There’s a huge problem with the Bible.
The problem involves the way most Christians (Protestants in particular) approach it.
We like to pretend that the scriptures are our primary source of authority for understanding God. In actuality, though, this is very seldom practiced.
The Bible doesn’t come to any of us as a straight and clear line of communication from God: it is interpreted. When I or anyone else read part of it, it is quite easy for multiple understandings of what is meant to be taken.
A classic fundamentalist approach to scripture locates its authority via a “clear and plain reading,” but this is ludicrous. There is no such thing as a “clear and plain reading” of a book that is compiled of the writings of dozens of authors written over a period of more than a thousand years in cultures completely alien to our own.
On the other hand, a classic liberal approach to scripture that has infected the Protestant mainstream is to selectively pick the scholars and theologians one wants to agree with about what certain parts of scripture mean. This is problematic because one can find a fairly reputable presentation of just about any meaning one wants about any portion of scripture.
Thus it is that most Protestants give lip service to scripture being the primary locus of God’s authority on earth but in reality locate it in interpretation of scripture.
This isn’t surprising because Western Christians have an authority problem.
Along with pretty much everyone else in Western culture, we take issue with people telling us what to do, even if that Person is God (!). The standard solution to this problem is to both remove any actual source of authority God might have on earth and to turn God into someone Tradition and scripture show He is not: the equivalent of Barney the dinosaur.
God’s authority necessarily must exist outside the self in something “other.” When Christians claim to invest His authority in scripture alone, that is a ruse – most often unrecognized – for actually placing authority in self-interpretation: precisely in the self, the human individual.
What is one to do? Thankfully there is an alternative: to vest authority in the Body that Christ Himself actually vested His authority in, the Church.
The Bible was compiled for the Church – it is the Church’s book, written by the Church, and understood properly only by the Church (and by this I mean the entire breadth of orthodox Church Tradition, 2,000 years of Christians working out how to read the Bible, how to understand God, how to understand God’s will), as directed historically and presently by God Himself in the Person of the Holy Spirit.
We should take great pause when entertaining any ideas that run counter to what God has taught through the Church from the beginning. Protestants would also be well-served to more closely examine the reasons for which they are no longer connected to the Church proper, either Catholicism or Orthodoxy (as an Anglican, this is something I, too, wrestle with).
Because, honestly and bluntly, it’s fairly easy to see how the Protestant Reformation closely aligns both chronologically and idealistically with the rise of the Enlightenment and the glorification (idolatry) of the human self, which still reigns supreme in Western Culture today in the fading glow of modernism and postmodernism – complete distrust of “institutions” and anything but “me” being so ingrained in each of us as to be completely second-nature.
In light of this, there are some concluding critiques to make regarding the current state of Christian thought.
After historically beating ourselves up about sin over the last few hundred years, we now (typically) no longer take sin seriously enough.
I think part of the reason is an overly-simplistic understanding of what sin actually is. It seems to me that most non-Christians and lay Christians alike view sin as equivalent to bad moral behavior.
This is completely wrong.
While it’s true that sin is quite often associated with behavior that is morally questionable, that is not the essence of what sin is. There are several words in different languages that are translated as “sin” within scripture, but one of the more frequent Greek words in the New Testament is “hamartia,” which literally means “to miss the mark,” as in an arrow shot at a target missing its mark.
That is the essence of sin: being off target from God’s purposes and intents for humanity and creation.
It isn’t being “bad,” nor is sin wrong just because God wants to punish us like naughty children who disobey Him.
The nature of God and reality is that all things we think of as good necessarily come from God Himself because He is the source of all things good: life comes from God, beauty comes from God, because those are intrinsic to His nature; they don’t exist apart from Him.
Likewise, death and evil result naturally from the absence of God: where the presence of Life and Good is absent, death and evil naturally result.
Thus, to commit sin is literally to depart from the path of life (miss the mark) into the path of death.
At this point, most Christians would quite likely agree, but many would retort with some equivalent of, “But we all sin, and it’s because of Christ that our sins are forgiven, so why should we hold anyone’s sins against them?”
There’s a kernel of truth in that sentiment wrapped in a shroud of good intention but wrong understanding. True, we all do indeed sin, Christ’s sacrifice was and is for the redemption of our sins, and we are not to hold anyone’s past sins against them.
As Christians, though, we are to help each other when we see one another struggling with sin now. That is part of our obligation as brothers and sisters, spurring one another on in sanctification. And while we do all sin from time to time, there is a huge difference between sins that are “accidental,” per se (occurring at random, as it were, throughout our everyday life) and lifestyles of sin.
A lifestyle of sin occurs when a person regularly and unrepentantly engages in one or more sins with no intention of repentance or change.
That is not the same as struggling with a habitual sin. For example, someone who attempts to cope with an addiction to alcohol but sporadically relapses even while trying to manage the addiction is not involved in a lifestyle of sin: the intent is to stay away from the addiction, and when relapses are repented of, there is no condemnation. That is a massive difference from someone who is an alcoholic and either refuses to admit there is a problem or refuses to either attempt to manage the condition or repent.
This matters because an unrepentant lifestyle of sin is not only harmful to yourself but to others around you. I’ve been that guy; I know.
The trouble is, the harm it causes is not always what we consider to be tangible or obvious. It’s entirely possible to live in sin with the equivalent of a clean conscience within life situations that seem fine on the surface.
The damage that is done is spiritual, which can often result in physical ramifications without obvious corollaries (depression, “bad luck,” sicknesses, etc.).
There are more spiritual forces at work in this world than those of God: Tradition / scripture are quite clear that there are real powers of darkness. We have an Enemy, and we implicitly but definitively allow him open access to our homes, our families, our friends, and our churches through ourselves when we live in open rebellion.
That is one reason why holding each other accountable in Christ is important. The other main reason deals with our sanctification and ultimately salvation.
I won’t here get into a long discussion on personal behavior and how it impacts sanctification / salvation (enormous discussions would ensue), but suffice to say that all but possibly 10% of Christians over the past 500 years (and virtually 0% for the 1500 years before that) agreed that how one lives life as a Christian is really important when it comes to one’s relationship with Christ.
There is no earning of salvation or love within Christianity, but effort and constant submission to the Holy Spirit for both power and guidance are practically requisite if one is to live a life on the path to increasing sanctification.
And a life of true submission to God is impossible while one lives in sin, whatever that sin may be.
Those are the reasons why sexual sin – along with any and every other kind of sin – are considered to be important considerations for the Christian.