Monday, April 16, 2018

A Bit Too Welcoming

A recent post here touched briefly on the perceived need for churches to be more welcoming. Alan Shlemon addresses the same subject in a post entitled “Doing Church Biblically Can Be Messy”, which turns out to be rather a mess of its own.

Shlemon has written usefully on a number of subjects, but his take on a church that welcomed and loved a lesbian couple even though its pastor declined to officiate their ‘wedding’ ... well, let’s just say it’s not his finest hour. (Comments on the thread are now closed, but that seems to be the case with a number of other STR posts, so if you happen to follow the link to Shlemon’s post, don’t read too much into that. I suspect the liberal element would have little to scold him about in this instance.)

Helpful hint: when you’re talking about doing church ‘biblically’, it might be useful to indicate which bits of the Bible you’re actually referring to.

Attenders, But Not Members

The lesbian couple enjoyed the congregational culture and felt welcomed and loved, so they attended regularly. On the one hand, we might say these are good things. We want people to be saved, and to be saved you must first hear God’s word. So the fact that people from the surrounding neighborhood feel free to come in to a church and listen to what a pastor has to say about the message of the Bible is a great thing. Yes, these women are sinners, but so are we all, and scripture confirms that the gospel is capable of transforming even the most extravagantly sinful lives. The only sin that forever precludes a relationship with God is an obdurate refusal to repent of one’s sins and place one’s trust in the person of his beloved Son.

We believe that, right? Right.

This situation had developed a little further, however. We do not know whether these women had professed faith in Christ or whether they had been baptized. Shlemon classifies them as “church attenders (but not members)”. However, they clearly thought of this church as theirs, and the pastor expresses how much he enjoyed being “their pastor”, whatever that means. (Words do matter: how exactly does one shepherd those who are not sheep?) Anyway, there was some sort of attachment that went beyond mere attendance but fell short of membership.

In the Twilight Zone

Now, I think most of us would agree with the apostle Paul that the place for people engaged in ongoing sexually immoral relationships is outside the church. Sexual immorality of all stripes — we need not single out lesbianism or distinguish it in any special way — is cause for breaking fellowship with someone who professes faith in Jesus Christ. Paul says not to associate with anyone who “bears the name of brother” (or sister) who insists on remaining in that condition.

But these ladies were not exactly “inside” this local church. We do not know exactly how this particular church defines membership, only that the couple were not “members”. We don’t know whether either or both had experienced salvation, so we cannot say whether they were members of the Body of Christ at all. They were in that awkward in-between place where any strong opinion about them is bound to draw major heat.

How we feel about the indefinitely-comfortable lesbian attendees in their churchian twilight zone goes directly to what we believe about the purpose of the local church. Is it primarily a place of witness, a sort of community drop-in centre where anyone should be able to loiter indefinitely and feel at home, whatever their actual beliefs? Or is it first and foremost a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ?

Put another way, can a church witness to the love of Christ while back-burnering his holiness; and if it does, is it really the “love of Christ” that church holds out to the world, or just the garden variety omni-tolerance of our present age?

Playing Out the Situation

Shlemon then posits a pair of possibilities about how the pastor could have played out the situation confronting him:
“For example, he could harp on homosexuality, never address other sexual sins, and make people with same-sex attraction feel unwelcome. Perhaps this lesbian couple would never make this church their home, and the pastor would be done with them. There would be no need for a messy conversation about sexual ethics and whether church attenders (but not members) need to abide by them. That would be easier on him and the congregation.

The pastor could take another approach. He could simply affirm homosexual behavior and deem it morally permissible. He could claim the biblical authors didn’t really know about loving, consensual homosexual relationships, and therefore Scripture doesn’t condemn gay relationships today. The lesbian couple would feel affirmed and welcomed at this church. There would be no difficult conversation about the sinful nature of homosexual sex. This would be easier on him and the congregation.”
The latter approach, I believe you will agree, is off the table, since it involves compromising the word of God, pandering to the world and obscuring scripture’s teaching about its own authority in a way that would not only potentially damage the perhaps-nascent faith of the lesbian couple but that of the entire church.

A Straw Pastor

But the first approach? Come on. I have never been in a church in my entire life where the preacher(s) harped on homosexuality without addressing other sexual sins, or without making reference to the many other sins of which one needs to repent in order to maintain fellowship with and grow in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Aside from the possible exception of Westboro Baptist, it simply doesn’t happen. In fact, Westboro’s notorious haters hate so many other things that it’s unlikely even they can stay laser-focused on a single deviancy for an entire sermon. Shlemon’s example is flirting with straw-manhood.

I would go further: I have yet to hear a single sermon — EVER — preached strictly or even primarily on the subject of homosexuality. I have heard dozens about being sexually chaste, avoiding adultery, the biblical model for marriage, how to find a partner that will please God, etc., etc. That a couple sinning sexually — be they lesbians, homosexuals, watchers of online porn, Christians cheating on their husbands or wives, or kids “living in sin” — could sit for months in a church without hearing at least one of these boggles the mind, since we are much preoccupied these days with ensuring platform ministry maintains a practical focus.

Still, despite attending church regularly, it seems this pair had yet to hear anything that troubled their consciences. Either they had never set eyes on the church’s statement of faith or this church doesn’t publish theirs. (I’m not a fan of these, actually, but every church I’ve ever been in has one, and in this case, it might have been useful to peruse the church’s beliefs about what the Bible teaches on matters of sexuality.) Yet these ladies were so clueless about the convictions of “their pastor” on matters of sexuality that it never occurred to them that he might have issues with “marrying” them.

Um … that’s a problem, don’t you think? 

Under Conviction

Few passages in the New Testament speak to the issue of church visitors, but the most familiar one tells us that when a church is operating biblically, those who witness it find themselves under conviction and convinced that God is present there. We no longer have the spiritual gift of prophecy operative in our churches to provide miraculous supporting evidence for the truth claims in God’s word, so maybe we cannot expect our walk-ins to fall on their faces as Paul suggests, but surely the production of a little occasional twinge of conscience about sexual immorality (or other sinful behaviors) is not beyond the pale.

Sexual immorality among Christians happens, and I’ve been witness to the way a few churches had to deal with it. A sexually immoral person may sit undiscovered in church for years, perhaps conflicted about the disconnect between his or her professed faith and current conduct, perhaps obdurate but unable to leave because of the need to keep up appearances or conceal their guilt from family and friends.

What does NOT happen, I assure you, is that they sit comfortably. If they do, something is very wrong with their church.

Perhaps it’s possible to be a bit too welcoming.

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