what do we do when saints are sinners?

Lately I’ve been wrestling with the concept of ethics and what that means to me. What are my ethics? What should they be? It’s clear that my values have been shaped by a white supremacist, patriarchal culture, and maybe there are some things that I should examine more closely. Through all of this, one of the things that I’m becoming more convinced of is that there is a difference between the morals I can personally hold and ones that I believe should govern society in general.

For example, I believe that following Jesus means that I’m required to love my enemy, to do good to those who persecute me. However, that’s a standard that I have freely chosen– and I think it’s impossible to actually live out unless it is chosen. Loving one’s oppressor– even in the radical form of resistance I think it is — isn’t something that should be forced on someone as a universal moral imperative. In fact, I grew up in a culture where that was demanded of me, and they did so in order to further oppress and abuse me.

I don’t think Christians will ever be on the same page when it comes to ethics. The most glaring example of this is abortion: being pro-choice alone disqualifies me from being a moral person to a significant number of American Christians. However, I do think that there are some things that aren’t quite so fraught and intense, and that are a little more universally held among Christians, like they shall know us by how we love one another. Maybe we don’t all agree on what that practically looks like, but I think we all know we should be at least trying to demonstrate our love to the world so clearly that it’s noticeable and obvious.

But what do we do with the fact that we’re all human, and fallible?

The justification that I grew up with– and one that isn’t isolated to fundamentalism, but seems to be endemic to American evangelicalism– is that of course becoming a Christian doesn’t make you a better person. This is, hopefully, obvious. Christians are “just sinners saved by grace,” after all. We half-joke about how “no church is perfect, because all churches have people in them,” or “my ‘old man’ is alive and well today!”

Looking back, I don’t think any of the people I’ve known who have said these things were trying to excuse sinful behavior from Christians. They weren’t trying to argue that because we’re “prone to wander” that we can do whatever we want and then receive “grace” and “forgiveness” for our actions. That’s not the point– we’re supposed to “become more like Christ.”

All of that doesn’t change the fact that when I comment on how my worst employers were Christians, inevitably someone comes along to quip about how “everyone is flawed” and we have to “forgive” them for it. This happens all of the time, in large and small ways. Over time I’ve noticed a pattern: Christians only seem to come out of the woodwork to order the rest of us to “forgive” when it’s a Christian who’s screwed up. The problem with this attitude is that I think the reaction should be the opposite: when a Christian is the one doing wrong, we should be coming out of the woodwork to make it right.

Shame and condemnation shouldn’t have a place in Christian culture. God didn’t send his Son to condemn the world, but to save it. If we’re to be like him, that should be were our priorities lie: in saving the world (of course, I have a slightly different definition of “saving the world” than most evangelical Christians). Swarming over someone and shrieking endlessly about their sin isn’t the ideal I’m striving for, but neither is removing the consequences for their actions.

Too often, getting defensive on other Christian’s behalf overtakes good judgment. Today, it seems like standing up to support Saeed Abedini and Josh Duggar is more important than anything else. Apparently, we can’t let a Christian even be criticized by the public for abusing his wife or molesting his sisters, because saying “yes, you’re right, that is wrong and their victims deserve justice,” would somehow tarnish Christianity’s reputation. We rush to to stand in solidarity with other Christians regardless of what they’ve done or the harm they’ve caused for no other reason than they supposedly share our religion.

Except, in our religion, one of God’s chief aims is justice. The characters in our sacred texts don’t get to escape consequences just because they’ve repented, and neither should we. Forgiveness shouldn’t exist in isolation, and forgiveness and absolution are not the same thing. Forgiveness without justice is meaningless.

For those who share my faith, it’s not unreasonable to expect better-than-average behavior, and it bothers me that Christian culture resists this so ferociously. Yes, we’re only human, but the whole point of following Jesus is to become as like him as we can possibly manage. Whenever one of us fails– sometimes publicly, sometimes catastrophically– we should deny the impulse to remind everyone that Christians aren’t really any better than other people. No, we aren’t, but we should be.

This dominant urge to defend monstrous acts and monstrous people is one of the reasons why I fight so hard to re-articulate the Christian religion to myself and others. In the last fifty years we’ve gotten caught up in this vision of Christianity as predominately being about avoiding Hell. “Being a Christian” means I will go to Heaven when I die, and not “I choose to follow the teachings of Jesus and to be like him.”

If all being a Christian means is that we’re not going to burn in Hell forever, then it could be a natural outworking for us to try to absolve every Christian of every wrongdoing, since that would be the basic premise of Christianity. After all, we all deserve eternal conscious torment, but we chose to accept God’s forgiveness and therefore get to spend eternity in paradise instead. If you’re going to reduce the beauty and entirety of Christian theology down to I won’t experience just punishment for my sin, then why not apply it to this vaporous existence?

I don’t think that being a Christian is about avoiding consequences, eternal or temporal. I think it means holding ourselves to the higher standard of following Christ.

Photo by Davide Gabino
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  • Nicole Chase

    “Yes, we’re only human, but the whole point of following Jesus is to become as like him as we can possibly manage.”

    YES. I don’t just want my sins ignored; I seek the grace to sin no more.

    I don’t know if you are familiar with Leah Libresco (she writes from a different tradition), but she recently posted something about Christian ethics that this post reminds me of – namely, that it HAS to be based on the person of Christ, and will necessarily look “weird” to people not reasoning from that position. (This post:

    Now, clearly, different people may disagree on what that looks like in the details, but I have to think it should involve the higher standard you write about today.

  • Kevin

    Very interesting thoughts on hell and not experiencing consequences; especially since Fundamentalists claim that without hell there is no motivation for good behavior. For a long time I wondered why goodness can’t be an end in and of itself.
    Fundamentalists claim people reject hell to avoid accountability but it’s the believers in hell that are defending abusers(and who called for the Crusades, Inquisition, Salem Witch Trials, antisemitism, and other injustices in Jesus’ Name)!

    • It’s almost as if the people who believe in Hell don’t actually believe in Hell. They just wish they did.

  • rumpledtulip

    The line that has always driven me nuts is “I’m not perfect, just forgiven,” always delivered with a smug little smile. In other words, I can be as big an asshole as I like, but–ha ha!–I still get to go to heaven, neener neener.

  • gexpl

    Evangelical Christians want to make the claim that Christians are morally superior, but they also want a convenient escape clause to turn to when reality debunks their claim. Christians are NOT morally superior to other people and people like the Duggars, Gothards, and Abedinis of Christendom make this very apparent. Rather than actually walking back their claim to superiority, Evangelicals respond by trying to silence people with “we’re not perfect, just forgiven” and “Christians are sinners too”. They’re hoping critics will shut up about their dirty laundry long enough for them to go back to pedaling their false image of Christians being better than everyone else and more deserving of cultural dominance. The dishonesty of their double-speak is apparent, but rarely questioned. It sets up a lose-lose situation for victims of abuse or wrong-doing in Christian spheres because whistle-blowing is punished and the victim is likely to be persistently gaslit by their community and culture into thinking that “this godly person can’t possibly be doing something evil. They’re a good Christian!”

    Apostates, defectors, and people just disillusioned with the church face the same double-speak. If anyone cites their experiences with abuse, dishonesty, cruelty, and institutionalized oppression as a reason for leaving churches, they’re shamed for being “stupid” and “shallow” (not my words). “What did you expect? Christians aren’t perfect.” But simultaneously, defectors who are accused of leaving “in order to sin” are told that they were “never really Christians” because if they were, they would have overcome their sinful desires. It’s quite bewildering to be on the receiving end of both of these messages, sometimes even from the same person. Either god makes people better or he doesn’t.

    • LadySunami

      I have been accused of leaving Christianity for such things, but by far the most common accusation is that I stopped believing because I’m “under Satan’s power.” I am told my only options are to surrender myself to God or be manipulated by the devil, meaning my “free will” is really nothing more then the ability to choose my puppet master. At no point am I free to have my own thoughts and make my own decisions.

      I find this view is both ridiculous and incredibly frustrating. It seems expressly designed to give the accuser an excuse to completely ignore all of my experiences and everything I have to say. After all, the devil is supposedly both a first class liar and a master of manipulating the truth for his own ends. If everyone who lacks belief or believes differently is under his thrall, then there is nothing that can be learned from us and we can be safely dismissed.

      • Kevin

        Now if the devil is a master liar and manipulator, what does it say about these abusers, who, too, are master liars and manipulators?

    • Kevin

      I know a couple who, after changing churches, from lied about by their old church, the husband’s own mother said she’s “ashamed” of him. I talked with them recently, and the wife mentioned that it was hard, at their new church, when someone mentioned feelings. She said she had to go to the bathroom where she cried. Someone else from their old church accused them of selfishness, and said he didn’t understand how they could be so hurtful.(This guy is seriously drinking the Kool-Aid!)

      • gexpl

        I think I am not understanding something that you’re saying. “from lied about by their old church”… do you mean their old church lied about them? Also, why did the wife cry when someone mentioned feelings? I’m sorry, I might be being dense, but something’s not parsing for me.

        • Kevin

          Yes, their old church made up stuff about them.
          The old church often talked about not operating in your feelings(since that’s considered “soulish”). A lot of it has to do with only “speaking faith”; for her, the reference to feelings just brought up bad memories for her.

    • OutsideLookingIn

      A thousand times “yes” to this comment. Christians can’t have it both ways. As you put it, “Either god makes people better or he doesn’t.” I know in my experience that I found out which one is true. He doesn’t…because he doesn’t exist.

      • gexpl

        Yeah, one either must accept that he doesn’t exist or, if he does, he doesn’t change people. I happen to believe the former, but there are Christians who believe the latter and that’s fine. But pretending that he does change people is just dishonest and doesn’t mesh with reality. No way around it.

  • I think you hit upon the very fine distinction between recognizing the seriousness of sinful behavior and the destructiveness of its consequences, and using that same seriousness to shame, judge, or define someone (or yourself, for that matter).

    If you look at the first step of A.A., an addict has to acknowledge that their actions have gone way beyond the point of self-control and their lives are being destroyed as a result. To recover, they have to own that. But a sure-fire path to relapse is to tweak that a little and communicate that their lives are being destroyed because they’re terrible people.

    I don’t expect Christians not to damage the kingdom of God, but I do expect them, upon seeing it, to repair the damage and ideally make it even better than before. It involves a lot of work beyond an apology. Repentance isn’t an emotional state, it’s a course of action to stop destroying and start building. We are not united around condemning sin (we shouldn’t be, anyway), but we are united around building a kingdom of shalom. Sin tears that kingdom down.

    So, while we all generally expect people not to beat their wives, if someone does, we expect that person to be the first person to make reparations, whatever that looks like – cooperating in providing a safe place for their spouse in the short term, becoming a safe person long term, going to therapy, separating, divorcing and staying single – I guess there’s no price sheet for this kind of thing, but the point is, if that person were a Christian, I’d want them to be leading the charge to put the pieces back together instead of just apologizing and expecting everyone to get over it because they’re really sorry about it.

    I don’t think God wants our apologetic attitude as much as He wants our work in healing and reconciliation.

  • Well said. Especially the part about how the whole thing is built on escaping hell, escaping the “justice” we supposedly “deserve.” How many times have I heard people in church say “you don’t want justice” because their definition of “justice” is “everyone goes to hell.”

    And your point about Christians claiming we’re all sinners and therefore some Christian’s awful crimes aren’t really a big deal reminds me of a post I wrote a while back: “Christians Aren’t Perfect” When It’s Convenient

    • Kevin

      In other words, do what we say, by what we do! Also you can add “That was XYZ sect that we don’t like!”
      These same Christians will take ISIS and try to paint all Muslims like that and use that to argue against refugees. But if someone tried to ban Christians due to these abusive incidents they’d cry, “Persecution!”
      Thus, I agree with those who say the Religious Right really wants preferential treatment.

  • I don’t know what ‘better than other people’ means. I don’t think I can do it.
    It’s not that there aren’t truly evil actions we humans are capable of, it’s that I would prefer to be treated like I’m already good so I’m obliged to treat others more like that.
    Something about attempts to make people (even Christian people!) ‘better’ always puts me on edge, though. Heh, I aim to misbehave? 😉

  • Christine Woolgar

    I think evangelicalism will always have a problem with issues like this until it takes a less conversionistic view of salvation and what it means to follow Jesus. Although I personally believe, as many evangelicals do, that there’s no salvation outside of the cross, I think Christians need to make a far stronger connection between “being saved” (which is really about having hope) and the patterns of behaviour that emulate Jesus. Currently, the emphasis seems to be on whether or not, at some point in a person’s life, they have come out with their Romans 10 “Jesus is Lord” prayer of conversion like it’s a box you need to tick.

    I also think that Christianity needs to get better at articulating what Christians *hope for* and what it is *to hope*. I hope you won’t mind me saying, I believe our hope is not that we will escape to heaven, but that Jesus will come and unite heaven with earth. Hope is therefore about anticipating the coming of his kingdom now and bringing the future into the present. Which is why integrity *now* matters.

    • Kevin

      I love your view of hope! That’s the view of N. T. Wright(who is a conservative Anglican).

      • Christine Woolgar

        Well recognised, it certainly is.

  • The problem I’m having is largely that only certain Christians get to be the recipients of this “no matter what they did, let’s defend them” attitude– and those certain Christians are the leaders, the people in power. When a white male Christian leader grooms and rapes a young woman, and the church establishment says we have to forgive him– why do they also villify and condemn and cast judgment on the young woman? Christian forgiveness is one thing. Rank Christian favoritism towards the powerful is something else entirely.

  • This reminds me a bit of what is said here – She talks about how our sins have consequences that we can’t ignore or gloss over. We can’t just brush sin under the rug.

    I have stated a couple of times in various bible studies that I have only ever felt judged by other Christians. We should be better. They should know us by our love.

  • keefanda

    Samantha, you wrote:

    “”Being a Christian” means I will go to Heaven when I die, and not “I choose to follow the teachings of Jesus and to be like him.”

    I don’t think that being a Christian is about avoiding consequences, eternal or temporal. I think it means holding ourselves to the higher standard of following Christ.”

    Samantha, I consider this point of “being like” Jesus the most important one of the ones you raised. The terms in the original languages that are usually translated to some variant of “salvation” include the meaning of obtaining a state of complete wholeness, of complete health. If this means mental or spiritual health, then this state could mean finally reaching a state of being like Jesus. Reaching a point of being like Jesus entirely is perhaps not attainable in this life, but it seems to be a worthy goal to move in that direction even if this motion towards this limit is nonmonotonic.

    But what about any next life?

    In Romans 13:11, Paul speaks of salvation for him and all other Christians as being some future event or state. If we go by the meaning of having a state of complete health, then that makes sense, as opposed to “being saved” as some past event, even though there may be some past event such as “born from above” or “born again” (see further below for more on this). Unfortunately, the vast majority of translations don’t even try to make this meaning of “salvation” clear in this passage. The small minority of translations that do at least try to make this point clear include the translations called “The Message”, “The Complete Jewish Bible”, “The New International Reader’s Version” (which is most certainly not the New International Version), and the not-yet-completed “The Passion Translation” available in part (this last translation is extremely free and makes very heavy use of the Aramaic texts along with the usual Greek and Hebrew texts, and some of the results so far are very interesting). Here is a page where you can at a glance compare almost all the translations of this passage:

    As long we exist, we will always have a nature, a predisposition. Can we choose to have whatever nature we want, and make this happen entirely on our own? I don’t think so, and so it seems therefore logical to me to want God to give me a new nature such that I *naturally* more and more follow the teachings of Jesus as well as follow Jesus personally (there’s the personal relationship with Jesus thing), and that I *naturally* more and more am like Jesus (there’s the sanctification thing).

    I think this new nature is what Jesus (as well as Paul and others) talked about, when, in the third chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus spoke of becoming born of the Spirit, born from above, or, as is usually translated, born again, as a necessary condition for entering the Kingdom of God, where this New Beginning is just that, a *beginning* of a process by which a Christian at least can via yielding to God’s “saving” or “good-health-promoting” or “wellness-promoting” creative activity continue changing our very natures towards the ultimate goal of being like Jesus, totally healthy, totally well – mentally, spiritually, and otherwise. This would of course result in a better and better world if more and more Christians were to yield to God so.

    Important: Some claim that praying what they call “the prayer of salvation” guarantees that God will move right then and there such that right then and there one becomes born from above. This claim of guaranteed results seems to contradict what Jesus said in that third chapter. He said that becoming reborn is like the wind, in that one never tells where it will blow, and to expand upon this, when it will blow or even whether it will blow. The term “wind” here is important since it comes from the same terms in the original languages translated usually as “spirit” or “Spirit”, but which also can be translated as “breath” or “life”. And so Jesus was telling us that becoming born from above by the Spirit or Wind or Breath or Life of God is not something that we can control. We can only ask for it and hope for it and if we already experienced it, be thankful for it and yield to God every day to the best of our abilities to allow him to continue to change our natures for the better.