Sin. It’s not just personal

It’s 1920s Detroit, America. The car industry is growing. So is the gap between rich and poor. Many people have grown rich, while others are impoverished even as they work long hours in dangerous factories.

In a wealthy, suburban church a pastor stands up and delivers a sermon so challenging many members leave.

Reinhold Niebuhr tells this story in Leaves From the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. The American theologian was surprised by the pastor preaching a sermon which made people leave. He’d always thought the pastor unlikely to make such trouble.

But Niebuhr particularly despaired because the pastor preached this sermon – on the dangers of smoking.

In a city filled with systematic injustices, which the pastor had never challenged his congregation on, he spoke to them about an issue of personal ethics. It led Niebuhr to observe: “The church does not seem to realise how unethical a conventionally respectable life may be.”

Those words have stuck with me since I read them months ago. I was reminded about them when I read this article by Peter Adam, former principal of the theological college I went to.

Adam wrote the article for The Gospel Coalition to warn ministers about how secret sins can destroy their ministry. It’s a challenging read.

I’m not a minister, and I found it useful. I was convicted by his suggested preventions and cures to avoid secret sins. How often do I pray in the way he suggests? Can I seek to be more conscious of my sin?

But when I read the lists of sins he presented in the article, I felt something was missing.

Adam lists more obvious ‘secret’ sins:

  • sexual immorality;
  • sexual, physical, psychological or spiritual abuse (in ministry or in the family);
  • pornography;
  • alcoholism;
  • drug abuse;
  • sins within marriage and family;
  • financial gain or irregularities.

And the less dramatic sins:

  • prayerlessness; not being continually transformed by the Spirit’s words in the Bible;
  • pride and arrogance;
  • avoiding any kind of accountability;
  • having an inflated sense of your own importance or infallibility;
  • control and micro-management;
  • having favourites;
  • ignoring people; using people for our own purposes;
  • refusing to benefit from the correction of others;
  • divisiveness; doctrinal irresponsibility;
  • believing that the end (the glorious and urgent gospel) justifies any means;
  • cynicism about God, the gospel or people;
  • superficiality;
  • laziness or lack of productivity in ministry;
  • self-centredness;
  • workaholism;
  • a wrong estimate of your importance, gifts, and abilities;
  • a habit of self-deception, or a habit of deceiving others;
  • a lack of the fruit of the Spirit;
  • a significant gap between your public values and your private life.

I appreciated that Adam listed less dramatic sins. Often, we only speak about the more obvious ones. It is good to be challenged on things such as the integrity of the use of our time.

However, the sins he lists are all personal.

If a minister is not addressing systematic evils, and how their church should be addressing these, is this not also a sin?

Jules Martinez-Olivieri reminds us that “salvation is a gracious divine act whereby human beings are brought into right communion with God and neighbour, and as such are saved from alienation from God and neighbour (personal sin), as well as sin in its communal expressions in political, economic, and social systems that perpetuate inhuman conditions (structural sin).” (from Majority World Theology, 2020).

Mr Adam included a long list of sins in his Gospel Coalition article. To read them is to be challenged in my own life. But they don’t include any sin which relates to structural sin.

Should ministers not also be concerned about how they address systematic sins?

Like me, Adam is from the Anglican tradition. And one of our prayers of confession includes this line: “We have left undone what we ought to have done.” If a minister is not addressing systematic evils, and how their church should be addressing these, is this not also a sin?

In the Old Testament, Israel is regularly challenged by God for ignoring systematic evils. In the New Testament, the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ application of Isaiah to himself in Luke 4 show his concern for “social systems that perpetuate inhuman conditions”.

Peter Adam has written a strong article. But I would add that a sin that ministers, and all Christians, should guard their hearts against falling into is participating in structural sin. For if we only call as sins those which are personal, then we are in danger of becoming conventional, respectable church-goers more than followers of Jesus.

Adam suggested helpful remedies for sins such as the love of money – like giving away money. I love that practicality.

If we want to guard against participating in structural sin, then we also need to be taking positive steps to avoid it.

Tim Collison works for a Christian non profit.

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