Which Sins Are Worst?

IS IT POSSIBLE that the Adventist hierarchy of sins—ranked from most grievous to least—is radically different than God’s?

In the Roman Catholic Church, sins are categorized as either mortal sins—or venial sins. The latter are considered “lesser” sins, while mortal sins are seen as especially offensive to God. For the edification of their adherents, Catholic believers are supplied with criteria defining each class of sins—and even lists of sins in each category.

While Adventists don’t subscribe to the “mortal-venial” schema, we do have a quite definite hierarchy. A quick reference to the Church Manual confirms that some sins merit disfellowshiping if not successfully abandoned by the sinner in question. And some sins are considered so important that they must be abandoned in order to obtain fellowship in the first place.

Therefore, to varying degrees, such sins as smoking, drinking, Sabbath-breaking, wearing of jewelry, and adultery are considered among the make-or-break behaviors when it comes to church membership.

Along with other Christian bodies, our Church seems especially hypervigilant concerning sexual sins. So much so that even the unsubstantiated charge of such can result in derailing a Church employee’s career—or lead to wee-hours wrangling by church boards over whether or not a divorce took place with “Bible grounds.”

Yet to my knowledge, no one has ever yet been disfellowshiped or received church discipline for being the source of an unsubstantiated allegation, for gossiping and character assassination, for sitting in judgment on fellow members, for bigotry or racism, for self-promotion, or a host of other sins.

Some would argue that the Church should in fact maintain a “two-tiered” hierarchy of sins in which obvious, external, visible sins of the flesh are subject to Church discipline, while sins of the heart and attitude are not. I’ve heard it said that the Church must protect its purity and reputation by addressing such open, public sins as alcohol or adultery, since these can be destructive both to the individual member and the wider Church.

I’ve also heard it said that we can’t discipline sins of attitude, since no one but God can know what is in the heart. To a limited extent, that may be true. But just as “sins of the flesh” are manifest outwardly, sins of attitude also manifest themselves outwardly in gossip, harsh and judgmental criticism, and other forms. And this latter class of sins is often as destructive, if not more so, than the sins which most often lead to Church discipline.

One cause for concern is the tendency of the Church to overlook these often far more destructive sins of attitude—but not certain behavioral sins. Yet an honest reading of the Gospels clearly shows that Jesus was far more concerned with inner sins of the heart and attitude than He was with outward sins of behavior. Therefore He reserved His greatest disapproval not for the woman taken in adultery but for the scheming religious leaders who hypocritically led her into sin, only to condemn her for her pollution.

This is not to say that in God’s eyes, ANY sin is inconsequential. Nothing else in the universe is so lethal, as Jesus demonstrated beyond question at Calvary. So sin can’t be minimized. And I would not campaign for the Church to ignore open sins in its midst and hope they might just go away.

But God is clearly far more concerned with the state of our heart than the state of our behavior. One, after all, is the source of the other. We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners. One is the cause—the other, the effect. One is the underlying disease—the other, the symptom. One is the source—the other, the streams that flow from it.

Our sinful behaviors follow from the basic virus of self will and rebellion that Paul in Romans says passed to the entire human race with Adam’s sin. It is that basic rebellious attitude that leads us to choose our own way and will rather than God’s. And it is this one great sin of prideful self will—(“Yes, God, I know what You say, but I’m able to make my own choices, thank You”) that leads to all other “sins.”

So whether sins of behavior or sins of attitude, the Church does have a responsibility to address these in its midst. But what IS that responsibility? How SHOULD the Church respond?

My concern is that discipline never be considered an avenue of “first response.” If, for example, a recently baptized member is “caught” smoking, should we quickly convene the church board? Or do we honestly practice the redemptive effort of Matthew 18—and not just as a pro forma requirement in order to clear the way for discipline?

Whatever the class of sin, our primary responsibility as a Church is to be redemptive—to meet with the one in error as Matthew 18 outlines it, in an effort to bring spiritual restoration: a renewed reliance on God’s pardon and power. Only if all such efforts are rebuffed should discipline be a considered option.

If the Church is a hospital for sinners—as we like to say—and not a private club for saints, then no one in the Church is sinless. We are all here to look out for each other. We’re here to love and restore and be redemptive. And I could wish that when people hear the words Seventh-day Adventist, that is what would first leap to mind.

The biggest sin isn’t adultery. It isn’t getting caught downing Jack Daniels. It’s selfish pride—another way of defining a lack of real love. And that basic sin can be manifest just as openly in attitude as in behavior.

So let’s stop with the judging and hypocrisy and condemnation already. All around us are people famished for love and hope.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Michael on June 8, 2007 at 10:55 am

    Hi Ken,

    I guess it all depends which church you belong too. I’ve been in churches where it was all-but-impossible to get disfellowshipped for marital/sexual sins. And conversely, I know Adventists who have been disfellowshipped for something so trivial as violating procedural rules in business meetings (or so it was told me). Frankly most of the churches I’ve been at have been on the lenient side — sometimes to my annoyance, although I appreciate the concept that mercy takes precedence over justice.

    While I agree with you that certain inner sins are worse than the usual suspects, there is little (if any) precedent in the OT, NT, or SOP for church discipline on the basis of spiritual condition. Rather it was always overt, external acts that generated external punishments. (The various penalties for various acts in the OT is especially interesting — not always as expected.) I can’t think of anyone stoned for mere inward pride, for example. Sometimes it seems backwards to act on externals, but then again, what else can the church deal with than externals? I’ve come to see it as more symbolic than anything, although there is also a practical aspect I won’t delve into.

    Reply

  2. […] Posted by Timothy D Lee on June 12th, 2007 Ken McFarland wonders, “Is it possible that the Adventist hierarchy of sins — ranked fro… […]

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    at http://iampersuaded.wordpress.com/2007/06/12/church-discipline/

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