Ratiocinational Anthem

Jesus loves me, this I know
For the Bible tells me so,
But Jesus does not love you,
Because of all the crap you do.
(scribbled on a church bathroom wall)

There is a perverse logic at work in the Christian church.  Recent polls of regular church goers indicate that over two-thirds would prefer that “sinners” not attend church.  There is a troubling implication in this.  Do the people who don’t want sinners in their church consider themselves not to be sinners?  Now, of course it depends on the sin.  saints-sinnersGossip, lying, cheating, gambling, drinking, divorce, sexism, borrowing or lending money at interest, breaking the speed limit, domestic abuse, and/or racism — these don’t count.  Basically, only convicted criminals, homosexuals, drug addicts, homeless people, and anyone else we can comfortably label as fundamentally different than we are  is who we really mean by “sinner.”  And even then, there are conditions.  If poor people will bathe and behave properly, they can come in.  If homosexuals will ‘choose’ not to be homosexual anymore, then they can come in.  With criminals, it depends on the crime — some criminals are less criminal than others.  Various research studies indicate that people convicted of fraud, embezzlement, drunk-and-disorderly, domestic abuse, rape, tax evasion, and stealing have little trouble finding a church that will accept them, while those convicted of drug possession, armed robbery, murder, child molestation, and kidnapping are unwanted by just about everyone.  Forgiveness, it appears, has limits and layers — some “sins” are more forgivable than others.  And in most cases, there is no real offer of redemption — once a person has been labeled a sinner, the best they can hope for is to be a ‘forgiven sinner,’ but still a sinner nonetheless. 

The immediate flaw to this logic is that if only the totally pure can come to church, then our churches should be a lot emptier than usual — since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  In an age of widespread brokenness, fear, despair, and despondency, the church should be seeking sinners and welcoming everyone (perhaps someone should launch a campaign proclaiming how “open” we are…), not working so tirelessly to decide who to reject, condemn, and turn away.  A significant amount of time, energy, and resources are wasted every year by United Methodists, Southern Baptists, and Roman Catholics on policies of exclusion instead of evangelism.  During the past generation, these efforts to bar, ban, and embarrass have taken on hostile, evil, and violent characteristics.  Pick-and-choose Bible application and theological misrepresentation have been employed as weapons of mass destruction to attack, humiliate and create ever-stronger “dividing walls of hostility.”  This is not just a situation unique to the U.S.  Recent stories indicate that grace is in short supply, as we seek ever more creative ways to get rid of ‘sinners.’

  • Roman Catholic bishop Jose-Cardoso Sorinho excommunicated a 9-year old girl, who was raped by her stepfather, for having an abortion.  The girl, her mother, and family members responsible for helping the 9-year old get the abortion have been excommunicated as well, with approval from the Vatican.  The step-father rapist, however, is still a “member in good standing” in the church.
  • South African Christian men, horrified at the sin of lesbianism, are gang-raping women to help “cure” them.
  • A Nigerian pastor, crusading against the sin of homosexuality, killed his son by brutally beating him with a metal pipe.  The pastor was absolved of any guilt when he explained that his son had been disobedient, and he was merely punishing him.
  • An Alabama pastor has been arrested on domestic abuse charges seven times, yet still retains his pulpit.  He is an outspoken opponent to abortion, and is quoted as saying, “No one who continues in sin is fit to lead in any church.”
  • A New Hampshire pastor offered asylum and assistance to a 60-year-old man who served thirty-five years in prison for murdering a 12-year-old boy, believing the man paid for his crime and needed help putting his life back together.  Other pastors criticized him for “bringing a child molesting dangerous monster” into his home, and one lovingly suggested it would be best to offer the man no help so that he would  “be left to die in the gutter with the rest of the trash.” 

sinners1By what logic do we judge these things?  Who among us has the wisdom and the right to draw the lines of sin?  Who has the authority to decide whom to accept and whom to reject, whom to forgive and whom to condemn?  How is it that we are so hard on others who transgress, but are so lenient when it hits closer to home?  Why have we so readily embraced judgement and division over grace and reconciliation?  To what good end do we think we should keep broken and incomplete people out of the church?

There is real evil in the world.  There are dangerous people, and we need to be cautious.  But we’re not talking about the truly pathological and violent.  In most cases, we are talking about people who are simply a little different than we are — who make choices we disapprove of, who believe different things than we do, or who have not been given a chance to get their lives in order.  But even in cases where we may not want people joining us in our churches, don’t we still have a responsibility to extend the love of God and the compassion of Christ to them?  Do we actually believe that people on the outside our circles of acceptability aren’t children of God?

For years I participated in prison ministry, and found many broken, frustrated, misguided, and ignorant people struggling to become “good.”  The men I encountered (and the few women) were touchingly grateful that someone – anyone – would take time to talk to them, to pray with them, to read the Bible with them, and to offer the smallest word of encouragement.  Did they all change?  No.  Did some of them take advantage of the attention?  Yes.  Did some “get religion” just to impress the trustees, guards, and parole board?  Sure.  But does any of that truly matter?  I never had any control over the men I visited.  The only control I had was to make the decision to visit them, to pray with them, to read with them, and to do whatever small thing I could to give them hope.  And I never regretted it.

Sin is icky.  Evil is awful.  As the wisdom of the bumper often tells us “Mean People Suck.”  All this is true.  It is why the church exists.  It is why the Word became flesh.  It is why God sent His only Son.  And it is why we are here.  There is NO logic to keeping sinners out of the church.  Because if all the sinners are locked outside, rest assured, that’s where Jesus will be found as well.

8 replies

  1. What role does “church discipline” play in your view?

    Is “repentance” any kind of prerequisite for the dangerous criminals? Or are unrepentant criminals welcomed with open arms?


    • Congregation by congregation, we need to be cautious and careful; but for a denomination or for the ecumenical body of Christ, we need to be strategizing ways to love all God’s human creation, regardless of their state of redemption or repentance. The needs of the broken and imperfect world is great — and the burden of love, compassion, healing, and tolerance lies with us. I did prison ministry for years, and visited some absolutely horrible people who did heinous things. Some of their acts and some of their attitudes appalled me — and I visited them anyway. Because Christ commands it. Could everyone do that? No. Would I have received some of these felons gladly into my local church? No. Did that alleviate my responsibility to be an agent of God’s grace to them? In no way!

      Many individuals would be foolish to engage the violent and unrepentant. But collectively we have the means and resources to serve all people and witness to the goodness and grace of Christ. Church discipline demands we do this. Can we extend God’s grace to those we do not reasonably welcome into our communities? I believe we must — but we must use common sense and simple caution in making our fellowships safe and our witness authentic.

  2. There is a lot of pain involved in these decisions, but a deliberate means of handling the problem can reduce the pain. If a child molestor commits to Christ, let him come, but don’t leave him alone near children. (in this day in age, don’t leave anyone alone with children) If the church was already working on accountability and discipleship, as we should be, these problems would not be as significant.

  3. So we should let criminals and chil molesters in our churches? Don’t we owe it to members to make sure they are safe when they come to church? Should we just close our eyes and ignore sin? This doesn’t make sense to me that we should love those who sin more than we love those who don’t. And I also think child molesters are worse than thiefs and liars — some sins are more serious just like some crimes are more serious.

    • Let me pose the question: If we do not want or allow dangerous people into our churches, does that mean we have no responsibility for them at all? Are they someone else’s problem? Do we simply give up on them?

      Perhaps we shouldn’t love “sinners” more than those trying not to sin, but should we love them less?

      And while sins and crimes both vary in their destructive force, all sins and all crimes are problems, and while we decry both, we are called to love those who commit them.

      These are hard questions to wrestle with, and I don’t think there are any easy answers.

  4. Dan,
    Thanks for another excellent post. You rightfully raise the illogic of part of the church that wants to exclude sinners and fails to see their own sin; or the fact that their desire to exclude sinners is sinful pride.

    There is another part of the church that denies the reality of sin. They do not believe sin is a problem and are offended when they are referred to as sinners. In this part of the church worship does not include prayers of confession. The Lord’s Prayer is rarely prayed and the creeds are neglected altogether.

    This part of the church prides itself in being radically inclusive. They embrace diversity, that is as long as you agree with them and don’t bring up the problem of sin.

    Keep up the excellent work.

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