Is Sin Relative?
This question has been nagging me off and on for months. I’ve been pondering it in my head for just as long, completely at a loss as to how to construct a framework for tackling it. Sin is such a grave thing in this world, because of the harm it inflicts and because it grieves the heart of God so much. So when I discuss how we define sin and what constitutes sin, I know it is an extremely important conversation.
When I wonder if sin is relative, what I am really wondering is if the conscience of man is really as homogeneous as I’ve always thought it is. There are so many examples of lifestyles and practices littered throughout history that were considered perfectly acceptable in a certain day, but would indisputably be considered sins today. And even within the Christian community, we don’t always agree about whether or not certain practices are sinful.
So, a few examples. The first one that comes to mind is drinking. I grew up entirely oblivious of alcohol or its effects. Neither of my parents ever drank a drop during my lifetime (or at least they didn’t around me), and we never had alcohol in our home. It was never really very clear to me as to whether or not my dad considered drinking a sin, or if he just did not want anyone in his home to be exposed to its intoxicating effects. Either way, I’d always had a very negative mental association with drinking because of how I was raised.
Nonetheless, today I’ve completely abandoned that exclusively negative association. Alcohol can be used abusively, or it can be used responsibly. The extent to which consuming it is a sin depends on the person who is drinking, and I don’t think there is anything inherently sinful about consuming alcohol. After all, Jesus drank wine and offered it to his disciples at the Last Supper, and there’s no way on earth I’m going to presume to impose laws on myself that Jesus himself did not follow.
Now, let’s consider a behavior that is obviously sinful—a behavior that even non-Christians wouldn’t condone: an alcoholic having a drink. Clearly, for this person it is very sinful to drink, and the reason is that such a person would have a past of alcohol abuse, whereas I wouldn’t, and therefore there’s nothing wrong with me drinking. So the alcoholic’s definition of sin depends on his circumstances, and on the bad choices he has made in the past—not on any particular, immutable, biblical law (which is where Christians usually turn when defining sin). The alcoholic’s life is different from mine, so having a drink means something entirely different for him than it does for me.
Another example that I think about sometimes is polygamy. All of the Old Testament patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc.,—had multiple wives. Yet it is an unspoken acknowledgement among most modern evangelical Christians that polygamy is a distortion of God’s design for marriage because the commitment of one man and and one woman only is not present. Yet God never seems too concerned with reprimanding these patriarchs’ marriages. You would think sin—especially a sin against the sacrament of marriage—would be a big stumbling block for these men. But on the contrary, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph are all praised and commended for their extraordinary faith. They are all men of God, and although I’m sure they weren’t perfect, I find it to be interesting that their faith and their commitment to Yahweh would be such an abundant, driving force in their lives when such a “grievous sin” was also present.
These are only a few examples, and I’m sure I could come up with many, many more. The more I think about sin, the more it feels like something that is a personal affront to God, a personal violation of the conscience God has given us. I think it’s a very legitimate question to ask whether our consciences are all the same, because some things that are a major stumbling block to one person’s relationship with God doesn’t even faze another’s. And sometimes outside factors, such as culture and upbringing, also shape our consciences. Such things make it very difficult for me to fathom the idea of a Moral Law written on the hearts of all men. Sometimes, ideas such as the one shared in this blog post make more sense now than they used to. Really, I don’t know what to make of such arguments, because they strike me as valid, but I’m not sure how they fit within the Christian worldview.
It is all quite complicated, and a lot to ponder. I’ll probably write more about this topic in the future, because I am clearly nowhere near a resolution at this point.