Disciples of Christ and the Problem of Sin – Part One

Below is the next offering in my attempt to forge a foundation for a theological conversation among members of the Disciples of Christ community and beyond. This is part 1 of 2, with a conversation about salvation to follow.


The creation story begins with a resounding “It is good,” but what began well soon went off course.As we read the unfolding biblical story, we discover that humanity has chosen the wrong path, one that leads to alienation, death, and destruction. It is the story of sin.  As we read the story, we discover that God is not content to let humanity continue down the wrong path. Like a good parent, God seeks to restore a broken relationship. This is the story of salvation. Both issues stand prominently in the biblical story, though the various Christian traditions have placed differing emphases on them. For some, this is the primary issue, while for others it is just one aspect of the story. As Ronald Osborn notes, Disciples have, in general, put the emphasis elsewhere—on the goodness of creation rather than on the presence of sin. Thus, as Osborn writes:   
Without denying the reality of sin, they have usually given more attention to other aspects of the human condition which also indicate the need for God.  Often Disciples worship centers on one or more of these rather than always focusing on sin. [Ronald E. Osborn, The Faith We Affirm: Basic Beliefs ofDisciples of Christ, (St. Louis:  Chalice Press, 1979), p. 49].

But, even if sin, and thus salvation, is not a Disciple preoccupation, it remains part of the conversation— especially at a popular level. This is seen most explicitly in Disciple circles in the prayers at the Lord’s Table and in our hymnody. Sin is also an important topic of conversation in the biblical story.

The Problem of Sin in the Biblical Story

                What does it mean to sin? What does it involve? This is a question that religious people have long debated. Is it a question of breaking rules—perhaps culture mores—or choosing to follow a different path from the one God set out? Whatever our definition of sin might be, Paul makes it clear that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s expectations (Rom. 3:23).

                As we consider what this means – to sin – perhaps the words of Hans Küng might help us understand the paradoxical nature of a human act of rebellion against the one who is the foundation of our existence.
Sin is a fall from the covenant, a fall from God. Sin is separation from God; that is its essence. Man's whole existence depends on God's love, turns away in sin from the foundation of his existence, and thus this foundation is for him—lost. He does not possess this foundation in himself. [Hans Küng, Justification, Thomas Collins, Edmund Tolk, and David Granskou, trans., (Philadelphia:  Westminster, 1981), p. 153.]
In trying to understand the nature of this act of rebellion, theologians have found themselves wrestling with the question of whether this is something of a genetic defect or something that’s in the environment. 

                Most definitions of sin are individualistic in nature. That is, they focus on our individual human inclinations and actions. But there are those who ask the question of wither or not sin can be corporate or systemic. To give but one example—one might ask is slavery as a system sinful? Alexander Campbell apparently did not think that so, for he believed that slavery was a social issue and not a theological one. As a result, he did not believe that it should be made a test of fellowship. Although he was opposed to slavery, thinking it was a bad idea, since Scripture didn’t clearly condemn it, then the church should stay out of the debate. It’s unlikely that most Disciples today would concur with this sense of things—most would see slavery as an institution or system being sinful, not just in terms of the way individual slaves are treated. That is, just because you don’t beat or rape your slaves, doesn’t mean that you are free from sin. The question of whether sin is systemic is related to the broader question of whether something like slavery affects the nature of society of itself. This is an important question, since one needn’t own slaves to benefit from it—even if it is an indirect benefit. Thus, we would assume that Campbell was in error in his interpretation, for the system is inherently sinful and contrary to the ways of God. [Darryl Trimiew, “The Problem of Social Sin for Twenty-first-Century Christians,” Chalice Introduction to Christian Theology, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2008), pp. 182-183].

                In wrestling with the question of sin, it is helpful to attend to the core biblical texts that deal with the issue. Among the key texts are Genesis 3, Psalm 51, Romans 1:18-3:23, and Romans 5:12-14. 

                The problem of sin enters the biblical story in Genesis 3, which functions as part of the second creation narrative. This story assumes that God created man and woman to be in relationship with God (as well as with each other). According to this story, the relationship between God and humanity was broken, because the original couple chose to disobey God’s commandment. This lead to their expulsion from the garden. Although much ink has been spilt in debating the historicity of the account, one needn’t affirm its historicity to understand what it says about human nature. In this story a serpent (identified in Christian tradition as Satan) tempts Eve, who in turn tempts Adam, so that both eat the forbidden fruit and introduce sin into the world. The issue here isn’t the eating of the fruit, but the decision to disobey the command to not eat from one particular tree, the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (Gen. 2:15-17). One could think of this story as a parallel to the Greek myth of “Pandora’s box,” the opening of which introduced all matter of disorder into the universe. It is this command that the serpent addresses, when confronting Eve in Genesis 3:1—their decision to eat the fruit ends up distorting their relationship with God. The point of the story is not that sin came into the world because there was something magical about the fruit, but instead, sin entered the world because humanity rejected God’s provision and guidance. By raising the question as to why God might prohibit the eating of this fruit, the tempter was suggesting that God was hiding something from them. Doubts were raised about God’s veracity and wisdom. Indeed, we hear in this exchange questions as to what God might fear, should they gain this forbidden knowledge and become like God. Could it be that they might no longer need God? Could it be that the desire to be one’s own god was stirred within them? (Gen. 3:1-7).                   

                A second important text that speaks to this question is Psalm 51. In this Psalm David laments the consequences of his decision to take Bathsheba as his lover and then cover up the affair (along with the resulting child) by having her husband killed. In reflecting on this choice, David asks for mercy and for cleansing so that he might once again stand before God. Listen to verses 4-5 which speaks to the true nature of sin: “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” As one reflects on this passage, one must decide how literally to take this last sentence. Is the psalmist simply reflecting the depths of the sinner’s lament, or is the psalmist making a definitive theological point? Augustine took this phrase very literally and saw in it the foundation for the doctrine of original sin. That is, I am born guilty—from conception. I sin because I can do no other. Whether or not this is the intent of the passage—to demonstrate that sin is inherent in our being—it does suggest that sin ultimately is committed against God, even if the victim is another human being.     

                This long section of Paul’s letter, lays out God's case against humanity. No one is without excuse, so don’t judge others, until you first face the fact that you are a sinner and under judgment. (Rom. 2:1). Of course, Paul was not alone in this assessment. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares: “You have heard that it was said, "You shall not commit adultery."  But I say to you that everyone who looks on a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28). In making that statement, Jesus suggests that there is no room for self-righteousness, for all are equally under the judgment of sin. This discussion of our tendency toward sin culminates in the statement found in Romans 3:23, a passage familiar to many.  It declares, quite boldly, that we have all sinned and “fall short of the glory of God . . .” These sentiments are echoed by 1 John 1:8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” There is a paradox here. It would appear that God does not reside in the one who sins (God does not have fellowship with darkness), but if one thinks he or she does not sin, that is also a sign of darkness. So, how do we remain in fellowship with the Holy God, if we are not holy ourselves?

                Paul’s emphasis on the universality of sin is extended in Romans 5:12-14, which suggests that this tendency is inherent in our very being. Paul writes: Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all sinned . . .” What did Paul mean when he wrote that "death spread to all because all sinned" and that this sinfulness is rooted in the act of one man—Adam, who is the type for the one who is to come, namely Jesus, the second Adam, while undo what the first Adam did? Augustine believed, and many Christians with him, that we all sin because Adam passed on this predilection. This is one possible interpretation, but what if it is not genetic.? Why might we sin as Paul suggests? Why do we make bad choices?  The answer isn’t clear, except that there is solidarity with our ancestors in choosing to walk away from God’s directives. Perhaps the meaning here is less genetic, and more environmental. That is, sin is systemic, and thus we get caught up in its web. While we may not be born racist, it is easy to catch if the environment is racist.


In Part 2 we will explore the question of free will, which is central to the Disciples understandings, as well as the seriousness of this concept of sin. 


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