Sinners anonymous. “Hi, my name is so-and-so and I’m a sinner.” Welcome!
(Listen to Tim Stewart read aloud the blog post below at the Dictionary of Christianese Radio podcast: episode “sinners anonymous” – length: 3m:53s ?)
Is the church for sinners or for saints? Probably each of us have our days when we feel more like one thing or the other. Theologically you can make the case that we sort of have one foot in each camp. Sure we’re forgiven, but we don’t have our halo yet. Given our own paradoxical identity, it’s no wonder that some interesting figures of speech would arise regarding just what sort of institution the church is. One of the more picturesque ones is sinners anonymous.
The well-known organization Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935, and in the decades since then many other 12-step programs have named themselves using the word anonymous. There are Overeaters Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and so on. The idea is that people who identify as a certain kind of person (alcoholic, overeater, gambler, drug abuser) can get help and support from others who share that struggle. I guess it wasn’t long after 1935 that some clever wordsmith observed the parallels between people who struggle with alcohol and people who struggle with sin. And thus was born the term “sinners anonymous” to describe one aspect of what it means to be in the Christian church. We all have a common problem (sin), and we come together weekly to support one another along our spiritual journey. We even have coffee and donuts in the back after the meeting. Of course, we have twelve disciples instead of twelve steps, but no metaphor is perfect!
One reason why the term sinners anonymous has retained its popularity is that sometimes we need a reminder that just because you go to church doesn’t mean you have all the answers down pat or have your life entirely figured out. Some folks, especially folks outside the church, have the wrong idea that if you call yourself a Christian then you must be living a perfect life. That’s where sinners anonymous helps to set the record straight. We participate in the life of the church precisely because we see the temptation and sin and weakness in our own life and we want to draw near to the only person who can do anything about it: Jesus Christ.
To drive the point home more clearly, some folks draw a contrast between sinners anonymous (which describes the church) and various other metaphors (which don’t describe the church). The citations in the dictionary entry below show a few examples of this contrast. You also sometimes hear Christians say that the church is a “hospital for sinners, not a museum of saints.” All these figures of speech are trying to get at the same idea: you don’t clean up your act and then go to church once you’re all respectable and holy. No—you come to church as you are, and within that spiritual community you discover just what kind of life God would like for you to have.
After all, it was Jesus who said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). So expressions like sinners anonymous have a connection back to the same sort of ideas that Jesus and the apostles were talking about in the New Testament.
How about you? What expressions do you know that might help people understand that the church is not necessarily for people who have their act together, but is really for anybody who realizes that they can’t do it all on their own?