Tuesday, January 06, 2009

ON EXCISING SIN

From Riley Case of the Confessing Movement with the United Methodist Church:

Sin is not a popular word (or idea) in a secular society. A world that values diversity, inclusivism, and a non-judgmental spirit finds the word sin offensive. Sin implies a moral code, a judgment, and a consequence based on judgment. It also implies there is a God who sets the code, who metes out judgment, and that judgment has consequences. Sin is basically a religious word, primarily a Christian word (shared with Jews and to a certain extent Muslims).

Consequently, persons who wish to separate religion from public life (a variation on the extreme view of the separation of church and state) disdain sin and discussions of sin. None, however, has gone quite to the extreme of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, which has excised the word in a recent edition so that it simply does not exist, at least to schoolchildren in the United Kingdom. When the London Daily Telegraph reported on the omission of sin and other religious words in the dictionary, Dr. Vineeta Gupta, the head of children's dictionaries at Oxford University Press, explained that the changes were made to reflect a "multicultural" society. He further explained that since people are not going to church as often as they once did, the words have meaning only to a limited number of persons.

There appears to be something a bit more sinister at work. Erin Manning, writing on Beliefnet.com's conservative Crunchy Con blog, calls the actions of the dictionary editors a form of "verbal engineering." Manning cites Catholic moral theologian William Smith who comments, "All social engineering is preceded by verbal engineering."

United Methodists have reason to be concerned if, indeed, society wants words (and the meanings behind them) like sin to disappear from public discourse. Without a proper understanding of sin, there is no reason for Christian faith. Christianity is about a right relationship with God made possible by the "incarnate life, atoning death, and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ" (from Methodism's historic Standard Catechism). Wesleyan theology is primarily soteriological, that is, having to do with salvation. Our message is that all persons need to be saved (from sin and the consequences of sin), can be saved, and can have assurance of salvation. However, if there is no sin, the rest of the system does not hold together.

All of this is not unrelated to a study done recently by the Josephson Institute, a Los Angeles-based ethics institute, on cheating and stealing in high schools. The Institute surveyed 29,760 students at 100 randomly selected high schools nationwide, both public and private. Their findings: 30% of high school students had stolen something from a store or a friend or relative in the past year. 64% have cheated on a test. 42% say they sometimes lie to save money.

These percentages are increasing each year. What is astounding is that of the same students who lie, cheat, and steal 93% indicated they were satisfied with their personal ethics and character and 77% affirmed, "When it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know." While Americans have not removed the word sin from the dictionaries, it seems we are moving away from the understanding that there is right and wrong and that ultimately we must answer for our actions.

This carries over into our church life. "Progressive Christianity" wants to affirm diversity, tolerance, relativity, and acceptance. This is most evident in the arguments of some (including our bishops) that there are no standards for church membership other than that the person take the membership vows (interpreted however he or she wishes to interpret them). All are to be accepted regardless of what they believe, what they do, or how they live. This is what the Constitutional Amendment on Par. 4 is all about (this will be voted on in the 2009 annual conferences). In this theological system, there is not much room for sin or salvation or for much else related to historic Christianity.

At the 2008 General Conference, there were an audible gasps of antagonism from the floor of the conference when an African delegate used the word sin to describe the practice of homosexuality. However, the word sin surfaced a few short hours later when a public demonstration took over the floor of the conference (with the approval of the bishops), desecrated the altar, and used the word sin to describe the actions of the conference to uphold the traditional view of sexual morality.
So sin is being re-defined. Sin is no longer a violation of the standards of a just God, but rather in believing that such standards really matter. There is still a need for The Confessing Movement.

Dr. Riley B. Case is a retired member of the North Indiana Conference. He is a graduate of Taylor University and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, with a graduate degree from Northwestern University and an honorary degree from Taylor University. Dr. Case’s appointment before retiring was St. Luke’s United Methodist Church Kokomo. Before that he was the district superintendent of the Marion District of the North Indiana Conference. He represented the conference five different times at the General Conference and seven times at the North Central Jurisdictional Conference. At the general church level he served as a consultant on the Hymnal Revision Committee (1984-1988) and was a member of the Curriculum Resources Committee of the Board of Discipleship.

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