It’s become clear to me from a lot of the conversations occurring within Canadian Mennonite, especially in the letters to the editor, that as Mennonites, we’re not of one mind when it comes to sin. Now sin, generally, isn’t a terribly popular topic of conversation, even among church-going types. It tends to remind us of guilt trips and church splits—not things to talk about in polite company! But these associations mean that sin is a concept that has been and continues to be easily misused and abused within the church—and precisely because of that, it’s important for us to get over our squeamishness and talk about it.
I don’t think it’s possible to discuss Christian theology without touching on sin in some way—it’s a central aspect of the narrative of salvation, of the human relationship with God, of the very purpose for the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—namely, to help us understand, name, repent of, be forgiven and in turn forgive, and thereby overcome sin, no longer living under its power. That’s a key part of the good news that Jesus spreads during his ministry.
But despite this central place that sin has in our tradition, it still means different things depending on the context.
So I turned to my trusted source, theologian Dorothee Soelle (who else?!), who outlines three different ways of viewing and defining sin within the Christian tradition in her book, Thinking about God.  All three agree that sin means and leads to “separation from God,” but according to Soelle, there are different emphases within that:
1. Orthodox or Traditional– Sin is primarily understood in terms of pride, arrogance, or hubris, a desire for power, and a denial of one’s limitedness and creatureliness before God. It’s sometimes also framed in terms of disobedience or even a desire to usurp God’s place.
Key theologians: Augustine, Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth—and the Mennonite emphasis on humility certainly fits with this one.
Danger: Pessimism and passivity. An overemphasis on sin as pride can lead to the notion of “total depravity” as in Calvinist/Reformed theology—the idea that human beings are powerless, helpless, almost irredeemable because of sin, which makes discipleship seem almost impossible.
2. Liberal or Enlightenment– Sin occurs because of a “lack of love” and relationship, because we have not loved enough, because we are isolated and cut ourselves off from each other. Soelle writes that this understanding of sin expresses the idea that “love is always greater and requires more than what I am and do. I do not live up to it. My lack of love expresses my remoteness from God.”
Key theologians: Friedrich Schleiermacher, Soren Kierkegaard—and aspects of the Mennonite emphasis on discipleship as love of God, neighbor, and enemy.
Danger: Individualism and over-optimism. The concern is the individual falling short of love and relationship, which doesn’t speak to community or socio-economic and political dynamics. As a result, this view overestimates the human ability to turn away from and avoid sin, since it’s just a matter of individual choice.
3. Liberation theology– Sin is injustice, encompassing social/communal or structural/systemic sins like sexism, racism, classism, etc., which lead to broken relationships with “oneself, the neighbour, nature [or creation], and the [global] human family.” Sin is primarily failing to resist these unjust systems, which makes us likewise guilty of injustice. For example, feminist theologians often talk about women experiencing sin as “self-denial, giving up oneself, not wanting to have any self,” which is actually the opposite of pride; this kind of self-denial means going along with the sin of sexism instead of resisting it.
Key theologians: Gustavo Gutierrez, Dorothee Soelle, Valerie Saiving—as well as J. Denny Weaver and other Mennonites who promote peace theologies of nonviolent resistance.
Danger: Fatalism and externalizing of sin. Because these systems of injustice are so pervasive and well-established, it’s tempting to give up on trying to change them. It can also seem like individuals bear little responsibility for sin (which is “out there” in social and political systems), unless it’s stressed that individuals are each responsible for resistance, as in Soelle’s theology. Beyond Soelle, though, I would stress that as Christians, we are not only responsible for resisting injustice, but for living justly and peaceably as well.
So which of these views is ultimately the “right” one? Well, to be honest, I think we need all of these different understandings of sin, because sin is complex!
We also see all of these within the teachings of Jesus, who talks about sin as pride or a desire for power and asserts that the “first shall be last,” that a little child is the greatest, and washes his disciples’ feet (Matt. 20:16; Luke 9:46-48; John 13); who talks about our lack of love for those we view as “sinners” or outsiders and instructs us to love God and neighbour and enemy (John 8:1-11; Luke 10:25-37; Matt. 22:37-40 and 5:43-48;); and who talks about sin as self-denial and instructs us not to hide our light or our talents, for we are not servants but friends of God, who makes possible our confrontation of sin (Matt. 5:14-16; John 15:15; Mark 11:15-17).
So I think we need to learn when to speak of which kind of sin, without reducing sin—and therefore our salvation from it—to one understanding; it’s individual and systemic, it’s about violence and a lack of love, it’s about pride and self-denial. And perhaps most importantly of all, we need Jesus’ reminder that while we may feel extremely comfortable naming the speck of sin in another person’s eye, we haven’t yet dealt with that stubborn plank in our own (Matt. 7:3-4; Luke 6:41-42).
 Dorothee Soelle, Thinking about God: An Introduction to Theology, translated by John Bowden (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990), 54-76 (Chapter 6: “The Understanding of Sin”).