Should the church check your pay stub at the door and demand the first ten percent off the top? Should the church ask you a list of personal accountability questions when you’ve reached the pew to see if you are worthy to take communion? Should it do background checks on potential members before we baptize them? Does the church make Jesus’ blood too cheap, God’s grace too cheap, that we will ignore obvious sins for the sake of keeping people happy? Since these are biblical issues, we need to address them.
I’ve seen some churches who take a soft line when it comes to sin. They will let anyone in, and ask no one to change their lifestyle, their habits, or their attitudes. They say that God’s grace is open to everyone, and no one should be put out. Paul talks about this attitude in 1 Corinthians 5 when he chastises the Corinthian church for permitting a couple of members to attend who were ostensibly living together, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” (1Co 5:1-2) Now we may try to justify such behavior with platitudes, saying that you just don’t know all the facts, and if you just knew, you would be more understanding, and ignore what is at the root of the thing, sin.
Let’s be honest, there are several sins that have become permissible in modern society, as Paul would say, “among the pagans”. The boundaries of marriage have become quite fragile. We have been sold a lie that consenting adults are just as good as married (to one another) adults. Broken homes, loveless, faithless marriages resulting in divorce, cohabitation, single parents, even homosexual couples are everywhere. Marriage isn’t as inviolable as it used to be. Pregnancy out of wedlock isn’t as shameful as it once was. Is Paul’s standard here what is permissible or not among the pagans? If it is ok among pagans, does that mean it is ok in the house of God? That sounds to me a shameful way to decide if something is permissible among the church’s membership.
Yet, there are several sins that have become permissible in the church setting. We excuse people who don’t attend the Lord’s worship, even though Hebrews 10:25 says we ought not to “neglect meeting together.” I know there are several that are holding grudges against one another for past grievances, even though we are told in Matthew 18:15, “”If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” (Mat 18:15) We are told several times in the Scriptures to share the gospel, but we rarely do it because it makes us uncomfortable. Let’s be clear (to coin a phrase), we have all sinned, and continue to do so, and will do so until we mature sufficiently to overcome them.
All Sin is sin, and equally dangerous to one’s salvation, regardless of the circumstances, and it should be repented of and removed. But, I think it is safe to say that we all sin, and we will disagree as to how much church discipline ought to be enforced in such matters, because we all know somebody caught in one of these sins (including ourselves) we want to be gentle with.
Paul is pointing out an extreme case to shame the church for her permissiveness. These are symptoms of a sin disease that only the church has the cure for, and they weren’t supplying a cure, but a medium in which the sin could thrive. Sin should never be encouraged, but the sinner should be loved. Was a person ever shamed into accepting Jesus Christ as Lord, or were they loved into it? Does Jesus call through shame, or through grace? But isn’t that just the thing, we experience shame for our sin, but grace through the cross?
This is what leads churches to take a soft line when it comes to sin. We all fall short of the glory of God, and for me to point out someone else’s sin is tantamount to Jesus’ words in Matthew, “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Mat 7:2-5) We are warned against being judgmental, and taking pride in our relatively “righteous” position. Taken to the extreme, this attitude forbids any judgment whatsoever, even when the behavior is clearly prohibited by Scripture. This is a kind of “no rules” Christianity where everyone is permitted to do as they please, because “Everyone is going to heaven anyway”. This is usually the position of the Unitarian Universalist Church, or the Mainline Disciples of Christ or United Church of Christ.
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom 6:1-2) A Church’s leaders have a responsibility to shepherd the flock and to keep them away from trouble, but of course, some take that to an extreme. They preach that they must be free from certain obvious “sins” to be considered members in good standing, such as: No dancing, no card-playing, no cohabitation, no pregnancy out of wedlock, no homosexuality, no drug or alcohol abuse, must be in good physical health, must be attending a certain number of services every week, and contributing a certain percentage of their income, as figured based on their submitted pay stubs. (Remember I said “obvious sins” because hidden sins are usually fostered in this kind of environment, namely pride, conceit, judgmentalism, and legalism, but also murder: remember that the BTK Killer, Dennis Rader (arrested 2005) was a leader in his Lutheran Congregation, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dennis_Rader) These are the churches where the horror stories come from. These are the churches that have “complaint night” where members attend a special meeting to present their grievances against other members before the Elders, so that the elders can pass summary judgment. (I am not kidding, I heard about a church that regularly had these kind of meetings.) These are also the churches at which only men are allowed in any church officer position, and only men are considered for service at the table. This is Westboro Baptist Church writ large.
Now, considering our church, I’d say we are somewhere in between these two positions. I would say we have attendance and membership standards, but to be honest we are fairly lax, because we don’t want to offend anyone (and thus cause someone who doesn’t attend to never attend again. This statement is probably considered offensive all by itself).But let’s be honest with ourselves, we don’t do as well in our walk as we know we ought to. We always want to keep the door open for the Prodigal and the sin-weary, because we believe the church is a place for healing and growth. Sometimes that growth is painful, which is where the Word comes in, instructing us and teaching us the right path to follow. We don’t all come in on that right path, but Christianity never forces anyone to approach Christ. It is completely voluntary.
But this is also why we ask our leaders and our officers to be individuals of exemplary moral character, because the blind can’t lead the blind, otherwise both will fall into the pit. If you are considering a position on the Church Board, you will be vetted, just a “heads up”. Because even though the member in the pew is still growing and maturing in faith, the member who serves the congregation ought to be mature in faith. “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. . . . They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.” (1Ti 3:6,9)
We are not a church that will ask you for your pay stubs at the door, but we will ask you to be an example for the flock if you aspire to service in this congregation. We would not force you to do anything you don’t want to do, but we will encourage you to do something,. We may not be perfect, but we are willing to serve. Let us serve Him who saved us, the Risen Lord!