There’s a certain school of thought in parts of the church that not only should we avoid obvious and evident sins, but that we should also avoid anything that might lead to sin, anything that might have the appearance of sin, anything that might be tangentially associated with (someone else’s) practice of sin.
My own personal first encounter with this was as a teenager listening to youth evangelists talk about sex and Christian purity.
As a Christian teen, there’s a certain amount of vested interest in knowing what you can and can’t do with a girl. We know that the Bible says that sex outside of a marriage relationship is wrong, but what about groping? What about full-body hugs? What about necking? Can I kiss her, even? I wanted to know which precise behaviours were sin and which were ok.
There was a tendency among the youth evangelists I remember hearing to respond to this sort of thought process by asking things like “If the line is ‘no sex before marriage’, is it more pleasing to God to see how close to the line you can come, or to stay as far away from the line as you can?”
Though I didn’t recognise it at the time, I can see now how this unconsciously validates the whole notion of defining sin in purely behavioural terms. “If you don’t have one, don’t play with someone else’s“. “You can be alone in a room with her, but only if you have the door open and there’s someone else in the house“. “You can kiss for a maximum of six seconds at a time“. Looking back on it, a lot of it seems vaguely Pharisee-like. Sin and righteousness are purely a matter of what you can and can’t do.
Some of this is no doubt fairly wise among teens who are, if I remember my teenage years right, a rampaging mass of hormones and hungers. I’m particularly fond of “if you don’t have one, don’t play with someone else’s” as a guiding rule for physical touch between teen couples.
But the truth is a bit more complicated. Really, the idea that sin is just a matter of what you do is actually more like Islam than Christianity. Jesus took the command to not commit adultery and said that if anyone looks at a woman with lust in his heart, he’s already committed adultery.
The point is not that even looking is as bad as the act itself, otherwise you might as well go on and sleep with the woman once you’ve looked. Might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb, and all that. The point is that sin resides in the heart, not the actions. I could rigorously hold to a precise standard of outward behaviour toward another man’s wife, but if I’m lusting after her while I’m doing it, I have sin in my heart. The idea that you can set a line between “actions that are sinful” and “actions that are righteous” is what Jesus condemned the Pharisees for.
I’ve noticed in recent years that it’s not just youth evangelists and hormonal teenagers who have this sort of thinking, though. And I’m not saying that I think those youth evangelists were Pharisees; they were just trying to keep unruly teens from doing something irrevocable and were a little fuzzy on the implications.
There are sections of the church whose primary driving focus seems to be on avoiding contamination. Hollywood is evil and if you go to movies you are probably subjecting yourself to demonic influence. TV is likewise evil. Drinking wine is at the very least worldly and probably an outright sin. Having gay friends is inviting the spirit of the antichrist. Reading the Qur’an will inevitably make you a Muslim.
The whole idea seems to revolve around a set of rigidly-defined behaviours that are “righteous” and the avoidance of everything else as “worldliness”, which then becomes equivalent to, if not worse than, actual sin.
Certainly there are actions that the Bible always talks about as sinful. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m prepared to take God’s word for it when He says that adultery is always sinful, because I cannot think of a circumstance in which sleeping with someone else’s wife is a loving thing to do to either my own wife or the other couple. I’m going to trust that He knows what He’s talking about when He says that humans can’t do these things and not sin.
But sin resides in the heart, not in our behaviour. Behaviour is just the symptoms; sin itself is the disease. The urge to say “this action is ok, that is wrong” sets us up for a Pharisaical judgmentalism because we don’t do this particular set of “sins”, ie behaviours.
It’s been around a long time, ever since the Pharisees called Jesus a sinner because He healed people on the Sabbath. And probably before that.
And into this context of the behavioural view of sin comes the New Testament account of Jesus and the woman with the issue of blood.
By the Levitical law, the woman who had the flow of blood was ritually unclean. Levitical law was strong on the subject: anyone who had a bodily discharge was unclean, and anyone touching someone who was unclean became themselves unclean. Even the cloth that an unclean person had sat on became unclean and could make you unclean if you touched it.
And here comes this woman with a neverending flow of blood, determined to touch even the hem of Jesus’ robe because she knows He has the power to heal her.
The crowd is jostling around, but somehow she manages it.
And Jesus stops and says “who touched Me?”
The disciples are incredulous. The crowd is touching You. Everyone is pushing everyone else. How can You ask “who touched Me?” The whole world touched you!
He keeps asking, until trembling, the woman comes forward.
I can just see the crowd of men drawing back as she announces what her problem was. Hard faces recoiling from the presence of contamination. Hard eyes calculating the steps they would have to go through to restore their own ritual purity, desperately trying to remember if she’d brushed up against them. This is a bit like coming out as gay in front of the Islamic Council of Iran.
By any normal rules, uncleanness was contagious. If something pure touched something unclean, the pure became contaminated. But this is the other way around. Shockingly, Jesus’ purity reaches out and contagiously purifies the woman, using her faith as its agent and catalyst. Similarly, when Jesus touches lepers, they don’t contaminate Him; He decontaminates them.
If this same Jesus lives in us, I don’t think we need to worry quite as much about being “contaminated” by “worldliness” as we sometimes do.
Yes, of course we need to avoid actual sin. But we sometimes get the idea that if the line past which we are in sin is over here, we really ought to be way to crap over there five miles away or else we’re “compromising with the world” or “in danger of worldliness”.
This is Pharisaism. God said to honour the sabbath day and keep it holy. The Pharisees said that in order to make sure you were doing that, you could only walk a certain number of steps, you couldn’t pick an ear of corn and eat it because that was reaping, you couldn’t cook your breakfast even if you found cooking relaxing, you couldn’t even heal someone if you went about healing by the power of God during the week. Hedging about the commands of God with your own “clarifying” ideas and “so that we stay as far away from sin as possible” extra rules. Specifying in ever-narrower circles exactly what we can get away with and what we can’t. Sin purely as a matter of actions, not a heart issue.
Maybe one day we can perhaps all agree to let sin be sin. Nothing more, nothing less. Maybe if we all see clearly, we might be able to act a little more like the Saviour. Less afraid of being contaminated and more convinced of the power of God.