This is another one of those biblical texts which is not so difficult as it is one which is so widely and so often misused and misunderstood. Perhaps I may need to rename this series and call it something like “Twisted and Abused Bible Passages”.
But I refer to the words of Jesus in Matthew 11, beginning with verse 18: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.” See also the parallel passage in Luke 7:33-34.
It is specifically the phrase ‘friend of sinners’ which I want to address here. We hear it all the time, and it is tossed around so very cavalierly and sloppily. It is used time and time again to cover a multitude of sins. How often, for example, are we told to embrace homosexuality and homosexual marriage because this is somehow something Jesus would do.
‘After all, he was a friend of sinners you know.’ The idea by so many clueless believers and ‘progressive Christians’ is that all lifestyles must be accepted and embraced because Jesus was a ‘friend of sinners’. After all, he hung around with prostitutes and so on, so we should stop being so judgmental and just accept everyone just as they are.
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So how might we reply to this sort of thinking? Well the first and most obvious thing to say is this: Of course Jesus was a friend of, and hung around with, sinners. There were – and are – no other sorts of people on the planet! Unless he just holed up in a cave all his life, it was impossible for him not to mingle and associate with sinners.
That is the only kind of people we find on planet earth: sinners. There are no other sorts of people to be found in a fallen world. So, duh – of course he was always with sinners. That is a no-brainer. But it is the faulty implication of all this which must be challenged.
The idea presented by so many lefty-trendy Christians and those with little biblical awareness and knowledge is that Jesus accepted these people just as they are – end of story. That of course is complete rubbish, as anyone who actually reads the gospel accounts fully understands.
He accepted everyone in the sense of wanting all to come to new life in himself. But he loved people enough never to leave them in the condition they were in. As he told the adulterous woman, “go and sin no more”. He reached out in love to everyone, but with the express purpose of seeing them turn from their sins, be freed from their bondages, and find newness of life.
Jesus loves people too much to simply leave them as they are. He wants them to be radically transformed. He came to set the captives free, and to undo the works of the devil. He certainly did not come to affirm people in their sinful and hell-bound lifestyles.
So in one sense this text is easy enough to disabuse of all its faulty understanding. But we still need some practical application of all this. And this is where it can be a bit more difficult. There can be some degrees of opinion as to how all this works out in practice.
For example, some Christians, with this dodgy understanding of what ‘friend of sinners’ entails will tell you they have no problems whatsoever going into sleazy nightclubs or maybe even into sex clubs or other places of some pretty hard core sinful activity.
But leave aside that debate for the moment. One that often comes up is this: ‘Of course I would attend my child’s (or my friend’s) homosexual wedding.’ This might be a tough one for some folks. Let’s say your son or daughter announces that he or she is a homosexual, or a loved one does this. Then they tell you they are marrying, and they invite you to attend the wedding. What should you do?
While each individual Christian might have to really prayerfully and carefully consider all this, I know where I stand. And I think we can make it more or less a general principle here as well. I would not attend. I would have to explain it carefully to my friends or whoever it is of course.
I would have to make it clear that while I love them, I cannot in any way countenance, condone or approve of their sinful behavior. And as such, I cannot attend a wedding which is all about celebrating such a sinful and ungodly union.
Not only is homosexuality a sin that must be forsaken and repented of, but a homosexual marriage is a complete sham and mockery of God’s holy institution of heterosexual marriage. So everything about this is offensive to God, and should be offensive to his people.
Again, I would try as hard as I can to express my love and concern to the individual, and explain as fully as possible why I have had to make this painful decision. But it seems the alternative would be far worse: to actually show up and effectively endorse, affirm and even celebrate such sinful activity.
But I am not alone in thinking this. One of the world’s greatest experts and scholars on all things homosexual is New Testament Professor Robert Gagnon. His invaluable volume The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Abingdon, 2002), should be on the shelf of every single concerned Christian.
He has recently written about this very matter. I have not been able to find the original article, but another person offers a good summary of it so I will quote from that. As Sam Storms writes this in his article, “Is It Ok To Attend A ‘Gay Wedding’?”:
Robert Gagnon, author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice, recently addressed this question (The Hope Update, an official publication of Restored Hope Network, July 2014, Vol. 2, No. 3). He finds what he believes is biblical precedent for his conclusion in 1 Corinthians 8-10 and Paul’s counsel regarding whether it is permissible for Christians to visit pagan temples where idols are worshipped. The apostle’s response is, No. “First, such actions could ‘stumble’ (i.e., precipitate the spiritual downfall of) others with a weak conscience by sending the message that idol worship wasn’t such a big deal (ch. 8). Second, those attending such rituals, at which sacrifices would be made to an idol, were actually offending God by aligning themselves unknowingly with demonic powers (10:14-22).”
Gagnon also points out that whereas “Jesus reached out to sexual sinners” he did not at any time “attend a ritual that celebrated immorality.” He doesn’t believe Jesus would ever have attended such an event “unless the purpose in attending was to call people to repentance.” Gagnon then asks: “What good would I be at a ‘gay wedding’ anyway since I would be visibly weeping my heart out at a ceremony that solemnizes a behavior that puts a loved one at risk of not inheriting God’s kingdom?”
I completely agree with Gagnon’s position on this question. And let me add one more consideration to the mix. Simply put, there is no such thing as a “gay wedding”. I’m not saying that gay people aren’t in fact hosting a ceremony in which they formally commit themselves one to another. I’m simply saying that what they are not doing is getting married. The reason is that marriage, on its biblical definition, is the lifelong covenantal commitment of a man and a woman. No commitment, no covenant, no vow or pledge or promise that involves two people of the same gender qualifies as a “marriage”. Call it a civil ceremony or whatever you will. But it’s not a marriage.
And that is why I would never attend such an event.
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