The high stakes showdown between Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson and A&E backed up by the homosexual advocacy group GLAAD lit up the end of 2013 like a clash of titans high above our mundane lives.
But here on the ground, the Hollywood head-butting prompted ordinary folk to debate how to deal compassionately with real people in morally tragic and complicated circumstances.
A friend of mine wrote to me that he was unsettled by Robertson’s blanket condemnation of whole classes of people, homosexuals in particular, even though Robertson was only repeating from memory what the Bible says:
“Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
My friend found the simple reference to the authority of Scripture unfeeling and inhumane: “We are talking about people here. And the closer these people are to us, the hot topic and the law both seem to disappear and make way for compassion and understanding.” He then cited Jesus “as someone who never targeted the ‘sinners’ of his time, disregarding them as merely issues to be debated. Rather, He spoke harshly against those who put the law first, and the person last.” I have heard a lot of this from young evangelicals eager to exercise the heart of Christ.
It is true that Jesus cared about individual people and was stern with those who prosecuted sin ungraciously and cruelly. He came to call sinners to repentance, to seek and to save the wayward and the lost, but He never stood against the truth in doing so. He was faithful to the law even as He was merciful to the lawless. He called people to forsake the lie that is sin and return to God in all His truth and holiness, but only through the gate that is Christ who died for the sin we forsake. He bucked convention by speaking with the woman at the well, but He confronted her with her sin (gently, but directly), offered her Himself as Messiah, and told her to sin no more.
Sin complicates life. The mess it makes is a complex web of our own peculiar manifestations of the sin nature, our sinful responses to the blows we suffer from a fallen world, and the sins of others against us, and the million perverse choices to which we sign our names. Christ makes the crooked path straight, but not by broadening straight to include crooked. In addressing the crook in our neighbor’s hearts, Christians, like Christ, should be gentle, tactful, and understanding.
But gentleness must have an end in view. You cannot love someone without understanding a person’s good and the human good in general. To love someone is to help move the person through the Savior toward what the Creator has revealed is righteousness and holiness.
So a discussion of what is simply right is not insensitive to people’s complex practical needs. It is a precondition for properly addressing them. It’s not uncompassionate. Indeed, there can be no effective compassion without it.