Growing up in a conservative church in a rural community, I quickly learned the basic rules about sin: It was wrong so don’t do it. Don’t even think about it! Don’t let other people do it! These basic rules were part of my spiritual growth and development and worked well, at least in that context. There were, of course, some discussions and disputes–not about the rules but about what exactly constituted a sin.
School dances, for example, were a terrible sin for some believers but a safe and normal part of life for others. Watching TV could be sinful or okay, depending on which family and which denomination the watcher was part of. While we might have had some disagreement on the definitions of, the basic rules were clear and undisputed.
Or, at least I thought so. As I grew and became more involved in the life of the church, I began to see that the basic rules weren’t as rigid and as clear as it seemed at first. It began to dawn on me that there were some exceptions.
When the men’s choir sang, the shy guy with the great voice was allowed to show up smelling like he had had a drink of rum before he got there. We were a seriously non-drinking church but his bay-rum “aftershave” gave him courage to add his voice to the choir, which wouldn’t have been much otherwise.
And then there was the pastor who was abusing kids, including his own who was quietly resettled somewhere else and the families and kids convinced that it wasn’t his fault–he was doing great things for God and it would be a shame to let something like that stop his ministry.
Of course, there were also the generous givers whose contributions played a significant role in the congregation’s finances and somehow allowed them a free pass on some things that others were not able to get away with.
I began to realize that the rules were not as simple and clear. Not all sin was equal and not all sinners were equal. In fact, the rules get murkier and more confusing the longer I look at them. But it seems like there were some essential rules that superseded all the others. One was, “The more important I can make myself in the church, the more I get to break the rules.” Another was connected, “The more the church needs my money, the more I can get away with”
Others include, “The better I sing, preach, teach, etc, the more rules I can break”; “The closer I am related to someone who can break the rules, the more rules I can break”; “If you must break the rules, don’t get caught”. In the end, it seems like the basic rule about sin is that I get to condemn your sin and justify mine.
I am not sure if what I have just written qualifies as cynicism or whether it is a “tongue-in-cheek” poke at one of the real issues in the church but the problem is real. We really don’t have a comfortable way of dealing with the reality of human sin within the church. The uncomfortable route we tend to follow allows some people to sin with impunity while others pay a disproportional price for the same sin.
Now to be honest, I have spent much or my ministry trying to avoid the issue of sin–I prefer to deal with important things like grace and forgiveness and reconciliation and love. But I also recognize the pain caused by our uncomfortable and inequitable way of dealing with sin. In fact, many of the people I know who are not a part of the church are outside the church because somewhere along the line, they encountered the hypocrisy that is such a basic part of the conservative church’s approach to sin.
I don’t have clear answers yet–just a recognition that the results of sin can be painful and serious and the results of poor handling of sin can be even more painful and serious. But since we are all sinners, we need to find a way that recognizes the reality of the pain we cause ourselves and others while at the same time, allowing everyone sufficient access to God’s love and grace.
May the peace of God be with you.