Adam Hamilton’s book Seeing Gray in a Black and White World acknowledges what most of us have known for a long time; Christians don’t always agree with each other. If we were to examine the Bible, especially looking at the texts about the disciples talking with each other, we would see that even the 12 persons closest to Jesus heard his teaching differently. We learn in Acts that Peter saw in a vision that the Good News was to be shared with the Gentiles. Peter and John even went to Samaria to share the Good News. Peter discerned and argued that Gentiles need not first become Jews to then become Christians. Later, though, we read that Paul argues with Peter because apparently Peter again started teaching that followers of Christ must become Jews before becoming Christians.
Some Christian traditions try to teach simple Christianity. What I mean by that is these groups offer one answer for every situation. These groups often define some actions or behaviors to be sinful, such as prostitution, homosexuality, cohabitation, drinking, use of illegal drugs, etc. The difficulty with this practice is twofold. Firstly, these groups tend to tie the person to the sin (e.g. a person is a prostitute instead of recognizing the person is a beloved child of God caught in the sin of prostitution). Secondly, these groups tend to vilify some behaviors while pardoning others (e.g. the Bible specifically speaks against divorce 27 times, yet most modern churches don’t speak against divorce or call the divorced persons adulterers, yet those same churches might vilify a couple that follows the modern secular practice of living together before marriage).
What is at issue here, in my view, is the definition of sin. Jesus teaches:
And he answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." (Luke 10:27, NAS)
We should discern from this passage that anything contrary to that is a sin. So, if we don’t love the Lord completely, we are in sin. If we think or act unlovingly toward our neighbors then we are in sin. If we cause someone else to not love God or their neighbor (including us) completely, then we are in sin. God help us! That’s just the point; only God can help us, because we are human and we are going to get distracted from God, say things that are not loving, do things that are not loving, and basically be sinful all the time unless we turn to God every moment of the day. Thank God for grace. God’s grace says that there is more of God’s love than there is sin in all of humankind. That does not mean that God simply forgives our sins and permits us enjoy the fullness of relationship with him regardless of what we have done. What it means is that there are consequences for our thoughts and actions, but we need to confess our sins to God and repent to be restored to full relationship.
Let’s take a look at some of the behaviors that have been considered sinful over the years. Interracial marriage was illegal in some parts of the United States until 1967 and is still considered sinful by some people, especially in the southeastern United States. Yet the Bible, especially the New Testament has little to say about the topic. Moses married a Cushite (Cush is an area of southern Ethiopia) woman. Most people today accept interracial marriage as out of the norm, but not a sin. A close examination of the texts would lead us to understand that God does not want the believer to marry an unbeliever, because we all have our ancestry in the family of Noah and God created all people in his own image. Left-handedness was also once considered a sin. The Bible regularly seems to show favoritism for right-handed persons, yet there are times when the Bible refers to a person being seated in the position of honor to the LEFT of the host. We seem to be influenced by Latin more than scripture and Latin is influenced by pagan traditions. The word for left in Latin is “sinister.” Our modern understanding of sinister in the English language carries with it the negative connotation from ancient pagan belief that left-handed persons are unnatural and somehow untrustworthy. In the Middle East, a person who was caught stealing would often have their right hand amputated as punishment, rendering them left-handed, which coincidentally is also the hand used to clean themselves after a bowel movement, so the person is perpetually viewed as unclean.
These two examples indicate to us that perceptions change over time. In our Wesleyan tradition, we look to what scripture has to say on a topic as our first source. Many modern topics, such as air travel or use of mobile devices are obviously not going to be directly addressed because those devices did not exist in the times in which the Bible was written. Yet, we are able to discern God’s intent through the interpretation of verses. To do that interpretation, we look at the traditions that church has taught for centuries. We next look at what seems rational to us, as a church. Finally, we look at our personal experience with God. For example, scriptures tell us not to be drunkards and the church has taught moderation in drinking. Many churches use wine for the Sacrament of Holy Communion but discourage the use of strong liquors. The United Methodist Church (then known as the Methodist Episcopal Church) was a major proponent of the Temperance Movement which led to Prohibition. Our collective experience with God realized that people in the Bible drank wine, but were not to drink to excess. Prohibition was repealed because people continued to drink anyway and Prohibition led to a number of other crimes, so the church returned to its position of moderation instead of continuing to push for prohibition. Each person is then able to decide about their use of alcohol and their relationship with God. Consuming alcohol might still be a sin if one drinks to drunkenness or if one drinks more than another thinks appropriate in some setting (for example, drinking a cocktail just before driving home from a friend’s house).
Some actions are, of course, always considered sin. God says, in the Ten Commandments, do not kill. Killing another person is consistently viewed as a sin. Jesus expands that thought in the Sermon on the Mount to include speaking ill of another person (false witness, character assassination, gossiping) and includes even getting angry at the other person as a violation of what God meant by that commandment. Our laws have varied about capital punishment and there is the ongoing conversation about soldiers in the military. We begin to make situational rationalizations. Some issues are not so clear. The Bible does not specifically address abortion, but some Christians apply the commandment “Do not kill” to the situation and others say the fetus is not living until birth so that commandment does not apply. Other Christians debate the issue of abortion after rape. We use our theological method to determine what God has to say to us individually on these topics and then we enter into dialog with others to share our faith and decisions.
It takes a great deal of thought to see the different facets of issues. It is much simpler to have a rule that applies in every situation, but that’s not realistic. Read the Proverbs and you’ll find conflicting guidance, but God intends for us to discern his word and apply the right passage in a situation. That’s tough, and that’s exactly why we need God. Turning to God for answers is not a sign of weakness or of indecision. It is a sign of trying to make the right decision. I wonder if the title of Adam Hamilton’s book is misleading, because we don’t live in a black and white world, but it would not get as much attention if it were titled “Seeing Gray in a Gray world.” His point and mine is our reliance on God for answers as others try to foist their opinions on everyone, and we need to be cautious that we do not become that person either.