Original Sin in Methodism –
By Paul Stallsworth –
Since congregations and clergy began disaffiliating from The United Methodist Church, those remaining United Methodist have been defensively repeating this mantra: “Our doctrinal standards have not changed and will not change. So there is no need to depart.”
But what if most United Methodists do not give a darn about our church’s doctrinal standards? Or they do not even realize such standards exist? What if that is our status quo?
This article attempts to swim against the stream. What follows attends to one doctrinal standard of The United Methodist Church: the doctrine of original sin.
In Romans 5:12, St. Paul plants the truth of original sin in the Church’s apostolic faith: “sin came into the world through one man…” (NRSV). Original sin is the sin of Adam, which is born in all human beings who follow Adam. This doctrine asserts not only the contagion of Adam’s corrupting sin to all of humanity but also the Fall’s catastrophic impact on all of creation. This world is broken, as is every person in it.
Original Sin Goes Away. When was the last time you heard a sermon on original sin? Better yet, when was the last time you heard original sin even mentioned in a sermon? A long time ago. Right? This phrase, original sin, seems to have been banished from United Methodist sanctuaries, if not from the everyday United Methodist vocabulary.
There is a reason – an historical reason – why original sin is among Today’s Least Popular Sermon Topics. Here is one way to tell that story.
In the early 1900s, Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was a young pastor in Detroit. Later he became an influential professor and public theologian at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. His sermons were so eagerly followed that they were sometimes covered by The New York Times on page one. Niebuhr was gifted at taking biblical categories and truths, and applying them to the social and political realities of his time and place.
Unlike many American theologians of that time, Niebuhr took sin seriously. Dr. Sidney Ahlstrom (1919-1984), in his Religious History of the American People (Yale University Press, 1972), wrote this about Dr. Niebuhr: “Above all, [Niebuhr] sought to make [people] fully aware of the depths of human sinfulness” (p. 942).
In 1939, Reinhold Niebuhr delivered the Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh University in Scotland. The lectures were later published in two volumes under the title The Nature and Destiny of Man (Niebuhr’s book titles are rather grandiose). In his Preface to The Nature and Destiny of Man, Niebuhr reflected: “I believed and still believe that human evil, primarily expressed in undue self-concern, is a corruption of its essential freedom and grows with its freedom. Therefore, every effort to equate evil purely with the ignorance of the mind and with the passions of the body is confusing and erroneous. I used the traditional religious symbols of the ‘Fall’ and of ‘original sin’ to counter these conceptions. My only regret is that I did not realize that the legendary character of the one [‘Fall’] and the dubious connotations of the other [‘original sin’] would prove so offensive to the modern mind…” (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943/1964, Vol. I, p. viii, emphasis added).
Reinhold Niebuhr’s brother, H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962), described the liberal theology, which his brother often challenged, as “vacuous.” Furthermore, H. Richard provided that memorable summary of liberal theology: a “God without wrath brings men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (The Kingdom of God in America, 1937). (Thanks to Dr. James V. Heidinger II for his reference to H. Richard Niebuhr in his excellent book The Rise of Theological Liberalism and the Decline of American Methodism [Seedbed, 2017].)
According to Dr. Joshua Mitchell of Georgetown University, as early as the middle of the Second World War, Reinhold Niebuhr realized that he had failed to return original sin to the faith and message of the Protestant churches in the United States.
Original Sin Goes Woke. Evicted from then-mainline Protestant churches, the doctrine of original sin did not die. Dr. Mitchell reports: “People have abandoned the churches because the churches wanted the God of Love but not the God of Judgment. So the churches have gone their merry way speaking [only] about … God as love. But if the Bible is right, the first human experience is the experience of transgression [or sin; think Adam and Eve or original sin], [and if] the churches’ turn away from it, the people will look for a way of thinking through transgression that the churches are not offering.”
Leaving the Church of the God of Love, sniffing around for an account of transgression, some of the seekers wandered into the realm of politics. In identity politics, people learn that the world should be divided into the innocent and the guilty, the pure and the impure, the sin-free and the sin-full. The innocent are not corrupted by original sin. Only the guilty are stained and twisted and corrupted by the sin of Adam. Needing a way to be forgiven, the guilty are forever dealing with, and striving to overcome, their guilt.
So the identity groups willingly take out their rage, that stems from their experience of injustice, on those they deem guilty of original sin. These identity groups scapegoat a particular group, and they take out their suffering, betrayal, and anger on that scapegoated group. This scapegoating never leads to reconciliation or resolution or even conclusion. This scapegoating goes on and on and on.
Original Sin Returns to the Gospel. The Church’s historic faith is dramatically, totally different from identity-group ideology that divides the innocent from the guilty, the pure from the impure. The Church’s holy scripture declares the words of St. Paul: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NRSV). The Church’s apostolic faith declares: the sin of Adam is the sin of every person (except Jesus Christ).
The truth of original sin is buried in The United Methodist Church’s doctrinal standards. These standards are seldom studied, read, or consulted. Even so, Article VII in The Articles of Religion addresses original sin. It boldly declares: “Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually” (Book of Discipline , Paragraph 104. Section 3, p. 67).
Therefore, for Methodists, original sin is not about making a few bad choices, here and there, throughout life – especially before age 30. Original sin is not about living like Adam. That downplays the cataclysmic impact of Adam’s Fall on all of humanity and on all of creation.
Original sin is about the corruption – corruption! – of every human being.
• That corruption originates with Adam and Eve, and it is passed to all.
• That corruption pushes every person far from original righteousness, from God.
• That corruption bends our nature – our heart, mind, and body – toward evil.
• That corruption directs us toward evil in a continuing way.
Article VIII – Of Free Will follows Article VII. This article on free will actually asserts that natural humanity, apart from God, does not have free will! The article warns that each and every human being is so corrupt that, on our own, we cannot choose to leave evil behind. On our own, we cannot resolve morally and spiritually to improve ourselves. On our own, we cannot decide to repent. Without God’s help, we cannot have faith in God. Without God’s grace, we cannot love God or our neighbor.
Because of original sin, lacking free will, humanity is stuck in sin and corruption, evil and death. According to the doctrinal standards of The United Methodist Church, each and every person has no escape from original sin. That is misery.
Into this misery comes the Word: “‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’” (John 3:16, NRSV).
God the Father sends God the Son, Jesus Christ, into this world, into history, into Israel. At the end of his public ministry, dying on a cross outside Jerusalem, Jesus accepts onto himself the sins of the world. Jesus becomes the scapegoat for all – not just those deemed guilty by identity groups.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted: “While we are distinguishing the pious from the ungodly, the good from the wicked, the noble from the mean, God makes no distinction at all in his love for the [fallen] man. He does not permit us to classify men and the world according to our own standards and to set ourselves up as judges over them” (Ethics, p. 71).
As the love of God, Jesus pays the price for the sins of all – not just for the sins of one group.
“He breaks the power of canceled sin, he sets the prisoner free; his blood can make the foulest clean; his blood availed for me” (“O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”).
Paul Stallsworth is a United Methodist elder in the North Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church. Retired from pastoral ministry, he leads the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality and edits its newsletter Lifewatch (which concerns Christ and His Church, life and abortion, and marriage and sexuality). With his wife Marsha, he lives in Wilson, North Carolina. This article first appeared in Lifewatch (www.lifewatch.org). To contact the ministry, email Lifewatch@charter.net. Reprinted here by permission. Photo of Rev. Stallsworth by Krystal Baker. Photo: Shutterstock.