One of the missions of contemporary culture, perfectly consistent with the grand narrative of liberalism, is to destigmatize various identities and behaviors traditionally considered sinful in Christendom. Identity and behavior can’t finally be separated, of course, and one of the most successful moves the destigmatizers have made is to weld them together. A gay man in this view is—he just is—”a homosexual,” rather than a person who commits homosexual acts.
This makes perfect sense given the worldview of the destigmatizers. There is no agreed-upon standard by which one person, and/or his behavior, may be considered “normal.” To call autism a deviation, for example, is to imply the existence of a norm—why can’t evolution ensure that a certain tiny percentage of hominids be idiots savants? Mightn’t there be some evolutionary advantage conferred upon a group which includes people alert to things that others miss, people who know what day of the week July 2, 1973 was?
I’m not saying that autism should be stigmatized, of course. It isn’t a sin. Likewise, it is unfair to illegitimate children to place them under a stigma. They didn’t do anything to deserve condescension or meanness. And I have access to a transcendent moral standard by which I can make such judgments.
But because I have that access, I can also say that stigmas aren’t all bad. “Stigma,” it seems to me, has become a sneering word for “community expectations I don’t happen to like.” But part of the value of being a Christian is being placed into a community built by God in which certain behaviors are stigmatized. Adultery is stigmatized at my church. If that cramps a man’s style and inhibits his freedom, think what it does to his wife and kids. It protects them. Without commenting on any individual divorce, the consensus view among conservative Christian leaders today seems to be that a lot more women and children would have been protected if the church itself had maintained a stigma against divorce.
I pastor some baby Christians who are not church members. And I regularly tell them, “You need to join a church (hopefully mine), in part because you need to be ‘kick-out-able.'” Christians need and want the pressure of the expectations of others. Right next to the clearest New Testament command to go to church is this instruction, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24). The flip side of that encouragement is stigma. I want stigma to be attached to uninhibited media consumption in my church. I want to see child and spousal abuse stigmatized. The same goes for a lot of other bad stuff.
Jesus came to heal the sick, of course, and there is a fine line between appropriate stigma on the one hand and gossip or failure to forgive on the other. There’s a man in my church who apparently did something real bad. So bad I don’t know what it is, and so bad that he apologized for it (without giving details) in front of everybody. The church leadership, I presume, did not encourage him to announce his sin precisely because they believed he was repentant and shouldn’t be stigmatized.
But please, fellow church members, don’t let me get away with sin. Put pressure on me. I need it.