Jerry Bridges gave many gifts to the church, not the least of which was his 2007 book Respectable Sins. In it he coined a term that describes a whole category of sins that might otherwise escape our attention. “Respectable sins” are behaviors Christians (sometimes individually and sometimes corporately) regard as acceptable even though the Bible describes them as sinful. They are subtle or refined in such a way that we may even dress them up to become a kind of virtue. Bridges offers many examples: anxiety and frustration; discontentment; unthankfulness; impatience and irritability; worldliness; and so on.
One tricky aspect of this list of respectable sins is that its contents can change over time. What was respectable in one era can be scandalous in another before once again fading back to respectability. Today I’d like to offer a few suggestions of sins we may consider respectable here in 2020, with a special focus on sins that are fostered and spread online.
Suspicion. This is a polarized age that is made worse by news outlets and social media that thrive on praising insiders while vilifying outsiders. The ideal of objectivity has been replaced by the vice of suspicion. While the Bible does praise wisdom and discernment, it rejects suspicion, especially toward our fellow believers. We have no right to doubt others by default or to have a cautious distrust of them, as if they are guilty until proven innocent. We cannot allow ourselves to be suspicious of the actions, motives, or salvation of brothers and sisters in the Lord. After all, love is shown not only in our actions, but also in our attitudes, for “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). While we always need to be on guard against false teaching and false teachers within the church, we equally need to be on guard against suspicion within our hearts. There’s nothing respectable about it.
Gossip. Our ubiquitous digital devices and always-on social media have given us the ability to communicate with unparalleled speed and scope. But with this great power comes a sobering responsibility, for the Bible often warns about the power of our words and our tendency to use them poorly. Both life and death are in the power of the tongue (Proverbs 18:21). We are responsible to not only speak the truth about others, but also to turn away from those who do not. After all, it takes two to gossip and just as it is sin to speak ill of others, it is sin to listen undiscerningly. Yet the Christian world, and perhaps especially the Reformed Christian world, is absolutely chockablock with gossip. From the pulpit to the pew, from the conference green room to the conference livestream, gossip is rampant. It is whispered in the name of important information and blogged in the name of discernment—both ways of dressing it up in respectable apparel. But if it isn’t true and it isn’t edifying and it isn’t necessary, it is gossip. Truly, gossip may be the besetting sin of this movement and a major contributor to her current or coming collapse.
Slander. Closely connected to gossip is slander. When we slander another person we utter false statements meant to damage their reputation. The way we can make this sin respectable is to insist that we are warning others away from a false teacher and protecting naive and helpless sheep. We are only damaging that person’s reputation because we have such love and concern for others! What we tend to do, then, is pass on information we have heard through the channels of gossip, but have not verified or validated. And so we follow the lead of people who have fabricated information for the ugliest of motives and we spread it around as if it is true. Though our motives may be good (or, at least, not utterly depraved) our actions are still sinful. Be warned: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36).
Meddling. Neil Postman once asked this question: “How often does it occur that information provided you on morning radio or television, or in the morning newspaper, causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve?” In most cases the answer is “not very often.” The same might be asked of information we glean from social media or other sources of Christian news and information. How often do we actually do anything about it? And perhaps even better, how often is it really our responsibility to do something about it? Postman lamented the impotent cycle in which “the news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing.” I’m convinced we experience something similar today where we receive news about which we can do nothing, so what we do is pass it on, broadcasting our opinion, our joy, our outrage. But passing it on is not a neutral act. It can, in fact, be an act of meddling, the action of a busybody. Broadcasting opinions about situations that have happened at a great distant from us, that do not concern us, about which we can do nothing, and about which we know very little, seems to match the very definition of meddling.
Idleness. Every new technology brings with it both benefits and drawbacks, and social media is no exception. People can use social media to be tremendously productive—to unleash their gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God. But people can also use social media to be tremendously unproductive. Their use of social media can reflect idleness and indolence. We can dress up our use of social media as building platform or expressing discernment or offering encouragement. But if we are honest with ourselves, for many of us it is a means of escape from the real world and from our real lives. It is laziness, not productivity, and the Bible has repeated and sobering warnings about those who are lazy (e.g. Ecclesiastes 10:18, Proverbs 19:15, 1 Thessalonians 5:14). Ironically, the people who are most active on social media may also be the most idle.
Impugning. To impugn is to dispute the truth, validity, or honesty of another person’s motives. And closely connected to disputing another person’s motives is suggesting that you know the truth behind them. There is so much of this in the Christian world today, and it generates so little disapproval, that it must be classified as respectable. Yet a little biblically-guided introspection should tell us that we often don’t even know our own motives, and if we do not know our own, how could we possibly know anyone else’s? James 3:17–18 challenges us that “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” 1 Corinthians 4:5 warns that we must “not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.” If we are to assume anything about another person’s motives, we must assume the very best, not the very worst. When it comes to a brother or sister in Christ, it is sinful to assume bad motives; it is sinful to fail to assume good motives.
Each of us is a saint, yet each of us is still a sinner. As such, we remain attracted to certain sins and prone even to dress them up in respectable garb. It is a good and necessary discipline, then, to examine ourselves to consider not only the sins we consider ugliest, but also the ones we consider most beautiful. We do this knowing that even the most “respectable” of our sins is odious to God and, for that reason, ought to be equally odious to his people.