Many of the legal controversies in which I’ve been involved in recent years follow the same pattern: some government entity punishes a Christian group because it limits leadership to those who share its beliefs and moral commitments (including the proposition that homosexual intimacy is sinful). The government calls this “discrimination” on the basis of religion and sexual orientation.
In the course of the ensuing disputes, someone inevitably asserts that the Christian group’s position is un-Christian. The argument usually runs something like this: Jesus sat down and ate with “sinners and tax collectors” (Luke 15:1-10); Jesus is thus “tolerant” of those engaging in wrongful behavior; and, therefore, the Christian group in question is flouting the example of Jesus by its alleged intolerance.
I am unpersuaded by this argument. The Bible plainly reveals that Jesus ate with “sinners and tax collectors”; the question is “what deeper meaning can we legitimately infer from this fact?” I am not convinced that Jesus’ willingness to eat with these individuals means that He approvedof their sinful behavior (and thus that a contemporary Christian group’s disapproval of homosexual conduct is un-Christian). The remainder of the relevant passage in chapter 15 of Luke’s Gospel indicates quite the opposite. Luke recounts Jesus’ response to the complaints of the pharisees and scribes:
So Jesus addressed this parable to them. “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.
Or what woman having ten coins and losing one would not light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully until she finds it? And when she does find it, she calls together her friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost.’ In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
Jesus does not deny that the sheep and the coin were lost. Happiness and joy arise when the sheep and coin are found; happiness and joy arise when sinners repent. Jesus ate with “sinners and tax collectors” not to approve their sinful behavior, but rather out of desire that they repent.
All the Christian groups I have encountered over the years have been very much willing to “eat with sinners and tax collectors.” For example, the Christian Legal Society chapters I have represented always welcomed those who reject Christian teaching and Christian moral standards to participate in their meetings and events. This, combined with their unwillingness to affirm conduct the Bible deems sinful, strikes me as faithful to the example of Jesus.