’ sin as well.

The problem isn’t hatred of sin. The problem comes when our hatred of sin leads us to scorn sinners instead of embracing them. When we lack the grace to grieve for sinners, take compassion on them, and pray for them, we lack the love of Jesus.

Similarly, the problem with the other side isn’t love for sinners. The problem comes with our acceptance of their sinfulness. When we deny sinners the truth about their actions––that they need to seek treatment and healing––we lack the love of Jesus.

Can sinners who need to repent still be of sacred worth?

The problem for all of us is that we believe it’s impossible to tell someone she is of sacred worth and that her actions are sinful and require repentance. Over and over, I’ve watched Christian leaders claim that these two statements contradict each other, or at least create an ambiguity. We must choose––deny the sin or deny the sinner.

The miracle of God’s love is that he makes both claims at once. In our sinfulness––not after––we are of sacred worth. At the same time, God calls us out of our sinfulness into a repentant and righteous life before God. By his grace, he empowers us to repent and live holy lives.

Full of grace. Full of truth. Compromise on neither.

Is “full of grace and truth” our best way to approach ethics? Share your own thoughts in the comments or hit a share button below to ask for others’ opinions.

* In all my references to optimist and pessimist, I’m heavily indebted to G. K. Chesterton, whose language I’m barely modifying from pages 61-62 of Orthodoxy.

13 thoughts on “A third way in the church’s ethics debates

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this, Teddy. Though I know it wasn’t the purpose of your post, there are two questions that I think a necessary to answer in the broader discussion of the ethics debate:

    1) What is sin?
    2) What qualifies someone as a sinner?

    Without a clear definition of sin, (and of what makes someone a sinner), we can’t properly understand repentance. In a culture that not only increasingly fails to recognize sin but also continually redefines what is and isn’t a sin, repentance is becoming null and void.Thus, if my actions are becoming more socially acceptable, then why do I need to repent and what do I need to repent of?

    Christian ethics is becoming a more and more difficult topic to discuss because moral principles have become moving targets at best, and many are simply becoming nonexistent. Certain issues (i.e., homosexuality) are ceasing to be considered in ethical/moral terms, which changes both the manner and means of the discussion.

    I guess what I’m trying to say in this jumbled mess is this – how can we approach ethics full of truth and grace without a proper understanding of sin? And if an agreed upon definition/understanding of sin cannot be reached, then will we always see a divide between the two sides (truth-people and grace-people), though both believe they are living out the fullness of each?

  2. Thanks for your comment, Jonathan. I agree that we have to answer the question about sin, and you’re also right that getting that far wasn’t the purpose of this post.

    I just wanted to get far enough here to address the people who say that you can’t call someone a person “of sacred worth” and also tell them their actions are sinful (the grace people). I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of that argument in the UMC recently. Someone may, for instance, say that they disagree that homosexual practice is contrary to Christian teaching. What I hear just as often, though, is that it’s a contradiction or ambiguity to say that all people are of sacred worth and to also call homosexual practice sinful. Someone may not like or agree with those statements, but they create no contradiction or ambiguity.

    I equally wanted to address those who tell people about their sin but don’t treat them like people of sacred worth (the truth people).

    Those are preliminaries to getting into the harder discussion about what sin is. Plenty more disagreement will surely follow when we get there. But it seems that a lot of people have gotten tripped up long before — fighting instead over whether to present grace or truth. Those squabbles reveal a profound lack of understanding on simpler issues, and they need to be dealt with first.

  3. Teddy,

     I appreciated the article and love the emphasis on being "grace and truth" people, perhaps in some respects this is what it means that we are in Christ and he in us. 
     One of the questions that always arises for me when examining this issue is how to handle the notion of "excommunication" as a means of discipline when engaging those of sacred worth, mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 18 as a last resort in interpersonal dialogue, and Paul in various epistles, particularly over the concept of creating division within the body of Christ and/or unrepentant sin that grievously affects the witness of the church. 
      Ultimately, one of the challenges to navigate is also that Jesus, though filled with grace and truth, and though affirming both the sacred worth of humanity while also declaring the works of the world to be evil  (John 7:7), charts a particular trajectory... one that allows those who perceive his teaching to be too difficult to walk away, those who are deeply embedded in self-righteous to be offended, and those who persist in willful sin to ultimately encounter judgment. 
       Reflection on his words in the letters to the churches in Revelation seems to envision what you are talking about, both empowerment and encouragement and a call to repentance. However, I am uncertain of how often Jesus' words here are brought into the discussion on ethics, rather the Gospels seem to be the sole basis of many peoples' understanding of Jesus. 
        I would love to hear your thoughts on some of this at your convenience.
    1. Hi David,

      I think you’re right on. Empowerment, encouragement, and call to repentance all go together. And I agree with you that even something as severe as excommunication must be an option — in many ways more gracious than allowing someone to persist in their sin while masquerading as a Christian.

      I’ve told a few people that I couldn’t in good conscience accept them as new members into the church because I knew about unrepentant sin in their lives. Those were hard conversations, but good and necessary, I think. With existing members, concepts similar to “excommunication” are more difficult. Especially in the setting I’m in (UMC), because they would require a church trial and get very complicated. I like how John Wesley’s early system functioned — everyone was considered a constant probationer, in some sense. They received a new ticket each quarter for continued participation in the societies. People may see that as a horrible system of constantly needing to prove oneself, but I don’t think that was the point. It was, however, the point to ask each new quarter whether someone was still following the way. We too easily become complacent.

      1. Have you ever barred somebody from membership in your church who was engaged in “unrepentant sin” that had nothing to do with sexuality? Like somebody who’s cranky and short-fused with other people because they’ve had a hard life and now they’re old so people generally try to humor them and give them grace despite their prickliness? Or what if they run a business where they mistreat their workers? Or emotionally abuse their children? Or gossip? If you gave an example of a sin that you confronted in the life of one of your parishioners that didn’t have anything to do with sex, then I might take you a little more seriously. Happily married middle class heterosexuals make sin all about other peoples’ sex for a reason.

      2. Hi Morgan,

        If I said something to imply that I only confront sin that has to do with sex, I didn’t mean to. When I talk about willful, unrepentant sin here and elsewhere, I’m not intending that to be read only in terms of sexual sin.

        You asked for examples. I don’t like to share anything that might publicly indict someone for something that was handled privately, so I’ll tweak some inconsequential details… I had a parishioner who regularly sent hateful, accusatory mass e-mails. I (and several others) confronted him numerous times about this, and he said he couldn’t see any problem with what he was doing. Sadly, this was a case of someone continuing in unrepentant sin, and we responded with continual offers of grace and love towards him, but also with truth about his behavior and its consequences.

        Another that comes to mind was a man who regularly viewed pornography. That’s about sex, I suppose, but he was a happily married middle class heterosexual. We confronted that one, too — I hope — with a full measure of grace and truth. For what it’s worth, he received that confrontation well, repented, sought spiritual and psychological help, and went on to become a leader at another church.

        I may have had parishioners who willfully mistreated their workers or abused their children, but I didn’t know about it. If I had, I would have treated those the same way. Sadly for these people, sinfulness like this is easier to hide. That means they can persist in it a lot longer without ever receiving intervention.

        Not many people like the intervention, and many people reject it. But it’s grace for those who will accept it (like one of the men I mentioned above). Better than turning a blind eye, or worse, patting someone on the back, all the way down the road to destruction.

  4. Pretty good. Moves from binary to a quad approach. One assumption is that there is such a thing as truth, understood propositionally, that we are capable of understanding and applying in full. I think the Truth (notice the capitalization) for a Jesus follower is best understood incarnationally. Jesus is the Truth. The rest of us are just guessing (to quote Rich Mullins.) So I would be humble about my understanding of truth, and in awe of the Truth. If we acted more like the Truth/Grace, the message of Jesus would more than the message of Pharasism that is often projected.

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