Today’s installment of Friend Requests might turn out to be the most unpopular edition to date. I have a lot of friends and family from Mississippi. I grew up there, so that makes sense. My home state has been in the news quite a bit over the last forty-eight hours for passing the Religious Liberty Accommodations Act, or for short HB-1523. If you want to read the bill, which I encourage anyone to do before attacking it or supporting it, here’s a direct link to it’s text.
Folks, I have friends on both sides of this issue. I have friends who hate this bill and I have friends who love this bill. Let me tell you up front, I don’t like any legislation that puts the feds or the states in a position of encouraging or discouraging religious convictions. I didn’t like the Oberfell vs Hodges decision but I don’t like the counter-attacks by state governments to counter that decision either. Any decision by government that tampers with religious convictions, whether positively or negatively, is out of bounds. The first line of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
Put simply that means the Federal government is prohibited from producing legislation that promotes religious belief or prohibits the free exercise of religious belief. Each state that joins the Union has agreed to uphold the Constitution as part of their statehood.
What we have here is a failure to communicate.
Our federal government has put itself in a terrible position. The Judicial Branch has created a scenario of conflicting rights. You have on the one hand the following liberties:
- The right to religious belief
- The right to freely exercise said religious belief
Then on the other hand we now have the civil liberty which creates a conflict with the religious liberty
- Oberfell vs Hodges – legalized homosexual marriage in all fifty states
A war of attrition between liberties is what’s coming. Which liberties are most valuable? Which liberties supersede the other? The Constitutional issue is that legally none of these liberties can be violated, yet inevitably one or more of them will be violated because Oberfell vs Hodges has taken a religious concept – that homosexuality is sinful – and made it a protected civil liberty. And make no mistake, it’s not just Christians who hold this view. Muslims and Jews also hold to this belief. So essentially what we have here is a Constitutional powder keg.
How can the religious liberty of individuals be protected without violating the civil rights of homosexuals? How can federal and state governments uphold all of these liberties without violating one or more of them at the same time?
There is no solution, which is why I simply believe the government should have stayed out of it to begin with. But here we are, nonetheless. The law passed in Mississippi is an attempt to balance this out, but it will never succeed. It will be panned by critics, loved by the religious, and probably it will ultimately be struck down by the Supreme Court.
Now . . . that was the setup for the real article.
Whatever happened to sin? That was the question posed to me and it arose from the happenings in Mississippi. Believe me, the brother who asked me this question is one of the most loving people I know, so there’s no hidden meaning to the question, no underhanded jabs intended. He simply is asking whether or not our culture still has a moral compass. Are there any behaviors that we still consider to be sinful?
That is actually a loaded question. Before you can answer that, you have to define sin. In the most common usage of the word, when people talk about sin, what are they meaning? According to an ABC News report, eighty-three percent of Americans say they are Christians, four percent claim a non-Christian religion, and thirteen percent claim no religious affiliation at all. That means eighty-seven percent of Americans are religious to some degree. Because of that, we might be able to say that whenever most Americans utter the word sin they are meaning a violation of their chosen religion’s moral code.
However, you have to look even deeper. According to Pew research, among the religious, there is has been a steady decline in faithfulness.
If eighty-three percent of Americans say they’re Christians, but less than half (and declining) of Millennials (our largest population segment) are praying daily, attending worship weekly, and consider their faith to be an important part of their lives, then you can also posit that the definition of sin isn’t all that important to people.
Therefore we can make two loose conclusions: 1) people aren’t as concerned about sin as they used to be, and 2) even those who are religious are declining in their commitment, so their definition of sin has likely narrowed along with their commitment. So essentially you have two growing groups of people. First, the non-religious group is growing, whether it’s full blown atheism or just agnostic/undecided. They don’t have a religious concept of sin because they don’t have religious beliefs. They have social mores that serve as guidelines and principles for living, along with civil law. Then you have a second growing group that is the nominally religious. They believe in God, but their commitment to a local congregation or to regular spiritual disciplines has waned and become intermittent. For these, the definition of sin has pragmatically narrowed to accommodate their chosen lifestyle.
The shrinking demographic is the group of people who are religiously committed. These are the ones who shape their life according to their spiritual beliefs, not the other way around. If you’re in this shrinking group, whether you’re a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Sikh, or whatever, your faith shapes your life, and your definition of sin is bound to a precise understanding of how your faith defines it.
Ultimately, for most people, the definition of sin has been pragmatic. As Christendom has crumbled in the West, the necessity for a Biblical definition of sin has become less and less necessary to succeed in culture. Anymore, worldly survival depends less on faithfulness to a Christian understanding of sin, and more on adaptability to whichever direction the cultural currents decide to go and how culture defines sin.
Now, back to the question: Whatever happened to sin? The answer is, for most people, it’s shrinking. In the mind of the American public, it is increasingly becoming this narrow spectrum of behavior reserved for child molestation, rape, and genocide. And as the numbers of non-religious and nominally religious people grow, the popular definition of sin will continue to become more and more narrow, and more and more individualized (what’s sin for you isn’t sin for me).
What does that mean for the committed Christian? Basically it means that our voice will become smaller and smaller. When a growing portion of our own number (the nominal Christians) keep narrowing their definition of sin, the odds that a Scripturally faithful definition of sin will somehow make a comeback becomes infinitesimally small. But here’s the deal: it never had a chance anyways because the definition of sin doesn’t matter to the lost or the nominally religious (who is possibly lost as well, and Christian by label only).
We need to take lessons from Daniel, a man who was enslaved by a pagan society, but yet he remained faithful to the God who had allowed them to be taken into captivity in the first place.
One lesson that I am learning through all of this cultural change is that the faithful believer shouldn’t expect to win this battle. We will win the war because Christ has already won the war, but the current battle that is raging isn’t going to go our way. We need to take lessons from Daniel, a man who was enslaved by a pagan society, but yet he remained faithful to the God who had allowed them to be taken into captivity in the first place. God rewarded that faithfulness, and Daniel rose to positions of influence where he was able to share the Gospel (as it were) with the most powerful man on earth at the time, Nebuchadnezzar. And eventually, because of Daniel’s faithfulness, Nebuchadnezzar became a worshiper of Yahweh!
I’m not suggesting that will be the same story for all of us. I am suggesting, though, that faithful Christians should be learning how to live and thrive in Babylon instead of desperately grasping to the rotting structures of Christendom (which isn’t the same as the actual kingdom of God). God’s kingdom has always been an infiltrating force. It blooms from within. If all we ever do is pine for the good ole days and expend our energies on making sure the whole world knows what we hate, the American church doesn’t have a chance at surviving the next one hundred years. America will become an unreached nation within this century, to whom other nations send missionaries – which is actually already happening.
All of that to say this. I refuse to be driven by a fear of living among non-believers who embrace alternate definitions of sin. The Lord is more honored by a steadfast commitment to love him in the midst non-belief than a safe life surrounded by people of similar values. Where’s the sacrifice to live among people just like you? Where’s the mission opportunity if you’re always surrounded by people who share your beliefs? How will you ever grow deep in Jesus unless you are faced with resistance?
One of the most damaging things that has happened to the American Church is that we have formed religious ghettos in our small towns and communities where all we hear and see is what everyone else hears and sees and where we never bother leaving to see what it’s like in other places. We never bother forming relationships with people who are different. We live in our echo chambers because all we ever hear is familiar voices affirming us and saying exactly what we like to hear.
We’re afraid of being the loser, when all along Jesus promised us that in this world we would be losers.
Daniel didn’t have an echo chamber. It was him and three other friends living and working faithfully in a culture that hated what they believed. And they thrived! What are we afraid of? This fear we have of losing a cultural monopoly on morality only shows that we really don’t have much faith at all. We’re afraid of being the loser, when all along Jesus promised us that in this world we would be losers.
Shouldn’t this world and its beliefs make us uncomfortable? Is it possible that legislation like HB-1523 is more about preserving our comfort than about righteous government? I’m not declaring my disagreement or agreement with HB-1523, I’m only chopping away at the root of why many people support religiously charged legislation. It’s for comfort. It’s for not having to have some awkward moments. It’s about personal disgust. It’s probably, except for a small minority of folks, not even close to being about a desire for righteousness. If winning the day politically creates an offense that slams the door shut for the Gospel in other people’s lives, then I’ll take a political loss any day. American Christians haven’t learned the art of taking a loss for the sake of winning later. When the Apostle Paul chastised the Corinthians for suing each other in court he said:
“Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” (1 Corinthians 6:7)
There’s a lesson in that for us. Lose a personal battle, lose a religious battle, lose a political battle for the sake of the Gospel ultimately winning. Oh yeah . . . that’s how Jesus won!
Wow . . . that exhausted me.
Whatever happened to sin? It’s still here. In the church, outside the church, it’s never left. It’s possible that I’ve sinned in my anger while writing this article. God’s definition hasn’t changed, people’s tendency to tamper with that definition hasn’t changed, and Jesus Christ is still the only one who can forgive it. And on that note, I’m going to give my brain a rest. Until next time.