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I really appreciate the response from readers and friends over the past week or so since I wrote my last piece, “Two Deaths, and an Unfortunate Connection.” There have been many passionate and intelligent reactions in the comment section, my email inbox, and at other websites. One such response came from my friend and perpetual counterpoint Matthew Lee Anderson, over at his blog Mere Orthodoxy. In his piece, “The Conversation Our Culture Cannot Have, But Must Anyway,” the brunt of his argument is against my insistence that we stop having conversations about the morality of the actions of people we don’t know. He writes, “Fitzgerald’s plea for a moratorium on the debate about the morality of homosexuality actually destroys the possibility of real, civil discourse on the question.”

Whether or not my plea destroys real civil discourse on the question actually depends on what the question is. It seems to me that throughout Anderson’s piece there are two threads: the morality of homosexuality and gay marriage. Nowhere in my piece did I address gay marriage, but I will say here, unequivocally, I support gay marriage.

When it comes to government-sanctioned marriage, I firmly believe that my faith as a Christian and my particular moral beliefs so far as they are a product of my faith have no bearing on the debate. When my wife and I were married we were actually “married” twice. When our pastor signed a form (which, we had to pay extra to obtain because we were late in doing so) the state of Massachusetts considered us married. But at another much more private time we were married before God. I know this is tangential to the argument that Anderson is making, but I wanted to get it out of the way of the more central concern of his piece.

So then, does my calling for “a moratorium on debates over what qualifies as sin in other peoples’ lives” translate into a call for the end of conversation on the morality of homosexuality? Yes. Insofar as we have open, public—even civil—conversations about the sin of people we do not know, then yes, we must stop having this conversation. Though, this is not exactly what Anderson thinks it is. Am I requiring that all Christians believe that homosexuality is not sin? Of course not. Within any community there are always variations on belief, and I don’t see this is as a problem. What I do think is a problem is the urge to identify and then judge the sins of strangers.

I am not a theologian. To someday study Scripture like it’s my job is a goal of mine, but of all the things I’ve formerly studied, my theological education is only comprised of 16 years of Christian schooling and a (short) lifetime of private study. Actually, as I type that, that seems like a lot, but I don’t have an M.Div or anything. All that to say, the question I have been asking recently is not whether homosexuality is sin, but whether I have any responsibility to point out any sin in the lives of people I do not know.

Let me clarify: it seems to me that if I were gay, the morality of my sexuality would be a central question. Further, if a close friend and fellow believer asked me to consider with him whether sexual sin exists in his life, we would of course have the conversation. This is not strange—we all have close friends, sometimes we refer to them in Christianese as “accountability partners”—who have invited us to speak into the intimate details of their lives. But when I read scripture, particularly through the Gospels, I don’t see any invitation to issue judgment about the sins of people we do not know. I see Jesus do so in such instances when he says “Go and sin no more,” but I also hear Jesus saying, “judge not, or you will be judged,” and that business about twigs in people’s eyes.

I’m fine with being proven wrong on this, and the last thing I’m trying to do is prooftext with the Bible. I really don’t believe that’s the way we are intended to read it. A different approach, then, is to look at the spirit of the Gospel, to look at its earliest implementation in the first century church, and ask myself whether making pronouncements about people’s particular sins seemed to be a priority. I submit that it did not. That it still should not. I took this question to my friend, the priest of my parish, and he wisely pointed out that sin in the Bible is hardly ever talked about in terms of this or that action, but rather as a state that we all live in. In that way, it’s not the kind of thing we identify in others’ actions because it is more than that, it is our very nature.

This ends one kind of conversation, certainly. This refutes Al Mohler’s suggestion that we will all have our Osteen Moment (unless I read him wrong and by Osteen Moment he means when we all get rich and happy, because I’ll take that) in which we must make a universal, impersonal pronouncement of the wrongs in other people’s lives. The conversation that happens on blogs about the sinfulness of homosexuality, the one that always ends with hurt feelings and moderators locking comment threads, must end.

Beyond that, believe what you want. Wrestle with this question with your close friends and confidants, ask your pastor, go to seminary. Ultimately, you will come to one conclusion or another, and you should. But that’s where it ends. Tuck your conclusion away for the time when someone close asks for your guidance, or for when you are faced with the question of your own moral culpability. What I’m calling for is not an end to thinking, but an end to pronouncing. And I feel confident that this is the true spirit of the Gospel message of good news for all.

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Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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0 Responses to Let’s Not Judge the Morality of Strangers

  1. Zach Nielsen says:

    “What I’m calling for is not an end to thinking, but an end to pronouncing.” Are you pronouncing an end to pronouncing? Seems like circular logic here. Maybe I am missing something.

    • Fitz says:

      Sorry, allow me to clarify. The pronouncing I’m hoping to end was referenced earlier in the piece: “pronouncements about people’s particular sins.”

      Thanks for reading.

  2. Dan says:

    Jonathan, I think you have taken a good point about a specific issue (homosexuality and gay marriage) and applied it more broadly than it should be applied. The problem isn’t that people think homosexuality a sin (in my opinion) – it’s that in the pronouncing as sin the American church has not carried and shared the core message of the Gospel. The Church is charged first and foremost with sharing Christ’s love with a broken world in need of Him. Nothing else compares to that calling. The American church’s insistence on political and cultural opposition to homosexuality has been put above that first call, leading to untold damage to the Church’s ability to witness to segments of our population.

    But to say that we, as Christians, should not judge morality is going too far. We must be willing to do that. We need to vocally stand up for the poor, for instance. That requires we point out and oppose oppression. We need to vocally stand up for the rights of the unborn, who cannot voice them themselves. Sometimes this means pointing out systemic sin – institutionally or culturally entrenched activities which promote evil over good, or create other harm. Sometimes this means pointing out specific actions of specific people (usually political leaders). Jesus was constantly doing this sort of thing – turning over tables in the Temple, calling on the self-righteous to cast away their stones, and rebuking the Pharisees for their uncaring, debilitating legalism.

    It’s not that the Church shouldn’t be in the business of addressing personal and social morality – how could it not be? – it’s that those pronunciations must be guided by the larger themes of the Gospel and by a deep love for others (whether hetero- or homosexual).

    • Fitz says:

      Dan, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I’m not convinced, however, that we must be willing to judge morality. It seems that you are in the midst of the same thought process that led me to where I eventually landed. That is, you rightfully point out (as do I) that Jesus identified and judged sin in peoples’ lives, but he also made it very clear that he is the judge. There’s that bit about the power of judgment given to him by the Father. I think that puts him in a separate category from us. I still don’t see any indication that we are supposed to be pointing out individual sins in the lives of people we do not know and who are not part of the body. That is not to say we don’t oppose oppression or stand up for the poor; we do so by acknowledging that we are all deep in the midst of sin, and that, not any particular issue, is the problem.

  3. CRW says:

    Jesus may not have commanded us to go around and judges others’ morality, and usually when he did make moral judgments it was to point out hypocrisy, or to address a person who first approached Him to inquire about a specific issue. But the apostle Paul made moral judgments, and if we are to follow the example of the apostles, should we not do the same thing? If we believe homosexuality is truly a sin, is it wrong to call it that? We call dishonesty, drunkenness, violence, etc., sins. I’m not necessarily equating homosexuality with these other things, I’m just saying IF we believe it is sinful, why shouldn’t we speak against it, as Paul did? I’m also not saying it should be an emphasis, or an issue to pursue. But if we believe it is wrong, are you saying we shouldn’t say so? Personally, I’m not certain it’s always a “sin”. I’m trying to figure that out, in the context of consenting adults in a monogamous relationship. I have a relative who is gay, and I’m questioning some long held beliefs.

    • Fitz says:

      Thanks for your comments. I definitely resonate with your questioning. I think the difference with Paul is that he was addressing specific church bodies over which he had pastoral authority. There are a few instances in scripture where we are told how to deal with sin in fellow believers, I’m not questioning that. It is the general pronouncements that I’m questioning. Thanks again for reading.

  4. benlemery says:

    Hi Jonathan, I am a first time commenter here and found you from Mere Theology’s post. First, thanks for your honest discussion regarding this issue, I would be intrigued to actually meet you and hear more of your heart. Some thoughts I had about your blog: 1. It seems to me that you are redefining the Gospel to fit your cultural milieu instead of taking all of it into consideration. By using the word judge, you are stating that a person has already come to a conclusion that would be unwavering no matter what the conversation will be. Instead could a person not be showing empathy, sympathy or genuine concern without stating they are going to hell for their sin? I absolutely think so. Jesus often used the word “judge” in the context of the Pharisees, in that sense He was judging their own hearts and motives to the be the antithesis of the things they publicly and proudly professed. Jesus, while never accepting the sin, openly embraced the sinner because He came to show that He was the bridge for all, not just those that made themselves look “elect.”
    When your friend stated that sin was never talked about in one action or another, I would ask him to reread 1 and 2 Corinthians and Paul’s rebuke to the church for some egregious errors. He step-by-step walked them through some of the sin issues that were resonating within their own body. Do I even need to mention the Old Testament and God’s specific judgment on different countries and cities based on specific sins? While it may not be the predominant theme, when it is spoken about, God was pretty specific on what He was focusing on.
    I guess my final thought would be, sin cannot simply be seen as a singular act done by a single person. Paul talks about principalities which means a literal system of sin over a specific region or nation. The idea that people would not want a sin to massively accepted in a nation is not unheard of and would stand to be quite Biblical.
    With all that said, you are a good writer and not a snipe like some bloggers and I appreciate that. I hope my responses to you can be the same and I look forward to commenting more in the future.

  5. Jim says:

    Jonathan, what is missing from your well written article is the fact that the GBLT world aggressively promotes itself as “normal, healthy, etc.” in the media, public schools, and more. For those of us that believe that homosexual behavior is both sinful as well as unnatural, we are forced to accept as normal and healthy, something we just cannot. So, we are considered bigots. Personally, I don’t know anyone who would be hostile or hateful to someone who practices a homosexual lifestyle, but I don’t think we should be forced to accept it, anymore than we would be forced to “accept” any other wrong behavior. When we accept wrong behavior as right, we are just in trouble as a society.

  6. Joshua Keel says:

    Hey Jonathan, I just want to thank you for explaining your views more fully in this post. I appreciate the context.

  7. Matt says:

    Fitz, this was another thoughtful and helpful post. Thanks. This might not be the best place to put this out there, but here’s a thought. I’m increasingly convinced that whatever one believes about homosexuality — sinful or not — it it is an issue unlike others. It is conceptually and pastorally incapable of being conceived of like other sins, if indeed thats even what it is. I’m not sure I actually could justify this completely, but I think homosexually exists in a category of its own, and thereby especially is hard to reason about and deal with as Christians.

    I’m not trying to pick on Jim’s comment, which I respect, but I noticed he emphasized “homosexual behavior.” And its true that we can distinguish an inclination from a deed. But homosexuality is as much an emotional orientation as it is anything else — its about where gay men and women find feelings of safety, comfort, acceptance, and more. Whatever that feeling is that comes with giving love and being loved, that too is a part of the homosexual experience just as much as it is a part of the heterosexual experience. And I think that in practice it is very difficult to separate out all the different elements of one’s identity, to disentangle the emotional from the sexual and more. Lives are lived as a unity. And as such, I suspect its almost impossible to repress one element and not have it influence the others. Sexual desire is not a discrete “thing,” but wells up from all the other parts of our being — is that not the very reason why Christians take the ethics surrounding it so seriously? It is not just “physical,” but bound up with our psychological, emotional, and spiritual dimensions.

    My point is that as a pastoral issue, homosexuality is not like anything else mentioned in Scripture, especially the New Testament, and is not like anything else the Church confronts today. You cannot, if my argument above is right, distinguish the sin from the sinner, because the sin is an expression of the emotional core of the sinner, in a way, say, being an alcoholic is not the core of a person. The latter can be severe, overwhelming, and nearly all encompassing. But it is not attached to the core desire to love and be loved. It does not come from that primordial place where love, desire, and acceptance merge together. So when discussing homosexuality, and arguing against “acting” on it, it necessarily cuts to the emotional core of a person, for whom such distinctions fall away in the lived unity of experience. I think talking about “the sin” with regard to this particular issue always will wound “the sinner.” It will be taken more personally, and the judgment absorbed more intimately, than with anything else because of the nature of the problem of homosexuality.

    I’m sure other readers can pick my reasoning apart. I’m sure I made some missteps. But, I do think I’m onto something — I’m gesturing towards something real about the relationship between “sin” and “sinner” with regards to gay people that makes it an issue the Church will have to be exceedingly creative in responding to pastorally, for which there will be no guides, save Jesus himself, and in which all the old formulas, slogans, techniques, and cliches must fall away. I think — and I could be wrong — Fitz’s post tacitly is working on an assumption like the one I’ve laid out. That something is wrong about how we as Christians are talking and arguing and responding to this issue. I love Patrol because, at the least, they are groping their way forward in the darkness, letting love lead them to a better way on this subject.

    • Fitz says:

      Matt,

      Thanks for this response. It adds a lot to my personal thoughts about the issue as well as to the ideas I tried to express here.

    • Jim says:

      Matt, this is an interesting comment. There are many ways you can approach the subject, I’m an old school modern thinker I suppose. I study and teach the scriptures and believe that they are as relevant today as ever, so when I approach topics of controversy like the homosexual issue, I’m looking for biblical reasoning to guide me, not culture or psychology.
      I think a lot of our current cultural posture if you will, regarding the gay community, has come from the gay community telling us how we should respond to them. How we can help them feel better about themselves.
      You said “I think talking about “the sin” with regard to this particular issue always will wound “the sinner.”
      I was trying to think of any issue of sin being dealt with that doesn’t wound… it’s the point of discipline or correction,. to wound (2 Cor. 7:8-10) unto repentance.
      If we let the “sinner” tell us how to respond, are we really doing them or society at large any service? Certainly we would not let a pedophile tell us how we should respond or make concessions because of their feelings,… not yet anyway.
      It is a heated issue, it’s an emotional one because of the reasons you suggest.

  8. Donald says:

    Are there other current issues that are as complicated as this one? I’m afraid of the subject now cause there are too many damn angles.

  9. One can only be responsible for what is in one’s own heart. No one is in a position to make a judgement about what is in the heart of another. The job of the follower of Jesus is to love unconditionally, not to rule on the moral judgment of another person.

  10. Aaron says:

    Hi Fitz! I largely agree with you, but I think it’s important to keep a few issues separate.

    There are at least two things that could be meant by “morality”: (1) personal ethics — the search for the good life; and (2) justice — the protection of basic (universal!) human rights.

    With respect to (1), some days I’m tempted to say “There is no such thing as Christian morality.” But I think that’s wrong — the basics are given to us in the sermon on the mount. The beatitudes are essentially an explanation of the good (“blessed”) life. But a crucial tenet of the blessed life is that we no judge others. In effect, morality (1) is not something we can hold anyone else accountable for. And here is where we agree.

    But there is also morality in the sense given by (2). We, individuals and the church, *should* make pronouncements on the morality of strangers’ actions when those actions infringe on the basic rights of others.

    One might ask whether homosexual and/or gay marriage rightly falls within category (1) or (2). To me, homosexuality is a type-(1) issue. If gay marriage is a type-(2) issue, a ban on gay marriage would be an infringement — not the other way around.

  11. Cassie says:

    Fitz,

    It takes guts to write what you did. I am with you on this issue. Every argument described here though, no matter how well reasoned or Biblically rooted, eventually boils down to something like, “I think that we have to/can’t take up direct issue with homosexuals because I just can’t live with not doing this… it needs to be done”. The question eventually becomes, “whose compulsion creates the most harm” I have friends who are homosexuals, and the thought of them facing harm or even facing the leering, snobbish, and demeaning arguments of a self-convinced Christian that there are major issues with their lives makes me ill – Especially when there are multiple issues that every individual could be called on the carpet for at any time.

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