I find myself increasingly dissatisfied with the nature and consequences of the church’s debates around sin and righteousness in a changing world, especially within the UMC. What often happens is a dispute around where the line is drawn between sin and righteousness. Often more conservative voices draw that line closer to a strict reading of biblical practices and traditional values. More liberal voices are often eager to factor in cultural shifts and societal forces that require a more broad interpretation of scripture to find coherence between biblical principles and human flourishing.
The process results in something like a spectrum of potential positions upon which anyone’s respective view is placed. No person is truly conservative or liberal on any and/or every topic and there may be a multitude of ways to assess the relative position of any particular view. But so often in debate, a thousand factors and choices are flattened into a spectrum pitting something like “tradition” against something like “progress” and then further flattened by the arbitrarily binary choice of ‘sin or not’ as though doing so could possibly clarify what godly action is.
What rarely happens is a conversation regarding the shape and direction of the love and community toward which our actions and ideas ought to be guiding us. Thus, we get moments like General Conference 2019. After 40 years of arguing about what the church ought to define as acceptable, we did not even attempt to offer a positive view of Christian community, action, holiness, or relationship that could potentially bring our respective views under a coherent umbrella. We only expected that our place on the spectrum of sin and righteousness were different and that we would ultimately draw our lines in different places.
I greatly respect the desire for a biblical, traditional, Christ centered life. I have at least as much respect for those who, out of a desire to honor their present reality and avoid doing harm, choose to engage in a more generous orthopraxy. For this reason, I often find myself in agreement with the logic of one side and the conclusions of the other. I find the distinctions and lines in the sand between these sides to be false choices more often than not.
Every option fails to relegate sin to a secondary existence after the community sin breaks. Treating sin as the more fundamental reality fails to account for the core good news that it is love and community by and for which we are created.
To constructively engage in conversations of how Christians are to live, we must first ask what love and community are and then seek to define sin as that which breaks love and community. If we can’t first define love and community, sin means nothing. If we can’t define how a potential sin breaks love and community, we should hold loosely our conviction that this particular action is worth calling sin, much less policing. That we so often hold fast to our traditional lists of sin without any positive conception of what Christian community is leads us into our most intractable, harmful, and pointless debates.
A positive constructive engagement would necessarily evaluate word and action through our expectations of relationship qualities like consent, intimacy, vulnerability, trust, empowerment, teamwork, attachment, mutuality, authenticity, commitment, public accountability, personal growth, sacrificiality, and respect.
Otherwise we’re just modern day Pharisees.