An Oh-So-Subtle Twist

It seems the recent firestorm surrounding Phil Robertson’s suspension from the show Duck Dynasty  has subsided. A&E has reinstated him with no further repercussions. Make no mistake, that was a purely financial decision. It was very clear to me on Day One that A&E needs the Robertsons far more than the Robertsons need A&E, and I was certain the final resolution would reflect that fact. So it has.

I’ve been mulling over one phenomenon I couldn’t help but notice throughout the controversy, something that has been slightly bothering me. A great many evangelical Christians responded (even in the pieces I happened to really like) this way: “I don’t really have a problem with what Phil Robertson said  (though it was uncouth), but I have problems with what he didn’t say.”

Now, usually it is a very small matter when somebody criticizes silences, what so-and-so didn’t say. But there was a uniform pattern to this criticism this time around, a widespread agreement over the particular “thing” Phil should have said but didn’t. In short, the “thing” Phil Robertson should have said is we are all sinners and that homosexual behavior is but one sin among many.

Regarding its truth, I have no doubts. Regarding its wisdom in many contexts, I have no doubts. Regarding its value as either a rule or a cogent criticism, I have many doubts.

Let me use an illustrative analogy to explain what I mean. 

Imagine the New York Times in 2008 had approached Pastor Tim Keller to ask what he thought of the arrest of Bernie Madoff for the incredible Ponzi scheme he used to defraud billions of dollars from investors.  Keller responds with something like, “Economic fraud is a terrible sin, and Bernie Madoff should repent and turn to Jesus for forgiveness.” 

I cannot imagine a single Christian pastor, teacher, evangelist, apologist, journalist, writer, social critic or observer criticizing that quote with the following: “While I agree with Pastor Keller, he really should have emphasized that economic fraud is just one sin among many and we are all sinners.”

Can you?

I believe the same is true with almost any other sin: lying, cheating, stealing, assault, murder, and so forth. Nobody has any difficulty with people singling out and specifying these things as sin. Nobody gets their ire up because somebody in a given instance criticized a thief but left out the adulterer.

In my experience there is one, and precisely one sin we are not allowed to single out. Not allowed to declare as sin without that familiar, contextualizing epilogue that goes, “Well, but, this is just one sin among many and we’re all sinners.”

Herein lies the irony. In the name of not “singling out” homosexual conduct we are, in fact, singling out homosexual conduct. If it is the only sin we treat with these special kid gloves, then we are guilty of treating this sin differently than the others. We are minimizing it in a way we do not minimize any other sin. It seems to me a simple fact that we do not treat any other sin according to this contextualization “rule.” Nobody demands it, and it doesn’t really occur to us.

Now, lest I be misunderstood, let me make something clear. I believe that usually, meaning the vast majority of circumstances, contextualizing sin and making clear that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace is the wise and true course of action. It is not as though I don’t think that’s a good idea. I am simply noticing here and criticizing the idea that this must be some kind of rule, as though if I don’t add this epilogue I am somehow selling the gospel short. That isn’t true because the Bible itself gives myriad examples of teachers singling out particular sins (James and the abuse of wealth, for example) without feeling the need to add this ultra-sensitive, “But we’re all sinners and this is just one among many.” In fact, the Bible itself rarely speaks that way. Precisely because a single sin is “one among many,” the Bible feels free to single them out whenever and wherever it feels like it. 

And when I consider that this “rule” only makes its public appearance when the one, specific sin of homosexual conduct is the issue, I think we ought to ask ourselves: where is this “rule” really coming from? It strikes me as an oh-so-subtle scheme whereby we all willingly and rigorously downplay the very sin with which the world is presently in thrall. And, as icing on the cake, the Devil even gets Christians to do his policing for him. Ahem…

If you’re sharing the gospel message with anyone struggling with any particular sin, by all means, make clear that we are all sinners and that God’s forgiveness is big enough for every single sin. But if a journalist asks you a general question along the lines of, “Is X a sin?” you are not obliged to add that “So are Y and Z.” In fact, I’m becoming of the mind that we should self-consciously resist that temptation and keep it simple:

It’s. A. Sin.

That seems to be the one sentence people least want to hear. So perhaps it’s the one sentence we most need to speak. 

Brian Mattson