Our church has spent two hours over the past few Sundays wading into the potentially stormy waters of dialogue about human sexuality as part of our national church’s ongoing discernment process. Among the many interesting things that came up over the course of a very stimulating (although far too brief) conversation was the question of the boundaries of sin. “Why are we so hesitant to use ‘sin’ language?” was one question. Why indeed. It’s a good question.
The church has never been very good with sin. We’ve been very good at sinning, to be sure, and very eager to isolate, condemn, and judge a highly selective sampling of sins (usually sexual ones), but we’ve certainly not been consistent in our understanding and application of sin language. We have often used it as a club with which to beat those who sin differently or more publicly or in ways less congruent with presently embraced social norms than we happen to. We have been quick to cast blame, quick to police the boundaries of the church as a club of holy people rather than throwing open the doors of the hospital for any and all of the sick and wounded.
Recovering anything resembling a healthy understanding of “sin” is made even more difficult by the cultural waters in which we swim. It is, of course, a truism, to say that ours is a hyper-individualistic age that tends to filter any and all things through the grid of personal freedom and self-determination. There is no higher value, for us, than ourselves—our feelings, our preferences, our desires. And yet, we are wildly inconsistent in our understanding of ourselves. We are victims of forces beyond our control—our genetics, our upbringing, our medication imbalance, what we had for breakfast that morning, the decisions of others, etc.—when we do things that are wrong (or at least socially unacceptable). But we are quite happy to point to our own decisions and character when we do what is right (or socially approved). We are a bundle of contradictions.
I believe that followers of Jesus are called to holiness, in all areas of life. I believe that our culture’s tendency to make the individual self the primary arbiter of morality is toxic and profoundly unhealthy. But I confess I have no desire to be the sin police. I know that most of those who want churches and church leaders to “speak against sin” have only a few sins in mind. I can think of half a dozen pervasive sins (in our culture, in the church, in my own life) that do far more damage (or at least as much) than the ones we like to focus on that churches would never dream of splitting over, that would never be the subject of a “national discernment process.” And I have seen and heard “sin” language do far too much damage in ways far too predictable. There are the sensational stories we are all familiar with—the divorcee, the gay woman or man, the adulterer, the pregnant teenager—all either forced out directly or made to feel so profoundly unwelcome that they would never dream of coming back to the church.
But I have more ordinary stories in mind.
I had a conversation last night with two guys that I play hockey with. Both grew up in the church. Both wanted to play hockey as kids. Both experienced judgment and condemnation from their church for playing hockey on Sundays as boys. One told me that when he would come back the Sunday after playing hockey, he would get angry comments. “Where were you last week?!” He told me, “I felt like saying, ‘Well, I’m here now…’ But it was never good enough.” The other simply told me that he was “kicked out” of the church for the “sin” of playing hockey on Sundays. Neither is part of the church any longer. Their image of the church is mostly of an institution that judged and condemned them for playing a game they loved on the wrong day of the week.
Like I said, the church has never been very good with sin.
Am I saying that we should just abandon “sin” language entirely? No. I’m just saying that I think it is a fearful thing to speak of it too quickly and easily. I think often of Jesus’ comments to those eager to condemn the women (not the man) caught in adultery—“Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” Or, his words in the Sermon on the Mount about paying at bit of attention to the log in our own eyes before digging around in our neighbour’s eye for the speck therein. Jesus didn’t abandon sin language nor did he modify it to make it more culturally palatable. But he did, at the very least, teach us where we ought to start (and probably camp for a while) when it comes to sin. Ourselves.
Over the last week or so, I have been meditating on a passage from the book of James:
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
I have little appetite for being judged without mercy. So when faced with the real or imagined choice between naming sin or showing mercy, I will always err on the side of mercy.
Your reflections on sin language motivated me to think about the same topics. I agree with you that most often we think of sin in restricted, selective ways, but I wonder whether Jesus didn’t modify sin language considerably. He was in a running battle with the Pharisees on how to understand sin, wasn’t he? He challenged their understandings repeatedly and in his challenges he modified our understanding of sin. When he was asked about the greatest commandment his answer was that loving God and neighbor was tied for first. That implied that not loving God and not loving neighbor was the greatest sin. This radically modified sin language as used by many of his time and ours. And in Matt. 18 the focus shifts from particular expressions of sin to the absence of repentance – no matter what the failure.
Your comment on holiness raised questions for me as well. What do we actually mean by “holiness in all areas of life?” This statement easily morphs into Pharisaical categories of sins.
Thanks for stimulating my thinking.
Thanks for your comment, John. I agree, Jesus challenged and modified understandings of sin. But I think he did so in a way that both located his teaching within an existing framework of morality and pushed against the boundaries of this framework. I see the same running battle with the Pharisees that you do, but I don’t think Jesus sets the categories of holiness aside. Even if we look only at the Sermon on the Mount, we see statements like:
Or, more worryingly:
Jesus was somehow able to maintain this uncompromising call to holiness while at the same time flinging wide open the doors of grace and mercy. The church, obviously, has not often (or at least consistently) managed to do the same.
I believe you have failed to see “be perfect” in context. Our Heavenly Father was perfect in loving both neighbor and enemy – in that sense we are also to be perfect. Nowhere does Jesus expect moral perfection.
I think that the summary statement (“Be perfect…”) could just as easily be interpreted as the culmination of the whole “You have heard it said… but I say to you” section from Mat. 5:21-48. But even if we choose to restrict its application to 5:43-48, it’s still plenty sobering, in my view. Love of neighbour and enemy is still a level of holiness that I struggle mightily to attain.
I don’t think Jesus expects moral perfection, either. I believe the Greek word for “perfect” (teleios) means something more like “complete” or fully developed or “all that God intends.” Again, this is still a standard that we mostly fall well short of. I am not much more successful at being “complete” or “fully developed” than I am at being morally perfect 🙂 .
Paul’s purpose in Romans 1-3 is not to provide proof texts for passing judgment on others (even 1:26-27), but to call all readers to repentance and silence (3:19). I sin when I use the Bible only to point out other people’s sins — its deeper function is to tell me shut up and repent.
“Shut up and repent.” Well said, Chris 🙂 . Thank you.
Chris,”King Solomon in all his Wisdom could not have adjudicated better” (Gregory Peck-Cape Fear 1991