Everyone hates hypocrisy. When people smugly condemn other people’s behaviour yet do the same or worse, it winds us up more than almost anything else.
I’ve been thinking about a slightly different sort of hypocrisy recently, one which has less to do with a disconnect between speaking and acting (although I’m sure it works itself out in that way too) and more to do with headlines and small print. In evangelical Christianity, we’re often good at headlines, doctrinal slogans that sum up what we think on a particular issue. The more these slogans are honed and perfected, the more they get rolled out as shorthand for our entire thinking on a subject. The reason that they get used so much is that they seem to answer a difficult question without having to go into the details.
A few examples:
1) Isn’t God sexist for only allowing men to be the leaders in church and family?
No, comes the headline answer, because men and women are equal but different.
2) Is God homophobic? Why do Christians hate gay people?
We don’t, the slogan replies, we hate the sin, but we still love the sinner.
3) Why did God give me a sex drive if I’m not allowed to use it? Why is he against sex?
Ah, we say, it’s because he values sex so much, that we can only use it according to his blueprint.
Recognise any of those? You might recognise them because I’ve said them to you at that point. I’m certain I’ve used each of them in this way in the past. Sorry. Knowing that might make you feel that the rest of this post is hypocritical in itself. But if you’ve known me a while, and if I’ve given any of these answers to you, I hope you’ll see my changing understanding of each of these issues as just that: honest change, an ongoing process and a journey, rather than deceit or hypocrisy.
So, if you’ve been given those answers, perhaps you were satisfied with them and didn’t feel the need to probe any further. After all, they defend a God who seems fair, loving, and wise, in the face of questions that might accuse him of being none of those. Good answers. But perhaps something didn’t quite sit right with you. Perhaps when you delved further into what these headlines actually mean, you found the small print told an altogether different story. That’s what I mean by hypocrisy here. Maybe they’re clever words. Maybe they’re outright lies.
“Equal but different” for instance, tends to mean this, to varying degrees:
God has created two types of people, men and women. Men and women are fundamentally different and so have different roles to play. Any roles which involve leadership, teaching, authority, decision making, bread-winning being strong, providing, protecting and so on, those are men’s roles. Especially in the two most important contexts for Christian life: the Church and the family. Women’s roles in these context may include being submissive, being obedient, listening, learning, following, serving, trusting, cooking, raising children and possibly flower arranging. She may teach women and children, but not men. But they are equal.
I know that not everyone who uses the “equal but different” slogan would subscribe to everything I just said. Maybe they’d want to add in that men can also serve and be submissive in the right context, and that perhaps cooking and raising children may now be a joint task. But they are all things that come from this way of thinking about the different roles of men and women. For instance, see John Piper’s (respected evangelical leader) comments here on how “men aren’t hard-wired to follow women, period”. So, given that small print as we could call it, that explanation of what the headline really means, how exactly do we maintain that that difference of relationship and roles is equality, in any recognisable sense of the word? When one group has all the leadership roles, the active roles, the speaking parts and the responsibility, and the other has the passive, receptive, supporting roles, in what sense are they still equal?
We might use phrases like men and women are equally made in God’s image (although if you’re to ask Piper again, God is masculine) but those phrases don’t seem to mean much if the reality looks so different. It would seem more honest for the equal but different tribe to say “men and women are different in all these ways, so actually they’re not equal in role or status or capability – but that’s okay because God loves us equally and still has things for women to do.” That’s a statement I’d fundamentally disagree with, but at least we’d be clear on where we all stand so we know what we’re disagreeing over.
How about “Hate the sin, love the sinner”? This is an easy one to roll out when we disagree with someone’s choices or lifestyle. On the surface it’s attractive, much like the equal but different slogan, because it shows God and Christians to be good and fair, and only against bad stuff, not bad people. The problem again is in the details though. When it’s used in the context of an issue like sexual orientation, what it really means is:
I hate the fact that you are attracted to people of the same gender as you. I hate the feelings that you have for your partner, I hate the love that you show them, I hate the way of life you have together, I hate the plans you’ve made together. I hate this so much that I refuse to recognise it as part of your identity, although my heterosexual relationship is definitely a part of mine, and I deny the way that the relationships and community and love you’ve experienced because of your sexual identity have been a positive part of your life, because I hate it the source of it all. But, I love you.
The same disclaimer applies as before, I know that not everyone who uses that sort of phrase would be so black and white about each part, but as far as I can see, that’s the expansion of the idea – when you say you hate the sin, you’re imagining it to be some abstract concept. You’re thinking of it as bad stuff. You’re removing the idea of homosexuality from people and their lives. That might make sense to you, but in doing so you’re totally denying the experiences of the person themselves, their experience of their own identity. That doesn’t sound much like love to me. Wouldn’t it be more honest to say “no, we don’t love what you consider is a big part of yourself. We consider it sin so we hate it.” Then we’d have an honest disagreement on our hands.
I won’t say much about the last example because others have done so much better. In this blog post, on myths perpetuated by a culture that idolises purity and virginity, Joy says:
“Both men and women have shared heartbreaking stories with me of being shamed for even experiencing sexual desire, whether directed toward a specific person or not. In a climate in which we are also forbidden to masturbate, the underlying message is “Your sex drive is evil; therefore, you must shut it down.””
The headline says one thing: God isn’t anti-sex, he created good. Yet so often all of the small print says otherwise. It says instead that if you’re not married to someone of the opposite sex, then he is anti- every kind of sexual desire you have. If you never marry, then he always will be. Why does the headline try to defend God’s pro-sex stance if in reality, there’s so much of it that he’s against?
So here’s my request. Let’s be honest. Let’s not dress up controversial ideas with simple slogans, let’s not sugar coat or twist words. If you absolutely have to come up with a softer way of expressing what God thinks which hides the small print and makes it easier to swallow, maybe it’s time to reconsider whether we really know what God thinks on this one.