Maybe that title is a little misleading. This isn’t a story or a tale. If I had named this article, “An Observation of Two Churches” most of you wouldn’t take the time to read it. (Just kidding, I hope.) I am being transparent up front about this… so if you want to stop reading, this is your exit ramp!
It appears more and more there are two distinct types of Christian churches in our nation.
One type of church is primarily focused historic doctrinal purity and making sure their church members adhere to the proper way of believing and acting. If they don’t, they are asked to leave. And many people are never welcomed at all. Believing in Jesus Christ “the right way” is the most important thing. This works well for many members of these churches because they fit in and agree with the rigid theological structure that is expected of every member. A person who does not conform to this type of orthodoxy is not welcome. There is no room for discussion because everything is crystal clear, black and white. Most churches that operate this way have a clear sense of who is going to heaven and who is going to hell in the afterlife.
“Righteousness” (in this case) is obedience to the doctrine and behavior. This type of obedience “pleases God”. Living up to God’s standards is very important to members of this church and often, they are quick to point out those who do not, especially members of the other type of church.
The other type of church is focused on the relational aspect of God, specifically in the person of Jesus Christ. That isn’t to say doctrine isn’t important to these people. This church views the love of God as more important than “getting it right 100% of the time.” Members of this type of church see that humanity is so flawed (sinful) that living up to God’s standards is impossible. Instead, they rely on God’s loving forgiveness given at the cross of Christ for all things. That doesn’t mean they have given into sin and do whatever they want, far from it. These people will tell you that they live from God’s abundant grace and that is what motivates them to reflect the love of God to others. Since religious conformity is not their top priority, this type of church tends to judge other people a lot less than the first church described above. They see that sin permeates everything and drawing lines in the sand doesn’t really fix anything because there is sin on both sides.
“Righteousness” (in this case) is a relationship with God and one another. Loving God and loving their neighbor is very important to members of this church and often welcome those who don’t fit in at the other type of church.
It is clear (from experience) that the first type of church (described above) sees the other church as “soft on sin” and unbiblical. It is also clear that the second church (described above) sees the other church as rigid and unwelcoming of anyone who may be different theologically speaking.
Both churches have a developed theology—even if the theologically rigid church accuses the other church of “anything goes.” Both churches are trying to mirror what they think God has conveyed through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Both churches read the same Bible, confess the same creeds and even pray the same prayer (The Lord’s Prayer). Needless to say, each type of church sees themselves faithful to the scriptures and a true representation of what God calls the Church to be.
Is there any way to reconcile these two views of the church? I don’t think so. There is a reason why there are so many denominations and non-denominational churches. No one can agree on everything.
Even with this division we should be clear about a couple of things. Churches and individual Christians that tell people that God hates them for any reason is both a lie and it is contrary to the good news that Jesus brings.
Wait a minute—what about Psalm 5:5-6? The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong. You destroy those who tell lies; bloodthirsty and deceitful people the Lord abhors. As far as I can tell, that is all of humanity. It is disingenuous for a Christian to say, “God hates sinners but loves the righteous.” The primary mission of Jesus Christ was to save us from our sin and the separation from God caused by our sin. All of Christianity believes this. We can’t start cherry picking sins (and sinners) we don’t like just because we don’t sin like that or understand why “they” do those things. Besides, what is sin to me might not be a sin to someone else (ask me about that some time, it is Biblical).
Remember what Jesus 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
Jesus engages with people who are far from God or have been told they are not acceptable.
Many people who hold to a more rigid historic doctrinal purity think, “If ‘they’ don’t ‘change’ after believing in Jesus they really don’t believe and therefore shouldn’t be a part of the church.”
Here is what I know about that… I am still a sinner. Even being a pastor for over nineteen years, I still sin. I don’t think I am qualified to tell people that Jesus doesn’t love them. If Jesus doesn’t love them, then certainly Jesus doesn’t love me either.
I have yet to meet someone who is perfect. Life is messy because we are messed up. Martin Luther reminds us (Lutherans) that “Baptism never becomes useless, unless you despair and refuse to return to its salvation.” (Luther’s Works Volume 36 p.69) Baptism isn’t just a one-time thing as many believe. It is the source of forgiveness in our lives. A place to be washed clean again and again because we get messy (sin).
Luther isn’t suggesting a re-baptism. He is saying we need to return to our baptism in confession and repentance. Remember water doesn’t save, but Jesus attached to the water does. Only faith in Jesus saves, water is just the vehicle for Christ’s presence.
Hating sinners doesn’t work. Churches that label people as sinners and hates them (or excludes them) doesn’t exemplify the work of Jesus. It is also hypocritical because we are all sinners. As a matter of fact, we tend sin the same way over and over again and I am not sure Jesus loves us any less because of that habitual sin.
The response to this line of reasoning is this, “Where does it end? There are no boundaries!” Of course, there are boundaries. It is our responsibility to protect those who are being hurt by another in various ways (physically, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically). This is not arbitrary or a perception of what I think “being hurt” means. We are to love those who have no power to change their situation and we are to love those who have power over others too. But we include a firm “Stop hurting others” with that love.
This goes back to the idea of agape or sacrificial/unconditional love. The kind of love Jesus showed to all people. Jesus’ death on the cross extended forgiveness to sinners of every age… even sinners who still sin, like me.
The church is imperfect because humans are involved. Nobody has it all figured out or gets it all right. Even with that said, I see my calling as pastor to love and forgive in order to draw people close to Jesus. I know God has changed me over the years, but I am far from being in “final form.” How can we expect people to change, when we can’t even change ourselves? That won’t happen until we see Jesus face-to-face. Until then, I will keep on loving, forgiving and welcoming.
I can’t help but think of this story of Jesus…
36 Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, 38 and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
41 “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”
48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
49 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:36-50)
Our faith in Jesus has saved us. Not our behavior and certainly not for having the ability to identify sinners and exclude them.
If you are still reading this… know that you are loved and always welcome wherever I am.
God bless you all,