The Church has a sin problem. The problem is complex, and difficult to understand. If we don’t solve it, we are likely to lose our relevance in our culture. The problem is that our toleration of sin is completely inside out. What I mean is that we tolerate sin among our membership, but we don’t tolerate it in the culture around us. As believers, We don’t hold each other accountable very consistently, and none of us like the idea of submitting our own lives to the authority of the church. Many of us, however, like to sit in judgment over our culture, calling out the sinful attitudes and lifestyles of those outside our communities of faith.
This comes in part because the culture especially the “accepted moral code” has shifted around us in our lifetime. For many of us Christians who are generation X or older, we remember when during our childhood, there was a much more consistently understood set of moral behavioral standards. For example, bullying was generally tolerated, but homosexuality was not. Now, homosexuals are considered brave and are celebrated, and bullying is completely unacceptable. Sexual freedom and fornication between consenting adults and abortion are considered a rights, but sexual assault, even sex between a 19 year old and a 17 year old who are not married defines one as a sex offender, for which they can be branded for life. The truth is that all of these are considered by God as sinful. And it feels confusing as hell to those of us who were raised before the sexual revolution.
I think that this is why so many Christians feel like yelling. We feel like our society has turned morality upside down. That the rules that we were raised with have dramatically shifted. The thing is that they haven’t shifted evenly – they simply have rotated around some unknown pivot point.
The problem comes when we try to reach people who have been fully assimilated into our current moral culture. Not only do they not realize they are sinners in need of a savior, but many times they reject the notion of sin altogether. They perceive our morality as intolerance, or as judgmental at best. So how can we make disciples of these people, whose perception is affected by our culture and they don’t or won’t recognize their own sin.
The church’s job is not to convict people of their sin. The church’s job is to make disciples. Some churches make very strong stands on sin. They are publicly against this and that. Its kind of like hanging a sign out that says: “If you have this sin problem, you aren’t welcome here!” When I analyze it, I realize that it is discrimination. Churches (all churches) are full of sinners. If our calling card to get into the church is “I’m a dirty rotten sinner in need of salvation”, then how can I say “these other sinners” aren’t welcome. The message that we send is that they some how have to fix their own sin problem before they can be “accepted” into the community.
The Bible is the authority on what is and isn’t sin. The Bible said that God alone will judge. We are to love our neighbor, forgive them when they sin against us, share the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ and make disciples.
I have been to churches, where your “past sin” can prevent you from being qualified to serve. They take the passage from Timothy for qualifications for elders or deacons and say “If you are divorced, or are married to a divorced person, you are not qualified” because you “technically” don’t meet the qualification of being a “husband of just one wife”. Now the way I read scripture, ever woman I have ever slept with God considers a wife. That the act of coitus is in effect sealing a marriage vow, in His eyes. Jesus carries it further by applying the law to my thought life – saying in effect that If I have lustful thoughts for a woman it is no different than having committed the act. In my book, that pretty much disqualifies every man alive from ever being an elder. If not, then we are discriminating among sins. Saying, in effect my sin isn’t as bad as yours. It is that kind of thinking that pervades our thoughts that makes non-believers see us as intolerant, judgmental, hypocrites.
The discriminating among which sins the church will tolerate and which they won’t is not biblical or Godly. God will not tolerate any sin, so He solved the problem by sending Jesus, His Son, to die so that we could have a relationship with Him. How then can we discriminate when Jesus Himself, died for ALL of our sins? That discrimination is a Pharisaical heresy.
So then what should the church’s attitude be toward sin and sin practitioners? We know that all who are not in saved through faith in Jesus Christ are in bondage to sin. It should not come as any surprise to us that they expend tremendous amounts of energy justifying the status quo. Likewise we know that all who are saved are no longer in bondage, although experience tells us that we often don’t immediately know how to live in freedom; like those who after long incarceration have difficulty making the transition to life on the “outside”. Being free is uncomfortable in the physical body, which always wants to revert back into bondage.
So we have ignorant sinners, saved sinners and apostates – and our attitude should be threefold as well:
Express mercy and love to ignorant sinners – not condemnation and judgment. You as Christ’s ambassador should be able to demonstrate His grace and be a living example of his message to sinners: “None of you is too far gone to experience true forgiveness, if you want to be forgiven.”
Express mercy and love to saved sinners, without enabling them to fall when they stumble. As long as the heart is repentant, the weakness of the body should not be disciplined. We are weak, and God is strong. God uses the weak among us to minister, as an example of His grace and love for us: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Even the apostle Paul struggled – I know what I am supposed to do, but the thing I ought not do, I do, and the thing I ought to do, I don’t. That is the essence of the saved sinner – we know what we should do, but at times do the wrong thing, and we must turn around and confess that to remain in community with God and our brothers.
Express mercy and love to apostates by letting God judge them, by separating them from our midst if they will not turn from their sin and confess. It is not our job to condemn them, or to pronounce judgment – simply to remove gently fellowship in the hope that this will encourage conviction to awaken within them. This is the essence of discipline. There is no wrath, no anger, no malice – there is disappointment, and concern; desire for their restoration, and a path to full restoration when there is repentance, not a perpetual holding at arms length.
In none of these do I see a viable stance for any Christian to act hatefully to sinners in any of these positions, on the basis of their actions or their attitude towards Christians or what they believe the Christian church teaches about their actions or lifestyle. They are convicted by what the Bible (God) says. They don’t like to be accused. They are in bondage and it doesn’t feel “fair”. Shouting at them in public places doesn’t really help them understand God’s love, does it? As a Christian, this makes me feel uncomfortable. I am embarrassed to be associated with people who do this. Writing and publishing articles blasting their lifestyle choices and human weaknesses doesn’t really help them understand God’s love, does it? As a Christian, I find this behavior troll like. Supporting politicians and pundits who agree with our understanding of morality, but use that in divisive ways to gain power and influence doesn’t really help them understand God’s love. As a Christian, I find this behavior reprehensible, to use God and the faith community for personal gain.
So why do Christians do these things? In my understanding it is because of fear. We are afraid that the majority is shifting away from the core moral values that we believe in. In North America, we are reacting to what feels like defined campaigns by extreme elements of the culture to paint our views as wrong, as backward, as irrelevant, as somehow harmful to the culture. In fact, they are right – our views are harmful to the culture of sin. They are, and always have been counter-cultural – but we were lulled into a false sense that we were mainstream. That Christian moral values had been adopted by the broader society. This simply has not been true.
The truth is that our culture has always been a culture of sin, like every other human culture. For a while some sins have been hidden, and others have been visible. In centuries past, sexual sin was hidden, while slavery was visible, now sexual sin is visible, and other sins are hidden. In the last century, addiction, drunkenness, were visible, now they are less prominent. The kind of sins that are accepted or tolerated by the broader culture shift and change with the times. But the sins that kill the soul, are ever always the ones that are sins of attitude or thought like pride or unbelief or envy – the sins of motivation, yet those are also the most common, and the easiest to conceal.
These more subtle sins are the real danger to our soul. These sins are not the ones that Christians rally and protest against. In fact, it is often these very sins that cause the fear among believers or the faith community that cause the outrage over the culture in the first place. So think that through for a moment. The thing that causes Christians to have violently fearful reaction to shifts in cultural acceptance of sinful behavior is itself the result of sin. So while I am railing against homosexuality or pornography or abortions or euthanasia my own reaction is out of fear which results from my own lack of trust in God to reach my culture. For if I truly trusted Him, I would be praying rather than yelling.
That said, I think the church should always be a place that is safe for sinners to come. It should be a place where your ticket in is sin. If you think you’re perfect already, then the Church is not the place for you. And yes, the church should be responsible for explaining what God’s position is on attitudes and activities that are sinful – but not to condemn, but to encourage repentance and to forgive.
What do you think?