Much too often I hear that someone has left their church because they were shamed for something the church considered a sin. This saddens me, because the church, if it is truly the Body of Christ, is meant not to shame or hurt people but to un-shame them and set them free. For some unfortunate and unbiblical reason, many churches manage to do the opposite of what they are supposed to do.
Yes, the Christian church is very concerned about sin, and it should be. Only three chapters into the book of Genesis, the Bible confronts it. The classic story of Adam and Eve and The Fall is meant to define the human condition and the necessity of some kind of justice or redemption. This was one of the first stories that I learned as a child, and for most of my life it served as the basis for defining what sin is. Disobedience of God. While this might be a simple but accurate definition, I have discovered through further study of this narrative that it tells that sin runs much deeper than disobedience.
The sin of Adam and Eve, according to the third chapter of Genesis, was usurping the role of God Himself. Read what the serpent says:
God knows that when you eat of it (the tree of knowledge of good and evil) your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. (Genesis 3:5)
The serpent did not lie. Verse 7 says that after eating the fruit, their eyes were opened.
Is this not the basis of sin? That I think that I have the authority to decide what is right and wrong (rather than God), and that I have the right to act on this decision?
The place where the church’s sin doctrine can become problematic is in its handling of two other concepts: guilt and shame.
Thank God you have a conscience. It is only right that you have the ability to sense that you have done something that you regret, or that you regret failing to do something. You feel guilty. That is a good thing. Let’s call this “Conscience Guilt.”
A central belief of Christianity is that God, because of His very nature, forgives. That nothing is outside of his power to forgive. If this is your belief, it means that after you have received this forgiveness, there is no need to be reminded of your guilt. You only need to be reminded not to screw up next time you are faced with the temptation. For the church to continually remind a person of something in their past they have been forgiven for, is toxic. Let’s call this “Persistent Guilt.”
There is a story that is told in prisons on Kairos Prison Ministry weekends known as the “Rooster Story.” A farmer has a prize rooster. He also has a son who has reached his 16th birthday, when he is able to get his driver’s license. As a gift, the farmer gives his son a handsome new sports car. The son is so excited about the car that when he returns home from showing the car to his buddies that evening, he runs over and kills his father’s prize rooster. He brings the carcass to his father and confesses his mistake, asking his father’s forgiveness. His father simply says “You are forgiven. Now go bury the rooster.” But the son continues to feel guilty and keeps digging up the rooster, taking the carcass to his dad and telling him how sorry he is. The son has the burden of persistent guilt, which he needs to let go of, and his dad told him to just accept the forgiveness.
People sometimes blame the church for reminding them of their past sins continually, but I suspect the problem is often that the individual is responsible for reminding himself or herself continually of something in their past that they regret. Perhaps they have somehow been exposed through the church, their parents, or their study of the unorthodox teaching that there are some things God cannot forgive, or that God does not completely forgive.
As far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:12)
If your church is teaching anything contrary to this, find another church.
Persistent guilt ferments into shame, and shame for oneself is a kind of self-hatred or self-dishonoring. There are about 15 Hebrew or Greek words in the Bible that are translated “shame.” Most of the biblical passages describe a shame that is put on an individual by society or the community. The meanings of the words for shame are similar: dishonor, being made a public example, indecent, reproach, disgrace. Shame might be put on a person by society, the community, or the church, but never should a person feel shamed oneself. Nor should a person ever believe he or she is shamed by God. Here is one of the Bible’s most familiar and profound statements of why we should not feel shame for ourselves:
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. (1 John 3:1a)
If the Father loves us and we are His children, we can never be shamed by God, and we should never accept shame for ourselves. Our community might hate and shame us. We have no control over that. In fact, one can make a biblical case that the follower of Jesus can expect shame from the community. Our church might shame us by telling us that God is ashamed of us. Ask your pastor or the offending church member to cite a scripture saying that God is ashamed of us because of any sin. If shaming is a common thing in your church, find another church. And if God loves us and does not shame us, then we should love ourselves. Accepting shame for ourselves is a way of hating ourselves.
There is one more thing that needs to be discussed. I have said that conscience guilt is a good thing. The true follower of Jesus wants to be made aware of thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, and habits that do not honor God. However, some people complain or get disillusioned with their church because the church tries to impose guilt on them for something that they do not believe is a sin. So they blame the church for “guilting” them when they believe they have done nothing that is wrong.
For example, some people believe it is okay for them to have an abortion, but most churches would tell them they are sinning. Another example is homosexual behavior. Many homosexuals feel that it is right and natural to have a same-sex sexual relationship. Many if not most churches would tell them they are sinful. And of course, there was a time that many churches told people it was wrong to drink alcohol or to dance.
Is a person justified in resenting a church that tells them something is a sin when the person believes it isn’t? Is this a reason for the person to give up on church? I think that this depends on the church’s attitude toward what they are teaching.
First of all, I believe it is right for a church to teach what the body discerns God is saying through Scripture. Secondly, I believe that every member of the body has a right to disagree with the way their church interprets Scripture. If your church insists that you always agree with its interpretation of Scripture, find another church.
I would strongly recommend, however, that you do two things if you find yourself disagreeing with your church’s interpretation, if it involves your own behaviors and thinking. First, listen and learn all you can about why your church interprets Scripture this way and comes up with the conclusion that your thought, action, or inaction is sinful. Second, think critically about why you have reached the conclusion that a thought, action, or inaction is not sinful.
Be open to changing your mind.
And do not forget that sin is not a list of bad things. It is a state of putting yourself in place or ahead of God, which is the real meaning of the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall of humankind. The opposite of sin is not being good, but being in right relationship with God.
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