"Hate the Sin, but Love the Sinner"? We're Not Ready for That

I’m now completing a quarter-century of journalism, having started writing for Christianity Today magazine, the late, lamented TSF Bulletin, and the equally esteemed and mourned Reformed Journal around 1984. Some of my pieces have evoked letters to the editor. Some of those letters were critical. Some of those were right!

I’ve been blogging now for a few years and some of my posts have evoked comments. Some of those comments have been critical. Some of them also have been right.

But here’s the thing: In journalism broadly and in the blogosphere in particular, critical responses so frequently are mean. Ad hominem is everywhere. And it makes me wonder, how in the world can Christians keep spouting the claim to “hate the sin but love the sinner” when we so frequently seem unable to “dislike the idea but love the brother or sister who holds it”?

Of course, when we move out into public discourse, so many of those who can’t resist disliking their fellow Christians can be positively venomous toward those of more divergent views. But there is also the peculiar, but widespread, phenomenon of reserving the most vicious language for family members, for those who are seen to be disloyal and dangerous kin.

Firm disagreement is sometimes called for. Prophetic rebuke in extreme situations is mandated by Scripture. And sarcasm, satire, mockery, and the like are all valid forms of public discourse, sometimes even the right ones in particular situations.

But “speaking the truth in love” is a rule never superseded by some other imperative, nor is the Golden Rule, nor is the Great Commandment to “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.”

And nor is the New Commandment to love each other as Christians the way Christ loves us, in so conspicuous a fashion that “all people will know that you are my disciples.”

A friend of mine read through the comments following my recent blog post on the Manhattan Declaration and wearily responded, “See how these Christians love each other.”

Not even close. Not even liking each other because we disagree about ideas that we all agree are important but that we all agree (don’t we?) are secondary to the Gospel and to our familial bonds in Christ.

Charity begins at home. We’ll be able to say, “Hate the sin, but love the sinner,” only once we’ve practiced not despising and attacking each other.

0 Responses to “"Hate the Sin, but Love the Sinner"? We're Not Ready for That”

  1. Mich

    You always Hurt the one you love………

    Seriously I love your blog.


  2. Jane Rhoades

    Thanks for the timely reminder. With so many Christians speaking out, we should be united at least in how we speak (in love) even when we may disagree.

  3. steve martin

    but that we all agree (don’t we?) are secondary to the Gospel and to our familial bonds in Christ.

    Oh, if that were only true. Maybe we need a good reminder of what the gospel is (and is not).

    re: speaking the truth in love – your allusion to Eph 4:15 (I think): How’s this for an idea. Before we post any comment, all of us are required to go back to the start of that chapter, and recite a personalized version of Eph 4:2 “In this comment I will strive to be completely humble and gentle; to be patient, bearing with my fellow commenters in love.”

  4. Josh

    John, I appreciated your comments about the Manhattan Declaration (by the time I read it the comments were closed).

  5. Kent

    I do agree with your sentiment. I am thinking, perhaps the reason we do not speak with love so well is because we do not Listen. (Blogs do not, it seems, encourage civil discussion.) We must therefore deliberately seek to understand one another. Then we can we speak, or write, the truth in love. My Rx for the annoying post: More questions and fewer statements.

  6. Dan

    I thought the responses to your last post were, with the exception of a couple, polite in their disagreement.

    Especially if you consider what a discussion on creation vs evolution would have looked like 🙂

    I hope it doesn’t put you off continuing your blog.


  7. dan

    Yes, ‘hate the sin but love the sinner’ is one of my least favourite Christian catch-phrases. I have yet to meet anybody who has said that who also actually practices it. Instead, what that phrase creates is an ideological gap wherein we are able to act hatefully towards others while claiming to love them.

    Still we are in a tricky situation. Certainly we must approve of, or condemn, certain concrete historical actions but this does not mean we are ever to condemn any other person. The problem is that who we are as people is ultimately defined by our actions (and not by our beliefs, words, feelings, or anything else). So I’m not sure how to resolve this dialectic. Thoughts, Dr. Stackhouse?

  8. robahas

    I think we need remember that it is generally a vocal minority that behaves rudely in virtual discussion. Also, since this is the Internet we should remember that we often know nothing about the people we are talking with. It is not a necessary assumption that they are somehow representative Christians. I used to work in tech support at a company that served lots of Christians and from time to time we would get flamed by an angry user. it always struck me how much attention we gave to those people, and how much we retold the story of their rudeness, etc. thus magnifying the effect. But I noticed something else as well. There was a pretty significant number of Christians who had made angry calls and then called back the next day to apologize.

  9. John Stackhouse

    Thanks, Brother Rob, for these helpful observations. And thanks, Brother Steve, for the kiss and hug: Backatcha, dude!

    (I defy anyone to find a parallel to the previous sentence on the blogs of, say, John Piper or Mark Driscoll. But I digress….)

    Brother Dan (“poserorprophet”) raises, as usual, a key point. It seems to me we can legitimately disagree with, object to, find distasteful, even hate quite a lot about someone else. But as soon as we simply hate him, we’ve shut the door on him in our hearts, haven’t we? We’ve stamped “condemned” on his dossier and we’ve tossed it onto the pile of other people toward whom we now feel no obligation to love.

    That’s why nouns are so much more dangerous than adjectives. You can say I’m “arrogant” or “ugly” or “stupid” or “frustrating.” You can describe my actions using similar adjectives. But as soon as you proceed to the noun, what happens? “You’re an arrogant, ugly, stupid, frustrating _____.”

    “Brother”? “Fellow human being who shares in the image of God?” “One beloved of God for whom Christ died?”

    Um, well, sure, I guess. But that’s not how I usually conclude such a string of adjectives.

    Normally I, and perhaps you, conclude with a simple, all-purpose noun of condemnation: “jerk” (indeed!), “creep,” “dork,” or worse. And once I’ve done so, I’m done. The other person is now properly labeled as excrement with whom I no longer have to deal except as he is an obstacle or nuisance or threat, and that’s how I’ll treat him.

    How does this distinction strike you, Dan? Or others?

  10. Ray Shorten

    Quote from a venerable song ( by J. Stackhouse, at Mount Carmel Bible School, Edmonton, 1976 approx!)

    “Here I am Lord, calling on your name
    I’d like to say that things have changed
    But Lord they’re just the same
    I blew it again, in the old familiar way
    And now for the one thousandth time I’m asking you
    To help me walk your way, to smile your smile
    To be willing to give my coat away
    And walk the extra mile
    To be willing to forgive my neighbour
    Many more times than seven
    And to give this thoughtless earth
    A touch of heaven.”

    I still have that tape John, and benefit from your blog!

  11. John Stackhouse

    Wow: there’s a blast from the past. I haven’t written a (serious) song in a long, long time (just a few blues tunes to amuse people here at Regent, such as the “Coming to Regent College Blues”). It’s great to hear from you, former quartet partner! I’ll go to e-mail to follow up.

  12. poserorprophet

    Dr. Stackhouse,

    I think you could be onto something by maintaining a distinction between the adjectives and the nouns we apply to people (a good parallel to this is found in journeying with people who have survived abuse — a person might say “I was abused”, thereby recognizing the reality of the abuse, while simultaneously avoiding the “victim” label, thereby preventing that abuse from becoming definitive of one’s identity).

    Still, it’s a tricky space to negotiate, because the adjectives applied to us are supposed to reflect who we are. So, yes, I may be a person, a brother, and a beloved child of God… but what sort of person, brother, and beloved child of God am I?

    This is where I fall back on judging actions and not judging people. But this is complicated given that we are what we do. And perhaps this is why we cannot ‘hate the sin but love the sinner’ — I am my sin (here and now anyway) just as much as I am my good deeds. Of course, who I am is not a static thing, and we are all in a process of becoming (which is signaled by the changing of our actions), so I need not remain as this-or-that sin. However, for as long as we choose to act in certain ways, I think that those actions reveal who we are (over against whatever stories we tell ourselves in order to feel good about ourselves).

  13. phil_style

    the “love the sinner, but hate the sin” apologetic can be more problematic than it seems at face value. It appears to be a way of saying we can continue loving people even when we hate certain things they do (which we think is a justifiable position). However, for many people, the things they do (even things some of us might call ‘sins’) are a strong part of their personal identity i.e. what they do IS who they are. So trying to hate what people do is, in many cases, actually hating them.

    I prefer the phrase “love people”. Preiod.

    • Daniel Ginn

      I think phil_style made a good point.

      “However, for many people, the things they do (even things some of us might call ’sins’) are a strong part of their personal identity i.e. what they do IS who they are.”

      But I disagree with this next sentence.

      “So trying to hate what people do is, in many cases, actually hating them.”

      It may seem to be an absurdity, but I think a good case may be made that actions which I take and believe to be loving may feel hateful to the recipient, much in the same way that children do not enjoy discipline by their parents. While I don’t want to endorse sin, I do want people to feel that I love them, but I can’t make everybody feel that if the definition of love is “approve and affirm what I do.”

      On the other hand, I heartily applaud the posters who caution against blithely promoting the ethics our worldview which bring us into disagreement with others while having no compassion for the opponents. It’s easy to make that into a false love.

      So, maybe it would be helpful to discuss what a Christian view of the formation of identity should and shouldn’t include. I’m not a psychology student, but I would appreciate some guidelines in this area. If my identity isn’t what I do, then what is it? And how do I convince pagans of this, also?

      Believers are fortunate in that, whether they realize it at the time or not, their identities are in Christ, therefore we always have a common ground for unity with our brothers and sisters in the faith. Christ is a great reconcilor, not only of us to God but also of us to each other.

      What else makes up identity, if not deeds? Can any part of my identity be chosen, or is it all imputed (not likely to be a comfortable fit for people with a modern mind-set)?

  14. Sue

    I would suggest that anyone who presumes to talk about, and more importantly, to practice morality, love and compassion should expunge the word hate altogether from their language.

    Such language is in effect self-revelatory about the person who uses it.

  15. Glenn Runnalls

    Dr. Stackhouse,

    Plato was right, education is more than the capactiy to read and write. The internet makes it possible for any of us to be a yellow journalist.

    Let me suggest that there is a positive correlation between christian higher education and one’s capacity to read and write with the kind of generosity and civility you are talking of. (full disclosure, I work in a Christian College in Canada). People can’t be just told to love, they must be shown what love looks like in this case (writing for an audience; reading and responding to such writers).

    Hoping this question is a continuation of your post and not a distractiong, how does a blogger practice the recommendations of Titus 3 (the whole chapter is helpful but i’m thinking more of the contentious man) without appearing to be self-protective.

    I’m asking, because as I look over the history of a number of Christians who blog about contentious issues, you seem to be quite intentional about this. In fact I notice that you seem to be intentionally following all of Titus 3 in your work.


  16. Glenn Runnalls

    and yes i know that i was using a kind of ad hominem with the allusion to Plato and “yellow journalism” . . .

  17. Dan S.

    When will we ever be ready for a 7-word phrase to capture the full scope of what it means to strike an appropriate balance between humble charity and firm disagreement?

    Who gets to be the referee when someone’s sincere efforts to “lovingly disagree” are interpreted by another person as hateful or judgmental?

    I too am frustrated by the overuse of this annoying and simplistic phrase which usually turns up in mostly conservative circles, but I’ve also been equally disappointed with the way some progressive Christians fall into the opposite trap of fleeing uncomfortable topics because firm disagreement can be labeled as hatred or judgmentalism.

  18. Thomas D. Dalke

    The Lord Jesus said: “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things. 36 “But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment.” Matt. 12:35

    Now Christian liberty is a wonderful thing, and of course having and expressing opinions on a variety of subject matters is apart of that liberty (2 Cor. 3:17). But as the Apostle James has said. There is a disconnect with our profession of faith in Christ when we use our tongues in destructive ways. For “With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. 10 Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? 12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh.” James 3:12

    The Apostle Paul said: “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” Col. 4:4-6

    Therefore as John and others have tried to diplomatically and intelligently make a case for love and respect. I think we are wise when we heed the Lord’s warning and are gracious with others; especially other believers. For we as recipients of the love and grace of God are commanded “to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men. 3 For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. 4 But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, 5 not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” Titus 3:2-7
    Now it’s not that we don’t judge; following Christ means that we are constantly barraged with making judgments about moral and ethical and spiritual matters all the time. It’s that as discerning individuals we do this with the heart of Christ which embodies God’s wisdom, love and kindness towards all so that they might be saved. For grace is what we all need. There isn’t a single living person who hasn’t said and done things they wish they could take back. Therefore lay up grace for yourselves tommorow by giving it away today (Luke 6:38).

  19. Thomas D. Dalke

    Sorry for not properly indentifying the Bible translation I cited those Scriptures from it was the New King James. Thomas D.

  20. Paul

    Excellent and timely post, Dr. Stackhouse! Oh how we love to hate one another…and in the name of Christ!

    It’s amazing that those who most hated the Apostle Paul (and for whom he had not a few stern words, see Philip 3:2-4) are also those for whom he was more than willing to be “cursed and cut off from Christ” for their sake (see Rom 9:1-5). Would to God that we love one another and put on display to the world the Gospel’s power and truth (John 17)!

  21. Thomas D. Dalke

    “…hate the sin, but love the sinner.” Absolutely! For that is what God does. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.” John 3:16
    For God in His Holiness and Perfect Righteousness executes Justice and Judgment through Christ’s Cross. That is where our sins are punished and atoned for if we place and keep our faith there. Now this is not done for the righteous. Neither the Law of God nor the Living Word of God testifies to mankind’s own goodness (Rom. 3:19-28). On the contrary as we draw near we begin to see ourselves not as righteous but as sinners in need of redemption. Yet it is because of this inherit and manifested condition apart from Christ that God in His kindness and love provides the solution for us through Christ, which is our regeneration. Which occurs the moment we believe in Jesus Christ crucified and Risen from the dead. That is what it means to be born-again. To be born of God’s Spirit by faith in Jesus Christ. For that is where life begins. Therefore loving sinners and hating their sin must take on the Godly dynamic that hopes for their repentance (Matt. 9:9-13). If I love sinners but never initiate anything that might help them find their way to Christ do I really love them? Or if I hate sin with a holy zeal yet never extend the grace of God towards them do I then love them? Luke chapter fifteen is where God’s heart is in this. For He both initiates a search for us. “For in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Rom. 5:8 But He also extends His restorative grace to us when we return to Him. Therefore loving sinners is part and parcel of loving God. Just as surely as hungering and thirsting after righteousness is apart of; as a regenerate person; following Jesus Christ in discipleship. Thus we are as new creations In Christ are charged to be ministers of reconciliation. Not imputing people’s trespasses against them but instead pointing all people to Christ’s cross where God’s mercy and redemption is found.
    Thomas D.

  22. William F. Luck, Sr

    I used to teach “hate the sin and loves the sinner.” Then it struck me that that’s not truly the way God works with sinners. There as simply a wealth of verses in the Scriptures (e.g., John 3:36; Rom. 1:18, the imprecatory Psalms, etc.) where God reveals that He hates (i.e., is wrathful against) the wicked for their sins, not just against their sins. God will send people to hell, not just their offenses. Ah, the complexity of a Sovereign God…Who can hate the sinner for his sins and yet, at the same time, love them enough to send His Son to die for them!

  23. American Yak

    Mormon here lurking on your blog.

    Appreciate your comments. I often hope and wish that Mormons and Evangelicals could learn to dialogue in more faith, with more love.

    It’s absolutely true that we have major differences, and it’s one of the reasons I could never fully endorse the Manhattan declaration because of doctrinal differences.

    But your point is markedly taken, that love and gospel precede and overarch all other consideration, and I often wish we could all get along in this manner. I’m willing to engage in discussion and disagreement over doctrine, but NOT at a loss of our freedom to be respected.

    There is, I fear, a final and great civil debate taking place in this country, and it is not over race or gender. It is over religion. Bigotry, in all its forms, is rearing its head. Both on the left and on the right, in different permutations.

    I recently wrote about *why* Mormons are so offended when (http://www.americanyak.com/response-to-a-malaise-too-common/) people call us a “cult.” Whether the title is accurate or not, it drives home one major point: it’s not what we call ourselves, it’s not what we like to be called, and in that sense, it borders on hate speech equivalent with the likes of calling somebody a racial slur like…well…you get the idea.

    This is my major difficulty between Mormons and Evangelicals, and I want to just get past this. We don’t have to agree on everything. But respect and love *are* the preeminent qualities that Jesus afforded, and loving each other requires so much more than we are both giving right now.

    I hope you can appreciate this different angle, and sorry if I’ve hijacked your post a little bit for a gripe. 🙁 But I did really like what you said. 🙂

    • John Stackhouse

      I have participated in some Mormon-evangelical dialogue myself, including a lectureship at Brigham Young University, and I sympathize with your concerns.

      Two fine recent books that model forthright and respectful Mormon-evangelical conversation are the following.

      Robert Millet and Greg Johnson have published Bridging the Divide: The Continuing Conversation between a Mormon and an Evangelical (Monkfish, 2007).

      Gerald McDermott and Robert Millet have co-authored Claiming Christ: A Mormon-Evangelical Debate. Baker Academic briefly (!) published this book and let it go out of print almost immediately, although it seems still to be available from Amazon and elsewhere. I’m glad to say that Regent College Publishing will be bringing it back into print sometime next year.

  24. Paul Johnston

    …”I’ve also been equally disappointed with the way some progressive Christians fall into the opposite trap of fleeing uncomfortable topics because firm disagreement can be labeled as hatred or judgmentalism”…

    Me too. Or worse still the common habit, of deliberately misrepresenting a cogent criticism as something untoward or impolite.

    I read a lot of these kind of “crying wolf” responses, when arguements begin to fail.

    Manners matter and better to be friends than foes but the style over substance premise of this thread presupposes a certain over sensitivity to words that can sometimes be used to avoid inconvenient truths and our own inconsistent arguements.

    Sticks and stones…some people in the blogosphere need to toughen up a little and give the person they disagree with a “mulligan” regarding perceived insults.

  25. Lynn M. Dunston

    Well said. I couldn’t agree more. It’s one thing to disagree, but it’s another thing to maintain Christian charity in the process.

  26. Annabel

    I think it has something to do with the psychology of the blogosphere. People feel they’re wearing a mask and have some degree of anonymity, so they put aside their usual facades and let all their pathologies hang out. There’s also some degree of group think. If you get onto a blog with a particular bias, and a bias with which you happen to disagree, you’re going to get attacked by “the mob,” who are given courage by finding safety in numbers. Again, it’s the psychology of the pack. For really serious discussions, I think one does best with a closed, moderated listserv. One always risks personal attack on open blogs.

    • John Stackhouse

      You’ve nailed it, Annabel, particularly with your metaphor of “the pack.” I’ve been taken aback by the ferocity of some Christian blog “communities” as they not only viciously argue wildly (ad hominem, straw man, focusing all attention on the weakest argument and ignoring the better ones, et cetera, et cetera) but actually egg each other on and tolerate no third party intervening to say, “Um, steady on, guys, not so rough.”

      It’s as if you see the sign “Debate Society” and walk in the door, only to find you’re in the Twilight Zone and you’ve innocently wandered instead into a biker bar or an Old Western small-town tavern. You’re quickly set upon by the lead bullies and you can almost hear them drawl, “We don’t much like strangers here” as they reach for their pool cues or six-guns…

      …or, in some cases, they simply resort to the rhetorical equivalent of teeth and nails.

      I’m learning, slowly, that my only choice is either to fight back (and I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to unlearn my sorely-won skills as a teen- and college-age smackdown debater–by which Christ was not glorified) or get the heck outta there.

      • Glenn Runnalls

        there seems to be 3 Christian groups at work in the blogosphere. the easiest one to identify is the rational group associated with the young reformers. they seem to be have an affinity to “Athens”. the other group is really broad, but i think they are connected into the church growth movement. they seem to have an affinity for “Hollywood/LA” even if they spend most of their time hating it. the third group has this rough association and are mostly identified by being against everything else that is going on in the church (especially in Athens and LA). they demonstrate a great deal of “sophistication” and contempt, much like the “bohemian” movement of 19th/20th century Paris. these groups seem to really practice on hating each other. Athens hates LA for the way they’ve watered down the gospel and they hate the Bohemians because they use only use reason to deconstruct. The Bohemains hate LA because LA represents a bunch of hicks. They hate Athens because Athens looks too much like modernity and they accuse them of having no love. LA sees the sophistication of the Bohemians as mere decadence or capitulation to the Liberal Elite and the rational precision of Athens as subservience to the academy and the thing that keeps people from the Gospel.

  27. wendy

    As someone who speaks and blogs on one of the hot potato issues (homosexuality), I’m grateful to see this post. Particularly on the topic which I regularly address, I wince when I see many public comments made by followers of Jesus who seem to be assuming that only fellow Christians are reading their remarks. On the topic of homosexuality, you can always assume that non-Christians, perhaps those very suspicious of the church, will inevitably follow the conversation. Every blog comment is a missional opportunity – an opportunity that is so many times squandered and actually destroyed. Recent research found that 70% of gay adults identify some alignment with Christian faith – but 42% claim no connection with a local church …. why? Well maybe in large part because the church is full of Christians – who in the blogworld the other six days of the week are the antithesis of hospitality, grace and love.
    Thank you for this timely reminder Dr. J

  28. Annabel

    >>I’m learning, slowly, that my only choice is either to fight back (and I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to unlearn my sorely-won skills as a teen- and college-age smackdown debater–by which Christ was not glorified) or get the heck outta there.<<

    Once people start hurling insults, any reasonable discussion is impossible as far as I'm concerned. It's absolutely futile and counter-productive to debate people who are abusive. I think that if people start getting nasty, the best you can do is to politely state your case and leave, turning the other cheek toward the rotten tomatoes they'll probably lob after you:-)


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