What the Christian Right Gets Wrong About Sin

02/04/2014 11:57 am ET | Updated Apr 06, 2014

In the latest volley of the Christian culture wars, dozens of prominent conservative Christian leaders -- including Rick Warren, Ravi Zacharias, and Wayne Grudem -- have filed an amicus brief supporting Hobby Lobby in the ongoing battle over contraception.

Much ink has already been spilled in this battle -- about contraception, religious liberty, freedom of choice -- and I have no interest in arguing those topics that many others have already addressed. But I do believe this brief offers us a glimpse at one of the flawed premises driving our ongoing culture wars.

In addition to citing theologies of vocation and freedom of religion, the document argues: 

"Christian doctrine states it is a sin for a Christian to enable or aid another in doing what the Christian believes to be sin. " (Hobby Lobby Brief, p. 26)

Several passages are cited in support of this doctrine: 1 Cor. 8:9-13 (don't wound your brother's conscience); Rom. 14:13-14 (don't be a stumbling block), and Matthew 18:6 (don't cause one of these little ones to sin).

But this "doctrine" is based in a flawed understanding of sin, is unsustainable in practice, and is only brought up when it can be ammunition in culture wars.

We Need a Better Understanding of "Sin"

In culture war clashes, the word "sin" gets flung around loosely -- many Christians claim to "call a sin a sin," "take a stand against sin," and not "enable or aid sin." If I were to simply observe the issues on which Christians "take a stand," I'd conclude that the entire doctrine of sin is concerned primarily with sexual activity -- homosexuality, premarital sex, pornography/indecency, and sexual health/contraception.

This popular understanding of "sin" is evidenced in Phil Robertson's answer to the question, "What, in your mind, is sinful?":

"Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men..." (GQ)

Though he later went on to paraphrase Corinthians' condemnation of other actions, it's telling that his first examples of "sin" are entirely focused around sexual activity.

I don't think Robertson is alone in this view of sin. In my experience, a disproportionate majority of church teaching on righteousness is focused on regulating one's sexual behavior; a disproportionate majority of public activity is focused on regulating the sexual behavior of others.

Perhaps this is why many people -- including Christians -- seem to think that Christianity is a religion primarily focused on moral behavior.

(Though it should be noted that there certainly isn't consensus among Christians as to the sinfulness of two very popular culture war battles -- homosexuality and contraception.)

I'd suggest that it's time we learn and operate from a more holistic definition of "sin." Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. provides a context for understanding sin in light of creation:

"Shalom is God's design for creation and redemption. ... God hates sin not just because it violates his law but, more substantively, because it violates shalom, because it breaks the peace, because it interferes with the way things are supposed to be...

Sin, then, is any agential evil for which some person (or group of persons) is to blame. In short, sin is culpable shalom-breaking."

When we lose sight of shalom, sin is reduced to a collection of seemingly-arbitrary violations of moral rules.

In the narrative of Scripture, we see that sin is much more than that -- it's the evil that seeks to take root in the heart of humanity, it's the cancer that infects us all. Because sin springs from the heart, we will never do away with it by simply banning or preventing certain actions. We can attempt to legislate morality, but we can never legislate away sin.

As I understand it, the Gospel seems much more concerned with changing the heart from which sin flows than conforming external behaviors to certain moral rules. Sin can't simply be avoided; it must be slowly rooted from every corner of our hearts where it seeks to disrupt love between neighbor and neighbor, between Creator and created.

It is Impossible to Avoid "Enabling Sin"

I'm familiar with the passages cited in the above brief - about not "causing a brother to sin". I think it's an interpretative stretch to suggest that the proper application is to never do anything that would enable others to sin, especially in a public context. Those admonitions are written primarily to a local, commmunity/church context and they address the responsibilities of the church members to one another.

They aren't teaching that "it is a sin to enable another in in doing what a Christian believes to be sin."

"Enable" is a loose term. And if providing insurance that an employee can use for contraception is sin, a consistent application of that doctrine would essentially prevent Christian participation in every aspect of public life.

If we understand that sin is so much more than sexual rules, can see how impossible it is to consistently avoid "enabling sin" as vigilantly as the supporters of Hobby Lobby attempt to do in this one area.

For example, let's look beyond the sexual activities usually cited as examples of "sin" and consider the sins that were the downfall of the ancient city of Sodom: pride and arrogance, excess of food and comfort, neglect of the poor, immorality and idolatry. (Ezekiel 16:49-50)

Is it not enabling pride to sell a shiny new car to someone who will brag about it from an arrogant heart? Is it not enabling covetousness to build a house for someone who will live in "excess of comfort" while ignoring the less fortunate in its shadow? What about the food industry, where we waste over 40 percent of our food supply every day while our neighbors go hungry? Is it "enabling the sin of excess" to shop at grocers that will throw away good food to ensure that ours is perfectly fresh?

If every Christian followed the example of Hobby Lobby, Christian hotel owners would refuse rooms to any couple that wasn't married. Christian restaurant owners would turn away the overfed. Christian investors would refuse to do business with anyone whose desire for gain was motivated by greed. Christian citizens would shun any politician or entertainer or athlete who lives a lifestyle of pride, arrogance, or excess. And every Christian employer would need to ensure that the paycheck they were giving their employees wasn't "enabling" an unbiblical lifestyle of selfishness, covetousness, or idolatry.

We'd even need to refuse paying taxes until our government agreed to stop drone strikes, military occupations, the death penalty, and its heartbreaking obsession with incarcerating our citizens. Clearly, this idea that it is a sin for a Christian to enable that which he believes to be sin is not only an interpretative stretch, it's also unsustainable.

While we work for righteousness and justice and shalom in our lives and our communities, it does not fall to us to ensure that everyone else is living by our understanding of Biblical guidelines.

We Only Care About Sin as Ammunition in the Culture Wars

Certainly I cannot know the motivations of everyone involved in these debates, but I see a pattern of "standing against sin" only as it can be used against others. I don't think our inconsistent application of "enabling the sin of others" is coincidental. It reveals, perhaps, a desire to use the doctrine of sin and righteousness as ammunition in our culture wars.

Indeed, even Hobby Lobby's conscientious objection to contraceptive services is inconsistent, as Fred Clark points out:

"...mandatory birth control in China [where many Hobby Lobby products are manufactured] is of no moral concern for Hobby Lobby, but access to voluntary birth control for American women is something it will fight all the way to the Supreme Court.

We tend to overlook our own pervasive sins of greed, pride, arrogance, selfishness, and covetousness while focusing on the perceived wrongdoings of others outside our religious communities. When we do this, we aren't truly seeking the Kingdom of God.

Instead, we are reinforcing the foundations and fences of our counterfeit kingdoms. Kingdoms where the gay community is used as a scapegoat to reinforce our group's sense of rightness. Kingdoms where contraception rules are leveraged to regulate the sexuality of women. Kingdoms where group identity is strengthened by unifying against faux persecution from a common enemy.

This is not the Kingdom of God.

If we are concerned with sin primarily when we can use our concern to distance ourselves from others, I can't help but think that we're more interested in building fences between Us and Them than with repairing shalom.

It Is Our Job to Love

I believe sin and evil must be addressed -- both individually and systemically. I believe that God wants to uproot sin from the hearts of humanity. I believe that in the context of a Christian community, we are to encourage one another away from lives of sin and toward lives of righteousness.

While I pray for the Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, it's not my job to ensure that I'm not "enabling sin". It's not my job to ensure that everyone everywhere lives by the values of the Kingdom of God. As Billy Graham said:

"It is the Holy Spirit's job to convict, God's job to judge, and my job to love."

My job is to cultivate patience, kindness, generosity, humility. My job is to seek the good of others, to seek peace, to keep no record of evil. My job is to always trust, always hope, always endure. (see 1 Cor. 13)

My job is to love my neighbor as myself.

If we'd just focus on aiding and enabling love rather than attempting to avoid enabling sin, I truly believe we'd begin to see the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

Originally posted on Redemption Pictures as "Dispatch from the Culture Wars: Sin, Shalom, & Love"