Alistair Begg Was Wrong; Condemning Him is Wrong, Too
It’s always been there. It’s in one of the most famous passages in the Bible. Why hadn’t I seen it before? I had one of those moments this morning, reflecting on Alistair Begg’s message last Sunday in which he explained his advice to a grandmother that she attend her granddaughter’s same-sex wedding. He’s been blasted for it, sometimes far beyond what he deserves, for example in a blistering condemnation The Christian Post responded to in an opinion piece. (More on that below.)
Begg is one of just three pastors I’ve put on my podcast listening list, other than friends of mine who are pastors. I put him there because I consider him one of the three best. I love his commitment to the love and truth of God, and his wise teaching of the Scriptures. I’ve never known anything to complain about except the same beef I have with every speaker from either Scotland or Ireland: His accent gives him a totally unfair advantage over the rest of us who speak and teach. (Yes, it’s a joke.)
So I was more than a little surprised to hear about the advice he gave this grandmother last fall about her granddaughter’s same-sex wedding. This time I think he was wrong.
Complicated Questions, Yet with Clear Signposts
This is an enormously complicated issue for believers with gay, lesbian, or trans family members. “How do I stand my ground and show my love at the same time?” That was the question of his message, which he took from Luke 15, the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. View the message (it’s included below) and you will sense just how seriously he wrestles with that question.
Still I think he missed a crucial principle. When we’re in a swirl of not knowing what to do, it’s always wise to ask, “Is there anything I do know for sure?” Clear answers in this whirlwind are like signposts in a blinding dust storm. They help you keep your bearings and can point you in the right direction. There are at least three clear signpost answers connected to this question. He sees one of them well enough, but not so much the other two.
Signpost 1: Act in Love
The first crystal-clear fact, which Begg gets very right, is that God calls us to love. In this context it means loving sinners, including those who have rejected us and who reject Jesus Christ. He died for us while we were yet enemies, after all (Romans 5:1-8). By loving others we live according to God’s own love, and we also display the humility of knowing we, too, have lived in opposition to God.
The shepherd in Luke 15 left the 99 safe sheep behind to go find the one that was lost. The woman dropped everything to find the lost coin. Both parables speak of pursuing the lost, and Jesus caps both with, “There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Jesus wants us to see how love compels us to do all we can do in Christ to turn the lost back to Him. This was at the core of Begg’s message, and it is undeniably true.
Next in Luke 15 comes the parable of the prodigal son. (This is the part I had not noticed before.) The shepherd left the sheepfold behind to go find one lost sheep, the woman set everything else aside to find the lost coin, but the prodigal’s father did not go looking for his lost son. Why not? Clearly it’s not because he didn’t love his son. Brad Jersak points out the father actually did go out looking for the other son, who was lost in a different kind of sin. So why didn’t he go chasing after the prodigal?
Let’s look first at two more signposts, things we know for sure, and then we’ll come back to that.
Signpost 2: Follow Jesus’ Real Example
In his message, Pastor Begg reminds us of “All the publicans and sinners who said, ‘We got to go meet Jesus,’ and the Pharisees were grumbling, ‘Can you believe this thing? He goes to the house of publicans and sinners, He meets with sinners.'” This is true. Love for sinners includes being with them. Listening to them. Enjoying time together.
A gay friend invited me to a party, where I knew I would be one of the few straight men there. I went, I enjoyed the conversation, I had a good time. My friend knew exactly where I stood on sex and sexuality, and that I had no intention of budging. Still, some time later when I asked him, “Do you know I love you?” he paused just a moment or two before answering “Yes.”
But people keep missing a crucial aspect of Jesus’ example, which, as it happens, I wrote on just last week. In that article I was addressing a progressive Christian’s claim that grace means being with people without a message, without an agenda, without proselytizing. Jesus spent time with sinners, so should we, and that’s that. It turns out that’s actually a distortion of His example. Every time Jesus dined with sinners, the message of repentance was on His lips or else permeating the entire context.
Jesus didn’t show His love by merely being with sinners. He was among them with a message of grace and truth — which necessarily includes repentance.
Signpost 3: Weddings Are Different
The third clear, signpost truth is that weddings aren’t just parties. Some actual parties are like the one I mentioned above, where the point is simply to enjoy being together. Some parties are for celebrating people: their birthday, anniversary, an award, retirement, and so on. I have no general objection to being at parties like that, even if the honoree isn’t entirely honorable. It would have to be a case-by-case decision, and I would weigh the value of the relationship heavily in that decision, just as the pastor preached in this message.
Weddings are different. A wedding is no mere get-together, a simple time of enjoyment with a couple of special friends and a larger group to party with. It isn’t even just the sealing of a human commitment. A properly conducted wedding has a note of holiness to it, as a joyful yet solemn re-affirmation of the first institution God ordained for humans to enter into together. We call it “holy matrimony” for a reason. So weddings aren’t just for honoring and celebrating a couple. They’re for honoring and celebrating marriage itself.
Same-sex marriage borrows the trappings of that holiness but with none of its reality. Alistair Begg says rightly that same-sex physical intimacy is “unnatural,” an act of rebellion against God. Same-sex marriage, such as it is, owes its existence to a social movement rooted in that same rebellion. Every same-sex wedding honors and celebrates the victory of that movement and its twisting distortions of marriage. In short, it celebrates sin.
We have no record of Jesus hanging out with sinners at celebrations of sin. It’s impossible even to imagine Him doing such a thing, and equally impossible to imagine Him leading anyone to do it. That’s not because He was short on love.
Love Needs Limits
Love goes a long way to reach the lost. It should go a long way: Just consider how far Jesus went to reach us! Yet there are limits. Jesus’ love didn’t mean going just anywhere or doing just anything with sinners. He lived the truth that He taught, always inviting sinners, never approving sin. I see a clear line there for us, too, between loving sinners and celebrating sin. To attend a same-sex wedding is to cross that line. I can’t imagine Jesus doing that.
There are others lines, which I see as connected to the prodigal’s father in the parable. Why didn’t he go chasing after his lost son? For one, his son wasn’t a sheep or a coin. The father might have been able to send men who would drag the man back in his body, but that would have done nothing to bring him back in his heart and his spirit. For that, he had to discover firsthand the emptiness of the life he had chosen, realize the quality of life he’d left behind, be humbled in it, and make the first move himself.
Some commentators note how little a move it was. He came back for food and comfort, more than anything else. It was a move, though, and it was in the right direction, and this really was something his father could celebrate.
Until then, as far as we know, the father kept doing what fathers do. He could have gone off to join in his son’s “wild living.” He could have justified it as “for the sake of the relationship.” Instead he stayed home and managed his responsibilities, and waited and watched, waited and watched for his lost son’s return. Love isn’t always present with the loved one. Sometimes waiting and watching is the hardest yet the rightest way to show our love.
I Disagree, But I Do Not Condemn
So for those reasons I believe Alistair Begg was wrong this time. I have trouble understanding how he reached his conclusion, though I do know it wasn’t without serious wrestling. Anyone who thinks he can skip that wrestling is taking the importance of love too lightly, or else ignoring the depth of the sin involved. I appreciate the honesty with which Begg told of this struggle, though I still cannot agree with the outcome he reached. I think it was an error, a very rare one for Pastor Begg, but an error nonetheless, a surprising one.
It’s even more surprising to seem him standing with it so firmly. So yes, he was wrong. I will not condemn him for it, though. The Christian Post criticized that brutal tweet, and rightly so: It was considerably more wrong than what Alistair Begg did.
We all make mistakes; we all need grace. If I thought his advice represented the beginning of a drift toward accommodating the world, then I would be quite concerned. We should keep our eyes open for that, as we should with any Christian influencer, though I think more so now in his case, given this error. I do not see that being the least bit likely, however.
I will call him wrong where I think he is wrong, and I will also seek to hear and to heed his good message of love for the lost.
My final word is a simple yet important one: Pray for him.
The video at the center of this controversy:
Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.