If you’ve ever been in a clique you will know that it makes you instantly feel like you belong. In high school, enclaves of teenage girls mutter and point to elicit the desired response from their target: “What are you talking about?” followed by the smug response, “talking about you, not to you!”
As a parent, I’ve used this jibe as a joke when trying to discuss my children with my husband.
“What are you talking about?” they ask, hearing their name.
“Talking about you, not to you!” But the children know we are discussing how better to parent and love them, or how we will represent them to their school. We don’t exclude them because we are trying to hurt them, but to discuss ways to raise them lovingly.
Yet when we, as Christians, talk about people outside the church—and not to them—it can easily become gossip and slander.
When we talk about people outside the church—and not to them—it can easily become gossip and slander.
When we talk about people, we are often already excluding them. They are not like “us”; they become “other”, not just in our minds, but in our hearts. Then, when we try to switch gears and relate to these “others”, we unwittingly dehumanise them. We have spent too much time teaching ourselves how to look down on them, and now we can’t relate to them.
Research has shown that socially ostracising people makes us feel included, at the expense of the “other”. This might make us feel good, but it’s not consistent with a Christian life.
Two years ago, I came to the realisation that I no longer wanted to keep doing this. I wanted to stop talking about people whose social needs aren’t usually met by the church or other groups; people who think the roof would fall on them if they entered a church; people who assume they are hated by Christians.
I guess some people will assume that I’m simply going soft on sin at this point—in fact, I know that’s what they’ll assume because I’ve sometimes heard them say it behind my back.
But that’s not what I’m talking about. I know that neither Jesus nor his followers held back when describing human sinfulness. I know they sometimes talked about other people in a way that those people wouldn’t like. And I know that there is an unavoidable offence that will come if we refuse to agree that certain lifestyles are good or certain identities are valid.
But Jesus and his apostles were also speaking to those people. Their criticisms were accompanied by lives of love and costly engagement that testified to that love.
How rarely is that true for us. We talk about but not to—and so inevitably come across as simply judgemental. Although it may be the last thing we intend, we give the impression that we see ourselves as “the righteous” and that the real sinners are “those people” over there.
What has gone wrong with us that we find ourselves in this situation? I’m sure there are many factors, but here are some things that I think we sometimes forget:
1. We forget that every person is made in God’s image
All humans are made in God’s image. We know this, of course, but we don’t always remember to act like it. Sometimes we become so fixated on people’s sin that we forget that they are also creatures of great value—creatures whose lives are sacrosanct and who should be spoken about respectfully (c.f. Gen 9:5-6; James 3:9-10).
Sometimes we become so fixated on people’s sin that we forget that they are also creatures of great value.
I think this is a particular temptation for us when it comes to people who embrace homosexual relationships or trans identities. They want to define themselves in terms of something that the Bible describes as sinful, and so we let them. But we mustn’t: they are people made in God’s image before they are sinners. Their value and dignity is much greater than they know, and we must show them that in the way we speak to them.
2. We forget that we are all sinners deserving of judgement
All of us are equally sinful in God’s sight. Of course, some sins do more damage to us and other people, and some are harder to give up, but these are trivial differences when compared to the theological fact that every one of us—no matter what our preferred sin—deserves death and judgement. All of us are exposed by Jesus’ uncompromising rejection of secret sin (e.g. Matt 5:21-30). All of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Rom 3:23). All of us are by nature objects of wrath (Eph 2:3).
Why then do we think that some sins—like pursuing a homosexual lifestyle—are worse? Maybe it’s because there is so much resistance in our society against even the idea that these things are sinful, and we think the resistance makes it worse than our own sin (which is wrong, it just means there’s a bigger barrier to repentance).
But maybe it’s just because we have forgotten how serious our own sins are. Maybe we are like the Pharisee in Luke 7:36-50 who “loves little” because he doesn’t feel like he’s got much to forgive.
3. We forget that God sent Jesus to restore relationships
In Rosaria Butterfield’s book The Gospel Comes with a House Key, she explains how hospitality has opened doors for her to speak to people outside the church and in different lifestyles. That hospitality has also given her the opportunity to introduce her friends to God’s hospitality. In the trust and intimacy that can only be found through regular time together, Rosaria’s lesbian friend confided through tears that her partner called her ugly, to which Rosaria responded, “Jesus would never treat you like this, Jesus loves all his daughters perfectly.” (p.54)
Notice that this kind of welcome and hospitality does not mean making light of sin—any more than the fact that Jesus was known as a friend of prostitutes and tax-collectors meant he was condoning prostitution or corruption.
But the fact that it was possible for Jesus to be friends with such notorious sinners must mean that he was doing more than only confronting them with their sin. He was there first of all to show God’s love and patience.
God sent Jesus into the world to save sinners, not ostracise and alienate them.
God sent Jesus into the world to save sinners, not ostracise and alienate them. What a shame that our posture seems to be one of condemnation—that we are so focused on identifying other people’s sins but never spend any time with them.
4, We forget that our hostile culture needs Jesus
In conservative Christian websites, blogs and forums I’ve noticed a trend that I want to call “panic porn”. The posts are consistently about how trans (etc.) ideology is causing pain to people, how public school education is declining, how chaplaincy and scripture in schools have been removed. The themes and preoccupations communicate fear, rage and mistrust.
Here again, something is off. Surely it is important to keep abreast of how our culture is rejecting Christianity—Jesus warns us that he has come to bring division (Matt 10:34-36) and that the world will hate us (John 15:18-25). But if we focus on that, we will become hostile ourselves. We will feel personally attacked and fearful for our families, churches and workplaces. We will overestimate the level of hostility and miss the opportunities to get to know these people we think of as our enemies. We will withdraw further and further from the world.
Love Across the Divide
A few years ago, I was talking to a beloved family member who has since come out (as same-sex attracted). She has known me as a conservative pastor’s wife with traditional values all her life. I told her that I felt sad that a lot of people think that Christians hate people who are gay, lesbian or adopt other sexual identities. Her answer was unexpected.
“But why would they think that of you?” she asked, genuinely perplexed.
Secular people are frightened of the Christian worldview—it feels rigid and restrictive. But it we love them, our secular friends will see something different in us.
A few years later, when my friend came out to me, she was nervous about what I would say. I explained that my values were very important to me because I believe the God of the Bible is true. But I also told her that I didn’t expect her to live according to those values because she wasn’t a Christian. Either way, I said, I would always love her.
In the end, our relationship is stronger because I accept and do not judge her on the basis of her actions, but because she shares both the image of God as much as she shares Adam’s sin. If by God’s grace, she receives his mercy, she will be accepted because of Christ’s righteousness and not on her works, just like me. I pray that she might be transformed by the Holy Spirit and come to know God, but in the meantime, my love for her is always there.
The temptation is to mute their posts on social media and withdraw, feeling helpless. Instead, I work to affirm their God-given humanity.
I also have an acquaintance who has fully embraced a trans lifestyle. It pains me to see them have surgery and to develop an identity that feels at odds with the person I know them to be. The temptation is to mute their posts on social media and withdraw, feeling helpless. Instead, I work to affirm their God-given humanity. I respectfully adhere to “their” pronouns as negotiated. I affirm their personal value and ignore their political posts and trans ideology messaging. I show sympathy when they recount painful experiences in their previous church history. I aim to be the person who they might come to if circumstances change for them, and in the meantime, I enjoy the way God has made them and the gifts they have.
I aim to keep the door, if not open, then at least ajar.
What would our lives look like if we risked being described the way Jesus was? Jesus, who ate with sinners and touched the diseased. Wouldn’t we be glad to be described the way Jesus was? Jesus, our saviour, was accused of being a glutton who partied with all the “wrong” people. What if we could learn to associate with the “wrong” people for the right reasons? What if God used the relationships we have as part of our ministry of reconciliation?
God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:17-19).
 See, for example, Feinberg, Matthew, Robb Willer, and Michael Schultz. “Gossip and Ostracism Promote Cooperation in Groups,” Psychological Science 25, no. 3 (March 2014): 656–64.