Words the Church Should Stop Using-Sin

In the interests of full disclosure, you should know that the first 8 comments were made when only the title was posted.  I also wrote this piece prior to those comments.  If you can keep that time line straight in your head, you’re probably also a good juggler or a successful executive administrator.

* * * * *

There are some words the church should stop using.  I have a whole list.

But when I say they should stop using a word, I don’t mean that the concept is dead or never existed or is incorrect; I just mean that the word no longer seems to fit, mostly due to the changing culture and how we now view that word (in English).

The first word I would like to annihilate is the word “sin”.  Dear church, please don’t use that word anymore.

On Friday I jumped on Twitter and asked the Twitterverse what their first thought was when I said the word “sin”:

@BrandonSneed said vuvuzela. Hard to argue with that.

@XCcampbell said “Muzac remakes of classic rock songs.” I have no idea what that is.

@LadyCrow said “Yum! Perfume.” This says more about how marketing departments have harnessed our natural inclination towards the “verboten” than it does the church’s use of the word, but still a fascinating response that probably deserves an entire post unto itself.

Here are some other responses I got: Separation;  Hurt;  Painful;  Offense; Crime; Violation.  And these all make sense, to a certain degree.  I was beginning to wonder if maybe folks did have a good handle on the meaning of sin.  Maybe it’s not lost it’s meaning. But then I got this response:


And a few others along those lines.  That last association came from a self-proclaimed “outsider” and this is what I suspected.  Sin has come to represent the list of things the church does not approve of, often a legalistic and man made list.  “Outsiders” hear the term and feel that it represents all that the church finds repulsive in them, as people, yet they know that people in the church are violating this list of “sins” all the time.

But sin is so much more than just the breaking of a man made rule.

“All have sinned and come short of the glory of God”  Romans 3:23

* * * * *

So what did the original word for sin in the Bible, amartia in Greek, mean? One of the Greek definitions is “missing the mark.”

All have missed the mark.

Kind of hard to argue with that. This morning when I got frustrated at my child for throwing their cereal on the floor and yelled at them, I probably missed the mark (I don’t think the emotion is the “missing of the mark” as much as how we respond to that emotion).  So if I got angry (not missing the mark) at someone for pulling out in front of me and I gave them the bird, I’ve missed the mark.

And even on the days I manage not to DO anything wrong, I’ve still had plenty of thoughts that have missed the mark.  All day, every day.

* * * * *

By eliminating the use of the word “sin”, I’m not trying to do away with the concept that we as humans screw up – in fact, it’s in our nature. I’m certainly not trying to downplay the seriousness of this “missing the mark,” how it can get our lives all knotted up and hurt us and the people around us. I just don’t think that “sin” is the best way to communicate the concept of “missing the mark” because most people outside the church think of an arbitrary list created by the church that basically forbids many things they consider fun.

Instead of using “sin”, why don’t we just talk about “missing the mark”?  Instead of saying “sin”, why don’t we talk about the specifics?  The word “sin” is like the word “postmodern”: it means too many different things to too many different people, and in the process has lost its true meaning.

Should the church keep using words if people no longer know what they really mean or understand them the way “insiders” do?

Are there other words you think the church should stop using?

Have I completely lost the plot?

44 Replies to “Words the Church Should Stop Using-Sin”

  1. Hmm. I guess I would disagree on this one. Those churches that DO stop using it…tend to soften the gospel. I think Sin is a word that needs to be used, but not at the expense of “grace”. When either word takes precedence, they lose their meaning.

    I think it comes down to HOW you use the word “sin” and in what context.

    1. Sorry Shawn, I respectfully disagree, I think this post is way off base. I would have to go with Ken here and say that when “sin” is taken out, and replaced with PC tones like “missed the mark”, the tendency is to downplay it and make little of the Gospel. Grace is weakened when sin is muted.
      To say that God sent his son to die a brutal death and be raised again because somewhere along the line we “missed the mark” or “lost the plot” just doesn’t do God’s love and sacrifice justice.

      1. Thanks for your thoughts Jon – just wanted to clarify that I didn’t arbitrarily choose “miss the mark” as a sort of politically correct term – this is one of the definitions of the Greek word used in the original New Testament text.

        1. I know that’s one of definitions, but others like in 1 John where the greek word is then described as “lawlessness” connotate a more legal perception of sin. I think if you look at justification, atonement, or most of the doctrine Christians hold, it’s a bit more complex than just the simplified definition provided.
          Sin is an ugly thing, and yes, though horrible, damnation is in the bible as the penalty for unrepentant sin. I don’t think getting rid of the term because it’s been misused is the solution. If anything, having knowledge of it’s ability to separate God’s creation from God should be a reason to explain and use the word correctly in context to magnify the grace of God.
          The path to void a word because of it’s abuse/misuse would be neverending, and we’d have a whole new bible.
          Either way, it’s a really interesting topic for discussion and I like seeing everyone’s opinions.
          Thanks Dude.

          1. “The path to void a word because of it’s abuse/misuse would be neverending” – very good point.

            “and we’d have a whole new bible.” – we basically, through this very process, have a whole new Bible every couple hundred years. Neither of us would understand a Bible written in Hebrew, or Greek, or Latin, or Old English. The Original King James Version from the 1600s would be passable. I think this process of word choice is something the church is always undertaking on all levels, and personally I think it’s a challenging exercise. I appreciate your thoughts today, Jon – I don’t think I’ve seen you in about 20 years so thanks for checking in!

      2. The Christian world needs to do a better job of discussing theology instead of retorting, “I think this post is way off base.” Maybe Grace would be more greatly understood if “sin” was more greatly understood. Theology today was not theology a long time ago so how did we get here? People discussed. With remarks such as yours, theology and Christianity stay stale. It’s not about cheapening the Gospel, it’s about always keeping it relevant.

  2. I think when “the world” hears that word, they stop listening and don’t stick around long enough to hear the truth. Either they’re turned off by hypocracy they see in “the church” or their hearts are still too hardened. Until we are willing to get out of our pews and demonstrate the love that paves the way for truth, (which I’m starting to see us do more and more!), we’ve lost the privilege to tell them about their sin.

    Ken brings up a good point – when we do talk about sin, we need to talk about grace. And when we talk about grace, we need to talk about sin. Without one, the other makes no sense.

    I can’t wait to see where you’re headed with this, Shawn!

  3. The problem I see with sin is that it is used pretty much to smack down people we just disagree with. So it becomes “sinful” for a woman to work outside of the home. Or it’s “sinful” to be a woman minister. Or it’s “sinful” to be in an interracial relationship. Or it’s “sinful” to be gay. Or it’s “sinful” to be a hippie. Or it’s “sinful” to have long hair. Or it’s “sinful” to support the free market. And on and on it goes and the next thing we know, the word has no meaning.

    I’ve stopped asking if something is sinful and am far more likely to ask if something is loving. Do I TRULY have the other person’s best interests in mind, or am I just going with my preconceived notions? When I look at my actions through the lens of love rather than “sin,” I find that I’m acting in a much more Christ-like manner.

    1. But ignoring sin and whether certain actions fall under that “category” allows one to act however they want, even outside of God’s purpose, and if it is loving consider it well. That is not biblical. Sin is sin, and refusing to call it such or think of actions as sin does not make God accept them anymore. God HATES sin, and so should we.

      1. So is it a “belief” in sin and what it means that “keeps us in line” not acting however we want, or is it the presence of God? You are putting a lot of weight on a belief in a concept keeping someone from not living however they want. Aren’t we missing the Gospel when we do this? I also don’t think God HATES sin. That’s such a human emotion and to project it onto an infinite being doesn’t make any sense.

        1. The Bible says MULTIPLE times that God hates sin. God experiences human emotion. The Bible is very clear on that.

      2. But that’s just it. I’m not saying that people can act however they want. Being loving isn’t easy. Following a list of rules is easy, but I don’t think it fosters much in the way of relationship.

  4. Other words that the church should stop using:

    Post Modern Culture
    Fire Insurance
    Seeker targeted
    Hedge of protection – really. Think about it. If God is ever present and all knowing – what extra hedge is coming.

    1. Agree, can we PLEASE stop using unchurched? To me it sounds holier than thou, or maybe we could use “unindoctrinted”! (I think those two would be similar to someone who is “unchurched”)

  5. I don’t think Shawn is saying get rid of what the Bible is conveying around the concept of sin (whatever that might be), but the word. It is not as obvious as we’d like to think in terms of exact meaning and implications for our lives. The word now has such negative connotations that like a previous poster commented pushes people away immediately. I think the evangelical community has brought a different type of meaning to this word than what was intended. Let’s see what our buddy Shawn has to say on Monday. Look forward to it.

  6. Wow – this thought is … bold. But bold is good, done with tact.

    I’ve gotta disagree as well, Shawn. Maybe we need to reconsider how/when we use the word sin, as Ken and Jon pointed out, and certainly need to include ourselves more when dealing with other’s sins … but to do away with speaking the word sin is doing away with justice and grace, two fundamental attributes of God. It also downplays the cross.

    Sin is what separates us from God. To borrow from the age old paper track found in restrooms across the nation, we’re on one side of a canyon – God and Life are on the other. Sin has created the gorge between us. Jesus and the cross are the only way to get from where we’re at to where God is at. Sin is the real deal – it’s evident in everyday life. We can’t skirt around calling the kettle black.

    I think I understand what you’re trying to say here – but it’s dangerous and treacherous water you’re treading in. Too much deemphasis on the real problem creates misaligned solutions.

    And to speak to Alise’s point – yes, we do need to watch what we “condemn” because a lot of times, its the very things we find ourselves struggling with on a daily basis, as you pointed out. Christianity shouldn’t be about an “us versus them” mentality – it should be about telling and showing as many people that we are poor, broken sinners who have found a storehouse of fulfilling bread, and inviting as many people to share in the feast as we possibly can.

    1. Thanks Jeremy – I’m not sure how doing away with a 3-letter word that has only been around for about 300 years does away with justice and grace. That would happen if we did away with the concept of sin, but that’s not what I’m arguing for in my post.

      1. Interesting – where does the idea that the word “sin” has only been around for 300 years come from?

        The removal of the word isn’t what I’m focusing on.. it’s the deemphasis on if it. If you deemphasize “sin” by shading it gray (using alternative words for it), you’re deemphasizing justice and grace, inasmuch as they’re not as important. Do we need “grace” when we miss the mark? No, we’re encouraged to try harder next time. Or is God’s perfect, eternal, flawless justice violated when we miss the mark? Alternative words for sin just don’t carry the same weight.

        This is actually a much larger of an issue than maybe I first thought. Jesus Christ came and died to 1. honor God and 2. give us life. The only way he does the latter is by removing sin and satisfying God’s justice. Deemphasize sin, you deemphasize Jesus.

        As Christians as as the Church, we walk a fine line by filtering our words and our views through the Bible and through culture we live in. We need to take care that we don’t use the culture to shape our understanding of eternal words .. just as much as we can’t live our lives with horse blinders on our face only looking down at the Bible.

        Balance is accomplished, I believe, through the stacked filters of Bible then culture. Not the other way around.

        1. How is the physical word spelled s-i-n, eternal? 400 years ago the word was “synne”, not “sin”, and the concept of man’s fallen nature was alive and well. Before that it was another middle-English word that we wouldn’t even recognize. Way before that it was the Greek word amartia. My point is that words change all the time – the concept doesn’t have to. No where in my post did I recommend deemphasizing sin as a concept, only exploring new and more effective ways to communicate it.

          1. I guess this is where we don’t see eye to eye. The word, in my opinion, communicates the concept. I don’t know the etymology of the word, so I’ll trust you in that understanding of it. And if so, then I’ll consent that the word “sin” may not be eternal.

            But the concept is. And it’s our duty to communicate to the world that concept in a way that is true to the Bible and in a way that reaches the world effectively (I had to settle on the choice of that last word).

            Even in this online conversation – the word selection is so paramount. Tiny mistakes convey misaligned interpretations. But sometimes that’s all we have – words. And we have to choose the ones that communicate truthfully the concept behind their meaning.

            And that is why, in my opinion, we deemphasize the concept of sin by watering down the word we choose to describe it. You never specifically recommended deemphasizing the concept of sin, but it’s my understanding that the natural result of replacing the word “sin” will deemphasize the concept.

        1. great article Jeremy. just read the paragraph you pointed out and will go back to read the entire thing. fascinating stuff.

  7. I have to agree with Jeremy here and his interpretation. Sin, while it doesn’t belong in some conversations, absolutely and positively needs to be used in the church. If we are taking communion and lessen what we are asking forgiveness from, does that lessen the act of communion?

    I do feel like there are numerous churches that bash the choices of others and misuse the word, but I don’t think you can use it as a blanket statement that all churches should cease to use the word. Missing the mark, however, feels like a sporting event that you didn’t quite measure up to. I’ll be the first to admit that my life is filled with more sin that I want or should have. It is a weekly…no, daily…no by the minute struggle, but if I lessen the idea of that, I possibly lessent the desire to want to change those areas. Does that make sense?

    If I’m understanding correctly, do you mean that “sin” shouldn’t be used in seeking/marketing materials or that it shouldn’t be used anywhere?

  8. “But sin is so much more than just the breaking of a man made rule.”

    Good point. The Hebrews did not practice separation of church and state. There are many rules in the Bible, and some of them are the equivalent of a parking ticket. Nobody is going to be kept out of heaven for wearing underpants that is part cotton, part elastic.

    The only part of the Bible which God wrote was the first version of the Ten Commandments (although he dictated the second version). I’d be willing to argue that if God didn’t think it important enough to make a commandment, violation of the rule is not a capital-s Sin.

    Paul wrote a lot of letters to various congregations, offering advice on building their organizations. The fact that Paul didn’t approve of something doesn’t mean that it’s God’s law.

    Should the church stop using the word sin? No – but it ought to use the word correctly. My sister used to say “It’d be a sin to let that go to waste” as she sopped up the gravy with a piece of bread, but nobody thought she was using the term in a religious sense.

    And this isn’t the biggest issue that Christian churches have. Most of them claim that nobody gets to heaven except through Jesus – and yet, the old-testament book of Daniel says otherwise.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Harl. “Should the church stop using the word sin? No – but it ought to use the word correctly.” Great point.

  9. Jeremy said a lot of the things I was going to say, so I won’t reiterate.

    I guess i like the concreteness of the word “sin” because it reminds me that there are actual things that i do (and don’t do) that are opposite to the character of God and that separate me from Him. It reminds me that these are the things I am believing that Jesus paid the price for by dying.

    To me, “missing the mark” (and similar sentiments) feel more vague and nebulous. I guess that’s just semantics, but it’s where I’m at.

    good thoughts.

    1. I actually have the same feelings for the word sin – it resonates for me in concrete ways that I feel help me understand life. I am fairly certain though that those outside the church have a very different view of sin than we do, which is why I’m wondering if we could come up with better terminology.

      Sin as vuvuzela seems one of the better ones.

  10. Shawn,
    Well, sin is definitely a word that is not understood by many outside of the context of the Evangelical community, as represented by your informal survey. As you said, many do not understand full meaning of the word sin. What I hear you questioning is whether this matters at all. Does it matter that there are people who don’t understand the language we are speaking, and as a result we are not able to communicate with?

    I know that you have traveled outside of the United States before but have any of your readers been to a country that spoke a different language, had different traditions, norms and values than your own? (no, Canada and beach locations do not count here!) Having spent much time outside of the US, I have experienced such cultures. On one such occasion living abroad I was lost and had to use the bathroom and couldn’t communicate to ask for help? On another occasion someone came up to me who needed help that I couldn’t provide because I didn’t speak the language. There was nothing more frustrating than such a situation, especially for a person like me who is passionate about helping people. Having such experiences though have helped me to realize the importance of language and communication, experiences that I feel can be applied to your question about ‘sin’.

    As a person of faith, a Christian, it is a priority to me to be able to communicate with individuals, those who are within my normative cultural context, and those outside of it. This is no easy task. It often requires patience, love, kindness, gentleness and a lot of self-control.

    At first I was afraid that creating a safe space to talk and share with a person with differing beliefs would somehow compromise my own beliefs in the process. I mean, to engage someone who believed something different than me would mean I was accepting their ‘sin’ after all wouldn’t it!? I have found it does not.

    Oftentimes, ‘the church’ is hesitant to change their language to be sensitive to those outside of their culture and context. They fear such actions might, “soften the gospel” or “downplay it and make little of the Gospel”. But does it really?

    Choosing to communicate effectively with a person who uses different language and who holds different beliefs, values, and ideals outside of your norm does not dumb down your particular beliefs or values in any way. If anything, such an intentional posturing demonstrates your desire to build mutually understanding relationships that are built on respect and a desire to learn from one another. It has been my experience, that this mutual respect is what changes perspectives, ideals and values, surprisingly your own as well as the other person’s!

    1. Well thought out Jill, and I like the language example. That’s kind of what I’m getting at. You said it better than I did.

  11. In school, I could never understand the importance of memorizing terminology. If I know that “a(sqd)+b(sqd)=c(sqd)” who cares what it is called (Pythagorean Theorem). Matt wrote in his comment above that “sin is sin”. I don’t think it matters what we call it. Knowing that as humans we are incapable of living sin free lives, it is essential that we do not take God’s grace for granted by trivializing “little sins”. The price Jesus paid was the same. Dictionary.com defines sin as

    1. transgression of divine law: the sin of Adam.
    2. any act regarded as such a transgression, esp. a willful or deliberate violation of some religious or moral principle.
    3. any reprehensible or regrettable action, behavior, lapse, etc.; great fault or offense: It’s a sin to waste time.

    I think this definition helps make your point that to people outside the church, and many inside, do not have a good understanding of what sin is.
    #2 seems to suggest that there are different levels of sin. The idea that some sin is better than other sin is very misleading. I don’t believe that God has a grading system. There are no parent teacher conferences where the teacher says “Johnny doesn’t play nicely with his peers but he hasn’t killed anyone so I think he will be ok”. God hates all sin regardless of where it falls on our man-made “sin richter scales”. You can call it a Gala or a Granny Smith, but it is still an apple.

    1. Man, for a second there, especially that last sentence, I could totally hear your dad talking! Thanks for your thoughts. Enlightening.

  12. I’ve waited a long time to respond to this conversation. I want to be sure that I understand both sides of the debate (and it helps to have a toddler napping instead of sinning–ha ha–under my feet…)

    First–I agree with Shawn on many counts, but the spirit of the debate itself best illustrates my point: we can all agree that sin is separation from God/missing the mark–in other words, we’re good on the definition. What we’re really discussing is the place the word has in church, in our conversations, in life. And in that regard–what we’re really debating is the weight of the word itself. And the word is utterly unimportant. There’s probably a literary theory I’m coming from on this one (but it’s been too long to discern which one)…but the word itself doesn’t matter. The idea does. If the word becomes a distraction from the idea, then Shawn’s right–we need a new word, a new adjective, a new name. I do not believe God ordained the word to make the Gospel significant. “Sin” is just a word.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how my son will learn about salvation. We were reading the story of the fall last night and I think my husband and I both marveled how the language in the story (from The Big Picture Story Bible…highly recommend it) matched the language we use when addressing Luke’s mis-steps. “Adam and Eve chose to doubt God’s goodness. They chose to disobey God’s word. They did not let God be king over them.” And that’s sin. Before the word itself ever came to be. Adam and Eve chose something (it could have been anything) OVER God himself.

    Though I’m happy in a church now, I do, fairly or not, blame my earlier church experiences for a lot of the unnecessary identity issues I faced in my 20s. Everything seemed to be about words I couldn’t make real or theology I took too much to heart: sin, justification, sanctification, predestination, etc. And I don’t think I really understood what the Gospel meant until I let go of a focus on behavior and academic theology. I’m not saying those things don’t have a place, but God is bigger than words.

  13. I don’t necessarily think changing the word is a horrible thing to do. I totally agree with what both Jeremy and Brian said above. My issue is that we don’t need to change the word. The word sin has been used in the church for centuries, and I think changing it to make the issue easier for others to understand is dangerous. Why don’t we stop teaching about the wrath of God because it is hard for people to accept when all the want to think about is God’s love? Did Jesus only teach on God’s love, or did He also take time to teach on sin and God’s hatred of it?

    Also…we should teach the Bible. Nothing more…nothing less. If it is in the Bible, it should be taught. If it’s not…it shouldn’t. Let’s suppose we started changing our terminology from ‘sin’ to ‘missing the mark’ or any term that you choose to use. How complicated can that be when new Christians or those who are still checking the whole thing out go to the Bible and read the word ‘sin’ but notice that the church is not teaching on it? I think it can minimize the problem. We need to call things what they are. Sins are sins. Calling them sins is necessary, I believe.

    1. Thanks Matt. I think changing something to make it understandable and changing something to make it acceptable are two different things. A preacher uses his own words every week to help the congregation understand the text.

      You wrote: “I think changing it to make the issue easier for others to understand is dangerous.” Do you really believe that trying to make things more understandable is dangerous?

      I’m really enjoying everyone’s comments today so thanks for your take on the issue.

      1. Thanks for the reply. And I do appreciate this discussion. It’s an interesting idea I had never considered before.

        I guess what I meant by changing it to make it easier for others to understand is dangerous in that I think it can be used to minimize the issue. I think ‘sin’ is a hard word for a lot of people, and it should be hard. Sin is a terrible thing that separates us from God. When we change the word to make it more friendly to newcomers, I’m afraid it could minimize the danger of sin. Take the prosperity gospel. I don’t think it started off as being the horrible lie that it has become. I think it started because people wanted to make it easier for newcomers to come in and feel more welcome. But look where it ended up. I just think the word sin is so hard for people because it is such a terrible thing.

        And I agree that preachers use their own words all the time to make people understand the text. But basic, Christian theological terms should not be changed. Sin would be one. I think if, because of the negative connotations people associate with the word Christian, preachers started calling Christians something else, that would be dangerous. I know that’s an extreme example, but I can see it happening. Maybe calling Christians ‘Love Warriors’ or something like that. I know that sounds stupid, but it was the first thing that came to my mind! I hope that makes sense. Trying to get this in during work.

  14. Thanks Shawn -pretty gutsy of you to bring up this subject; I especially appreciated jill o and alise’s comments.
    i hope its ok to just pop in here. i don’t even remember how i found your site but i have enjoyed following your journey.
    so much of the christianity i’ve experienced has been fear based. if you sin – you burn in hell. what has actually been defined as sin time after time is simply a personal opinion.
    it is an easy and weak faith to call out sins; it takes a much stronger belief to LIVE your faith; show love and accept others where they are at.
    with all due respect the phrase “calling sin sin” makes me sad. and then want to throw up. god is very able to convict others of their sin – just as he can convict me of mine own. i do not need to get in his way (help him out!)
    i personally think the “church” is as polluted as politics. probably the average person with in the denomination i was raised in can remember at least (if not muliple) church splits. over sin? no. over a power struggle. yes. now lets talk about sin. the leaders can’t even get along.
    often times the people who are calling sin the loudest are hiding the most.
    should the church get rid of the term sin? i don’t know….. i think so? but they would come up with another term to bring on the fear again. no other healthy relationship is fear based (parent/child, husband/wife, friend/friend,employer/employee) however, with God way to many of us have been introduced to him with a fear (sin/burn in hell) relationship. like somehow we can earn his favor?! oh no they all say, we can’t. really? i can’t reconcile all that in my head.

  15. I dont think the fundamental problem is with the word “sin”. The real problem is how many in the religious community tend to use the word like one would use a loaded gun. Just as money handed over at gunpoint cannot be considered “charitable giving”, true grace cannot be experienced under the duress of the judgement of sin. Both charity and grace are conditions of the heart. If the church would just spend more time focusing on the heart of individuals rather than just patterns of behavior deemed sinful, we wouldnt be having this discussion.

  16. Thanks for the post Shawn. I find it funny that so many Xians have their panties all up in a bunch over this one. People KNOW the world is messed up and the changing of a word that people no longer see as contextually relevant is not going to change that or negate theology.

    The point is… the word(s) that were used in the bible were common words that people read and understood. They were then translated to words the people of that day could understand and were common. But today the word “sin” really has no relative use in the common vernacular of people, unless they are churched people to begin with.

    The word is irrelevant and a hindrance to reaching people today… so do away with it.

Comments are closed.