At 2:00 am a question popped up on a Facebook discussion on a book review that I had posted about the changing Evangelical view of marriage equality. The question, which was unfortunately promptly deleted by the poster, was “What is sin and why does God tell us not to sin?”
I was disappointed that the person deleted the question (although I am guessing they didn’t want to get in the middle of Veldstra family debate and I don’t blame them), because that question is the heart of the issue. Is same sex marriage encouraging two people to engage in sin or is it the blessing of a healthy, loving committed relationship? I have often stated my opinion and it directly related on how I interpret the definition of sin.
For the first question part of the question, what is sin, one could have multitude of answers. One answer could be a sin is disobeying a Biblical command. This list would include things mentioned in both the Old and New Testament such as not eating pork, circumcising male children, not getting tattoos, not mixing fabric types, not trimming your beard, not eating blood, covering a woman’s head while praying or prophesying, not wearing gold jewelry and not braiding one’s hair. While there are a (very) few people who do believe that a Christian should follow both the Old Testament Law and the New Testament, most Evangelical Christians would say that this was a very legalistic standpoint and that Jesus came to give us freedom.
But what about the New Testament Laws that most churches don’t follow and why do we follow some Old Testament Laws and not others? Many Christians believe that the dietary restrictions were lifted when Peter had the vision where he is commanded to eat previously unclean animals and a voice spoke to him saying “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:9-16) however, even after Peter’s vision, there is a apostolic command to all Christians not to consume food sacrificed to idols, from blood, and from the meat of strangled animals (Acts 15:23-29) however this commandment is rarely followed by Christians today, even though it is stated more often than commandments against gay sex, and blood has just as much symbolism in the Bible as marriage. (I haven’t seen a lot of blogs condemning the blood sausage industry, or Franklin Graham or John Piper tweeting about how Andrew Zimmern from Bizarre Foods, who frequently eats foods made with blood, is living an abominable lifestyle). Conversely, many Old Testament Laws are still followed by Christians who classify them as moral teachings. For example, the prohibition against finding lost property and lying about it (Lev 6:3) and giving your children to be sacrificed (Lev 18:21) and cursing the deaf and abusing the blind (Lev 19:14) are still seen as important teachings that should still be followed today. So why do we follow some commands and not others. Many Christians believe that head coverings and prohibitions against eating blood are “cultural” and prohibitions about sacrificing, children, lying about found property, and abusing blind and deaf people are “moral” commands.
That raises the question however, how does one distinguish a “moral” teaching and a “cultural” one? After all, Leviticus doesn’t delineate between “moral” and “cultural” edicts. Laws about mixing fabrics in clothing (19:19) are right next to seeking revenge or bearing a grudge (19:18). Why would most Christians call one moral and one a cultural edict? In the New Testament, the prohibition against eating blood, food polluted by idols, and meat from strangled animals, which most would consider cultural is in the same verse as what most would consider a moral prohibition from sexual immortality (Acts 15:20). But how should we discern the difference?
While I was never taught this in Sunday School or even at my Christian College, most Christians seem to uses Jesus’ words when asked what the greatest commandment was “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it. “Love your neighbor as yourself’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” Matthew 22:37-40. Jesus showed throughout his ministry that breaking rules in order to show love to someone was not sinful, such as when he healed on the Sabbath and touching the leper when he healed him (both break Old Testament Laws).
Paul later confirms that the law of love is what we are to follow. When there was a controversy about whether Gentile believers should be circumcised to follow the law, Paul didn’t mince words in Galatians 5 when he stated “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery…. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” One of my favorite Paulisms comes in this chapter when he wishes the agitators who are trying to force others to be justified by law would go “emasculate themselves” Galatians 5:12.
If we look at a moral dilemma in light of whether it is loving toward God or loving toward our neighbor, all the morality laws fall into place. Laws that prohibit idolatry are moral because they separate us from a right relationship to God by putting an object in the place of God. Laws that prohibit us to lie to or mistreat our neighbor are moral laws because they are not loving to our neighbor. Laws that prohibit mixing of fibers don’t seem to fall under either category, so they are seen as “cultural” or as part of the Levitical Law that was meant to create an obvious strikingly visual separation between God’s chosen people and the people in the surrounding areas.
That brings us to the question “Why does God tell us not to sin?” In the Old Testament there seems to be further layers. In the Levitical law, some of the laws seem to be moral laws (still apply today because are about loving neighbor/loving God), some appear to be laws that were health based (which tend not to apply today, because of modern sanitation and cooking), and some appear to only to exists to separate the Israelites from their surrounding neighbors. For example “thou shalt not kill, that shall love the Lord your God” are moral laws. Prohibitions against touching dead animals, bodies, not eating animals that tend to carry parasites, and hygiene laws, kept the Israelites healthy, but most Christians would say it wasn’t a sin to eat pork, and modern meat processing and cooking methods tend to eliminate trichinosis. There is a layer of further commandments that separated the Israelites that didn’t seem to apply to either but caused them to look very different and be obvious as a people set apart. This included not shaving, not cutting the sides of their hair, not getting tattoos, and circumcision (though both of those have some health implications as well) not wearing mixed fiber clothing, and adding tassels on the four corners of their coat (Deuteronomy 22:12) These things serve to set the people apart as a Holy chosen people.
Thus it appears in the Old Testament, laws seem to have three purposes: 1. to create and maintain a healthy relationship between a person and God and a person and other people 2. to keep people physically safe and healthy 3. to set the Jewish people apart from their neighbors. If one broke a law, it was a sin. If one broke a law against loving one’s neighbor, it caused hurt to that neighbor. If someone elevated a thing above God, the whole system broke down (why should a person listen or want to obey God if something else is more important?).
In the New Testament, the reasons that God doesn’t want us are similar, however they are simplified, giving Christians freedom to express God’s love without legalistic restrictions. Jesus said that the two greatest commandants were to love God and love people. The church in Acts dropped restrictions that made it difficult to evangelize and to socialize with Gentile Christians and kept rules that made it difficult for Jewish people to socialize with Gentiles . The rules regarding meat and blood that seem to change throughout the New Testament, from do not eat blood, strangled animals, or animals offered to idols in Acts 15, to eat anything sold in the meat market in I Corinthians 10, were a call to be culturally sensitive, since the first instruction in Acts was made to a church in Jerusalem that was primarily Jewish and the second was to the Corinthians which was primarily Gentile. The instruction easily fell under the command to love your neighbor enough to be sensitive to his conscience regarding dietary restrictions. The same would be true today if one was to serve a Muslim family, it would not be loving to serve pork nor meat to a vegetarian Hindu Family. However in Christianity, we are given the freedom to eat whatever is served to us, without the specific food itself being sinful. The same was true of other commands that were deemed cultural throughout most of Christianity, such covering a woman’s head when praying or prophesying in church, or the command to be silent in church (these seeming to be contradictory commands were actually given to different cultures the first to the Corinthians, the second to the Ephesians, who previously had a female dominated religion). While it is not often explicitly stated, the commands in the Bible that are most often deemed cultural do not harm a person’s relationship with God or with other people, outside specific cultural contexts. It is also why things that aren’t specifically prohibited in the Bible, such as slavery, are deemed today as immoral because they do negatively affect people’s relationship to each other.
So to summarize a very long blog, a sin is anything that harms one’s relationship to God or to other humans. We are created for relationship and one of the main ways we express love to God is by showing love to others. Whatever harms our relationship with another person or prioritizes a created thing above God is therefore sinful. Because God loves us and sin harms our relationship with him or with other people, he commands us not to sin.