on ranking sins

even though we (christians) know the bible teaches that a sin is a sin is a sin, and there ain’t no point in ranking them, we can’t stop. we’re blindly obsessed with creating a helpful little system for god: here you go, god, we put this in order for you, from worst to ‘not that big of a deal’. we’re not sure you’re clear which of these sin things really need your judgement now, and which ones should just get that general covering of forgiveness that we think has something to do with the cross.

this has always really, really, really bugged me. not that i don’t do it also — but that’s a different subject! this self-righteous position allows me to get really pissy about those “god hates fags” people, and, frankly, about how 90% of our churches have and do respond to gays. at the same time, when someone uses hitler or osama as an example, saying that god loves even them, and would quickly forgive them if they turned to him; and i think, well, ok, at some cognitive level i can go along with that, but not in my gut.

and today, my bluff is being called. i’m squirming in my own shift-able conviction about not ranking sins.

years ago, in the middle ages, i heard about a youth pastor who was about 20 minutes away from my church, in another part of the country from where i now live. and everything i heard about him made me know he wasn’t the kind of youth worker i wanted to hang around: naturally gifted and charasmatic in personality, arrogant and self-promoting, cocky about everything. he was positioning himself as a rising star on the youth ministry speaker circuit. i’d never met him, but i didn’t like him.

then it came out: he’d been having an affair with one of his high school girls. and this wasn’t a 21 youth worker making a bad choice with an 18 year-old senior. it was much worse than that. and it had been going on for some time, with lots of cover-up. at the time, all i had space for, in terms of “feeling sorry” was for the girl, for the youth worker’s wife, for the other kids in the ministry, and for the church (this story became news all over that region of the country at the time). his new wife had their marraige annulled, he was prosecuted for statutory rape, convicted, and spent some amount of time in prison.

end of story, right? big bad sin, big bad consequences. mix in a bunch of years (well more than a decade — probably almost two), and all is forgotten.

until he emails and says he now lives on the west coast, and he knows we’ve never met, but he’s in san diego on business a couple times a week and would love to have lunch sometime, just to share our stories and get to know each other. another friend emails me and tells me i should accept this lunch, that this ex-youth worker has been living in shame for years and years now, and maybe i could encourage him.


that lunch is today.

[[update, after lunch]]

interesting discussion in the comments on this post. good stuff — making me think.

i really enjoyed the lunch. he’s a good guy who doesn’t offer one speck of excuse for what he did so many years ago. and he fully knows that the repercutions he continues to face every single day of his life (truly – every day) are of his own doing. he’s not asking for sympathy. the only things he seems to desire are:
a. life. some way to live — even to the extent of being able to earn a living for his (new) family.
b. ministry. he would love to be able to prevent even one case of his story being repeated. he doesn’t want to become a celebrity for his wrong-doings, and he’s not willing to take his family through that. but he knows what got him to a place where his sin was possible; and longs for a day when he can be involved in steering one or more people away from such a choice.

i’m encouraging him to write an anonymous article for our website, and for us to offer a confidential email address that would re-route directly to him (so people know it’s not going through MY desk!).

29 thoughts on “on ranking sins”

  1. He is lucky to sit with you – seriously, this is your element… dumping grace on folks.

  2. Grace. Being a messy disciple. Forgiveness. It is hard. Christianity is hard. Loving even those who people find unlovely. I’ll be praying.

  3. To sound spiritual…
    Jesus spent a lot of time with those we would consider tainted by their decisions.
    I’ll be praying for you, and for him.

  4. Marko-

    Lean on the holy spirit – you and I both know that the hardest part about being a youth minister is knowing when to do your own thing, and when to let God take over. God has already forgiven him. You need to, also, and I know how hard it is.


  5. Marko-

    Lean on the holy spirit – you and I both know that the hardest part about being a youth minister is knowing when to do your own thing, and when to let God take over. God has already forgiven him. You need to, also, and I know how hard it is.


  6. Mark,

    I love your blog, but cant pass this one up. Language is important, I know you know that, and I want to point out one thing…

    You said : then it came out: he’d been having an **affair** with one of his high school girls. and this wasn’t a 21 youth worker making a bad choice with an 18 year-old senior

    I’m sorry…but that wasnt an **affair** that was abuse. I lived through the same scenario (high school girl being sexually abused by her youth pastor) and my church called it an “affair”. This did soooo much damage to me. It told me that I also was in sin (“it takes two to tango…”). It also communicated that the primary damage was to his marriage, not be me as a victim. The goal became saving his marriage, not helping me.

  7. Mark,

    I should add….I think its a good thing for you to meet with him and encourage him. The youth pastor who abused me stayed in ministry for about 15 years after it happened and was just convinced to leave last year. I do pray that there are people around him encouraging him and not adding shame onto him.

  8. I read this right as I was going to lunch, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it while I was eating, so I’m back to post my comment.

    (Ah, the power of blogs)

    I realized that I guess I actually disagree with the idea that all sins are equal.

    Sure, on a level of us and God–I think that *any* sin is too much. Sin is sin is *sin* and gets in the way of our relationship with God, and in our relationship with each other and God (like how we in the church see others in the church, and how “other people’s sins” make them farther away from God than us. Hence the “gay” argument.)

    But I just can’t believe (and I say this as someone who grew up with a sadistic father and a church that bought into his evil) that sins which affect others deeply aren’t somehow worse than sins which affect only ourselves. (As if any sins only affect ourselves, I know…)

    And I guess I think it’s all the more “bad” when it is someone who has

    1) chosen to be a representative of God (as a pastor or priest) and
    2) been entrusted with children, youth, or young adults.

    I think there is an additional responsibility that comes with working with kids/teens and that we shouldn’t consider it any differently.

    All that said- there is forgiveness and grace, and while I would have a difficult time looking him in the eye (the hair stands up on the back of my neck whenever I meet an offender, I have a keen radar for it), that’s completely *my* issue, and I recognize that.

    I just think that a loving God would recognize that those who are entrusted with the care of juveniles, and who are given such enormous power simply because of what they do and who they are, must have a little bit more responsibility and accountability for what they do.

    And Marko, I completely understand the self-righteous stuff which bothers you. It bothers me, too, and so maybe this whole comment is more annoying than I know.


    Difficult, dark, trigger-loaded issue for me. I think I’ll delete this comment and go back to lun-


  9. I’ve struggled with this before. I don’t think it’s as clear cut as you’d think that sins are equal. if you read in the book of Leviticus there were harsher punnishments for different sins. Now, you might be someone who says “well everythings changed, Leviticus doesn’t work anymore.” But the point we get from the old Testament is that God gets angry about things and somethings make Him more angry.

    When someone kills someone I hope that God gets more angry than He does when I lie. We get more angry don’t we?

    Now, I’m not trying to pull God out of His heaven and bring Him down so i can understand. Every sin equally ‘separates us from God’ so to speak. There is a danger in saying that they are all equal though. If you say it’s wrong for someone to get more angry about world hunger than saying bad words then I think we are missing out in God’s passion. Our hearts need to burn for what His heart burn for. He hates all sin but if He doesn’t care about oppression in Sudan more than my eating habits then He’s legalistic not compassionate.

    One day some Religiouse leaders brought a dying man before Him on the sabbth. Now, it was unlawful to work on the sabbth so the men wanted to test Him. They said ‘Jesus, is it lawful to heal this man on the Sabbath?’ Jesus said… is it better to destroy life or to preserve it…? They were silent. Jesus looked on them in anger and then turned to the dying man and he was completely restored.

    I hope we don’t rank sin so that we can justify ourselves by comarison, but I hope that our anger leads to complete restoration and not legalism. We have to ask “what do we do when one value conflicts with another?”

  10. Hi Renee,

    I think I hear what you’re getting at, and you have a good point. The only thing I would offer differently is that the thing tht makes abuse terrible is the betrayal of trust. In my case, I trusted my youth pastor above everyone else, so his abuse was the most vile thing that could happen to me. If the same actions had come from someone I didnt trust, I would have called it an “attack” or something else. It reminds me of one defination of molestation as, “seduced rape”. Its the trust element that makes it worse. I think *any* person a child/teen trusts deeply is a representative of God to them on some level regardless if they hold an official position as pastor/priest.


  11. renee, i thought of you when i was writing this post. i was hoping you would comment. and wes, you make a very, very good point. i think i agree with everything both of you say. obviously, there are HUGELY different consequences for different sins. in that way, sins ARE different. and sins that involve other people (especially against their will), as you say, renee, carry a weightiness to them that does seem to put them in another category.

    i guess what i was really trying to get at is our judgementalism of people for their sins. for instance, this guy knows every day that he really, really screwed up. it impacts his life every day, 11 years later. i wouldn’t stick him in a youth ministry role now — but i think the church should be a safe place for him. it’s not. everyone — and i mean everyone — turned their backs on him. he used the word “paralyzed” — as in, even those who wanted to reach out to him had NO idea how to do so.

    jennifer — i’ve added an “update” about the lunch to the post.

  12. Jennifer:
    Yes, I agree with that, too, with the added exception that a pastor/priest all too often claims to speak for God. (even unintentionally- it’s part of the job description) And while people who betray trust in this way can also use “God-talk” to silence their victims, it’s almost a natural consequence of the priest/pastor role.

    wow. and yes- I totally agree with that. And I guess I also think the church should be totally safe for him. I think in some way my own pain over this issue makes it harder for me to say that, and in truth I swallowed hard before I typed it. At the same time, I have this passion about the church being safe for everyone. And while I’d never go to a church my father went to, I think I would want to believe that he had a safe place where he could still be loved.

    Paralyzed is a really great word. In so many ways.

  13. Mark,

    I appreciated your update too. My heart goes out to him truly. I think it would be very cool for him to speak out through writing an article, even though it would be hard for victims to read. An interaciton of ideas, between “abusers” and “victims” could be interesting too.

  14. honestly, my first thought was that you should meet with the guy, but only if you walk up to him and hit him. i’ve always imagined someone just walking up to my abusers and just hitting them. thought it would be cool. which is totally personal and not very christian, i know. but my second thought was how awesome is it that he saw you as someone he could talk to. how amazing that someone who is hurting so much inside saw you as a defender of the defenseless and a sort of a father to the orphaned, which is truly what the gospel calls us to do. way to go, marko. also, thanks for sharing this example of grace and forgiveness and restoration. it gives me hope. it helps me not really wish that someone would walk up to my abusers and just hit them. it helps me remember to desire consequences but not condemnation. thanks

  15. jeff, sevita and others: i think you’re giving me a bit too much credit here. though it sure feels nice to have you think i was somehow a dispencer of god’s grace.

  16. whatever marko, i’m not saying your perfect or anything. it’s just that somehow, somewhere, you drip God’s grace out just enough to attract some “bees”. keep dripping, that’s all.

  17. Renee–

    Your “ranking” criterion are interesting, because Jesus speaks of more severe judgement in those situations.

    But I also agree with Marko, as Bonhoeffer says–If we do not see ourselves as “chief of sinners” at some point and move past judgement, we have not realized our own sin at all.

    In other words, our knowledge about sin is to identify it in ourselves and others, and in community. Not to judge.

    Has anybody else in here read REPENTING OF RELIGION?

  18. As a survivor of molest, incest and rape by 3 different men, this post and the comments have captivated me.

    Here is what I gathered:

    Some think that…

    1. Because we would feel a certain way toward abusers and murderers – God must feel the same thing.

    2. Because we interpret God’s reaction as more harsh than other reactions, then God must think that one sin was more harsh (or worse) than the other.

    3. Because God reacted differently with certain sins – God MUST view sin on a “greater to less” scale.

    Did I interpret this accurately? If so, here’s my opinion on each point above:

    1. God is not us and we are not Him. To think we’d know Him because of the way we would respond is just plain loco.

    2. Who are we to know (by what we see in our flesh), what God is thinking?

    3. I love both of my children differently but neither one more than the other. Sins can be viewed and treated differently but it doesn’t necessarily mean that one is worse than another.

    Jesus hung on the cross, dying for those in front of Him (people like us) while they cursed Him, spit on Him, beat Him, insulted Him and were in process of murdering Him. We witnessed the “worst” sins of all being performed on the son of God and right then and there during their heinous acts, what was His reaction to it all?

    “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”

  19. Wow…

    All I know is that I am so thankful for a God who knows me at my most sinful, and then chooses to love me anyway.

    Keep drippin Grace!

  20. Great thoughts, Marko. Dig the grace. I agree with Jennifer that “abuse” is probably a better term than “affair.”

    I think on the “ranking of sin” ideas, the issue is not a question of “Is one sin more inherently sinful?” Rather, I think the issue is, “Do some sins carry a greater consequence?”

    Paul said in 1 Cor. 6:18, “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body.” So at the very minimum, sexual immorality is considered, for lack of a better term, “in a class by itself” when it comes to “ranking” sin.

    Additionally, 1 Cor. 11:27, 29-30 teaches that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord… For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.”

    Classicaly, it gets back to the ancient idea of moral and venial sins… however, whatever your belief is about eternal security, it seems that a distiction of sins – at least in their consequence – can be made.

    Jeez… I meant this to be a quickie reply!


  21. Mark,

    Pat’s right. Every sin has its consequences and some are worse than others. Grace doesn’t always erase the consequences.

    Your lunch could be part of his redemption. That’s a Christian concept that often gets lost when believers fall. We forgive to easily or don’t forgive at all. But we don’t do very well at helping fallen believers redeem their lives.

  22. Mark,

    Are there times when sexual sins (like this one) can be harder to forgive than murder? Paul was a murderer ( as was David and Moses) but we accept them as heroes of the faith. But can an abuser be redeemed?

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