by Matthew Raley
Jerry Olenyn did a service for Chico in his story for CN&R on how local churches view homosexuality. Writing such a piece is a thankless task, the only guarantee being that some on all sides will see Olenyn as biased. Conservative evangelicals should notice that Olenyn’s language is even-handed, that his use of quotations presents a well-rounded picture of what conservative pastors believe and feel, and that his objective in the piece is right: to deepen our civic culture on this issue.
The article is solid reporting, an essential tool for keeping leaders honest and their discourse civil.
Olenyn only made one characterization in the story: “There’s a definite evasiveness that seeps through this discussion. Conservative churches fear being labeled homophobic and intolerant, while gay-affirming churches worry that their pro-gay stance could cost them members.” The characterization is fair.
Olenyn identifies the roots of this evasiveness. He responds to one pastor’s assertion that “there are bigger issues” than homosexuality, “such as reaching out to the lost, feeding the hungry, and fulfilling Christ’s mission.” Olenyn asks, “But does part of fulfilling Christ’s mission include defining sin? And what exactly is sin?”
Perceptive. A pastor cannot speak clearly about whether homosexuality is a sin until he defines what sin is.
Throughout the article, as in the debate nationally, the word sin is used without definition. Today sin connotes a “really bad” thing, something that makes you feel guilty. With the term apparently used this way, we seem to be debating whether churches have a right to shame people.
To understand the Bible’s definition of sin, we should start with the more basic issue of what it means to be human.
According to the Bible, human beings can only understand themselves fully in relation to God (e.g. Psalm 139). We are creatures. We do not govern our own lives. Rather, we serve something larger than ourselves — either God or the things we put in place of God.
Sin, in this worldview, is primarily an identity of servitude to false gods, whatever form they take, and only secondarily a specific action or choice (Romans 1.18-32). Paul’s teaching in Romans 6.15-23 is that human beings are sin’s slaves. Jesus himself teaches (John 8.34), “Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”
The implication is clear: to be human is to be the property either of sin or of God. All specific acts of sin express the same identity of sin-slavery in different ways. The issue in reconciling with God is not the individual acts, but the identity that those acts express.
The contrast between the biblical view and that of Western modernity is stark. The modern individual assumes — more precisely, he believes as a matter of doctrine — that he owns himself. He is the property of no one, having the autonomy to construct his life as he chooses. His dignity as a human being consists in asserting himself.
Conservative evangelicals know that a genuinely biblical definition of sin calls people to reject their most basic beliefs about who they are. For many decades now, evangelicals have been trying to finesse this point. They have cast sin in terms of “choices,” “addictions,” “values,” or “lifestyles,” as if behavior were the primary issue. Jesus, in this cautious gospel, is less Savior than Coach. He helps you make better choices about your life.
But in addressing homosexuals — without a social consensus on sexual morality — evangelicals are trapped by their evasiveness about sin. They can’t confront homosexuality without asserting God’s right to determine human identity. At the same time, they can’t assert God’s right over our identity without offending many of their own converts. The evangelical pew holds many who believe that their lives remain their own property, and who’ve been assured that God would never be so Godlike as to require their very selves.
Several conservative pastors quoted in Olenyn’s article showed a wise mix of clarity about the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality and humility as forgiven sinners. I’m grateful that Olenyn showed this.
But I am also grateful that he identified the core question, which humbles everyone equally: What exactly is sin?