Joel Osteen: Loving the sinner, not the sin

When Oprah Winfrey questioned megachurch pastor and best-selling author Joel Osteen on the topic of “homosexuality,” he stated that “homosexuality … Continued

When Oprah Winfrey questioned megachurch pastor and best-selling author Joel Osteen on the topic of “homosexuality,” he stated that “homosexuality is a sin.” To Osteen’s credit, he didn’t go as far as purpose-driven megachurch pastor Rick Warren by equating homosexuality with incest or repeat the Family Research Council’s incorrect assertion that homosexuality breeds pedophilia. Apparently in Osteen’s happy-happy-joy-joy worldview, homosexuality doesn’t represent a bigger sin than say lying or anger. Also, he believes that gays who seek forgiveness can enter heaven.

Fallen megachurch pastor Ted Haggard adopts a slightly more merciful stance. Even though he doesn’t call homosexuality a sin, Haggard still upholds the view that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Hipster best-selling author and former pastor Rob Bell skirts the question altogether, noting that only those with gay friends are positioned to judge homosexuality. In tackling this topic, Haggard and Bell adopt the position found in progressive evangelical circles where one might profess to be affirming toward LGBT people but they draw the line at being radically welcoming when it comes to issues like marriage equality.”

While these evangelical and Pentecostal megachurch stars would never grace a Westboro Baptist Church picket line, sex columnist and gay rights activist Dan Savage describes this “love the sinner not the sin” soundbite as “God Hates Fags with smile.” In “UNFAIR: Why the ‘Christian’ View of Gays Doesn’t Work ,” author John Shore notes a critical difference between the “sin” of homosexuality and virtually all other sins. “There is no sin I can commit that, by virtue of committing it, renders me incapable of loving or being loved. No one tells the chronic drinker, glutton, adulterer, or any other kind of sinner to stop experiencing love. Yet that’s exactly what so many Christians are insisting that gay people do.”

Christian Piatt, creator and editor of the “Banned Questions” book series, concurs. “I think the very suggestion that same-sex consensual relationships are inherently sinful reveals a lack of clarity about the context of scriptures often cited on the issue. It’s hard for me to conceive that a God of love and mercy is more preoccupied with who we love rather than how we love. But more than this, I find Osteen’s soft-peddled intolerance particularly objectionable, as it seems he’s trying to appease his evangelical base while not being ‘too offensive’ to anyone else. God forbid he’d compromise his ministry’s bottom line.”

On the Ship of Fools Web site, I noted the range of responses to LGBT rights espoused by those Christian leaders who position themselves in the national spotlight. I concluded, “When it comes to standing up for LGBT folks, they’re caught in a bind because they may talk about the need to ‘love’ LGBT folks and may even express privately their support for same sex marriage. But if they take an actual stance on LGBT rights, they will lose their conservative funding streams that support their comfy Christian lifestyle.”

Joseph Ward, director of Believe Out Loud, notes that while he disagrees with Osteen’s stance on LGBT rights, he holds out hope that leaders like Osteen could one day be an ally to the Believe Out Loud community and the broader LGBT inclusive faith movement. Ward reflects, “Osteen represents passionate clergy voices in this country who can continue their discernment and evolve their thinking on this issue. The real challenge for progressive Christians is to figure out how to create such an environment that fosters dialogue with clergy who are not completely inclusive on this issue.”

In my travels, I keep seeing signs that an increasing number of religious leaders no longer adopt a literal understanding of select anti-gay bible verses that theologian James Alison deems “the clobber texts.” The question remains how to bring these conversations into the public sphere for honest discussions about the advances made in theology, psychology, science and other disciplines. These new discoveries clearly show forth a more holistic understanding of human sexuality that embrace all in the spirit of the Greatest Commandment to love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:40).

Becky Garrison is an On Faith panelist. Her latest books are “Ancient Future Disciples” and “Jesus Died for This?”

Becky Garrison
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