How does sin matter?

I cannot retrace the path by which I came upon Greg Boyd’s “sermonette” on Christians voting on secular political ballot measures regarding gay marriage, but I was watching it this morning. (See bottom of this post for video.)

Boyd’s “open theism” is controversial in evangelical Christianity, but Arminian thinkers such as Roger Olson argue it should be included within the larger family of theology that includes Wesleyan theology.

Boyd’s primary argument comes down to “leave the judging to God,” “we all sin,” and “our only job is to love.” He also hits hard on the notion the biggest sins in the church are the ones we talk least about.

Late in the talk he does compare other Christians to the Taliban, which strikes me as a violation of his own principles. He also makes an argument that does not seem terribly in keeping with biblical practice. He says no one should ever point out a sin to another unless they are in a small group covenant to do that. Both Jesus and the epistles, though, speak of how we should approach and speak to those who sin. The Old Testament, of course, has very strong examples of ways of speaking about sin and to sinners.

Near the end of the video, Boyd almost seems to enter a contract with the congregation. He points out that nearly all of them are sinning by the way they hoard up their wealth instead of distributing it to the poor. But instead of pressing that point on them, he — to my ears — offers a deal. He won’t make a big deal about that if they don’t make a big deal about other sins.

I think the video captures perfectly the arguments and accommodations that many of us make with sins of all sorts. What I struggle with — in the end — is whether that is loving, as Boyd argues it is. He begins the video by stating that lots of ways Americans have sex are sin, but, in the end, he does not appear to believe that much is at stake in that. He appears to think most or all of his congregation are sinning by the way they use money, but he does not seem to think they are put at risk by that, at least not grave risk.

I presume Boyd would not take such a laid back attitude if he knew someone were drinking arsenic. I presume he would permit us to stop someone if we saw them stumbling into traffic. Maybe I am wrong about that.

As the focus of this blog is Wesleyan theology, I will note here that John Wesley would argue that it is loving to call people to attention to their sin, for if people die in their sin they die eternally. He wrote often, in fact, that to remain silent in the face of sin was the opposite of love.

If I understand Boyd, he would see Wesley’s approach as judgmental.

How does one adopt a radical attitude toward judgment (never tell someone they are doing something wrong) and still treat sin as if it were a grave and dangerous thing?

If you have some ideas about what I am misunderstanding or mishearing in Boyd, I’d appreciate knowing what you hear.


13 thoughts on “How does sin matter?

  1. So ballot measures are an appropriate means of discipleship? You’re making a pretty big conflation here. In our age, we confuse discipleship for position-taking. See my piece on holiness vs piety. Piety is about saying the correct thing; holiness is about pursuing intimacy with God. If exhorting each other about sin is genuinely concerned w holiness and not pious exhibitionism, we do it in real covenantal relationships and not on facebook walls. Piety is a lot easier than holiness which is why most Christians today pursue piety and call it holiness (even though what Wesley called “vital piety” is what I’m calling holiness).

    1. Morgan, you miss my question. I’m not really concerned about the political issue here, and I’m not sure where Facebook comes into it. I am trying to get a handle on how Boyd handles matters of sin. He starts the sermonette by saying this is a matter of sin. (If we don’t want the sex discussion to cloud the question, pretend he was speaking about any other sin.) But as I hear him, he does not seem to think sin poses a problem for a person on the level of getting hit by a car or drinking poison does. (Things we would say it was our responsibility to stop if we could.)

      If your brother or sister is sinning, our only response — it seems — should be to not judge them and to “love them.” But, of course, this is precisely where Wesley causes a debate. He says if your brother or sister is on the way to eternal judgment then it is unloving to sit to the side and watch them go on the way to death. He has a whole sermon about the duty of rebuking our neighbors.

      Now, clearly, Boyd does not agree with this, but I’m trying to figure out what this means about sin. Is, as he terms it, living outside the will of God, of consequence? I assume he says yes. Then what consequence is it?

      1. You criticized the idea that spiritual discipline should occur strictly inside covenantal community, which is what I responded to. Paul speaks to this in 1 Cor 5.12. I shouldn’t speak for Boyd (and I should watch what you watched so that I have the same frame of reference), but to me the danger of sin is the way it destroys my communion with God. I sin a lot every day and I value people I can be honest with about my shortcomings. To be honest, very few people (if any) seek me out for that purpose.

        “If your brother or sister is sinning, our only response — it seems — should be to not judge them and to ‘love them.'” That sounds like a straw man kind of binary to me. Is there not a way to exhort and encourage those who struggle that isn’t just raw, tactless “judgment”? When you say “brother or sister,” are you saying any other human being in the universe or someone with whom I have a built enough of a relationship that “brother” or “sister” is a word that they would use to describe me?

        Even being a pastor, I usually only offer feedback when it is solicited. I step in to confront somebody if they’re clearly doing harm to another person. If I had a way of knowing that self-destructive behavior was going on, I would try to address it tactfully. None of this is in the same realm of consideration as whether or not I go on record to support amendment Q on traditional marriage, bang out a press release, wear a sandwich board on the sidewalk, etc.

        I’m not convinced that you’re not abstracting principles that apply in personal covenantal relationships into public applications that aren’t appropriate. Based on what you’ve described and what I’ve heard from Boyd in other contexts, what he’s objecting to is using the “I need to help my struggling brother/sister” rationale as cover for engaging in ideological flame-throwing whose real function is to say “I thank you God that I’m not like other men.”

        1. I would be very interested in your thoughts after watching the video, in part because I do hear him setting up a binary, one that I do not understand.

          I am being a bit clumsy with the “brother and sister” language, but if pressed I would say that applies to fellow Christians, who I would say by virtue of their baptismal vows have entered into a covenant with the body of Christ that does give us a positive duty to watch over each other. Tact is important, but should not be an excuse for ignoring a breach of covenant, should it?

          I’m trying to understand what should be rather than what is.

  2. Anyone that reads Wesley knows Wesley had no problem defining sin and the effect it has on man and nation.
    If you can not preach on sin…How will man measure himself in relationship with God?
    If man does not understand sin in real life practical terms, How will they know holiness?

    Those that call for an end to preach on the hot topics of the day marginalize the authority of scripture. If one can deem one sin clearly listed as a sin and understood by all to be sin unworthy of mention by what authority does one preach on the other sins clearly listed.

    Sin separated man from God.
    Sin is forgiven with repentance.
    The problem today is sin is lifted up,embraced and promoted as if sin where a badge of honor.

    Genesis 15:6 Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness

    Wise words from Wesley’s mother.
    “Take this rule: whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, or takes off your relish of spiritual things; in short, whatever increases the strength and authority of your body over your mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may be in itself.”
    — Susanna Wesley (Letter, June 8, 1725)

    Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3

    Abraham believed God.

  3. You may also find the following interesting.
    I like the way Smith responds

    “Second, the Spirit’s transformation of hearts is not the kind of magic that Boyd suggests. Rather, the Spirit works through material, embodied practices of sanctification and discipleship to form citizens of the kingdom of God. Without practices that “control behavior,” the indwelling and transformative power of the Spirit often lies dormant. Without laws that challenge unfair systems, even Christians find it easy to overlook inequities.”

    In criticizing the Religious Right, Greg Boyd resurrects pietistic withdrawal.

  4. Just watched the video. I love you, John, but you do have quite a filter at work in what you’re hearing Boyd say. The “danger of sin” card has often been played as justification for seizing worldly power throughout the history of Christendom. It was the “white man’s burden” all throughout colonialism to rescue the heathen savages from their astonishing depravity. But the most dangerous sin to which “helpful whistle-blowers” who focus on other peoples’ sin don’t give a lot of attention is the spiritual pride which is usually hidden inside our motives when we “stand in the gap for God’s truth.” So awareness of the danger of sin is not just a reason to be loud and aggressive; it might also be the reason we need to sit down and be quiet. I’ll try to blog a more developed analysis of what I heard Boyd saying in the near future.

    1. I think sometimes, Morgan, that we live on different planets. I’m not sure what I wrote that had anything to do with colonialism or seizing power. And I’m not sure where I advocated being loud and aggressive.

      I’ll look for your analysis. Maybe I’ll understand better after I read that.

  5. “I think sometimes, Morgan, that we live on different planets.” We do. I filter the question of how to engage the world about sin through a rigorous critique of our self-disavowed privilege as middle-upper class white guys that comes into play as well as the legacy of white supremacy and colonialism that has shaped the American evangelical sensibilities we’ve inherited from prior generations. So when I’m listening to Greg Boyd I’m hearing a different set of issues in the background whose existence you don’t seem to grapple with. When I hear someone talking about the “danger of sin,” my instinct is to jump to what this “danger” is going to be used to justify.

  6. Here’s a question for you, John. When and how have you confronted a Christian you aren’t in relationship with about their sin? In other words, not in the context of pastoral counseling or a small group in which the person is *soliciting* your pastoral guidance (which is the boundary Greg Boyd was proposing). I personally haven’t found myself in a real-life situation where it seemed appropriate to do this. I just don’t know my parishioners that intimately if they aren’t coming to me for counseling or participating in a small group.

    1. My efforts in this area are not things I can easily recount in a public forum since the “reproof” was not done in public but in one-on-one conversations. In most cases it has been an example of a gentle comment reminding a person of something I know the person would agree with but their actions violate. (This is what I understand to be Wesley’s method from his sermon on reproving our neighbors. This lands closer to Boyd than my post might explore, but my concern with Boyd is less his personal interactions and more his preaching in this case.)

      I do not profess to have mastered this art — and interestingly Wesley takes note that some of us are much more gifted for this than others. Part of exploring these issues on the blog is a means of helping myself be better equipped for the work.

      1. “In most cases it has been an example of a gentle comment reminding a person of something I know the person would agree with but their actions violate.” That makes sense to me.

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