That was a new term to me when I recently read about it in a Christian periodical. It comes from the Christian teaching on Original Sin, that every human person is born with a sin nature, an inclination to choose bad over good. In its most extreme form, this is expressed as Total Depravity, the idea that our nature is so corrupt that we are incapable of doing anything good.1
It’s easy to see how this belief can lead to the idea that all sins are equally bad, that a person who lies is just as sinful as a person who murders. In actual practice, this kind of thinking is what has come to be seen as sin-leveling. Sin is sin, and none of us has a right to judge another because we too “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
Where this has become a problem in the modern church is in matters of male dominance, particularly in issues such as physical and sexual abuse, infidelity, adultery and divorce. According to popular evangelical teaching, the rapist is a sinner, but so is his victim because she was acting seductively: “She was asking for it.”2 The Pastor who cheats with his secretary has sinned, but so has his wife who wasn’t meeting his needs, as well as the secretary who has been wearing shorter skirts. Sins are sins; there are no degrees of sinfulness.
Closely tied to this is the notion that men have sexual urges that are so strong that they should be excused if they slip in their behavior when they are faced with temptation. On the other hand, women are supposed to understand how their clothing, their posture and their facial expressions are interpreted by men around them. Any little action may be seen as a come-on. An American woman of 1890 could (or a modern Burkha-wearing woman in Afghanistan can) create the same arousal-response in men by showing a little ankle. But sin-leveling makes them equally guilty of the male aggression that may result.
A nationally-known Christian Pastor/Author posted this: “The Bible says there are men who rape and women who seduce. United in sin, distinct in form.”3 He cited as examples the conquering king raping Jacob’s daughter Dinah in Genesis 34:2 and Potiphar’s wife seducing Joseph in Genesis 39:7. Well, the seduction in the second case may have been real and intended, but Joseph had a choice of how to react. The rape in the first case, by contrast, gave Dinah no choice; she was a helpless victim. Can anyone argue these sins were equally destructive? The famous teacher, by saying they were “united in sin,” implies they were equally bad. That’s sin-leveling.
Jesus made it clear that some sins are far worse in his sight than others (See Matthew 11:21-24, Luke 11:29-32, 12:41-48, John 19:8-12). The most revealing incident is the account of his interaction with some male religious leaders who brought before him a woman who had been “caught in adultery” (John 8:1-11). These “scribes and Pharisees” forced the woman into this embarrassing confrontation. In their eyes, she was clearly a sinner; nothing is said about the man she had been caught with. Jesus responded by writing in the sand. What he wrote is not revealed, but a likely possibility is that he listed specific sexual sins that these self-righteous men had been guilty of, with the result that “they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders” (verse 9).
Sin-leveling among the men had made the woman’s sin stand out in their minds. Jesus turned the tables, and they saw that their sins, as men with power, were worse than hers.
— Pastor George Van Alstine
1 Some Scriptures used to support Original Sin and/or Total Depravity are: Romans 3:10-18, 5:12, 19, Ephesians 2:1-3, Psalm 51:5, Micah 6:2-4.
2 “She Was Asking for It!” 12/8/19 blogpost by Michelle Steele. The author’s quote: “In interviews with 114 convicted rapists, researchers found that13% of the rapists tried to justify their actions and denigrate their victims by invoking the stereotype that women instigate or precipitate rape by the way they dress.”
See also the article “What Were You Wearing?” a study of how rape victims are questioned:
https://wwyw.forestry.oregonstate.edu/stories. Other helpful articles can be found at: http://crystallutton.com/sin-leveling-or-why-throwing-out-the-law-has-huge-consequences/ and https://lifesavingdivorce.com/myth8/
3 Dr. John Piper’s tweet, cited in 1/23/15 on-line article by Taylor Joy Young: https://calvinistjaneway.wordpress.com/2015/01/23/john-piper-rape-seduction-and-sin-leveling/