stepping on toes, preaching on sin

all the things
[art by Allie Brosh]

I was proud of the cult-church I grew up in for a few reasons, but none could make me as proud as the fact that my pastor preached on sin. We weren’t like those “touchy-feely, tickle-your-ears” churches– my pastor had the guts to stand up for what was right, to name sin for exactly what it was. An evangelist that came through our church would declare like clockwork every year that he “didn’t beat around the bush,” he “beat the devil out of the bush!”

That was what made our church different. Made it better, more holy, more righteous, more God-honoring. We weren’t a bunch of pansies, too scared to call out sin from the pulpit. We knew what sin was, how destructive it was in the life of any Christian, and we would not give the devil any foothold in our church by choosing to preach on love and grace more than we taught about the evils of sin.

Obviously, a lot has changed about my views since I was a teenager. I no longer believe that God is an angry old white man who is sitting up in heaven eager to deliver a holy smack-down at any moment. I trust that God is Love, and I firmly believe that grace, compassion, kindness, and empathy should be the virtues that guide my faith. I’m in a community of believers who are all fairly like-minded about this, so it’s not often that I run into the argument that what will fix all the world’s ills is more Bible-thumping on sin.

But, a few weeks ago, I did, and I was surprised by how deeply it bothered me. On my post for Relevant, “What the Church gets Wrong about Sexual Abuse,” a woman asked me what I thought a solution could be. I responded with two ideas I thought were practical and broadly applicable: seminaries should require instruction on abuse, and pastors should dedicate sermons to it.

She did not agree:

I believe there is only one solution, because the problem is always the same. Sin. Not until the hearts of people are tender toward God will the situation change … If the pastor preached on salvation, walking with the Lord, sin (and here, touching on abuse, sexuality, lying, etc.), than s/he is preaching total submission to God. Not until the hearts of people are submitted to God will their actions change.

If you let the congregation know sin is sin, you let the congregation see making Christ Lord and Master of your life means your desire for sin has changed. The problem I see is the church spends more time on forgiveness, grace, and mercy, instead of on submission. If you are able to sin, then have you really made Christ your Master? Or, is he just a friend? Because a friend you can talk to, but no have consequences. A Master gives justice. [edited for grammar]

The church spends more time on forgiveness, grace, and mercy, instead of on submission.

Honestly, I think she’s being disastrously naïve to think that teaching submission is going to help an abuse victim or that teaching about sin will get an abuser (especially a narcissistic one) to see the error of his/her ways. In my experience, a church climate that focuses on sin and submission merely gives an abuser more ammunition; now they can use the preacher’s messages to heap even more shame and guilt on their victim.

But, her comment was really about more than just that– and she is a part of a larger culture that thinks this way. I’ve seen it most often in the hyper-neo-Calvinist-Reformed-Piper-Driscoll circles than anywhere else, but they are certainly not alone. And, in a way, this view makes sense. Abuse = sin. Preaching on sin = preaching against abuse. And if you think of your relationship with Jesus in terms of an absolute hierarchy that requires obedience more than anything else, than teaching Christians to submit to what Christ wants for your life also makes sense.

I do think that following Jesus and doing what he asks of us is difficult. Turning the other cheek? Putting down the sword? Selling all that I have and following him? Yeah … not easy. Especially when I have a big problem– a huge problem, really– with schadenfreude. I do not think Jesus approves of my inner smirk when I hear about how a person I don’t really like is miserable. Giving that up and trying to live by kindness and empathy? Nope. All the nopes.

So yes– following Christ takes a certain amount of not-my-will-but-yours.

However, if I thought of that in terms of beating sin out of my life instead of as a grace and love-filled process where Christ comes into my moments and loves me through the times when I’m being less-than-nice, I don’t think I could do it. I agree with Tullian Tchividjian when he says that the Bible’s response to sin isn’t “PREACH ON ALL THE SIN!” but to teach even more grace and love. The day when I was able to incorporate grace into my life was the day I was finally able to have faith at all.

Grace means I can hope. Grace means that I can change.

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