The April 22 edition of Christian Century provided a short snapshot of American attitudes on sin as published by Ellison Research. It seemed to me to have missed any clear understanding of the concept of sin and many of the sins listed were, if anything, mere snippets of behaviors God has called sin time and again. Some were only marginally connected with anything the bible has to say on the subject. Adultery, racism, drug use, abortion, homosexuality and the like topped the list, and it led me to suspect that the American religious public (Christian) continues to be yoked to an idea of sin that is obsessed with sex, drugs and various forms of personal moral turpitude while it ignores the more complex and harder hitting biblical exploration of sin in which God roundly condemns both personal and political behaviors that violate the integrity of human relationships. I’ve long thought that the reason we don’t want to delve into the matter too deeply is that it would expose too many of our favorite personal and political pastimes as displeasing to God as we enthusiastically engage in them while waving the banner of Jesus Christ.
I was reminded of a stern lecture given to our House of Deputies a few years ago by an outraged deputy from Texas who accused the entire church of having failed in its teaching on sin, it’s duty to name and condemn sins and sinners, and to boldly proclaim that heaven belongs only to those who have accepted Christ as their personal savior and confessed and repented of their sins. As she prattled on it became clear that there were only two things that concerned her: homosexuality and a rigid Calvinist understanding of salvation as interpreted by early 20th century fundamentalism.
So I decided to take a look at the full Ellison report, which you can find here. It looks like they predetermined (in good Calvinist fashion) what kinds of things might be considered sinful and then asked their respondents to rate them from really bad to not so bad. If that’s the case the data are of limited value from a theological point of view, but the study’s assumptions and its findings are a reminder that we have been lousy teachers about sin and have left most of our people with a narrowly superficial understanding of it.
In one of my old posts I suggested some standards for measuring political platforms and candidates against biblical standards of morality, which I drew mainly from the Ten Commandments, Amos and The Sermon on the Mount. I still think that they well articulate what God has to say about sin and that we, as teachers have got to be more boldly diligent in our teaching of what God has to say. It’s easier said than done. I taught a yearly class on the subject for fifteen years without making much of a dent, although I do admit that many of the same people came back each year. The most memorable responses were the several (no more than that) who stomped out in anger accusing me of ignoring the bible and pushing a left-wing, liberal, revisionist, socialistic and darn near Godless political agenda. How dare I call into question their own closely held values as possibly sinful when they are the very values Jesus himself held, and to use the very words of Holy Scripture to do it – how disgraceful! Oh well, at least they didn’t stone me.