Calvin Coolidge’s wife once had to stay home from church because of illness. When ol’ Silent Cal came home, she asked what the preacher preached about. “Sin,” he replied. But what did he say, she probed. “He was agin’ it.” We’re supposed to preach about sin, and we’re supposed to be against it.
It’s true that there are many other kinds of sins than sexual ones, though sometimes that’s all people think we’re against. A young man once came up to Dorothy Sayers, who had mentioned the Seven Deadly Sins in a talk, and said to her, “I did not know there were seven deadly sins. Please tell me the names of the other six.” My experience has been that people don’t mind if you preach against dishonesty or hatred or idolatry. They’ll even cheerfully repent of these sins if you tell them they’re committing them. But they get positively huffy if you suggest that our sexual practices and lifestyles are also open for discussion.
In C.S. Lewis’s short story, “Ministering Angels,” he writes about the first scientific colony on Mars, which is all male. (Lewis died in 1963, so in his day, any major feat of exploration would have been all male.) An unexpected ship arrives, bringing new team members: two women, who have volunteered to provide sexual solace to men far from home. The joke is, neither of these two women is in the least bit desirable as a sexual partner, even for those stuck on Mars. When the Captain of the colony objects to the situation being foisted on them by the authorities back on Earth, the pilot says, “Then there’s the new ethics, forbye.”
To which the Captain replies, “Oh stow it, you old rascal. What is new there either? Who ever tried to live clean except a minority who had a religion or were in love? They’ll try it still on Mars, as they did on earth. As for the majority, did they ever hesitate to take their pleasures wherever they could get them?”
The majority of people have always done whatever they thought they could get away with in sexual matters, as long as they could avoid adverse consequences. In the old days, those consequences were primarily four: loss of reputation (a serious matter to those who value the opinions of others in the community); collapse of one’s marriage and loss of one’s children; an unplanned pregnancy, with all its responsibilities and costs; and disease. What has changed is that today, these consequences are no longer considered adverse -- or at least have been ameliorated. Reputations no longer depend upon appearing to follow traditional values. Marriages are routinely ended with little fuss and people mostly continue to see their children. Cheap and safe birth control, combined with abortion on demand, mean that unplanned pregnancies are not the problem they once were. And though STDs are rampant in our society, science keeps coming up with medicines that help people manage their effects.
And it is still true that only the minority that has a religion or is in love — that is, those who either have a God they don’t want to disappoint, or a lover they don’t want to disappoint — tries to live up to any kind of standard in matters of sexual life. Sadly, many even of those who have a religion now want one that allows them to live however they want. They don't even want to hear that forgivenessness is free; they are offended by the very thought that they need to be forgiven for anything.
But what value is there in a religion that approves everything you do, just because you do it? Such a religion doesn't reconcile you to God and his standards; it only means you are your own god and are to be worshiped for whatever standards you choose. And since you are your own god under such a system, as a practical matter you will find that your human loves will tend to be sterile and unsatisfying. After all, if you don't fear to disappoint God, why should you fear to disappoint a human lover? If you are your own god, then in the end, you are like Narcissus, enchanted by your own reflection and unable to really see anybody else as worth bothering with.
Without someone to remind us that we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, we remain trapped in our own muddy souls, and there is no chance of embracing that glory at last. We preachers preach against sin not in order to condemn people for their misdeeds, but to raise the possibility that there might be more to life than scratching the same itch over and over in search of a satisfaction that recedes ever further from us, yea, though we claw ourselves bloody.
We preachers don't preach against sin in order to hold people down, but to lift people up. And if people get offended, well that can't be helped. It's what the job's about.