When we hear the phrase "sinful lifestyle," most of us immediately think of gays living together in homosexual bliss, or drug dealers selling crack to our children, or pedophiles eyeing up the kids on the playground.
I would certainly argue that the latter two qualify as sinful lifestyles – as would anyone with a sense of what is right and wrong. However, the former – gays actively acting on their sexual impulses – is probably the most common "sinful lifestyle" talked about in modern Christian circles.
I don't wish to use this essay to debate whether or not homosexuals are sinning when they act on their sexual impulses. I personally feel that there is no debate to be had. To suggest that a person's natural sexual orientation is somehow "sinful" or "wrong" is to debase the very essence of our inherent differences. Just because someone is not "like me," does not mean, by default, that there is anything wrong with them. I embrace differences in sexual orientation as a natural part of the human cycle, and I encourage anyone to embrace their own sexual preference without shame or guilt.
Instead, what I wish to debate is the inherent hypocrisy in the proclamation of the traditional Christian that homosexuals live in a "perpetual" state of sin through an active sinful lifestyle. This is one argument I hear frequently from anti-homosexual Christians when attempting to explain why homosexuality is a more significant sin than, say, lying to a co-worker.
"One lie can be forgiven through confession to God," the anti-homosexual traditionalist will say. "Gays, on the other hand, are living in a perpetual, daily state of sin."
For this reason, anti-homosexual traditionalists will argue that gays should renounce their lifestyles and be spiritually cleansed. After that, if they cannot live heterosexually, then they should live asexually. (Can you imagine anything more inhumane [and therefore ungodly] than asking someone to live a sexless life, against their natural impulse, simply because some capricious god demands it – a god, by the way, who made them that way?)
It's bad enough that anyone, for any reason, would suggest that gays in active relationships are living in perpetual sin – and, therefore, perpetual distance from God – but the proclamation is made all the worse by the complete hypocrisy inherent in such a belief.
Why is it hypocritical? For starters, because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (as Paul tells us in Romans 3:23). Take care of the speck in your own eye before worrying about the plank in your neighbor's (as Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:5 and Luke 6:42). Those are the typical arguments against hypocrisy on this subject, and ones which the anti-homosexual traditionalist would counter with the example I illustrated above (i.e., gays live in perpetual sin, whereas the rest of us just sin on a case-by-case basis and are therefore not involved in a "sinful" lifestyle).
But the hypocrisy in the "sinful lifestyle" proclamations go much deeper than simple "we're all sinners" arguments.
I'm talking, of course, about money and the pursuit of wealth and material possessions.
The very ideals upon which this country were founded include the pursuit of happiness. And for most Americans, the pursuit of happiness includes – almost exclusively for most – the pursuit of wealth and material comforts. We all want to have nice homes and nice clothes and nice cars. We want to eat at good restaurants, take vacations to swank destinations, and have the freedom to do what we want.
We want these things so badly in fact, that we spend money we don’t even have, building up debt. We believe that gathering material possessions around ourselves – like children burying themselves in the sand – will make us happy. Instead, like the child in the sand, it only blurs our vision. It keeps our eyes off the real path of happiness – which is inside of ourselves, not arbitrarily stuck inside some material item, available to us if only we can get our hands on it.
But I digress.
Our very country's economic structure is based on the pursuit of wealth. We want more, more, more, more, more. And for most of us, the more we have, the more we spend. We put money away in IRA's, 401K's, and other investments in order to build up a nice "nest egg" for ourselves, so we can provide for ourselves in retirement and have financial freedom.
I saw a commercial yesterday on CNN for investing in gold. "PROTECT YOUR WEALTH," the advertisement ran, "IN THESE UNCERTAIN ECONOMIC TIMES!" We're all concerned about our wealth, about our stuff, about what we're going to be able to have and not have when we get older.
Is this pursuit of wealth, this pursuit of material possessions and comforts, a Christ-like objective? Let's look at what Jesus had to say on the subject.
Luke 6:20 – "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God."
Matthew 6:19-20a – "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven."
This passage goes on to say, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." And later, still in the same passage, Jesus says, "You cannot serve both God and money."
Jesus ends this teaching on the pursuit of wealth with the following: "So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things."
In Luke's version of the same story, he adds the following: "The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus." The Pharisees – the arch villains of the Jesus story – are the ones who love money.
Pretty strong words there from Jesus and his biographers against the pursuit of wealth.
One of the most famous of Jesus's actions, as described in the gospels, is when Jesus runs the "moneychangers" out of the temple. In Matthew's version of the event, Jesus says that these enterprising businessmen were turning the temple into a "den of robbers." Now why would he say that? He was quoting the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, but why did he choose that phrase? He was mad that they were buying and selling in the temple, but why did that necessarily mean they were they turning the temple into a "den of robbers"? Clearly Jesus didn’t have much regard for "men of business." The passage in Jeremiah that Jesus quoted was referring to people who deal in the sinful ways of the world, then come into the temple and pretend that everything is all right. In Jeremiah, God says these people are turning the temple into a "den of robbers." So when Jesus called the moneychangers the same thing, he was basically saying that their "lifestyle" was sinful and worldly and had no place before God.
Let's look at some other things Jesus had to say about money and wealth.
Mark 4:19 – "But the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful."
Mark 12:43-44 – "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on."
Luke 18:25 – "Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
The depravity of money, the pursuit of wealth, and the thirst for material possessions is a common theme in Jesus's teachings. In fact, it was one of his favorite subjects.
Does it not seem clear that living a life of pursuing wealth is, in fact, a "sinful lifestyle," by the standards of Jesus?
And it doesn't stop there. The early Christian teachers spoke out against the pursuit of wealth too.
1 Timothy 6:9 – People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.
1 Timothy 1:2-3 – Now the overseer must be above reproach...not a lover of money.
James 1:11 – For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business.
James 5:1-3a – Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire.
Revelation 3:17 – You say, "I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing." But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.
In addition to these strong words against money and wealth, recall that in Acts, Luke describes the early Christian communities as living together with a basically Socialist economic structure, distributing their earnings equally among all the members. Luke goes on to tell the story of a man and his wife who sold a plot of land and then hid the earnings from the other members. Peter, speaking with the authority of God, rebukes the pair for what they did, and the man dies, presumably struck down by God. Later, Peter tests the wife, and when she lies about the profits too, God strikes her down as well.
And none of this speaks at all of the numerous Old Testament teachings against the dangers of money. I'll quote only one:
Proverbs 28:20 – A faithful man will be richly blessed, but one eager to get rich will not go unpunished.
In the New International Version of the bible, the word "money" is used 127 times. "Wealth" and "wealthy" appear 126 times. The phrase "rich man" appears 22 times.
The bible is rife with stories of God, Jesus, the prophets, and the early Christian leaders looking quite harshly upon the pursuit of wealth and material possessions. Next to loving and serving God, it may be the most frequent teaching of the bible!
And yet we ignore it! Completely!
In this sense, I believe all Christians – progressive or otherwise – are hypocritical. The very nature of our culture stands in direct contrast to a major biblical teaching. We can't be following Christ's example, and living lives in pursuit of wealth. The two are mutually at odds with one another. You can't serve both God and money.
Of course, Jesus, and those who wrote the bible, were living in a completely different time period. Outside of joining a convent or a monastery, it's not reasonable, in our society, to expect someone to give up all worldly pursuits and live a Christ-centered life. We have to save for retirement, we have to have money to buy a house, transportation, clothes, and food. And, as human beings, I think most agree that we should be entitled to eat at a restaurant now and then, go see a movie, or go to Disney World.
Make no mistake, I'm not arguing for an ascetic lifestyle.
What I am arguing is that unless you are an ascetic, you are living a "sinful lifestyle" by the standards of Jesus and the bible as a whole.
This is one of the primary reasons I am not a bible literalist, nor a believer in the ultimate "authority" of the bible. As I've illustrated above, it is absurd to assume that the writings and beliefs of an ancient culture can be completely relevant to modern society. We have no choice but to pick and choose what fits and what does not fit.
And everyone does this.
Including the anti-homosexual traditionalist.
The same evangelical Christians who proclaim to the world the depravity and sinfulness of the homosexual lifestyle, will then turn around and drive home in their leather interior SUV to their 2-story house in suburbia, where they will entertain guests on the weekend with fine food and drinks, watch the game on their flat panel TV's, pay $100 a month for digital cable and DVR, install a pool when they get that big bonus check, and engage in an unabashed orgy of materialism every December 25th (in honor of the man who said "Store not for yourselves treasures on earth"!!!).
And as if that's not hypocritical enough, they will, in fact, proclaim that their material wealth is a blessing from God for their piety!
Not only did Jesus never promise blessings of great worldly wealth for great piety, but he specifically said to give up everything and follow him! Store not for yourselves treasures on earth! The deceitfulness of wealth! Blessed are the poor! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God!
Many evangelicals not only don't follow Jesus's teachings, they do precisely the opposite of what he taught. It would be like arguing that, during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, "Blessed are the arrogant." Of course, Jesus said nothing of the sort – in fact, he said precisely the opposite – "Blessed are the meek."
Finally, they cap off the hypocrisy of their sinful lifestyles by proclaiming the sinful lifestyles of homosexuals. Remember the classic argument I mentioned above – "Gays have a sinful lifestyle because they are living in a perpetual, daily state of sin." As if the money-grubbing capitalistic evangelical is not living in an equal state of daily sin!
And remember the number of teachings on the evil of the pursuit of money? 275 references in the bible to money, wealth, or rich men alone. As I said above, money was one of Jesus's favorite teachings. Guess how many times he taught against homosexuality?
But all this seems lost on the anti-homosexual traditionalist. I wish that essays such as this would make a difference, now and then, in the minds of an evangelical or two. Maybe stop them in their tracks, make them re-evaluate their perspective.
But it won't happen.
As Neil Peart tells us in the lyrics to Peaceable Kingdom: "The ones we wish would listen are never going to hear."