Is it always a sin?

One of the deepest questions which Friends are arguing about is, “If something is identified in the Bible as sinful, is it still a sin today?”

For many sincere and devout Friends, the answer is simple: yes. If God said at some point that it’s a sin, then it’s always a sin. Other Friends are equally sincere and love Jesus just as much, but they can’t take such a literal position. They feel that at least some acts which were seen in the past as deeply sinful, may not be sins for everyone today. 

This is a problem which Christians have been wrestling with since the earliest days of the church. For example, when the Romans conquered Palestine, they set up their own temples and brought along their own flags and military symbols wherever they went. Deeply religious Jews (and some early Christians) saw this as idolatry, and rose up repeatedly in armed rebellion. They believed that God explicitly forbade them to have anything to do with idolatry, and they died in battle rather than go along with it.

Later Christians were equally opposed to idolatry, but they came to see that the rule of law which the Romans brought as a positive blessing. Paul – brought up as a strict Jew – wrote, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. . .” (Romans 13:1).

A generation or two later, the same disagreement was still going on. One group of Christians saw Rome as the beast attacking Christians (Revelation 13). Another group said, “Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (I Peter 2:17)

In the present conflict among Friends over the question of accepting gay and lesbian people as members of our meetings, some Friends feel strongly that if it’s a sin in the Bible, it’s always a sin. It’s easy to dismiss these Friends as fundamentalist and prejudiced, when in fact they are trying to be faithful.

It’s also easy to argue that these Friends are like the famous King Canute, who sat in his throne on the seashore and ordered the sea not to wet his feet. The tide came in anyway, of course, and people have mocked Canute ever since. “You can’t turn back the tide” is the basic feeling of many people today in our society – gays and lesbians are out of the closet, and they’re not going away. The tide of public opinion is changing. We had better accept them now.

On the other hand, Friends who want to be more inclusive are mocked and feared by Friends who take a more literal position. “You just read the parts of the Bible you like,” they say, “and you change the Bible to suit yourselves. You don’t respect the authority of the Bible. You aren’t really Christians. You aren’t even Quakers. You should leave!”

I’ve listened to those accusations and counter-accusations for many years, and I think they’re hateful. The behavior of Friends on both sides isn’t something we should be proud of.

  1. Some things are always sinful, and we easily agree about it. No one condones murder. No supports hate crimes. No one encourages drug abuse, or promiscuity, or a long list of other behaviors. We can agree on these – always remembering that all of us are sinners, and that Jesus calls all of us to repent.
  2. Some things are not sinful – at least not to most Christians. Most Christians agree, for example, that it’s all right to drink in moderation. (For the record, I’m a lifelong teetotaler, mostly because I dislike the taste of alcohol, but also because my example as a Christian leader might affect someone struggling with a drinking problem.)
  3. Some things are debatable – thoughtful Christians can and do disagree. In these cases, we should look to ourselves and our own behavior first – and not judge each other! As Jesus said, “First take the log out of your own eye, before you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye” (Matthew 7:1-5)

It may take a generation or more before Friends and the Christian church come to a common understanding on this issue. Some meetings and individuals will continue to hold strong feelings and opinions against gay and lesbian people, on the basis of their sincere interpretation of the Bible. Other Friends will continue to see them as their brothers and sisters in Christ, who should be welcomed in Jesus’ name.

My own feeling, which I haven’t hidden from Friends for more than 30 years, is that if homosexuality is a sin, it’s not the worst of sins, and we gladly accept lots of people with many other behaviors which I, personally, consider sinful. It’s not my job to judge.

Homosexual behavior, for me, would be deeply sinful – it would mean breaking promises I’ve lived by faithfully for many years, it would mean going against my own sexual orientation, and it would mean scandalizing people who put their trust in me.

But what is sinful for me may not be sinful for everyone else. I have met many gay and lesbian people who have tried prayer, counseling, self-discipline, everything they can think of, who are still drawn to people of the same sex. I may never understand, at a gut level, what it’s like for them. But when they come here to worship, when we pray together in the name of Jesus, when they show that they want to live faithfully and joyfully as Christians, then I feel that it’s my job to welcome and accept them, and leave my questions up to God to be answered in due time.

And when I disagree with my fellow Christians, I feel it’s my job to try to find common ground, to wait together in prayer, to be slow to anger and quick to forgive, to focus on doing good things together, and to argue and listen in a reasonable manner, with respect for the other person’s faith and convictions.

On this and many other issues, being right isn’t what gets us into heaven. It matters much more to Jesus that we live together in love, than that we win.


8 Responses to “Is it always a sin?”

  1. 1 Elizabeth Gates September 21, 2012 at 8:07 am

    I wish that we all could be slow to anger and quick to forgive. I have such a heavy sadness watching what is happening now in IYM.

  2. 3 Timothy Travis September 24, 2012 at 8:34 am

    Several times I have found myself in trouble by applying leadings that were once strong and edifying to new iterations of the same circumstance that gave rise to those leadings.
    When that kind of dissonance arises I have learned the hard way to listen, rather than reason, and to obey what I am told to do rather than make a judgment–in my own power or the power of hearsay and second hand revelation-about what to do. Reasoning about moral issues–as you testify–is where conflict, division and factions arise. Listening from that low and obedient posture, on the other hand, best keeps me out of trouble–with God and those around me.

  3. 4 OzarkQuaker September 25, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    Only to state your characterization of King Canute’s actions are (as is common) misconstrued. To consider his actions in their true light may be instructive and help in your current deliberations. Canute was attempting to show to his fawning courtiers that he too was only a mortal man and couldn’t command the wind and waves. His action was not one of hubris but of humility.

  4. 5 Meredith September 25, 2012 at 10:57 pm

    I appreciate you writing and sharing this with all of us. On the topic of sins I have found it interesting that some sins seem to get more attention. So much has been going on all over about the sin of homosexual behavior.

    What is on my mind is what about the sin of Gluttony? In my experience that one is getting no attention.

    If a meeting or an individual makes so much out of the sin of homosexual behavior well my question is how about gluttony.

    I can only speak for myself. I welcome all. We are all capable of sin. I do not personally agree with some sin getting elevated/separated. Then being used to bash others.

    Food for thought. Look around your meeting or any meeting. What percentage is obese? After meeting for social hour what is being laid out to eat? When we gather to break bread for say a fundraiser what is served?

    As for alcohol that is cut and dry in my Faith and Practice. But I was that way before. I get what you are saying about “most Christians”.

    What you addressed has been on my mind. You wrote a great article. I usually do not comment on what is out there but this article moved me. Fantastic. Thank you!!

  5. 6 David Finke October 2, 2012 at 5:31 pm

    I am glad that Josh has opened this question — an important one, even if for no other reason than to challenge some of us “liberals” to think about the reality of Sin. (I’ll be so happy when we stop fooling ourselves that because of “that of God in everyone” there isn’t something of “that of the Adversary” also.) We’ve got to get real on the fact that all is not “sweetness & light” in this world, and that the “Powers & Principalities” have influence in human affairs beyond a simple “mistakenness” in our rationality. Not that I can explain “Sin” very well — other than to recognize its effects, as “separation from a sense of God.” and a manifestation of hubris wherein we imagine ourselves the center of the universe and the source of Authority and Wisdom. I also hope we can avoid red herrings of assuming that those of us who want to take Sin seriously (though not giving it Ultimate power) are somehow seeing creatures with horns and tails.

    So back to Josh’s questions: I answer in the negative, as to whether “If something is identified in the Bible as sinful, is it still a sin today?”

    Some of the most obvious examples would be a comparison of Old Testament proscriptions against what was considered offensive to God (eating certain meats; wearing certain clothing; marrying certain tribal members) and what Jesus had to say. He claimed he came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, which I agree with. And yet he demonstrably rode loose to some of Judaism’s ritual requirements, and was notorious in his opposition to the Pharisees’ sense of ritual purity which they were convinced God wanted. How very “sinful” it appeared to them (no doubt “Biblically based”) for him to heal or feed on the Sabbath, or to hang out with Sinners!

    The Bible records other changes in mores and morals in the period it covers. In the days of the Patriarchs, polygamy was accepted. By Jesus’ time, it apparently wasn’t. Do we have a record as to where and how that shift happened, as to what was or wasn’t permitted? I think the record is ambiguous — as it, indeed, is on any number of question around sexuality and family life. (I love to recall that Jesus had ZERO to say about homsexuality, which probably wasn’t even conceived in the terms which we have today, in terms of an inborn orientation.)

    Think of the Ethiopian Eunuch. He couldn’t, under Jewish law, worship in the temple. And yet the New Testament shows him as an eager seeker after Truth, and (as I read it) was welcomed into the new Community of Christ. He was sexually aberrant — whether or not by his own “choice.”

    The Early Church had a crisis over an issue that is closely related to sex: the circumcision of [male] believers. Did God require that or not? Was it abhorrent (“an abomination before the Lord”) for someone uncircumcised to presume to worship as an equal with those whose parents had followed the law and had their foreskins cut off according to Mosaic Law? I’ve often thought that, for early Jewish Christians, this would have been as emotionally troubling as it is for some contemporary Christians and Quakers to deal with those who are homosexual in their affectional orientation. A strong sense of repugnance would have arisen, and the record shows that it was only as the Church gathered (in what I think of as a “called meeting for worship”) to discern God’s continuing revelation that they saw they were being called to a new Inclusiveness.

    Paul got only part of the way to Truth (though I’m glad for what was there) when he said “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” Today, I hope we can extend that to say “… gay nor straight, PhD nor illiterate, citizen nor undocumented, rich nor poor…”

    Quaker history itself shows a changing sense of sinfulness: A primary example has always been how we treated slaveowning. Of course it took a hundred years between the Germantown Friends bringing their concern to Yearly Meeting, and a final agreement that you couldn’t be both a slaveholder and a Friend — that, indeed, holding property in (or doing business in the trade of) human beings was indeed Sinful! Was it sinful to keep women from preaching in public? Margaret Fell got clear and passionate on that very early on, and I’m glad that she helped other Friends (by her speaking, writing, and example) “see the Light.”

    And, Friends, I think that’s what we’re all called to do: to wait, with humility and patience, to see what New Light that God may have yet to open to us. This sense of “continuing revelation,” by the way, is not unique to Quakers. On the one hand, I view with some skepticism how that doctrine has played out in the Mormon faith (fairly convenient as to when a New Revelation comes along, to gain political advantage). On the other, I have valued the testimony of Pastor Robinson of an early Congregationalist group coming to America, whose statement I used to see every day as I headed to class at Chicago Theological Seminary: “The Lord hath yet more Light and Truth to break forth from his Holy Word.”

    Are we open? Are we listening? Are we faithful? Can we be changed?

    Love to all, -DHF

  6. 7 Jnana Hodson October 8, 2012 at 7:39 am

    Sometimes these issues make us look more intently at just what God is demanding of us. And sometimes, as we look, we find the examples in Scripture even more revealing. For example, with sexuality the Hebrew Bible presents two main models of marriage — one based on “be fruitful and multiply” in Genesis 1 and the other on the “suitable helpmeet” in Genesis 2-3. While many people no doubt assume these are one, what we see in the examples of polygamy that follow is that they are not — one wife is fruitful, the other beloved (Leah/Rachel, Penninah/Hannah). The preference, it seems, is with the beloved helpmeet. The polygamous marriage never works, in part because there can never be a true equality within it.
    This is even before we get to David’s court.
    When we add Paul’s “better to marry than to burn” (1 Corinthians 7:9) to the suitable helpmeet, I see two main conclusions emerging. The first is an ideal of monogamy in our central relationship, just as we are in a relationship with one God. The second is the question of what happens if heterosexuality cannot end the burning, where is the marriage to be found?
    Seeing the central issue as monogamy, then, returns it to all of us. It’s so much easier to see a sin as something belonging to someone else. Making my own marriage better, well, that’s another challenge altogether.
    I like the Jewish insight that one translation of “sin” is “missing the mark” of what God wants from us.
    And that includes our Meetings, as well as our marriages.

  1. 1 Jossh Brown: Is it always a sin? - Quaker Ranter Trackback on September 20, 2012 at 7:45 pm

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All of the posts on this blog are my own personal opinion. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the members and attenders of the meeting where I belong or any organization of Friends. For more information, click on the "About Me" tab above.



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