Forming Faith Blog

What about Sins and Sinners?

The month of June is crazy for me with a conference (InterGenerate 2023) and a long-overdue family trip. So, for the next month (except the week of June 5th with a practical ministry post on self-care by our own Elaine Seekon), I will be reusing a series I originally wrote in 2021 called “Insiders and Outsiders.” The theme of inclusion and exclusion is as relevant now as it was then.

When we look at who “belongs” in our churches and who doesn’t, we often look at sins and the people who commit them. But which sins do we focus on and which do we ignore? Should we really be keeping sinners out of the Body of Christ?

A human figure in red is excluded by a group of human figures in white, just as "sinners" are often excluded from churches.
Gatekeepers and Wall-defenders

The last few weeks I’ve been looking at the divide between insiders and outsiders in the church: the first week in the division in general and last week specifically with the LGBT+ community. As I mentioned in the first post, some divisions are natural and unavoidable. However, even if that’s true, that doesn’t always make them good. What can become very bad is when we focus on the divisions and devolve diversity into exclusion. We can become builders and defenders of the walls and gatekeepers making sure only the “right” people can enter.

Against the “World”

But what about sin and sinners? Doesn’t God call us to exclude sin from our communities and lives? This, again, is common in the church, though different congregations identify different lists of sins to fight against. We might think only of conservative churches (often with a focus on sex-related actions), but progressive ones can also exclude those whom they consider the worst sinners (bigots, homophobes, and the like).

Which Sinners?

One of the difficulties we run into when we are talking about sins and sinners is: which list are we using and are we being consistent? We too often have the tendency to ignore sins that we or people like us commit and focus on ones that “others” commit. There is often a focus on sexual practices but a curious silence on the condemnation of the rich and power so often found in Scripture.

Another problem found here is when the “sins” used to exclude others are based on a person’s identity so that whole swaths of people different than “us” are left out. This has especially been true for the LGBT+ community. A supposedly prohibited practice has led to a condemnation of every same-sex orientation and relationship. Church members often throw people of non-cisgender identity in here for good measure. (And the situation for trans people has only gotten worse in the public sphere, and it started in a bad place.)

Unrepentant Sinners

An argument is made that if we don’t condemn and exclude sinners, doesn’t that just lead to tacit approval of the sins and unrepentant sinners? Two main points on this. First, one of the things that the Jewish leaders (especially the Pharisees) hated about Jesus was that he hung out with sinners (especially tax collectors and prostitutes). It is true that half of Jesus’ message is “repent,” but I cannot imagine that Jesus required every “sinner” to repent before spending time with them. I’m guessing that not all of those he shared table-fellowship with did repent.

The second point is—as I stated above—is that we tend to focus on some sins and ignore others. So, we end up condemning outsiders and giving that tacit approval to our fellow insiders. And aren’t we all sinners, and often unrepentant? Do we indeed need to reach moral perfection before we can be a part of the church? Of course not.

Boundary of Behavior

No matter which list of sins you are using, the boundary here should be about behavior, not people.

One point I looked at in my first blog post was using the analogy of a centered set and bounded set from math. A bounded set is a group defined by a boundary and whether something is inside or outside that boundary (or fits or does not fit a particular condition). A centered set is defined by the center and how each unit in question is moving in relation to that center (toward or away).

When we focus on church as a bounded set, we are defining qualifications to make someone “in” or “out.” While there might be use for that at times, it makes more sense to me to see church as a centered set where the center is God’s love in Jesus. A church like this can be a group of diverse people focused on God’s undeserved, unconditional, unending love, no matter what we have done. Isn’t it better, after all, to have sinners invited inside the church rather than left outside?

Grace and Law

We confess that God is love, and Jesus is the incarnation of God. The good news is that God’s grace reigns supreme, grace being the undeserved, unconditional, unending love of God (a favorite phrase of mine). And when we are doing the work to define behaviors that fulfill the greatest commandments—loving God and loving others—and those that don’t, let’s take a long, hard look at the mountain of uncomfortable verses about wealth before we ever get to people’s sex lives.

In Christ,

Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

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