Conditional Christianity

There is no greater power on earth than the love of God, evidenced in the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ.  Of course, this gift is only given to Christians.

I heard a United Methodist pastor preach this recently, and I called him a few days later to ask if this is what he truly meant to say… if this is truly what he believes.  He let me know, emphatically, that this is his understanding of the Christian faith.  God’s love is available to all, but it’s up to us to accept or reject it, and there is a very narrow, very specific set of behaviors that prove whether you are a Christian or not.  It doesn’t matter what we say — anyone can say they believe in God or Jesus — it only matters that we align our behaviors with a carefully selected list of “dos” and “don’ts” from the Bible.

I asked for a definition of “unconditional” and was told it is “a universal and all-inclusive love that knows no boundaries or limitations.” 

I was cool with this, but pushed to then say, “doesn’t all-inclusive include everyone?” 

The pastor pondered for a moment, then said, “well, it is true for those who accept it.” 

I countered, “so there are limits and boundaries that it can’t cross?”  “Oh, no.  I can cross them, but God won’t force his love on anyone.”  “But what if I accept God’s unconditional love, but don’t act in a way that someone else defines as acceptable?”

“You’re talking like a gay person? You can’t be a gay Christian.  If you’re Christian, you aren’t gay.  If you’re gay, you aren’t a Christian.”

“Let’s not go there.  Let’s stick with something easy, like divorce.  I’m divorced and I am a devout Christian, even though the Bible is pretty clear.  At no point in the painful process of divorce did I feel I was exempt from God’s unconditional love.”

“Well, this is a bad example.  Divorce is unfortunate, but it doesn’t mean you can’t be a Christian.”

“So, the list of behaviors is up for editing?  We can put on it and take off it anything we want to?” I asked.

“Of course not.  I’m only talking about the really destructive and undebatable sins, like murder.”

“So, a murderer can’t experience God’s unconditional love?”

“He can if he repents and never kills again.  But a Christian won’t commit murder — if a person says they are a Christian but they murder, then they really aren’t a Christian.” he explained.

“And that means that God doesn’t love him?”  I asked.

“No, that means he rejects God’s love.”

“So, God’s unconditional love is conditional upon our acceptance?” I asked.

“Absolutely not!  God’s love doesn’t change, and it never depends on anything we do.  We either accept it or reject it.” he said.

“So, we determine whether we are loved or not?  That sounds conditional to me.”

“Listen.  God IS love.  God can’t be anything but love.  God has never done anything at any time in history that is NOT love,” he patiently explained.  “God’s love just IS, but that doesn’t mean we receive that love.  There are millions of people who reject this love.”

“And so the love goes away…  That sounds like God stops loving those who reject God’s love.  And you said that the gift is “only given to Christians.”  I claimed.

“What I should have said is that only Christians receive the love.”

“But, do you really believe that?  And then you said that it really doesn’t extend to all people who believe in Jesus as the Christ, but only a subset of Christians that behave a certain way.”

“You have to be a true Christian to fully experience the love of God.”

“Okay, what about Matthew 25 — the sheep and the goats.  Don’t you think this passage indicates that everyone should receive the love of God — that we should extend God’s love to everyone just as we would to Jesus the Christ?”

“That’s a perfect example of what I mean.  Jesus says, “as you do to the least of these my brethren or my family, you did to me.  He’s only talking about Christians.  Our only obligation is to our brothers and sisters in Christ.” he explained.

“But that’s an interpretation.  That all depends on where we choose to draw the line that defines “us” from “them.”  I believe the family of Christ includes all who are created in the image of God — all people on earth.”  I said.

“You can think that, but that isn’t biblical.  We don’t have responsibility for every person on earth.  We have an obligation to evangelize them, but if they reject us, they’re on their own.  Our scriptures aren’t universal — they apply to Christians.”

“So,” I tried once more, “God’s love is conditional.  It only extends to those who accept it.”

“Yes, it isn’t the love that is conditional, only our acceptance.”

I can’t begin to explain all the problems I have with this young pastor’s theology and attitude, though I think I understand his argument.  It closes the door to so much.  It limits our potential for healing and transformation in the world.  It constrains God’s power based on human judgment.  It decides who is “in” and who is “out,” based not on eternal truth but human whim.  It also gives us an excuse to give up on people.  I’ve been wrestling with this conversation for weeks, and it still troubles me.  A Christianity that is exclusive, divisive, judgmental, and yes, I’ll say it, conditional, can’t take us where we need to be.  At least, that’s what I think.

33 replies

  1. such an important discussion to have! I absolutely believe we cannot exclude ANYONE from God’s love. People get acceptance and love mixed up with endorsement (or tacit agreement) of behavior. Perfect example of Jon Stewart’s recent comment about the UM church being the “Phoenix University” of churches…we let anyone in. Somehow in our culture if we don’t condemn we become brainless liberals who “love everybody” and somehow don’t want to make anyone take accountability for doing wrong. I believe criminals should be punished by society… but I also believe our criminal justice system needs serious reform and contributes to society’s ills greatly. The fact that God loves a pedophile, or a murderer, should DEFINE our interactions with these people. Not forgive and forget, not go free because he/she was victim of atrocities as a child, but living God’s word by loving even when we condemn behavior. This would mean humane treatment in incarceration, love that changes, not worsens the sins of our world. This is the love that God “gives” the world…we as Christians can only strive to model that love to each other.

  2. I think we are getting somewhere with this thread and I appreciate the conversation. Identifying a person would needs love and healing is, at the outset, a value judgment on normative behavior. Exclude anyone from God’s love and ability to redeem or from community? Not on my watch. But to say that Christian tradition, Scripture, our experience and our reason do not provide a set of normative, societal behaviors, I cannot go there either. What I personally have difficulty with is someone says I know I have a problem (insert your own sin here) and then lives a life that completely ignores the sin and does not seek to change (repent). Thankfully, I have met few people who can resist God’s grace their entire life and seek redemption and change.

    I work in recovery ministries (for myself and with others – Dan I sent you something a while back…) and I hear first hand people that are struggling with life and the various temptations and how they had not viewed the church as a place of love and redemption but a place of judgment. I am seeking to alter that perception. We are woefully missing the mark in some fashion and need God at work within us and in community to live in relation with God.

    Also, Dan, do not sell Wesley too short. At the other end of things, I find that modernity is its own enemy because we assert too strongly that our time and place is so different that historical practices and lessons are given short shrift. I am not saying you went that far, just a comment based upon my perceptions from within an exceedingly liberal seminary which I attend and am thankfully about to graduate from and enter the real world.

  3. God’s love is unconditional.

    There is no difference in the sin of coveting my neighbors cookie and murder in the eye’s of God only in the eye’s of man. God’s justice is very black and white. There are no shades of grey. We however are not the Judge, primarily I suspect because we ALL fall short of the glory of God, therefor the need for a Savior who comes to redeem us, to pay the price for the sin which we all have. God loves every single one of us despite our failings, and we have no right to try and assess anyone else’s relationship with God. It is our responsibility to do our utmost to demonstrate that love to others and in doing that we do “define a normative set of behavior (expectations)”. So in my opinion no I cannot judge you or exclude you from God’s love, however I think I can exclude you from active participation in my life when I see your actions deliberately hurting others. I am not saying I cannot speak to, pray for and love those people, only that I will not involve them in the daily choices I make. I make the choice, with God’s help to try very hard to love as God loves, unconditionally.

  4. Dan-

    Do I assume from this thread that you would hold that the Christian faith is open to all under the umbrella of grace as Wesley understood it. But are you also saying that the Christian context does not define a normative set of behavior (expectations) that, as a Christian, we ought to strive for (and that is how everyone is accepted because anything goes)?

    I would concur that God’s grace is open to all and exceeds all of our boundaries of understanding for acceptance. However, the proscriptions for normative values and lifestyles for which we should prayerful strive is also present in Christianity. Otherwise, particularly in our western protestantism, we end up with a post-modern moral relativism that makes our faith in a righteous God one of diminishing returns. History should teach us this precept.

    • Don’t go too far afield, Jim. My particular response is to the concept of “unconditional” love and the conditions that some Christians then want to impose on it. If you read other things I have written you will find that I am not an easy believism kind of guy. In fact, my harshest critics are mad at me that I think we need to raise the bar within the community of faith. However, I will never be an advocate of drawing lines that exclude, judge, condemn or disrespect. I believe that God’s love — and grace — are greater than my human ability to comprehend. Our penchant for picking and choosing bits and pieces of scripture upon which to set up a set of standards of inclusion/exclusion is tenuous at best, violent at worst, and tricky everywhere in between. One of the things I love about the current conversation on Wesleyan theology is that Wesley would be absolutely horrified at what we’re trying to credit him with. Wesley lived in a different time, a different culture, a different political system, and a different church system. His answers were good for his day and time — we need people with wisdom, discernment, love of God, peace of Christ, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to be coming up with those most appropriate for our day.

      I would be happy were we of the Christian faith able to admit that we do not KNOW all the answers, but by faith we are trying to do the best we can, and that we would simply pledge to treat one another with more kindness, respect, decency, civility, and grace as we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling…

      • I think I must be hearing you the same way that Jim is, Dan.

        Let’s imagine for a moment that I’m a wife beater. I come to Dan Dick UMC. I say, I’m a Christian. I just have to slap my wife around when she gets out of line. God’s love is unconditional. He loves me even though I hit her. You can’t judge or exclude me.

        Am I right?

      • So, God’s love is conditional on our behavior? And where are you making the leap to judgment and exclusion. Don’t you try to intervene and heal? Do you simply accept any and all behavior? Would you stop loving your child because she stole something or broke a law? Would loving her mean you condone her bad behavior? I hope not. Now, of course you can disown her — kick her out of the family — that’s your choice. But that’s where I draw the line. I refuse to give up on people God doesn’t give up on. I realize many in our “Christian family” choose exactly this — as evidenced by the young pastor. I just can’t slam the door on God’s grace like that. It makes me sad that so many can.

  5. I’m a fan of Colossians 1, personally–especially the pinnacle of the passage, which I find to be verse 20. According to this, God has uses Jesus Christ to reconcile all things (whether things in earth or things in heaven) to Himself.

    All things isn’t qualified (except to *expand* it!). It’s just… all things. Not things that really wanna be reconciled. Not things that agree to it. Not things that work for it.

    All things.

    I don’t think it’s a stretch to include all people right there.

    We can all play “pet passages” and find our verses to support our theology. This one’s mine. I find that to be the only way I can reconcile an omnipotent God with an omnibenevolent God: that eventually, *eventually*, everything and everyone in all creation will be reconciled to God.

    Everyone. Did I mention that?

    • So for those who are condemned what did they do wrong? Or asked in another way, what beliefs and behaviors must we have to receive eternal salvation?

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