Every month a group I started, The Armistice Project, holds a meeting at the local library where people from all backgrounds, faiths, and sexual orientation come together and discuss the divisive topic of faith and homosexuality. At one of our last meetings I posed the question, “Using non-religious language, how would you define sin?” This proved harder to do then one would think. Anyone who has ever spent any amount of time in a church or around religion instinctively links the word “sin” with God and/or the Bible. In fact, even the dictionary states that sin is defined as “an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law.”
While parts of the Bible, such as the Ten Commandments, may be universally excepted as a golden standard of moral behavior, very often a sin is considered anything that a particular church, pastor, or person doesn’t agree with. Growing up, everything from drums in church to people mowing their yards on Sunday were considered sin. Talk of sin, whether from the pulpit or from your parents, is usually wrapped up in language of guilt and shame and seems more intent on controlling or repressing peoples’ behaviors, as apposed to being simple moral guidelines. Yet, when one takes a close look at the statistics of divorce rates, domestic violence, and teenage pregnancy amongst people who go to church, it becomes obvious that all this sin-talk does little to make religious people any more moral than the rest of the world.
When I was about 13, my mom finally decided it was time to talk to me about sex. (Little did she know, I already knew a great deal about sex thanks to the Glamour magazines she kept hidden under her bed) Her talk went something like this, “It’s a sin to have sex before you’re married, so don’t do it.” That’s it. No explanations, no rational dialogue, just a blunt, black-and-white statement with a little Bible talk thrown in. How well did it work? I started having sex in high school and had gotten a girl pregnant by the time I was 20. I’m not trying to blaming my parents for my actions, but their riveting speech gave me no motivation to abstain from sex. Current studies would suggest that my story is not an isolated one as 9 out 10 church-goers have sex before they’re married. Yet, churches still keep pushing the same mantra of premarital sex being a sin against God, a sin against your future spouse, “true love waits”, etc. What’s that old saying about insanity? It’s repeating the same actions over and over again and expecting different results?
Another issue the church is trying to tackle is pornography. I’ve heard this addressed more times then I can count, but the speech is always the same; pornography is a sin against God, against your spouse, against your future spouse, etc. From my experience, this does nothing but pile on the guilt and shame that people who struggle with pornography already deal with, and shaming is never an effective deterrent for negative behavior.
I think what’s missing is proper explanations as to why some things are immoral or unhealthy behaviors. When asked what constitutes a sin, most will open up their Bible and point to a verse or two, but how effective is that today? How effective is ancient Bible text in a world that has information at it’s fingertips? Is the Biblical language of sin, which people thought of as being the cause of natural disasters and mental illness, still applicable in our post-science worldview? I think a new understanding of what constitutes a “sin” is needed if people of faith hope to remain relevant in our modern world . We need to search for more rational, universally excepted reasoning when engaging in dialogues regarding peoples behaviors.
Maybe if my parents would have explained to me what a huge responsibility sex was, I might have listened. Maybe if my mom had explained to me how emotionally attached a women gets when she is intimate with someone, I might have reconsidered who I slept with. Maybe if my dad had explained to me how sex makes you willing to overlook negative qualities in someone that your with, I would have gotten out of bad relationships sooner. I’m not saying any of this would have stopped me from having sex, but it would have been much more useful information to have in making decisions then any of the Bible-talk that I received.
If I had an atheist buddy who was really into pornography, what good would telling him it’s a sin do? But, what if I explained to him the addictive nature of porn and how it affects the brain the same way as drugs do? What if I told him that constant exposure to porn could alter how aroused he got when around the real thing? I could explain to him that, more then likely, his significant other felt disrespected when he looked at porn and might even feel like she’s being cheated on. He would be far more likely to hear me out then if I started preaching at him.
While looking at immoral behavior from a rational standpoint, it’s important that we also see the flip-side of the coin. What about some of the long-standing stances the Church has taken on certain “sinful” behaviors? Could they still be proved beyond a reasonable doubt in light of our current world-view?
Today, women are CEOs, doctors, lawyers, scientists, serve in government, and serve in the military, yet are still barred from serving in positions of ministry in many churches. Is there any rational reason why women can’t be in ministry? If your only explanation is a couple Biblical verses written in a time where women were considered nothing more then the property of men, then it’s time to dismiss this case and move on. Thankfully, many denominations have moved past archaic ideas of women needing to “remain silent” in church and have appointed women to all offices of ministry, but I think there is still progress to be made.
The Church is also in desperate need of a more rational discussion about homosexuality. The stance of most Evangelical churches is that all homosexuality is a sin and LGBTs have no choice but to remain celibate and hope that God will make them straight. This stance is based on an ignorant view of human biology and a misunderstanding of a handful of verses written at a time and culture that had a very different world view of gender and sexuality then we do. Yet, I’ve never heard a rational explanation as to why two people of the same sex can’t be in a relationship. To expect gay people to remain celibate is not only cruel and unrealistic, but it’s an ugly representation of the Church’s obsession with trying to control people’s behaviors. No where in the Bible does God call anyone to celibacy or a life of loneliness. To make such demands of our LGBT neighbors is reminiscent of the religious leaders of Jesus’s time who “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.”
The use of the word “sin” has for too long been used to control people through guilt and shame. Maybe it’s time we start looking for language that builds up rather then tears down. Maybe we should start focusing on people’s good qualities instead of focusing on where they fall short. Or, maybe we should just leave this whole business of judging sin up to God and get on with the task of loving people.
(NOTE: I realize that there is a lot more to the arguments regarding faith and homosexuality, far too much to put into one post. Rest assured, I will be addressing some of these arguments in future posts.)