Monday, July 15, 2013

Why It's Important to Rank Sins - and the Danger of Doing So: More on Alma 39:5

[Two years ago, I wrote a post entitled, "Sexual Sins Are NOT Next to Murder".  As a follow-up to that post, I want to add some more detail about why I do believe in ranking sins - as well as the danger of doing so.] 

I think it is important to “rank” sins – at least broadly, especially as an attempt to avoid the type of misreading I believe occurs in the common interpretation of Alma 39:5. I don’t like it when it becomes Pharisaical and ends up being an excuse to commit less serious sins or elaborate innumerable sins, but I think it actually is extremely important to be able to see distinctions in degrees of sin.

To use crime as an example, if someone points a gun at me, I want to be able to say, “Take everything I have, but if you pull that trigger you are committing a MUCH worse crime that doesn’t need to be committed to get what you want.” More fundamentally, some sins really are more serious than others – and I can’t fathom a reasonable argument against that statement.

The most important reason to rank sins, for me, is to be able to discuss what truly is sin and what might not be sin – to avoid an unthinking condemnation of some things that don’t deserve condemnation. Please don’t read any specific thing into that statement. I don’t mean it to be about any particular issue; I just mean to point out that lots of things that are cultural end up being classified as sinful by those who simply don’t understand and are appalled on an instinctive, gut level.

I think we classify way too much currently in our culture as sinful that isn’t, and having an initial conversation around seriousness of sin is a good starting point for that broader conversation. 

Further, it is important to understand that there is a difference between likening all things to ourselves and interpreting what the passage actually said and to whom it actually was addressed. Alma 39 was addressed to one person. It wasn’t speaking to men or women or any other group of people. That’s obvious, but it’s important – since likening it to ourselves, in this instance, changes radically the meaning.

Finally, I think it’s important to remember that Alma did NOT write / engrave these words into a book of scripture, onto metal plates. Alma 35 was written by Mormon, and verse 16 says:

“Therefore [because he was grieved for the iniquity of his people - vs. 15], he [Alma] caused that his sons should be gathered together, that he might give unto them every one his charge, separately, concerning the things pertaining unto righteousness. And we have an account of his commandments, which he gave unto them according to his own record.”

In other words, Mormon had access to Alma’s record of what he told his sons. Alma didn’t write what he told his sons as part of his scriptural record. It was included as scripture by Mormon in his abridgement of all of the records to which he had access. Alma apparently recorded what would become Alma 36-42 in his own diary – or priestly record – or letters to his sons recording what he had told them verbally – or something else like that.

Interestingly, the chapter heading to 39 starts with, “Sexual sin is an abomination” – NOT, “Sexual sin is next to murder in seriousness.” All that means is that such an interpretation is merely that – an interpretation, not “scriptural” in and of itself. 

To summarize, I believe in the need to understand varying levels of sin - to "rank" sin, in a real way.  I just believe we walk multiple dangerous paths in the process, so we should be very, very cautious about the conclusions we reach in doing do.

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