Joseph Smith and a Relational Definition of Sin
by Josh E. Probert, University of Delaware
"Joseph Smith questioned the foundation of Protestantism that salvation is an event that takes place between two people alone, namely God and man. He replaced this ethic of individualism with one of community, interrelatedness, and interdependence and made religious community the condition of the possibility of salvation." Although Joseph would agree with the biblical notion that sin "ruptures one's relationship to deity," he built upon this idea and added to it.
The Protestant worldview of self-scrutiny and being saved by grace may have driven Joseph into the Sacred Grove, but the religion that grew from Joseph's encounter with Deity was one based on relationships, particularly covenant relationships. Joseph's revelations, says Probert, resulted in an effort "to make concrete an impulse manifest across the millennia of Christianity, namely the desire to construct the city of God, . . . Zion."
Community was not just for this world either. Joseph recast heaven, too, as a place of "eternal work among eternal associates" and not merely a destination where the Saints experience "a beatific reprieve from the cares of this world in which all surround the throne of God and do nothing but chant, 'sanctus, santus, sanctus.'" Joseph believed in a heaven where "the same sociality, which exists among us here will exist among us there" (D&C 130:2).
Probert suggests we need to better understand "what Joseph Smith was getting at when he taught that friendship is one of the 'grand fundamental principles of Mormonism.' It is at least clear that he was arguing for something more robust than inviting the Whitneys and the Kimballs over to the Mansion House for a game of loo and whist." Friendship, community, and relationship provide a different context for sin.
Sin becomes more than merely the breaking of a rule; it is the violation of a covenant community. This idea that sin occurs within relationships leads to Probert's pivotal point: "This contextualization of sin helps provide a measure of stability in the subjective relativity of defining what is and is not sin. One can use behavior's effects on relationships as a rubric. In a most important way, seeing sin as behavior that damages saving relationships gets us beyond Pharisee-like judgment of others for things that do not matter and reorients our focus to love, especially the agape-type love that was central to primitive Christianity.