There have been many thoughtful words written throughout recent Christian history (i.e.; the last 50-60 years or so) in support of the position that we must not allow ‘dogmatism’ to get in the way of the simple Christian imperative to love our neighbours as ourselves. These attempts to reconcile a secular world hostile to Christianity with the truths revealed by the Church about our human nature – its ends, what is admissible and what is moral in terms of behaviour (both private and social), what is most conducive to our long-term flourishing and happiness – are admirable in themselves, but almost always seem to me to run the risk of separating truth from goodness, or indeed, truth from love. When one separates these, we inevitably become reduced to the horizontal dimension alone – purely mundane, and flat as a pancake.
It is often said that our first requirement as Christians is to be compassionate, and not to point out errors in people’s morals – with this I agree completely. However, some would then develop this into the principle that the Church as a whole should be non-judgemental; that compassion should mean simply accepting the situation on the ground and rejecting traditional ideas about what is and isn’t sinful behaviour. This, it seems to me, is to fall into the trap of trying to love the sinner by condoning the sin. Some would suggest that we (both individuals and the Church speaking in its official capacity) should not even be telling people what their sins are – that this is being too judgemental, and is not Christlike enough. However, I would argue that not providing people with a definition of what is and isn’t sinful is not very loving at all, as it makes it easier for people to fall into ways of living that are destructive of their long-term happiness and lead them away from God (which are ultimately one and the same thing).
It is also often said, in support of the ‘live and let live’ position, that Jesus was critical of the religion of his day, and wanted a simple faith directed by conscience and without institutional guidance. However, when Jesus criticised the Pharisees, he criticised their hypocrisy – not what they taught, but their failure to grasp the heart of the Law such as ‘justice, mercy and faith’ (Matthew 23:23). He said to the crowds that ‘the scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice’ (vv.2-3) and in the Sermon on the Mount did not remove moral obligations but deepened their sense and increased the need to understand their heart, which is indeed love (c.f.; Matthew 5:17-20, 43-48).
When love becomes divorced from truth (which must by necessity be revealed in the form of ‘rules’ or ‘guidelines’) and devolves into mere tolerance, we are led into a situation that actually compounds human misery and creates an environment where it is harder to find love. By saying that Christianity is never about rules and just about accepting people as they are, we allow many people to slide into patterns of behaviour that are destructive and painful. For example, in a society that says abortion is okay, thousands upon thousands of women are encouraged to take this path, and it has made very few of them happier as a result. Similarly, the relaxation of divorce law has led to rapid family breakdown, which has impacted greatly on society at large – both in terms of an increasing lack of stable environments for children in their earliest years of formation, and the lack of a common sense that commitment and fidelity are good things, to be encouraged and nurtured.
Should the Church be compassionate towards people who have suffered because of these societal changes? Absolutely. Should the Church be ‘non-judgemental’ towards the changes themselves, for fear of offending some? Of course not. It is this very attitude of uncritical non-judgement and tolerance that has created a society in which so many have become hurt. To be tolerant of changes and practices such as these (amongst others) is to be implicated in both the denial of truth and the undermining of goodness. It is, ultimately, to be unloving. Thus, while it is undeniably true that individual Christians (lay and clerical) should show love to everybody, and provide them with the compassion sadly lacking in much of secular society, the Church (and individual Christians too) must be able to separate truth from error. It is an old adage, but a wise one – we must hate the sin, and love the sinner. To do otherwise is to collaborate with the chaotic ideology of relativism, and to go against the God who is both Truth and Love.