Is There Such a Thing as a “Sin of Empathy?”

Is There Such a Thing as a “Sin of Empathy?” August 25, 2021

Is There Such a Thing as a “Sin of Empathy?”

Recently Christianity Today has carried a story (online) about division in a very well-known conservative evangelical mega-church in the Upper Midwest. The pastor, successor to a major conservative, Calvinist, evangelical pastor who retired (but is still writing and speaking), resigned under pressure from some portion of the large elder board and some congregation members.

One of the accusations made against him and some other elders and pastors, according to the article, is “the sin of empathy.” Also mentioned is an accusation of encouraging a “culture of coddling” or “coddling culture” within the congregation and among evangelical Christians generally.

Here I am going to set aside any discussion of so-called “coddling culture” which seems terribly subjective to me. Whether someone is unjustifiably, not literally, “coddling” people who claim to be victims of abuse or innocent suffering is in the eye of the beholder.

Sin, on the other hand, is a theological concept. Thus, as an evangelical Christian theologian, I feel at least somewhat capable of tackling that accusation. However, I will not talk about any specific alleged cases of “the sin of empathy.” I don’t recall that any were described in the article which contained quotations from many members of the congregation as well as from insiders to the controversy.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

We have to talk about the word and concept “sin.” Sin is missing the mark, falling short of God’s will, disobedience to God, and calls for repentance and restoration. I have often heard “sin” misused to describe any error, any mistake, any even minor digression from perfection. Let me give one example.

Some years ago seminary students returning from a Passion conference told me they heard John Piper say publicly that Jesus did not die for “your sins” (the audience’s but really everyone’s) but “for God.” I had trouble believing that so I emailed John and asked him if he said that. He responded that he didn’t remember but if he did say it he ought to repent. He said he did not man that, if he said it, but meant that Jesus died primarily for God but that we who are elect get to be the beneficiaries of Jesus’s death for God.

I thought the word “repent” was too strong. If he said that, it would be at worst an error, not a sin. Only a sin calls for repentance.

Back to the alleged “sin of empathy.” Can empathy ever be sinful? Well, yes, most certainly. If you doubt me, let’s engage in a thought experiment together. What if a fellow Christian (or really, anyone) came to you and said he struggles with spousal abuse, that he is addicted to beating his wife. Should you empathize with him? Certainly not! Assuming “empathy” means more than “sympathize.” You might well sympathize with his sinful and even criminal plight, his condition, but you should most definitely not empathize with him. I could give a thousand similar examples where actually empathizing with someone would be wrong. (And by “sympathize” here I do not mean support!)

But I don’t think this is at all what people at the mega-church are complaining about or accusing the pastor(s) of doing. The article at least implied that some people in the congregation (and some outside of it) were accusing the lead pastor and some others of believing victims of abuse and being overly supportive of their pain and desire for redress. The article mentioned some of the congregation’s leaders supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and Critical Race Theory. I have no knowledge of whether that is true, but I choose to believe what I read.

Is it ever really a sin to empathize with true victims of oppression, abuse, innocent suffering? Surely not. So what is really going on in this controversy that is dividing this great congregation?

Could it be that some of the unhappy and accusing members are uncomfortable with a level of perceived encouraging of people to take on a mentality of victimhood—when they are not really victims? Or they are but need to move on with their lives and not wallow in victimization? I assume that must be the case (giving the accusers the benefit of the doubt).

But could it also be that some of the unhappy and accusing members harbor racist and/or sexist attitudes and do not want African-Americans, women and others to be encouraged to feel oppressed and seek justice and redress for what has been done to them? I assume that is probably also the case (knowing many conservative Christians as I do).

Now, surely “empathy” such as described immediately above cannot be literally “sin.” If that is really all that is happening (or was happening), then I plead with people to stop calling it “sin.” If you must, call it “error” or “poor judgment.” Calling empathy like I have described in the paragraphs above “sin” is simply theologically wrong and unfair.

I would call empathy error and poor judgment if it included believing every accusation of abuse without any evidence at all, whatsoever, when said accusations might predictably result in severe punishment of someone.

During the 1980s especially, as we all know now, many wives and mothers who wanted sole custody of their children in a bitter divorce manipulated their child or children to report that the husband-father abused them. Many fathers went to prison because of such false accusations. We know this happened because when the children were older they publicly recanted their earlier accusations and accused their mothers of manipulating them into it. They wanted their fathers released from prison, but in most cases that did not occur.

Thus, it would be wrong simply to believe (and especially act on that belief) an accusation of abuse without some kind of evidence—especially when the result would predictably be tremendous harm to a possibly innocent person. But even in such a case, of accusation without any supporting evidence, a pastor or other person can empathize with the accuser without acting on the accusation until supporting evidence appears.

It is very difficult to imagine any situation in which empathy with a person believed to be abused, oppressed or suffering innocently would be sinful. It is easy to imagine a situation in which empathy with an abuser or oppressor or causer of innocent suffering would be wrong, in error, mistaken, calling for correction.

So, in what I wrote above, I am not attempting to interfere in that particular congregation’s controversy. However, it is such an influential congregation among evangelicals generally that I want to raise some questions to all evangelicals (and others) that might be helpful in sorting out the legitimate causes of controversy from the illegitimate causes of controversy.

I will conclude by saying that “sin of empathy” is a highly problematic phrase. It should only be used when there is good reason to believe that the empathizer is empathizing with a sinner in his or her sin (or abuser in his or her abuse, etc.). Empathizing with a victim of abuse or oppression cannot be sin. It might be an error if it encourages a certain permanent wallowing in victimhood without attempting to rise above it into survivor status.

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