If you haven't had a chance to read my last posting, here is a link about cultural diversity in the church today...let's keep that conversation going! (I'm Uptight White)
In the same way a lack of cultural diversity in churches today is troubling, an over prevalence of person specific judgments is equally problematic. I'm going to give some context first...then I want to define what I mean when I use the phrase "person specific judgments."
The Bible couldn't be more clear with lists of sin. In fact, I want to give three of them to you now. The lists that follow come from the New International Version but I would suggest you reference several translations just as I have done, including the King James, New King James, New Living Translation, New American Standard, and Phillips. The texts are 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Galatians 5:19-21, Ephesians 4:31, and Ephesians 5:1-5. Now there are many texts throughout Scripture that speak directly to specific sins. I have chosen these because they all conclude with a strong warning. The warning is that those guilty of these sins will not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Ephesians 4:31 is listed as a separate link but is part of a larger discourse that Paul continues in chapter five.
The warning could not be stronger. God is saying these sinners WILL NOT enter Heaven. I understand that there are many exegetical approaches to interpreting these texts. You will have to decide for yourself which you embrace. As Earl Palmer famously says, "The leanest interpretation is the best interpretation." What is the leanest interpretation here...people whose lives are characterized by these sins do not have the hope of Heaven. Does that feel terribly judgmental to you?
Let's first look at the lists...
1 Corinthians 6:9-10: wrongdoers, sexually immoral, idolaters, men who have sex with men, thieves, greedy, drunkards, slanderers, and swindlers
Galatians 5:19-21: sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, and orgies
Ephesians 4:31-5:5: bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander, malice, sexual immorality, impurity, greed, obscenity, foolish talking, and course joking
A few questions. Do you know anyone in your church who has a problem with selfish ambition? How about course joking? Anyone in your family struggling with envy? What about some people in your small group who are bitter? Know any Christians dealing with anger, discord, or greed? How many of these sins have you committed in the last month?
I have been in vocational ministry since 1999. I'm old. So this next statement is born out of 15 years of pastoral ministry. I have found that most people have a list of sins that they feel are the most despicable. That list tends to also be sins for which they feel no temptation and have never been guilty of committing since becoming a Christian. You should do this now. Read those lists and write down the ones that are the most troubling to you that you have never committed since having made a vow of devotion to Jesus and feel no temptation towards now as a Christian. My experience has also been that these people are perfectly fine agreeing that the individuals who do those things will not go to Heaven. These same people will argue that if those individuals claim to be Christians, they must not be or else they would not commit those sins! Have you every had that conversation with someone?
Here is something else I have observed. People's opinions about who goes to Heaven based on that list changes when people in their family, especially their children fall prey to certain sins. Someone may find one particular sin troubling and since becoming a Christian have not committed that sin and feel no temptation toward that sin but now their son or daughter does...or a grandchild. My observation of families for the last 15 years a pastor is that they become super proficient sin list editors!
Some theologically astute people are going to state that this list only applies to people who have never made a vow of devotion to Jesus. That Paul, the author of all three of these texts is giving us a detailed description of people who have rejected Christ. I agree with that position, so long as it accepts the complexity that exists when there is a person who professes having made a genuine vow of devotion to Jesus and whose life is still characterized by one or several of these sins.
Let me give you an example. At your church this weekend there is a husband, Bob, who makes a vow of devotion to Jesus, it is sincere, genuine, everyone is celebrating, praise God! And for the next three weeks and the foreseeable future this same husband flies into a fit of rage every day he comes home from work just as he has done for the last ten years. Are you willing to say Bob is going to hell?
What about a young couple, Paul and Nancy, who are engaged to be married in three months. This Saturday night they both respond to an invitation at your church to make a vow of devotion to Jesus, it is genuine, real, authentic, praise God! They keep living together and continue in their sexual relationship. Are you willing to say Paul and Nancy are both going to hell?
You have been praying for Harold to come to church for years. Finally this weekend he accepts. His whole family attends. The message is just for him it seems. During the last song, his whole family is at the front in tears praying with the pastor...Praise God! Harold becomes one of the most active members of the church for the rest of his life. What you didn't know is that Harold had a life long secret addiction to pornography. Are you willing to say Harold is going to hell?
I could keep going...creating scenario after scenario with every one of those sins. I understand. If those sins are in my past and I have made a vow of devotion to Jesus, I am forgiven. On the contrary, if I have rejected Christ because I would prefer a lifestyle that He forbids, I myself have chosen hell over Heaven.
If I have made a vow of devotion to Jesus and am struggling to overcome a sin, fighting, getting help, failing some but having victories other days...then I have found most people are comfortable saying this is just part of the journey of sanctification. It takes some time to break free for some people...of course those people are Heaven bound. That is what I believe.
But what about the person who becomes a Christian but has not yet embraced the conviction of certain changes in various areas of their lives? What do you believe? What do I believe? I believe that we need to understand the difference between teaching conditions and judging people.
I believe churches would be the places of healing and acceptance God intended if we focused more on teaching the condition and less on judging the person. I'm not suggesting that we abandon accountability. But Biblical accountability requires relationship. And relationships will not form apart from acceptance. This is the culture of City Life. We say that every person, regardless of their lifestyle, regardless of their life circumstance, regardless of their struggles, their past, their present...they are family from the first hello. And when they are at church, in small groups...they are going to hear strong messages that teach the whole Bible, including the three texts above. And we must always remember that our motivation for teaching the condition is to bring liberty to the person! We also have a very structured approach to how and when people can get involved in volunteer ministry. We are strategic about not wanting people to misunderstand our acceptance of them as a person for an affirmation of their lifestyle.
But one thing we aren't doing, is judging that person. What does that mean? To judge means to condemn. Do we discern? Yes. Do we assess? Yes. Do we form opinions? Yes. Do we judge them in that we categorically believe they are going to hell if any of these sins listed above characterize their life even though they claim to be a Christian? Certainly not. Only God knows their heart.
I think we are all going to be surprised by some of the people we find in Heaven and some we do not...You Be The Judge.