May 21, 2007

Sin and Sinners
by Pastor George Van Alstine

With the recent passing of Jerry Falwell, the secular media had a field day evaluating the short-and long-term effect of this man’s influence on the moral and political climate of America. Rev. Jerry Falwell has always been a polarizing figure, and people who have not been on his side have found it easy to caricature him into a cartoon of fundamentalist Christianity. So I found most of the coverage on cable news programs and in the press to be pretty superficial and unfair (not that Jerry himself wasn’t guilty of some unfair treatment of others).

A notable exception for me was in the interviews of Mel White, which I saw on two different cable channels. When he appeared on camera, I woke up and paid attention because I knew Mel in the mid-1970s. He came to the Fuller faculty as the first person in the seminary’s history to focus on how Christianity relates to Hollywood films. A creative and exciting personality in a new field, Mel quickly became quite well-known around Pasadena. Wanting to break out of their traditional rut, Pasadena Covenant Church called him as pastor. He sure shook things up. Experimental and creative services attracted many young adults. The church had a constant buzz around it during the short time he was there—as I remember it, only a couple of years. Then he was gone.

Over the years since then, I heard that Mel was divorced, and that he was doing some creative documentary film-making and also ghost-writing and editing for Christian authors—Pat Robertson, Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell.

Then I heard that Mel had come out as being gay, and that he had formed an organization designed to affirm gay Evangelicals and enter into dialogue with some of the “Religious Rightâ€? leaders who were passionate in their denunciation of homosexuality. This led him into inevitable conflict with some of his former associates, including Jerry Falwell.

The two, apparently, continued to have some kind of a friendship and Mel spoke warmly about Jerry in these TV interviews. Mel had moved from Texas to Lynchburgh, VA, and set up his office across from Jerry’s church. He and his partner enjoyed prodding Jerry and the congregation with occasional attendance at services, and they were treated kindly when they did.

During his interview, Mel mentioned that Jerry often repeated to him the adage common among Evangelicals who take the Bible’s call to holiness seriously, “We hate the sin, but love the sinner.â€? As I heard this, my mind flashed to the image of a famous TV evangelist who angrily denounced all sorts of sexual sins as deserving of punishment in Hell, while he himself was regularly visiting prostitutes. I said to myself, This good brother has it backward; he loves the sin and hates the sinner!

We all need a dose of humility about this. I remember a wise seminary professor telling us, “The preacher usually preaches the loudest against the sins which are most tempting to him.â€? I’ve always tried to keep my volume down when I talk about my pet sins, which is why I’m so soft-spoken!

I don’t believe we Christians should ever take pride in loving the sinner but hating the sin. The truth is, we don’t hate sin as much as we should, and we don’t love sinners as much as we say we do.