On How We Speak of Sin

Guest Post by Aaron O’Kelley

In a 2013 essay, Thabiti Anyabwile wrote regarding same-sex marriage, “Turns out that being civil about indecency actually hurts the traditional cause.” His point was that polite discourse about abominable behavior plays a role in normalizing such behavior. It is not difficult to see why that would be the case. Polite discourse minimizes and, over time, neutralizes the instinct of moral revulsion. While moral revulsion alone is not enough to sustain ethical practice over time, it is an important community-shaping element. Healthy communities express moral revulsion at that which is truly abominable, and the healthy effect of such revulsion is a natural deterrent toward said behavior within the community. People who are socialized into being appalled at what is appalling to God have the blessing of a moral compass shaped according to truth. Anyabwile’s “gag reflex” argument highlights an important component of the effects of our discourse about sin. It is entirely possible to speak of sin in a way that is technically correct, while still lacking entirely in true moral fiber, leading to the further erosion of social norms and the withering away of a protective moral revulsion.

Christianity Today has become the latest example of this phenomenon. In an article on polyamory, authors Preston Sprinkle and Branson Parler treat their readers to the following display of sensitive cultural engagement:

Another important pastoral step is to distinguish elements of polyamory that are in violation of God’s will from elements that are simply culturally unfamiliar to us. When we want to lovingly call people to repentance, we should be precise about what needs repentance and what relationships or elements can and should be sanctified in Christ. For example, the notion of kinship in polyamory is a secular echo of the way Scripture calls the church to function as a new family. In cultures that idolize individualism (but actually isolate individuals), polyamory’s focus on relationship, care, and affection can have a powerful pull. And in churches that idolize marriage and the nuclear family, polyamory’s focus on hospitality and community can be an attractive alternative. We can acknowledge that many of the elements that draw people to polyamory—deep relationships, care for others, hospitality, and community—are good things.

Ask yourself this question: have you ever read a paragraph in a leading evangelical publication that so coddled and qualified the sins of racism or misogyny? Of course you haven’t, and there’s a good reason why you haven’t: evangelical public discourse, even when taking a stand against sin, consistently does so in a way that caters to the moral intuitions of progressivism, the dominant ideology of our cities and universities. When addressing sins of the LGBTQ+ universe, we constantly see calls for understanding, sensitivity, qualification, nuance. We are exhorted to investigate the hidden motivations behind these sexual sins in order to affirm the good that is in them. But when addressing sins that progressives have ruled abominable–racism and misogyny preeminent among them–evangelicals have no room for nuance or qualification. Such sins are self-evidently vile, and must be named as such as often as possible.

Here’s the rule: when you punch left, put on your kid gloves, punch very softly, and make sure you try to land one to the right in the midst of your leftward punching, just to reassure those to your left that you understand their grievances. (Notice in the above quote the rightward punch toward churches that “idolize marriage and the nuclear family”). But when you punch right, swing with everything you have. Make sure those to your left know you agree with them. J.D. Greear’s now infamous sermon on Romans 1, in which he said the Bible “whispers” about sexual sin by comparison to its shouts regarding materialism and religious pride (there’s the rightward punch), exemplifies this rhetorical strategy.

It is worth pondering which one we view as the greater danger: that members of our churches (especially of the rising generation) will be blown along by the cultural winds into sexual perversion, or that they will embrace a racist ideology? To ask the question is to answer it. Evangelical leaders must recognize that politely naming sin is not enough. We also need to conserve the moral revulsion that previous generations left to us regarding sexual perversions, and then fortify that moral instinct with depth of understanding of God’s design in nature for sexuality. We need to recover our gag reflex, but I fear we don’t have the stomach for it.

Original post used with permission can be found at Conservative Resurgence: Voices


Aaron O’Kelley (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a pastor and theological educator who lives in Jackson, Tennessee, with his wife and their three children.

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