Karl Marx said, “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”
I like to take this statement and change it up a bit. I say, Christians have only interpreted the church in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.
There came a time in church history when Christians began to divide based on beliefs and ways to do ministry. In the midst of figuring out the way Jesus asked us to live, Christ’s body of believers was separated and segregated all across the world. This period in history was a time that many fondly remember as the Reformation.
In 1517, Martin Luther wrote and posted the “95 Theses,” marking the beginning of the Reformation and the separation from traditional Catholicism. The Reformation was then amended by John Calvin around 1536 with the publication of certain key works marking the start of the Reformed movement. In the early 1520s, the Anabaptist movement began to surface. Thousands of Anabaptists were killed for their rejection of infant baptism.
In 1534, King Henry VIII became the “supreme head” of the English Church, which led to more splitting. Eventually, we arrive at the ministry of John Wesley, who started Methodism, and John Smyth who started the General Baptists. The list goes on and on.
Historically, our Christian communities have made it so that only those who agree with a particular community’s way of thinking would be made comfortable enough to worship God. The problem with this was that everyone else noticed this behavior and tagged the church as no different from the rest of the world. What the church had created, in a sense, was a political struggle over right and wrong, spirituality and non-spirituality. And those most in need of Christian community were left feeling as though the church was not a safe place to be honest and receive grace.
People picked the church that best fit their particular belief system and then adapted the rest of their individual beliefs. The result was precisely pseudo- or almost-community. Individuals were not quite able to experience the fullness and grace of Christ’s body because honesty was not valued, and the truth that grace follows a vulnerability of the heart was not realized. I understand I am making a blanket statement, but I also believe that it is happening in churches today and all around the world.
So how can the church become a safe place for people to enter into true community? In the words of the Free Methodist bishops, how can we “embrace all” and “partner strong” (fmcusa.org/uniquelyfm)?
I can imagine that the answers to those questions are quite diverse and, for some, extremely complicated. My point in asking is not to provide an answer. If I did that, we might all end up back in the same place fighting and dividing over what we think is right and wrong … and deciding who is more spiritual. Nevertheless, the church does need to become a safe place for people to come and learn about what God has done for them. By that, I mean God sending His Son to die for us all. I do not necessarily even believe that this kind of knowledge needs to be attained through a church service. After all, the church is not a building. It is not even a building of people. The church is the people of God, and together we need to become a safe place with a mission “to love God, love people and make disciples.”
I remember sitting in a Wednesday night service when the topic “being a safe place” arose, and people began discussing what that might look like. What was strange to me then, but what I find to be quite normal in churches today, is that the majority of the conversation was about timing and when exactly new people who came into our church should be told that they were living lifestyles of sin. For instance, what if someone was a homosexual or an alcoholic? If they came to church three Sundays in a row, when was the right time to talk to them about their sin?
I remember someone saying something about how it is the Holy Spirit who convicts of sin, and it is not our job to cast people in and out of church, as if we were separating sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31–46). But that idea did not seem to go over too well in that particular service. For some reason, people wanted to know how they were supposed to treat others who were living in sin, and until we figured that out, no one was going to be satisfied.
I do believe there is an answer to that question, and I also believe it is rather simple. We need to treat people exactly how God, because of Jesus, treats us. He forgives us, and He brings us into fellowship with Him. We need to cover others with grace. We need to receive others’ vulnerability with love. There is never a circumstance that is beyond God’s grace. Never. If there is honesty mixed with the knowledge of what Jesus did for us (1 John 4:10), then there will be fellowship. And true fellowship equals freedom.
The church does have a responsibility to teach about sin, but it is not in the way the church has been teaching about sin. To stand against specific sins with a political rightness is different than saying we miss the mark of holiness. Telling people they are wrong is different than allowing each other to be honest about our lives and then express the grace that Jesus gave to all of us on the cross. The Apostle Paul gives us a great way to address sin when dealing with other people. He tells us to think differently about sin, to see ourselves as the ones who need grace the most instead of other people. He writes:
“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:15–16).
At some point, the church began deciding what other people needed to do in order to receive our fellowship. We did not necessarily raise banners with lists of people who were and were not allowed in our communities, but we did begin to send messages that unless people thought like us, looked like us or acted like us, then they were not ready to receive God’s grace. We have all kinds of excuses for this way of thinking. However, the bigger question is: When does it become OK to exclude?
Think about the Reformation again. Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door of the church, and we remember this as a good thing. In many ways, it was. However, out of this happening, the church divided, and people even started killing each other over their beliefs! So somewhere along the line of Martin Luther figuring out God’s grace for himself, people began to make more rules about who could be accepted into the church and who could not. I am sure this was not his intended outcome; but it just goes to show that humans really do like to be right, even taking that desire into conversations about God’s grace. It is almost as if we want to be the ones who decide who gets in and who has to wait outside.
The good news is, however, that when we are dealing with the idea of Jesus dying on the cross for all of our sins to make us right with God, we must also never forget that because of His death everyone is invited into salvation. And if everyone is invited into salvation, then we, as the church, need to receive people in the exact same way as Christ receives us. No prerequisites. We need to simply be a place where honesty can reign free and grace can be received. The church must become a safe place for people to be laid bare before each other and Christ. If this does not occur, then we will perpetuate an exclusive gospel that is really no gospel at all.
Ministry That Misses
Greg was visiting a fundraiser for the homeless. It was a brisk fall afternoon at a park in the middle of the city in which he lived, and a large number of churches were participating. The smell of cold weather approaching was prevalent. Each church was raising money and, at the end of the day, would pool their funds with the other churches in an effort to fight homelessness for the winter in Greg’s city. Everyone was wearing bright yellow T-shirts to show they were all on the same team, that they were combating homelessness together. That is everyone except Greg in his denim jacket and black jeans.
As he walked through the crowd, Greg could see the busy people scurrying about, encouraging each other in their passionate endeavors to bring change to this fallen world. The people were incredibly focused on what they were doing, fighting homelessness, and very little was able to distract them from the goals of the day. Not even Greg.
As he moved through the sea of people, they spread apart as if he were Moses himself commanding the waves to separate so he might pass. Not one of them looked him in the eye, not one of them said hello, not one of them noticed Greg’s existence as a human being in their midst — a human being made in the image of God. The people were too busy. They only saw themselves. And the irony of it all was that Greg was one of the homeless for whom these people said they were fighting. But as he passed, he went unacknowledged, unaccepted and unseen.
When I first heard Greg’s story from my friends Tim and Ellen as we were eating dinner in downtown Kalamazoo, Michigan, I laughed. But when my friends assured me the story was very real, I was shaken. Tim and Ellen were there and witnessed Greg’s experience. They were not part of the fundraising event, but as they observed the phenomenon of a homeless man invisibly passing through a church crowd so consumed by its own ministry, they became enraged by the injustice that was occurring. My friends were angry. Greg was hurt.
He met eyes with Tim and Ellen for an instant. Greg looked at them, and they looked back as if to apologize for all the hurt others’ good intentions had caused him. They were the only people who had noticed him in the crowd that day. Ellen told me afterward she had the sense that Greg was like Jesus. We talked about the idea that maybe what the people in the crowd that day really missed out on, by not acknowledging Greg, was quite possibly a God who had taken the time to come into their presence, to be with them. But because they were so caught up in themselves, and attempting to be “better Christians” by doing what they felt was ministry, they never noticed Him walking in their midst.
This idea also comes from Matthew 25:31–46, whereupon Jesus’ second return He separates the nations by showing how He in fact was the hungry, thirsty and naked of the world. Some people welcomed Him into their lives and others did not. To those who did, Jesus claims to know them, and to those who did not, He says, “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (v.45). The reasons to welcome Jesus or not welcome Him into one’s life may vary, but the idea that Jesus is the hurting person in these peoples’ lives is unavoidable.
Isn’t that quite the story? The God of the universe comes to our world, walks among us, and we do not even notice He is here. I wonder how this story ends. For now, it is the story of people who have become so caught up in themselves that they cannot see past their own reflection in a mirror. This is the story of people who do not love because they are blind to the broken who pass by without rest, without comfort and without grace. This is our story.
We can change it.
ROD TUCKER (rodtuckersays.com) is an alumnus of Greenville College — where he met his wife, Anna (considergrace.com) — and the author of “Uncovered: The Truth about Honesty and Community” from which this article primarily is a condensed excerpt. Rod and Anna live in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with their son, Xander, and dog, Juno.