Growing up I often heard the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” used as a way to approach the complexity of living in a world where we are called to love a broken and sinful people. This phrase actually comes from St Augustine in his Letter 211 where he writes, “Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum” or “With love for mankind and hatred of sins.” The phrase, albeit simple, captures an important struggle of taking a nuanced look at each person, distinguishing the good from the bad.
While the phrase is not direct from scripture, it is based on two biblical principles. First it draws from the duty of every follower of Christ to love God above all things and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:30-31). Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians that we must, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). Loving others runs deeper than simply not hating them. ( How often we succumb to the idea of love as tolerance!) To love means to forgive and serve one another; as Aquinas says, it is a radical love that demands we put the good of others before our own good. When Christ was criticized by the pious of his time for eating with sinners, he gave the parable of finding the lost sheep in response (Luke:151-32). The love of the shepherd for his one lost sheep is an example of God’s love for Christians to both appreciate and emulate.
The second principle invoked by the phrase is to hate sin, or better yet, “avoid what leads to sin” (Matthew 6:9-13). We are a fallen people, and to believe others inferior to us for their sins is something Christ explicitly forbids (Matthew 7:3). That said, it is imperative that we strive to avoid sin and fight against it when it is habit. In his letter to the Hebrews Paul writes, “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” (Hebrews 10:26-27)
So, to make the statement closer to what scripture actually says, let us love our neighbors and together avoid that which leads us into sin.
Even with that amended statement issues will arise because of the political climate today. I have found, as a general rule of thumb, that Christians tend to fall into two camps. There are those who focus on “loving” their neighbor so much that flaws and sins are ignored and left to fester. On the other side there are those who skirt past the part on love and freely condemn others to a position lower than themselves, creating a bad dichotomy where there is an “us” vs “them” mentality.
Those who push against “hating/avoiding the sin” usually call for Christians to simply “love” period, full stop. This love is a notion of love that is solely supportive of another, regardless of what decisions the other makes. Implicitly, many who take this view subscribe to a relativist notion of morality where, if a person does what is “true to themselves,” there should only be shown support for their actions. However, if there is objectivity to morality, it is possible and likely that humanity will find a way to violate it. Ability to correct your friends, helping one another grow, is even more fundamental to loving them than enjoying time together.
Loving your neighbor and avoiding sin are less contradictory ideas but inextricably linked to one another. While sin often can lead to addiction or immediate pleasure, in the long haul it undermines our purpose, disabling us from flourishing and living in that raw unadulterated joy of God. Letting friends down paths we believe to be immoral is letting friends down, period. We should not criticize the faults of others in a mean, amoral way, but we must not let anyone (for we should love everyone) persist in hurting themselves in any way, spiritually or physically. Knowing our knowledge of morality is skewed is not an excuse to never engage fraternal correction, but a reason to engage in correction with an open mind, able to hear the perspective of the other and trust the issue to God.