Pastors need to be talking about sin
A long time ago, I was sitting in a seminary’s Ethics class listening to a guest lecturer and one of the smartest professors in the school espousing the view that “you cannot legislate morality.” To make matters worse, apparently all of the other students in the class agreed with them — all, that is, except me.
I took issue with their conclusion and voiced my concern, but at that time I did not have enough data to back up my convictions. I was convinced that not only could you legislate morality, but almost every law legislated morality.
Consider, for example, laws governing traffic safety, income tax, immigration control, health issues, and civil rights. Do these laws not tell us what is right or wrong? And, isn’t that morality? Instead, I was told that these issues only dealt with what a person may or may not do, that morality only dealt with sinful things. Oh, and just what is sin?
Although a bit late, I just finished reading Karl Menninger’s book “Whatever Became of Sin?” In it, Dr. Menninger spends perhaps 80 percent of his book describing and defining the way sin has been translated into other categories such as crime and illegal activities, and how no one wants to recognize that most of these things are really sins. Now, I have to confess: This Dr. Menninger is one smart person. Not only does he have an amazing vocabulary, he also has researched just about every sinful activity known to mankind, and carefully documents his observations. Frankly, I was becoming both a bit bored and a bit humiliated by all of his research, and wondered if he had any ideas about how to solve the problem of sin.
After all, as a law enforcement chaplain, it still seemed logical to me that you catch the bad guys and lock them up; but Dr. Menninger suggested that there were other ways to handle them. He then mentioned the fact that the law enforcement officer had taken the place of the priest (pastors) in the church, and that caught my attention.
The conclusion chapter of the book is fascinating. He says, “Imagine leaders striving — not to heal the sick, not to comfort the anguished, not to feed the starving, not to terminate the waste and pollution of our resources — but to close the morality gap! To establish more firmly in national, international, and personal affairs the supreme importance of distinguishing right from wrong. To end the concealment of sin under various euphemistic disguises, but to confess it and atone for it and desist from it. If the word ‘sin’ is unacceptable to you, I challenge you to suggest a better one.”
Dr. Menninger then challenges leaders to openly confront sin, and he begins with the role of clergy. Ouch! But he is correct. During the past several decades, clergy have preached about the existence of God, His mercifulness, His grace, His goodness, His expectations for mankind to learn how to forgive and to love, about God’s faithfulness in forgiving sin, and the assurance of everlasting life. But what about sin? Do modern sermons address sin? Clergy have a tremendous opportunity to address sin, but do they? Where are the Jonathan Edwards of our time (for instance, his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”)? Where are the prophetic voices of the 8th century biblical prophets declaring “Thus, saith the Lord?” Yes, we need to be leading the fight for right and wrong in our churches.
But Dr. Menninger goes further by asserting that police officers, teachers, the media, doctors, and politicians also are moral leaders. He says that it is wrong to restrict them from teaching right and wrong (sin) along with their expertise focus.
I guess I should have read Dr. Menninger’s book years ago, for I find myself agreeing with a lot that he
says. Yes, I do think that his approach is a little simplistic and probably not possible; but I also think that we in America need to get back to discovering what sin is and how to deal with it adequately. Not to do so takes God out of our schools, the marketplace, our government, and our personal lives.