Is the church a judgement-free zone where we love people and accept them as they are?

Quick answer:  Yes, of course.      An “on second thought” answer: Yes,but…        Third answer: No

The Bible is the story of grace. There is biography after biography of out-of-luck people who are always getting it wrong.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1Co 1:26-31)

Jesus went straight to the Temple and threw out everyone who had set up shop, buying and selling. He kicked over the tables of loan sharks and the stalls of dove merchants. He quoted this text: My house was designated a house of prayer; You have made it a hangout for thieves. Now there was room for the blind and crippled to get in. They came to Jesus and he healed them. (Mat 21:12-14)

The New Testament is a stunning story of how the dogs eating crumbs from the table are given a seat at the table. (Mat 15:22-28) The New Testament is The Great Reversal. The first become last. The last are first. The in are out, and the out are in. The up then are down, and the down are up. Prostitutes and tax collectors are at the head of the line. Religious leaders bring up the rear. And so it goes.

This is one of the reasons I have participated in Celebrate Recovery. CR is a place were I regularly hear how far God’s grace will go. Sometimes I build up enough hope that even I can be saved. If God can rescue the drink and drug addicted, the gambler, the strung out, then maybe grace is powerful enough to save a religious man, the ultimate cover up.

But then the church becomes a place where the old ways are released, let go of, walking out of darkness, freedom, new life, day by day liberty. The joy of holiness becomes a new way, a wonderful unheard of pleasure. As that process deepens, a church full of people being released from the kingdom of this world are not going to sit idly by as professing Christians live the old life and expect the church to be passive. It won’t. There are too many antibodies in the system. Those white cells will move naturally toward infection points to purify the Body of Christ and make it a place where the new way is like a airport runway with blue lights all fired up. Don’t expect them to sit idly buy when someone wants to dim the lights that point the way to a changed life.

People will cry out that they should not be judged but accepted for just who they are. But deeply changed people know denial when they see it. They lived a whole lifetime that way. It’s a cover. Do they know people can fall? Absolutely. They themselves have done so a thousand times and will do so again. Do they know that people never really get it all right? Surely. Do they understand the continuing power of the flesh? That is what the Serenity Prayer is about.

But recovery people believe in accountability and intervention. These are just part of how sick people get well. And when people refuse this, recovery people move away, always ready to come back when there are signs that a person has come to the end of their rope.

When people who were in darkness have walked into the light, don’t expect them to not care when the ways of the world are openly practiced and even accepted in the church. Some churches are proud of how much they can tolerate, how “understanding” they can be.

It is just here that we must make a necessary distinction. Church services should fill up with practicing drinkers, adulterers, gamblers, serial divorcers, LGBTs, etc. In fact, if such are not in the services, the Gospel has been lost in translation.

But when one is saved, baptized and adopted into the family of God as a Christ-follower and lover, then a covenantal relationship emerges that changes the dynamics. It is not a bait and switch tactic. One minute you are accepted for just who you are and then the next you are given a rule book. No. A thousand times Noooooooo. But, like in marriage, covenantal relationships bring stewardship and accountability. A covenantal relationship has a right to expectations and loyalties.

Baptists, of which I am one, ought of all the denominations, be most clear on this. Sadly, we often are not. In Baptist ecclesiology, the church is a community of believers who consciously choose Christ and who consciously choose membership in a local church. One is not born into the church, by virtue of having Christian parents, or being citizens of a particular country and thereby should be expected to a bit more lukewarm about a holy life.

What this means is that fellow Christians in the bond of membership in a local church have publicly taken on the yoke of Christ. No one forced it on them, expected it of them.  They are, therefore, more responsible for a life and witness that prospers the kingdom of God. If they are careless in this stewardship and treat the Body of Christ as an unholy thing, then the community of faith is charged to heal the wound that has been sustained. Not to do so is to neglect duty. It becomes a hospital with no medicine and no healing. A contradiction in terms.

Of course, what we know is that church people divorce at the same rates as the world, abort at the same rates, gamble at the same rates, drink at the same rates, abuse at the same rates, live with partners outside the bonds of marriage at the same rates, are promiscuous at the same rates, etc. – as professing Christians.  Why would anyone who seeks a life change even go to a church where the same lifestyle they are seeking to change is lived out in technicolor? This is counter-intuitive, not what one would expect. No one expects to see perfect people at church. But should there not be a core of some holiness at the center of the community? Certainly among the leadership.

How this could ever be denied mystifies me. But it is, if not in words, surely in practice.

The church is a family, not a business. It doesn’t just count nickels and noses as the signs of health. It doesn’t equate budgets and attendance as the only signs of how a church is doing. A family is more than counting how many are in the family and how the income is doing. Church is about health and well-being, relational wholeness and well-being. It is about the abundant life that flows from the throne of God. And like any other family it talks about the elephant in the room when a family member damages the exchange of love by seeking self and bringing into the family divided loyalties that cut at the covenant that is necessary for the safety and well-being of all.

Churches just don’t do this. They don’t know how. They think it is judgmental and narrow. Soon those churches fill up with practices and values that mirror the world’s.

There are plenty of errors to be made in trying to walk together in the way of Christ as his new creation. Wisdom is always challenged when the church has to walk the path that includes both grace and truth, free acceptance and moral aspirations. But it can’t avoid this path, not if it is to be a New Testament church. At least we should try.

One thought on “Is the church a judgement-free zone where we love people and accept them as they are?

  1. A big piece here (and you acknowledged it to some degree) is that if you expect change from gays and drunks you have to also expect change from those who refuse to sell all they have and give to the poor(not the church), from those who divide over theology, and the other “white collar” sins.

    I think the biggest problem that I have with christianity’s judgement is that it’s hypocritical. There are no greed recovery programs. Of course, most (many?) pastors aren’t rolling in cash, but where is call to repentance from their wealthy congregants (including people like me who are wealthy in the world community)? or for that matter just look at the finances of the church. When the church is spending over 80% of it’s income on buildings, administration, and “advertising”, but very little on the poor, it’s hard to take it’s moral teachings seriously. Just this weekend, I had a well-off, divorced (and dating) divorce lawyer tell me that she opposes equality for gay marriages because she is a christian. It took my wife suggesting that I go have a cigarette, to prevent some serious four letter words.

    Ultimately, this is an issue of plank eye. Paul says(Ro 2) you’re right to judge gay people, but when you do you judge yourself. Are you really prepared to say that gay people can’t become members of your church? because that means that you shouldn’t be allowed! Are you really prepared to say that they can’t serve in leadership? because that means you aren’t qualified to serve! I say judge them however you like, but just be aware that when you judge “sinners” you judge yourself and you will be judged by the measure you use to judge.

    Also, there is the issue of judging those outside the church. Paul directly says that’s it’s not the business of the church, and yet christians are more likely to do it than to judge those within the church (including themselves)

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