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) ↩︎

Ministering to the Lost…

I was going through my Evernote app this morning, cleaning out old articles, and I found a few things I mean to blog about but never got around to.

Russell Moore had this piece at about refugees fleeing the wreckage of the sexual revolution last July:

The Sexual Revolution certainly seems triumphant. After a generation of no-fault divorce, cohabitation, ubiquitous pornography, and the cultural unhinging of sex from marriage and marriage from childbearing, we now see the courts and the culture decoupling marriage from even its most basic reality: gender. And there are hints on the horizon that the next step is to culturally, and perhaps legally, decouple marriage from, well, couples. If sexuality is about personal expression and individual autonomy, after all, then by what right can society deem that sexuality should be limited by such an arbitrary number as two?

The danger for Christians is that we buy into the Sexual Revolution’s narrative. I don’t just mean that we accommodate ourselves to the sins and heresies of the movement, although that’s always a danger too. I mean the danger is that we assume that the Sexual Revolution will always be triumphant, progressing upward and onward. To assume such is to assume that the Sexual Revolution will be able to keep its promises. It can’t.

Moore talks about God’s order for creation — not something I entirely buy, given how thoroughly creation has been disordered by sin — but he goes on to write about the two kinds of churches that will find it virtually impossible to really minister to those wounded and discarded by the sexual revolution:

The first is the church that is so scared of people that we scream at them in anger and condemnation. If we see ourselves as people who are “losing” a culture rather than people who have been sent on a mission to a culture, this is how we will be. That will be exacerbated if we take our cues from those who play outraged Christian caricatures for a living rather than from those who have come to seek and to save that which was lost. If we do not love our mission field, we will have nothing to say to it.

The second sort of church that will fail these refugees is the church that gives up, or silences, its convictions because they’re not popular. This too is fear. We assume that we can reach people if we dance around the sexual questions, thinking that we can get to that part of discipleship after they’re part of the family. That’s just not the way Jesus does it. Jesus gets right at the point of guilt, the part the person is protecting, and calls the person not only to repentance but also to forgiveness and freedom (Jn. 4:16).

Basically, too many conservative churches will be too angry lamenting the loss of their cultural power, privilege, and influence — the fact they dictated the terms of culture — that they will be too involved in condemning the world, and those seeking redemption, forgiveness, and belonging.

Liberal churches, meanwhile, will give up on the whole sexual sin enterprise and accommodate themselves to the norms of the sexual revolution (this is another form of “God’s order for creation”), thus providing little in the way of support for those who have been abused by it.

Moore gets close to the real essence of the matter when he writes in his last paragraph:

The Sexual Revolution cannot keep its promises. Many people are going to be disappointed, and even before they can admit it to others or to themselves, they are going to ask, “Is this all there is?” We need churches that can keep the light lit to the old paths, that can keep the waters of baptism ready. We need to be the people who can remind a wounded world of what we’ve come to hear and believe, “Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28). That’s good news for refugees, like us.

The Sexual Revolution cannot keep its promises. Like almost all of modernity, the sexual revolution promises liberation from the human condition, from history, and from our very human limits. It promises a world without suffering or exploitation, but it fails … because the very promise of liberation itself is a lie in all its guises — economic, political, social, personal. It’s a very beguiling lie, because liberation promises to empower us as individuals and as humanity, free us from ancient chains, from things we did not choose, from the consequences of sin, from the very fact that we are sinners. But liberation delivers a world bereft of any kinds of protections, any kind of obligations, and any kind of responsibility. And it delivers power straight into the hands of those most willing to use that power to exploit, abuse, use, and destroy.

This is impossible for human beings to hear right now, in part because the promise of liberation still sparkles and shines in the afternoon sun. It really is beguiling, this notion that was can be free and can make ourselves anew, without any reference to our innate natures or limits as human beings.

But it’s also hard to hear because modernity, as I have noted before, has stripped away the moral pretenses of power. The good order of the world that promised to protect the weak frequently abused them in deep, dark secret, justifying or excusing that abuse all the while speaking pieties about chastity, purity, and virtue.

Our age’s rebellion may be pointless, but it is not senseless.

And yet, I’ve come to believe Moore is right. The church that will best be able to minister to those wounded, broken, abused, and abandoned by the sexual revolution will be those that embrace a more conservative or traditional understanding of sex and its place in the human community while at the same time keeping a very liberal ability to accept and welcome without first demanding conformity and adherence. We cannot merely have “consent” and “don’t hurt anyone” as our guides because sex is always bigger than the two people who engage in it, but we have to accept — fully accept — the very real physical and emotional consequences of sex (babies, the intimate entangling of two human beings) along with an understanding of mutual obligation — that the consequences of sex create a cascade of individual and communal obligations, from the spiritual and material support for marriages (and married people) and children to fostering the kinds of intimate friendships that will include those who are single. Sex may be very good, but it is also very powerful and very dangerous, and every kind of human power needs to be tempered, restrained, and controlled by rule and ritual.

Moore is right — they are coming, the broken, the wounded, the exploited, the lost. How shall we welcome them? And what shall we tell them?

How Sex Is Different

I wrote at length earlier this year about sexual ethics — who Israelites were not allowed to have sex with, who Israelites are allowed to marry, why God’s marriage to Israel/Church is a really awful marriage, and who apparently is not off limits according to the law of God — in order to show that homosexuality (or rather, homosexual acts) are no different in scripture from adultery or cavorting with one’s daughter-in-law. Or the neighboring Canaanites.

Because homosexual acts — specifically men lying with men as with women, whatever that might mean — are bundled with a whole bunch of other acts in Leviticus 18 & 20 which are condemned, and which Israel shall not do “as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you.” (Lev. 18:3) So, while homosexual acts may not be different from any other breaking of the covenant in Leviticus, sex itself is different from all the other rules and teaching God gives to Israel.

It’s different because God says something very specific about the consequences that will flow from Israel’s failure to adhere to these specific rules:

24 “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, 25 and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. (Leviticus 18:24-25 ESV)


“You shall therefore keep all my statutes and all my rules and do them, that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. (Leviticus 20:22 ESV)

The word vomit here comes from the Hebrew root קיא which means roughly what it says — to spew out, throw up, disgorge, cast out. It’s a very physical act. And an unpleasant one, an involuntary one, something a person does when she or he is very sick. Or poisoned.

Israel faces a lot of penalties for failing to keep the covenant — disease, pestilence, famine, conquest, exile, slavery. But those are all externally imposed. They come from outside the land of Israel, in the form of Assyrians and Babylonians. Only in the case of these sexual sins does the land itself threaten to grow sick and expel Israel.

That’s what makes sex different, and what makes these acts unique. (The passage does not say why sex is different. We are free to speculate, but any conclusions we come to are just that — speculation.) They poison the very land, which grows so ill that it will expel Israel, just as God expelled the Canaanites so that Israel may take possession of the land.

But that said, nothing I wrote in my first essay on Leviticus 18 & 20 is changed. Israel is still built upon a violation of these very commandments — Abraham married his half-sister; Jacob took two sisters as wives; Judah impregnated his daughter-in-law; and Moses, Aaron, and Miriam were all born because their father took his aunt to be his wife. Granted, all of these things took place before the teaching was given (though the teaching was given to Moses, who by all rights should be excluded from the assembly as per Deuteronomy 23:2 because he was born of a “forbidden union”), but Israel would not exist — would not be standing before Mt. Sinai or wandering in the wilderness receiving this teaching — were it not for its sister(s)-marrying and daughter-in-law-fucking ancestors.

Again, this sounds like so many of the if/then, else/then construction that comes with the Torah. If Israel can stay clean, can keep from worshiping other gods and doing all these things it is told not to do, then Israel can stay in God’s good graces and keep the land. The land won’t be poisoned with its sin and will not vomit Israel out.

But none of this can be seen as an abstract command to the people of God. It cannot be read outside of the story. And in this story we have, Israel cavorts with other gods, it sacrifices its children to Molech, and very likely continues to do all of the things condemned in Leviticus 18 and 20. Because of this, the Assyrians and the Babylonians come. Israel is conquered. And exiled.

The land does vomit Israel out.

Israel pays a harsh price for all of its sin, for all of its idolatry, for all of its faithlessness.

But never does Israel stop being the people of God. Never, after God’s initial pique of rage in Exodus 32 to destroy Israel and start over with Moses, and a terrifying threat to walk away completely from Israel in Judges 10, does God ever disown Israel. Or abandon Israel to the ultimate fate of annihilation. Resurrection always looms as a promise. Jeremiah’s valley of slaughter becomes Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, and the very breath of God makes new life where there was only stillness, silence, and death.

Where there was only the faint memory of a people.

Christians have longed feared the consequences — both collective and individual — of sin. We read the Bible and fear the wrath of God. Sinners didn’t just put their eternal souls at risk, they also put the wellbeing of the entire community at risk as well. Famine, pestilence, rebellion, and foreign invader were all seen as consequences of allowing sin. So we teach ourselves to keep the law, to adhere to the teaching, if for no other reason than because that’s what virtuous and upstanding followers of Jesus do. And possibly because to do otherwise invites divine retaliation, the punishment of God, upon all of us.

But that’s not what God really tells Israel, not in the Old Testament nor in the New. The promise of God is not prosperity and success for those who walk the straight and narrow path (not even in Deuteronomy!), but resurrection for those of us who have perished in our sin. Christ came not to bear a burden for us, but with us. His defeat of death is the defeat of sin. It is the promise that whatever the judgment of God upon our sinful, chaotic, and deeply disordered lives (as individuals and as the people of God), our bones will not lay bleaching in the sun forever. Our dust will not moulder in the graves for eternity. Death has no hold over us. We are raised with him who rose.

We are raised with him who rose.

Toward a Biblical Sexual Ethic

Nothing seems to be dividing the church (at least in the relatively wealthy West) quite like the matter of sex. Particularly homosexuality, and whether or not gays and lesbians can be included in the community of those called to follow Jesus.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni put it starkly in a recent column when he wrote that church teachings stating homosexuality is a sin is a “choice” that “prioritizes scattered passages of ancient texts over all that has been learned since — as if time had stood still, as if the advances of science and knowledge meant nothing.” Continue reading