This morning I was reading some of Brian Mclaren's book A New Kind of Christian. In it Brian brings up a discussion concerning sin.
Having grown up in a conservative, "holiness" church, the fear of sin was instilled in me from an early age. We knew sin separated us from God, and we knew that "without holiness, no man will see God." Sin sends a person to hell, and no one, in their right mind, wants to go to hell; at least not the one described by my childhood pastors. (Picture fire, brimestone, and assorted suffering and torment.)
I don't think they taught this stuff to make us paranoid. I do want to believe they had the best of intentions (though I know some did not). I think they had a sincere desire to know God, and wanted others to know Him as well. I think sin DOES separate us from God, but they focused on the "separating" aspect of sin rather than the keeping, grace-full nature of God.
Unfortunately this upbringing forces me to constantly question, "What is sin?" We were taught that movies, television, drinking alcohol, smoking, and dancing were sins. We were also taught that greed, pride, and coveting were sins. But the drinking, dancing, and smoking were easier to see. However, I can't recall a single sermon on helping the poor, widow, or orphan, or a sermon on spiritual pride and judging others.
Sin was always black and white. Many would still say it is black and white. John Wesley said that sin is a willful act of disobedience to God. Arminians set this against John Calvin who indicated that sin is hard to get away from; we sin every day in word, thought, and deed. They teach these as though they are mutually exclusive; that, in order to believe one, you have to disregard the other. Is that really so? I don't think so.
I think they are both right. But I also think sin is much more than these two definitions as well.
Sin is serious business. It separates us from God, but defining sin is difficult. John the Baptist came into the world denying himself all "worldly" pleasure. Jesus came eating and drinking. Both were condemned; Jesus for being a glutton and drunkard and John for being too strict.
We often focus on the visible sins; sins we can see someone doing. But we often neglect sins that, though they may not be readily seen, are probably worse. A New Kind of Christian points out the story of the Pharisees who drag the woman caught in adultery before Jesus. Who is more in the wrong? Who is the sinner in this story? The woman who commits adultery? Or, the Pharisees who are filled with spiritual pride?
We want to place things, theology, in neat little boxes that explain and quantify everything. What we call grey may actually be mystery. It would be nice if the Bible simply had a book of rules. This would make it so much easier. We could look at something and say, "Yup! That is wrong!" Instead we get stories, principles, and questions.
As a pastor, I don't want to be guilty of leading my people away from God either by being too lenient or being too harsh. I realize that I am not God; I will not be asked to help judge those standing in front of His royal throne. Yet, I know that those who desire to teach are held to a higher standard.
Leonard Sweet once said, "I would rather be known as being too forgiving than too judgmental."