Many years ago, I served as Elder and Co-Pastor of a small house church. One of the distinctives of this church was a strong and public stance against abortion. Even before I started attending, they had developed a “Statement on Abortion,” a formal affirmation of life beginning at conception and the need for new laws protecting life. We took out ads in the local paper, publishing this statement as well as others in our pro-life stance.
I have no regrets that we were so public and forthright in our statements. However, in later years I began to wonder if by being so outspoken we were unintentionally putting up false barriers to the gospel. Were we saying implicitly that in order to come to our church, or, more importantly, in order to come to faith in the gospel, you had to first be pro-life?
The grace-nature of the gospel is such that God accepts those who repent and place their faith in Christ alone apart from works of righteousness (Ephesians 2:8-9). We’re not saved by correct theology, or the right political views. As we move along with Christ, our theology and our views will hopefully grow and become more and more aligned with a biblical world-view. That’s the ongoing transformational nature of Christianity.
This raises the question of how can we as Christians and the Church at large speak out against specific sins (abortion or homosexuality, to name two that are current cultural flashpoints), and yet not put up false barriers that keep sinners from even hearing the gospel message? I’m still collecting my thoughts on this. Here are a few considerations I’ve come to
- The preaching of the gospel will always be offensive and off-putting.
Because the call of Christ is so decisive, it will always be foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18). Jesus came to divide, not to bring peace but a sword, and to set father against son, mother against daughter (Matt. 10:34-35). So we in no way must speak of somehow making the gospel message palatable to sinners. If we do, we are not preaching a true gospel. We must never water down our convictions to attract an audience.
2. Elements of Evangelical Church culture have become false barriers to the preaching of the gospel.
But then again, our behaviors and church culture, aside from our convictions, sometimes get in the way of the preaching and hearing of the gospel. I can guarantee you that for most American unbelievers, the perception is that you must be a politically right-wing, card-carrying Republican in order to be a Christian. For others, perhaps the sense is that “real” Christianity is about social betterment and change – a more left-wing approach. Now I’m aware that we may not be not explicitly saying these things, but perhaps we’ve allowed these impressions to arise. When our speaking out is more about politics and candidates than it is about Jesus Christ and the gospel, it should be no surprise when we push away half our audience.
3. Speaking out against sin is proper, but only if we speak against all manner of sin.
As I discuss in my book Take Root, Bear Fruit, the passage Romans 1: 18-23 has gotten much press lately for its strong statements of condemnation against homosexuality. Indeed, and entire paragraph of 4 verses takes up same-sex activity as evidence of the futility of thinking that comes when humanity rejects the living God. The condemnation for homosexuality in this passage is a correct understanding. But as I pointed out, we have come to treat this passage as if it condemns only homosexuality. However, that is just one manifestation of God “giving up” sinners to deeper sin. In verses 28-32, Paul sums up by speaking of God giving humanity up to a “debased mind to do what ought not to be done,” making an extensive list of sins. These include such “small” sins as envy, gossip, heartlessness, maliciousness.
The Church must speak out against sin. Part of the message of the gospel is repentance from sin. But to the degree that we condemn certain sins and not others, we become like the Pharisee who prayed, “Lord, I’m thankful that I’m not like that tax collector” (Luke 18:11-13). Because he wasn’t guilty (in his mind) of certain heinous transgressions, he couldn’t see the depth of his own iniquity. Instead, a gospel prayer is, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
When we speak out against homosexuality or abortion and don’t at the same time condemn the greed, the avarice, the pride and haughtiness we also clearly see, we lose credibility. We are also seen as hypocrites, because we generally fail to condemn our own sins. And that leads us to the final point.
4. Speaking out against sin is proper, but only if we condemn sin in ourselves as well.
The gospel clearly begins with the message that we are all sinners (Romans 3:23). There is not one of us who does not need the grace of the gospel. All sin is cosmic treason against God and deserving of eternal condemnation. Coming to a point of conviction about our fallen state is the first step in moving toward faith in Jesus.
When speaking out publicly against certain manifestations of humanity’s guilt, the Church has a tendency to devolve into an us/them paradigm. Even if I once was guilty of the transgression I am now speaking out against, it can come across that I am no longer a sinner in need of grace. There’s a subtle pride there that the world clearly hears.
Now, there is a sense in which we are different than we used to be. “Such were some of you,” Paul wrote after listing several examples of sins, “but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified” (1 Cor. 6:11, emphasis mine). Positionally, we are not what we once were.
However, simul justus et Peccator, has been the teaching of the Church for centuries – “simultaneously justified and a sinner.” Paul testified, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15). Though obviously a hyperbole, he identified himself in the present tense as a sinner. The latter part of Romans 7 shows his ongoing struggle with indwelling sin. We must never lose sight that we, though saved by grace, still can identify as sinners.
This requires a humility when we speak out and speak against sin.
There are many churches that identify as “welcoming and affirming.” (This is usually in the context of sexual and gender identity.) In other words, your lifestyle won’t be excluded here and in fact, will be affirmed as accepted by God. However inviting this may be, this is not the gospel. Against that, “welcoming but non-affirming of your lifestyle” is not the gospel either.
The gospel is “welcoming to all, but affirming of none.” There is no lifestyle, no life that can be affirmed by God. We all were and continue to be in need of God’s grace. So, even as we speak out against iniquity, the gospel message requires that we keep our own humble dependence on God for grace and forgiveness at the front of our message.
These are some of my thoughts as I navigate this question of how we can maintain our convictions and still not alienate non–believers with either our manners or with secondary issues. Our convictions, faithfully proclaimed and defended, are necessarily decisive. People will either be offended, or they will be convicted by the Holy Spirit. I pray for more of the latter.