The Church’s Problem With Sin

One of the young people I minister to explained to me a problem she has with her church.

Or rather, her church has with with her.

She’s attended a church-affiliated summer camp for years, first as a camper and then as a volunteer worker. She wants to again this summer, because camp is such a huge part of her life and her faith formation, but was told by her pastor: “You’re not a good ambassador for Christ. Your life… is not an example of the Christian life.”

This young woman would be the first to confess she has sinned — the sins in this instance are almost all sexual, but much of it also has to deal with her failure to obey the authority figures in her life. (Her church is a very conservative, patriarchal, and hierarchical church that places a tremendous emphasis on obedience, virginity and sexual purity, especially for women.) She has not made the best choices, she admits, and she repented of those choices and sought forgiveness. But she will also angrily state that much of that sin has been forced upon her, and from a very young age.

“Didn’t choose that!” she said.

Now, under the rules of the church, she may be too old to volunteer at the camp — apparently she was given some grace last summer — but being too old is not the reason she was given for being ineligible to work.

Being a sinner was.

It’s the kind of thing I think we who are more liberal Christians1 suspect from conservative churches — an intolerance toward sinners, a refusal to forgive them, shunning and isolation and eventual exclusion. Except that, sadly, it’s exactly what the very liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America did to me. That was the reason, so I’m told, that I was tossed out of the candidacy process for ordained ministry the second time. (Because no one ever told me directly, not either time.) I was too much of a sinner, lived a life where I’d made far too many “poor choices” to be an example of Christ in the world.

That I was am too much of a sinner to proclaim God’s redeeming grace.

The church, at least the American church, has a problem with sin. Sin these days is almost something someone else does. Oh, liberals and progressives will sadly and tearfully proclaim their “complicity” in systems and structures of sin (racism, oppression, capitalism, sexism, blah blah blah) but because they mean well and want these things undone (whatever that might mean), they are only sinners in an abstract way2. Aside from this, liberals and conservatives always place they sin they accuse is putting the church and the world at risk somewhere else, with someone else, someone not in the community.

Someone — a homosexual, a racist — who cannot repent.

If the sins we are “confessing” are not our own, then we cannot forgive them. Or be forgiven. Except as self-righteous posturing.

And thus the church’s problem with sin is really a problem with forigveness. Because if we cannot confess our sins, our very own sins that have nothing to do with the structures or systems of the world (a copout notion if ever there was one), then we cannot receive Christ’s forgiveness. We cannot receive mercy.

And we cannot be mercy. We send people away, telling them “you are sinner and there is no forgiveness for you that can matter.” We cannot live as redeemed or forgiven people. Rather, we liberal Christians too get hung up on purity, on righteousness, on living lives “above reproach” (as St. Paul wrote to Timothy and Titus), and believing those kinds of lives — lives lived holy and perfect and upright without any need for forgiveness — are the only kinds of lives that can bear witness to the glory and grace of God.

There is no redemption in this church because there are no sinners except in the most abstract of ways. We might confess our sinfulness (as many liturgical Christians do every Sunday), but we don’t confess our actual sins. We might receive forgiveness, but like Donald Trump, we’re more or less convinced we haven’t done anything so bad we actually need it.

The sinners, the real sinners, are outside. Unrepentant. Irredeemable. If any get in here, well, that was an accident, and we’ll fix it.

I’ve never liked the term “above reproach,” I find myself wondering what it means when the author was a murderer and when God himself happily loved, called, and forgave adulterous wife stealers like David and troublesome, intemperate priests like Martin Luther to do God’s work. A life lived to the glory of God is a redeemed life, one that bears witness to the fact that Christ calls and forgives sinners. Are some more sinful than others? Clearly. Do some stumble more than others? Absolutely. But the gospels show us that Christ is much more interested in the lost and the repentant than he is in the righteous. He called them — us — and not the righteous to build a church.

A life “above reproach” is, I think, one lived fully in the grace and forgiveness of Christ. It is a life in which one repents but does not apologize for sin (save to those wounded by the sin), a life lived in the clear, bright light of our redemption. The Christian life is a redeemed life. Knowing gratefully exactly how that redemption was achieved. And what it cost.

On the cross.

  1. I hate calling myself a liberal Christian, because I don’t think I really am, but I’m not really a conservative either. I suppose it’s my own fault I’m not accepted and don’t belong anywhere … I simply cannot live my life in harmony with the songs everyone else insist upon singing. ↩︎
  2. Liberal Christians also have this very annoying habit of repenting for sins they did not commit, such as The Crusades, the colonization of the Americas, the Shoah, or Jim Crow. Because it’s easy, repenting of things you actually haven’t done, and makes you look good and feel good too! (Like a country road after a summer rain!) This is a tawdry self-righteousness the brings to mind something Jesus said as he proclaimed the seven woes of the scribes and the Pharisees:

    29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets. ’ 31 Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matthew 23:29–31 ESV) ↩︎

4 thoughts on “The Church’s Problem With Sin

  1. “Above reproach” has such a Victorian sound to it. The Greek word, divided into its pieces as an-epi-lambano, seems to have as its driving image: someone who has never been caught in the act.

    Paul wrote some of his letters from prison, which gives his moral exhortations, especially those not to offend the authorities, a tinge of irony. He wrote all his letters before there had been any really harsh systematic persecution of Christians (except in Jerusalem) — maybe he could see it coming and hoped to mitigate its fury?

    I don’t know what to make of Augustine’s Confessions. Is his repentance genuine, or is he showing off “see how humble I am”? Or is that a double bind we all find ourselves in?

  2. A positive recollection of my “Pente” years is remembering people who had lived in sin, re penting, changing and being alllowed to use their gifts in the church (even at times when struggling with sin).

    Now in a “high” church, I have to put up with knowing that the choirmaster is in a gay relationship with a church member, & he hasn’t been confronted about it. He is somehow “sanctioned”. Did Jesus say to that adultress, go and sin some more? Hmm, thought not.

  3. In a way the church’s problem with sin is the same as the world’s problem with sin: neither one can look directly at it. The church and the world therefore can’t talk to each other about anything important. In former days, the church might have said, “Come help us convert the poor benighted heathen.” (Never mind our own pagan ambitions.) Now they might say, “Come help us tsk-tsk at the faults of the world and sign petitions about it.” Or, if it’s a college ministry, “Help us scream at the failure of the world to be nice in ways that would make us feel better.” Neither wants to see the abyss looking back at us, as you wrote of a few days ago. And so neither can understand the love which is the light in the darkness — the kind of love which we are incapable of maintaining on our own. If the church were to say, “Come help us love in ways which none of us can do by ourselves. We need to help each other love God with our whole being and our neighbors as ourselves,” then the world might say “Thank God, here is our home.”

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