Bigger Fish to Fry

Michael Metzger

When asked about the status of gay priests, Pope Francis surprised reporters. “Who am I to judge?” Some see his reply as a sign of acceptance – others, acquiescence. There’s another possibility, however. It might be that the church has bigger fish to fry.

Pope Francis enjoyed a fabulous 2013. According to CNN, nearly three in four Americans view Francis favorably. Part of the Pope’s popularity stems from eschewing the trappings of the papacy in favor of simpler vestments and a cheaper car. He’s also mentioned working as a bar bouncer and a janitor before becoming a priest.

But the bigger news is the breadth of the Pope’s popularity. According to one study, Pope Francis was the most talked about person on the Internet in 2013. He was named person of the year by both Time magazine and The Advocate, a gay and lesbian publication that highlighted remarks made by the Pope in July when asked about gay priests. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

The gay community interpreted this as an affirmation of homosexuality. Traditionalists fear the Pope is acquiescing to culture. There’s a third possibility, however. With regard to the government of the church, Pope John XXIII wrote: “See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little.” Francis is a fan of John XXIII. It seems that Pope Francis is turning a blind eye to the gay issue. Why? The church has bigger fish to fry.

There are occasions when turning a blind eye is a wise move. Solomon was a very wise man. He wrote how it is the “glory” of an individual “to overlook a transgression” (Prov.19:11). It’s a glory because this is what God does on occasion.

When the Apostle Paul preached to the elites on Mars Hill, he started by affirming how they were “very religious in all respects” (Acts 17:22). He noted their worship of an “unknown” God but said God was now knowable. God hadn’t been hiding. He had allowed for “allotted periods” of time for nations to “seek God, that they might feel after him and find him.” During this time, God “overlooked” ignorance (17:30).

Overlooking does not mean indulging, accepting, or ignoring sin. It means God on occasion takes no notice of our ignorance, looking the other way and letting it be. He has bigger fish to fry. This is confirmed by Paul’s words in Acts 14:16. “In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways.” God “overlooked” ignorance in the sense that he allowed the nations to wander, all in the hope that they’d come to their senses. He did not issue immediate judgments.

This might be why the Pope is not issuing immediate judgments. “Many think that changes and reforms can take place in a short time,” he recently noted. “I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change. And this is the time for discernment.” James Davison Hunter, a cultural analyst, would likely agree. “For all the talk of world-changing and all of the good intentions that motivate it,” Hunter writes, “the Christian community is not, on the whole, remotely close to a position where it could actually change the world in any significant way.”1 A privatized gospel has relegated the church to the sidelines. Anxious to get back in the game, many faith traditions have turned to a politicized gospel. This has led to the church often being complicit in politicizing the gay issue. It’s a stunning lack of discernment.

Politicizing any issue makes civil discussion highly unlikely. This might be why the Pope is mostly mum on the volatile issue of gay priests. Francis feels this is the time for discernment and zipping the lip in public seems to be the best way to demonstrate discernment. It’s strikingly similar to what James Hunter encourages the faith community to do, given its shrill tone in recent decades. “It may be that the healthiest course of action for Christians is to be silent for a season and learn how to enact their faith in public through acts of shalom rather than to try again to represent it publicly through law, policy, and political mobilization.” The church would be silent for a period of time “to learn how to engage the world in public differently and better.”

In asking, “Who am I to judge?” the Pope is not saying he’s opposed to making any judgments. This is the time for discernment, and discerning is synonymous with judging. “Judgment begins with the household of God” (I Pet.4:17). The Pope might simply be saying the church ought to first get its house in order. Between clergy scandals and collapsing confidence among Christians in defining marriage as male-female, we’re looking at a new age of ignorance in the church. If God can overlook ignorance in the wider world, so can the church for the time being. It has bigger fish to fry right at home.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

1 James Davidson Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Later Modern World (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 274.


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  1. Excellent Mike. Not all fish need battering for the chip shop. The previous Archbishop of Canterbury encourage viewing people 3D and not 2D. Seeking to understanding a person’s story with wisdom rather telling them there story through our ignorance, demonstrated by reactive narratives. Meeting people where they are not where you expect them to be. Promiscuity exists in the physical, emotional, rational, spiritual and optional domains. It is, however, in optional domain that the church has chosen to point the finger at one particular set of individuals within one domain. Not everything that fits in a box is a box. We are each unique, it is a disgrace to be herded without compassion. Thanks again Mike.

  2. Thought-provoking, and peace-inciting. I appreciate this gracious view of not having to take on everything, all the time – in ourselves, as well as in the world. To ‘overlook’. . . . That is something to meditate on, indeed.

  3. Romans Chapter 2
    God’s Righteous Judgment
    1 Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. 2 We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. 3 Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? (ESV)

  4. For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (ESV)

  5. Sorry to comment so much, but with such stimulating articles it seems foolish not to celebrate the good day food.

  6. I feel like the lonesome stranger, but I am deeply troubled by some of what the Pope has been saying, including this ‘Who am I to judge’ statement. It seems like it was written by the LGBT leadership itself! It’s frustrating and aggravating, because it makes him seem like a humble, loving, accepting servant, but in reality it is proof that he has made his own judgements. He believes in a big tent – in fact the biggest of any recent Pontiff. Catholicism has for centuries been willing to throw the clear commands of scripture out the window, and to favor the interpretations of what God really meant made by Popes. This Pope seems to be ramping that up to a new level.

    We are commanded to be discerning. We should not condemn those we see sinning, and we have no authority to send them to Hell. So we should not be judgmental. There’s a difference, though. We will be judged in the same way we judge others.

    When we catch someone in a transgression (Galations 6:1) how do we even know it’s a transgression without judging?

    By saying “Who am I to judge?”, the Pope is not only telling us to stop being discerning, but he’s implying that one’s choice of sexual lifestyle is not really something that could condemn a person to eternity without God. And if a single one who listens to him decides that even the Pope says it’s ‘OK to be gay’, his judgement is a bit questionable, wouldn’t you say?

    Our lack of discernment could send someone to eternal separation from God. And, Mike, just what fish could be bigger than that?

  7. Dear John:

    Of course the Pope is making some judgments. I agree. I probably could have been clearer is noting that “a time of discernment” does not mean there is no room for judging. The word discernment is in fact synonymous with judgment. I’m simply saying the Pope is indeed judging, just pointing it in a different direction at this time, toward the church.

  8. What I appreciate about the Pope’s statement is the qualifiers: “…and he searches for the Lord…”. Who among us was clean before we found Christ?

    By using the qualifier the Pope has inserted the real conversation: is one searching for the Lord? After one finds the Lord, then sexual orientation can be addressed.

    The second qualifier is equally important: “…and has good will…”. Are they moving in the direction of loving others? What more can one ask?

    By using the qualifiers the Pope is asserting the real standard: love God and love others. The one who does these things will put off the former conduct.

    I read his statement thus: If someone is _______ (fill in the blank with whatever sin ails you) and you are searching for the Lord and have good will towards others, who am I to judge. But if you are not searching for the Lord and you do not have good will, you are condemned already regardless of whatever is filled in the blank.

    The Pope’s statement is a winsome way to take what someone else intended for conflict and uses it to turn the conversation to be about seeking the Lord and loving your neighbor. As Paul commends us: let your speech be seasoned with grace.

  9. Note: God does not close his books on Friday! He never tolerates sin forever and there is always a price to pay for disobedience, someday!

  10. I’ve been saddened by the “church’s” judgement of select sins. Jesus taught quite clearly that we aren’t to judge others when we ourselves have the same and worse sins within us. The woman caught in adultery was told that no one was left to condemn her and neither did He – but go and sin no more.

    We aren’t to love sin – but love the sinner. Gay behavior is judged as sin by God its true. But so is hot temper and gossip and many other behaviors. Only one sin keeps us from eternity with God. Rejection of God’s Holy Spirit. It’s not sexual behavior or orientation. If you plan to earn your salvation through perfect law following – it would be different. Under grace, however, only rejection of Christ’s gift on the cross is the big fish we need to fry! Discernment is needed to keep us on the right path both for ourselves and our witness. But its not for shouting out condemnation on others when the log in our own eyes are so clearly seen by others.

  11. First John is instructive on this. In 1:8 it says that if we claim to be without sin we deceive ourselves. Then in 2:4 it says whoever says I know him but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.

    So how can we love the homosexual sinner without discerning whether what he is doing puts him in danger of the fires of hell?

    Part of my concern with the ‘who am I to judge’ comment is that taking it to heart could lead to the attitude of a kind of depraved indifference. That is certainly sinning also.

    But having said all that, a friend suggested I read This article I did, and it shed a whole new light on the situation. I now realize that another thing I need to be discerning of is whether the press has hyperbolized what they’re reporting on, and whether the comments, even if they are quoted accurately, are taken out of context. That seems to be the case here.

  12. It is always interesting to me that those that attempt to make room for Salvation while practicing sin seem to forget that the same Holy Spirit that convicts an individual to bring him/her to Salvation also convicts of Righteousness and Judgement. Likewise there is now way for Salvation to take place unless that Savior becomes Lord of the life and that means Obedience to His commands not our choice of the sins He is going to look over to save us. Salvation can only happen when a person through the leadership of the Holy Spirit convicts an individual of his/her sin. That means all of them, those we like and those we don’t. Until that happens and He becomes Lord there is no Salvation or forgiveness. We do not have the privilege of discerning what sins we are going to keep and still be forgiven the ones we are willing to give up. Jesus Christ demands our all or nothing at all. He is still God and He, not we, sets the rules.

  13. “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.

    Gives further insight on his position.

  14. How could anyone possibly disapprove of a ‘gay’ priest who keeps his vows? And how could anyone approve of priest who breaks his vows in any sexual expression?

    Isn’t obedience to the sexual expression prescribed by scripture the obligation of all who are baptized into Christ?

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