Sin is social

Thought I’d share my latest thoughts preparing for an upcoming two-week intensive at Calvin Institute Seminar on Globalisation with esteemed academic Charles Farhadian. At the end, I *think* I’m either supposed to be enlightened to write some papers, or just wiser than I was before. I can’t help thinking that academic traveling is a poor shadow of the musician’s tour bus. How I remember the days when there wasn’t a list of ten books and twenty articles attached to each city in my diary!  😉

Anyways – this post is also a shout out to our friend Shane Clifton, who is a brilliant academic, and formerly my college Dean, a.k.a boss. Here’s his blog – and he’s much more articulate than I. But, like most of us, he doesn’t enjoy undue adulation so I will locate this compliment in a particular memory of Shane speaking before what was a pretty conservative Pentecostal audience, outlining sin as a social phenomenon. He described (pretty eloquently) how important the notion of ‘sin’ is to Christianity, and the difficulties in translating the term into Australian culture in this century, as the average Australian struggles to grasp the idea of personal sin, and refutes the idea that they are sinful.

Sin, or ‘missing the mark’ is most often preached as personal failing – i.e. sleeping with someone you shouldn’t, gossiping, or using illicit drugs. But, Shane outlined in detail the idea of sin within a biblical worldview, i.e. Hebrew society. He claimed that God’s people, known as ‘Israel’, understood their identity as the people of God not as the individual person of God. Likewise, there are clear indications that the early or New Testament church was more concerned about the effects of sin upon the community than individual ramifications (have you heard the youth group talk “avoid STDs, do it God’s way and save sex for marriage”? I have – countless times). At the time I thought Shane had a point. Not only did our community misunderstand sin, we also misunderstood the gospel as social remedy.

While we promote ‘unreached people groups’, I wonder why more of us don’t spend time reflecting on why the West rejects the Christian message. It’s not usually rejection of the person of Jesus, or even his act upon the cross. Shane’s talk that day suggested to me that declining membership of the church perhaps comes back to how the problem of sin is portrayed from the pulpit.

An average non-Christian Australian engages Christianity as an institution. They understand ‘Church’ as the society they would join if they were to become a ‘Christian’. Similarly one would join a Surf Life Saving club if one is a surf lifesaver. This is reinforced by the many visible church buildings and billboards, storefront ministries and Christian television stations. This kind of visual presence also lends itself easily to corporate metaphors – i.e. individual churches are franchises, each with a slightly different spin on the same product. Choosing to attend church is a consumer lifestyle decision in the same way Apple and IBM are pitted against each other in television ads, complete with associated fashion, attitudes and industries. Recently, when one of my friends recounted his story at length I offered to put him in touch with a denominational representative to discuss the deeply disturbing issue he’d confided. He had long left the church by this time and I’d happened to have met his denominational representative and trusted him greatly. He looked at me with the strangest look and then said “right, so, the guy one under the CEO?” … It finally occurred to me that the CEO in his metaphor was God.

If a non-Christian Westerner was to agree that yes, sin is a problem and Jesus is the answer, then the logical action would be to join the church. But while preachers yell about the failings of those in their pews, the papers yell about the failures of preachers. It’s a stalemate situation, resulting in what we now know as Post-Christendom.

However, sin in the Bible is not a tent revival message preached at first time hearers. Even in cases of sexual sin, the direct consequences for the Christian community seem of deep importance to Paul. In 1 Corinthians 5, after reporting that a man is sleeping with his own mother, he says:

Stop being proud! Don’t you know how a little yeast can spread through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast! Then you will be like fresh bread made without yeast, and that is what you are. Our Passover lamb is Christ, who has already been sacrificed. So don’t celebrate the festival by being evil and sinful, which is like serving bread made with yeast. Be pure and truthful and celebrate by using bread made without yeast. [1 Cor 5:6-8]

Paul’s primary concern is clearly not the impact upon these two lovers, but upon the dough of the community. This relationship impacts their ability to celebrate what Christ is doing in their midst. He’s not saying ‘those two are going to get it at the pearly gates and maybe an STD on earth too’, but ‘the fact you tolerate this in your midst impedes your purity as a people’. He’s not addressing individuals, but the leadership. He sees it as a social problem. The quote below continues the idea that sin is social, but also claims that Christian conscience is social also. It’s a bit dense, but worth reading.

“Conscience is better understood as an institutionalized reality. It takes form in families, in school rooms, and in houses of worship. It has power not only because people feel strongly about their values, but because of networks and organizations through which these values can be expressed. The challenge is not to pit people who presume to be guided by values against people who are not. It is rather to maintain spaces in which alternative values can be considered. If the prevailing international arrangements encourage cultivating profits, then opportunities must also be available for lifestyles governed by different values. When democracies work best, they encourage these alternative possibilities to be expressed… religious communities also have a special role to play. They can serve as the conscience of the nation by helping the needy in other countries when there is no economic incentive to do so and by posing hard questions about the social and moral costs of free trade or military intervention.” [Robert Wuthnow, Boundless Faith, 2009, p248].

Here Wuthnow discusses conscience within a global setting, because the impact of living in the West does have international ramification. But I am intrigued with the thought that local communities are together an effective local witness to the God described synonymous with love in 1 John 4:8. A few evangelical pastors recently have loudly lamented that sin is disappearing from church vocabulary. I’m all for us reminding the world of sin. But this quote made me think – what if pastors decided to stop focusing on the first part of Corinthians 5 and monitoring people’s private worlds, thoughts and motivations, and started seeking to build an alternative community. What if we were more concerned about our collective witness against sin than our individual witness?

Building a great church that acts as a conscience to the community around it is a beautiful goal. I just wonder what it will take for us to assess the church’s witness to the world and “maintain spaces for alternative values”. I can’t help thinking that this is social justice.

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