Rethinking Sin and Heretics? Neil Williams Says “Yes”

Read before you judge…..

Over at GospelFutures, Williams suggests thinking of sin as “relational failure.” Sure, this is not exactly how Christians have thought of sin in the past, but,

“Sin has a varied history. The way people have understood sin has changed over time. Views on sin have morphed according to the culture and what made sense at that time.”

Seeing sin as relational failure, Williams says,

“…exposes a legal understanding of sin as inadequate. It is quite easy to follow a set of rules and be mean about it. It also indicts those that use religion or theology to sabotage or destroy relationships. Heretics are now the ones who have used their theology to promote themselves and exclude others.”

That should give you all something to chew on, I think.

As you react, and I’m sure some will, try to assume the best of Williams, namely that he understands the traditional views of sin as expressed in various forms of Christianity. He is not oblivious. You might also want to take leave comments at GospelFutures where this post originated.

[Neil Williams (D.Th., University of South Africa and author of The Maleness of Jesus: Is It Good News for Women?) has begun a new book project Chasing the Wind: The Quest for Relational Transformation that develops the theme of this and other posts at Gospel Futures.]



Honesty in the Journey (or On the Raising of Young Heretics)
Here’s something new: Genesis is in “crisis” and if you don’t see that you’re “syncretistic”
people are such absolute jerks (and so can you)
“Patterns of Evidence” and patterns of culture-war rhetoric: (2)
  • Bill

    “Seeing sin as relational failure..” Hmm. The real issue is that we ‘see’ sin. The new covenant was designed to help us see past sin and to see the person Christ values and then serving that person as if that person was Christ himself. To get hung up on sin is to have missed the point of the cross.

  • Bev Mitchell

    William says, “Sin as relational failure, keeps us from the easy attribution of the other person as the “sinner” ” Well said. Especially since we are expressly forbidden from judging!

    And he follows with, “It is quite easy to follow a set of rules and be mean about it.” Indeed. This may be one of the many reasons that we are admonished to be fruit inspectors and not judges.

    Since the two greatest commandments are 100% relational, it seems quite reasonable to see sin as a relational failure.

  • James Rednour

    “Since the two greatest commandments are 100% relational, it seems quite reasonable to see sin as a relational failure.”

    I guess, but it also doesn’t say a whole lot. If we are commanded to love God completely that requires obedience to His commandments. So any time we disobey God, we demonstrate we do not love Him completely and we violate the greatest commandment. Also, when we do not follow Philippians 2:3-4, we violate the second-greatest commandment.

    So saying sin is a relational failure doesn’t seem to add anything new to the discussion other than to seemingly sugarcoat the depravity of our sinful condition.

  • Nate W.

    This echoes the theology I’ve been working out in my head recently. I believe he’s essentially correct in saying that sin is basically relative and relational. I might even take this relativity one layer deeper and say that sin is itself not even a thing but only finds its being in the experience of shame (I.e. perceived distance from God).

    To say it another way, sin is anything that we believe separates us from God’s love or anything that communicates to another person that they are unworthy of God’s love and acceptance.

    This is why it can be said that without the law there would be no sin. If we were never given the impression that we fail to live up to a standard there would be no sin. But with law comes knowledge of good and evil and slavery to the clear fact that we do not live up to the law.

    Also, see Paul’s discussions of food that has been sacrificed to idols. For the one who BELIEVES it to be sin, it IS sin. Bu for the one who has faith born of his freedom in Christ it is NOT sin. Yet also, it is sin for the one who eats to do so in sight of one who does not because in eating he may tempt the other to do something that he believes will make him unclean.

    In the garden of Eden, Adam and eve eat that they might “know good and evil”. Upon eating their eyes are opened and THEY hide from God while he searches for them because they are ashamed. He still seeks them out. He covers their shame. But they refuse to believe that they are good any longer. Their sin keeps them from God, but does not keep God from them. The rest of the bible is God working to convince man that he is loved and accepted, but man continues to live in shame and in enslaving others to shame.

    Every action that communicates to another person that they need to be MORE, be BETTER, be HOLIER, than they are in order to ultimately be loved an accepted is sin. Every action that communicates grace and mercy is righteousness.

  • Bev Mitchell


    It may well be that Jesus called them the greatest commandments, at least in part, because they cover so much so succinctly. You are correct, they do beg specific examples, such as  Philippians 2:3-4. But, recognizing the essential role of a relationship with God, through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit in order to fulfill such commands does not sugar coat anything. Or so it seems to me.  The failures evidenced in life under the law pointed out the great need for relationship. Without right relationship, we cannot obey God, no matter how clearly his demands are spelled out. So relationship failure, at least, leads directly to disobedience. 

  • James Rednour

    Hi Bev,

    I guess when I said “sugarcoat” it was in response to the use of the term “relational failure”. It makes sin sound like something that can be treated with therapy instead of the blackness that required the death of God Incarnate to make amends for it. I’m sure that’s not what Neil Williams meant to convey, but it was my first impression upon reading this post. The relational failure runs so deep that it could never be rectified without a supernatural intervention. Of course, you know all this just as well as I do. Take care.

    • Nan Bush

      You seem to be seriously underestimating the profound significance and meaning of what therapy often deals with. It’s not trivia, and it stands–overlapping–with matters of religious faith and meaning. We are surrounded by relational failures running as deep as you say, but sometimes a person can’t get to the Christ without first wading through the heavy waters of therapy. Not all therapists can provide that level of understanding, but then, not all clergy can, either.

      • peteenns

        I am not suggesting that James is saying this, but I have known too many Christians who feel that emotional and psychological problems can and should only be dealt with from the pulpit. This is nonsense. I agree with what you are saying here, Nan. Some are so traumatized, etc., that–while still having some genuine level of faith, will have a particularly difficult time finding joy there, and rather will turn their faith into an arm of their pain and dysfunction.

  • Andy

    I am interested how you understand the idea of sin as relational breakdown (which I agree with), in relation to the topics of ‘Adam as Israel’ and the ‘NPP’.
    After the ‘garden’ even good deeds that are done outside of relationship still have a seed of pride and therefore are ‘filthy rags’. How does this relate to ‘Adam as Israel’ where it appears you advocate for wisdom playing more of a key role in the notions of sin? How does this relate to the NPP where works still play a key role in our relationship with God (does the NPP accept that works done before we have surrendered our life to Christ play a positive role as well)?
    I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • James

    Recasting sin as relational failure is very much in line with a major theme of both testaments–covenant. A conquered (liberated) people sin by refusing to show gratitude to the Great King. Today we can attend a showing of The Greatest Story Ever Told by using a literary (dramatical)-canonical type of interpretive method. Shockingly, we are invited to get up out of our seats onto the stage and become actors ourselves in the divine comedy. When the ancient story-line turns to genocide and slavery we don’t shun these elements as repugnant and wish the script read differently. No, under the loving guidance of the Director, we embrace the whole (in a culturally appropriate manner, of course) and thus become more grateful, eventually transformed into the image of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ

  • Marshall

    “sin” [harmatia] will contunue to be of missing the mark, as the proposal/argument here is apparently circular: coming short of the rule(s) to be understood as relational violations or “failure” thereby pointing to relational rules. Redirecting us to relational consequence or failure accomplishes little more than a bait-and-switch maneuver, assuming space for each of us to now define the rules in how we understand relational preferences? Another round robin recipe for more party spirit?
    koine Greek ‘hairesis’ (preferences/sects/parties)

  • Dan

    This seems like more of a both/and issue than an either/or. Williams seems to be reacting against an overemphasis on the legal sense of sin by emphasizing the relational sense (to the exclusion of the legal sense, if I ready correctly). In the OT, all of the laws (legal) have their foundation in the presupposed covenant (relational/legal) between YHWH and Israel. Thus it is something of a “covenental nomism”, or laws based on a pre-existing relationship; this seems to be the case in the NT as well.
    The downside to overemphasizing the legal side of sin is that one can follow all (most, actually) of the rules, and still be a jerk, and miss out on the relationship from which all laws/rules flow. The downside to overemphasizing the personal side of sin is that when we tell ourselves “it’s not about the rules,” it is easy for us to bend our standards and accept things that we shouldn’t (we are all highly capable of self-deceit when it serves us well).
    I suppose a balance would be a better approach, realizing that everything flows from our relationship with Christ, and yet that there are concrete rules of morality that God has created because He loves us and wants us to be as truly human as possible.