How do we reconcile Jesus’ welcome and embrace of all people with his strong statements that following him will be difficult and transformative?
Radical welcome is part of the biblical story, whether it is Jesus dining with “tax collectors and sinners” or caring for the resident aliens in our midst, as Exodus 23:9 instructs us to.
Welcome is also a part of who our church desires to be.
As our church explores the spiritual gift of hospitality, we face the questions of how to welcome new and different people.
Discipleship is also part of the story of God’s people.
Jesus tells us that our righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees. He promises that when we follow him faithfully we will be persecuted. Christian discipleship will be challenging, uncomfortable and even costly.
Between these two truths about God and the church (welcome and discipleship) is a struggle: How do we reconcile Jesus’ welcome and embrace of all people with his strong statements that following him will be difficult and transformative? If we welcome everyone into our church who wants to follow Jesus, does discipleship lose its meaning?
One part of discipleship in our church is that sin is often weighed and measured, ignored or lifted up.
One example is the “works of the flesh” from Galatians 5:19-21. Churches lift up sexual immorality, witchcraft or orgies from this list and preach about how horrible they are. However, Paul mentions many other “works of the flesh” in this same passage: hatred, discord, jealousy, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions or envy. These sins are not treated with the same repulsion. Why? I suggest it is because these sins are common in our churches. If the church were offended by envy and selfish ambition, we would need to change. It is much more comfortable to ignore the sins that are rampant in our churches and complain about how bad sexual immorality is.
By ranking sins, we set up boundaries around our faith and our churches.
If you are struggling with these sins, you can be part of us. If you are struggling with those sins, you need to be kept at arm’s length, find another church family or leave the church altogether. These boundaries start to function like a high jump that dictates full participation in the church. It says, You must meet these moral requirements (jump this high) in order to be part of the church. Please notice that the bar is set by those inside, and everyone inside meets these requirements. This is part of human nature; we always think our sins are less serious than someone else’s.
So, if the church ignores or tolerates some sins, should we ignore all of them?
By no means. This issue should not encourage apathy, instead it should make room to call out the sins of the “faithful” insider.
This is where radical welcome and radical discipleship actually begin to walk the same path. We are well served in our own faith walk by making room for people with struggles that are not ours. It may mean welcoming those who continue to struggle with drugs, alcohol, sexual immorality, greed, lust and anger as part of our community. Their struggles may be like ours, or they may be different. Naming sin as sin, even though it still creeps into our lives and our churches, allows us to create a space where we can all journey toward Jesus together instead of pretending some of us have arrived.
Setting up boundaries and high jumps actually erodes discipleship.
In many churches discipleship is complete if you are married and do not abuse drugs or alcohol. Churches do not offer meaningful or challenging discipleship for those within the boundaries. This way of living out discipleship reinforces the stereotype that Christians are hypocrites. Doing church this way leads to communities where people would rather lie about their struggles than be honest about their life. Fear of rejection stands in the way of honest community.
Our current models for discipleship are overly simplified.
We draw lines in the sand that exclude people with certain struggles from being full participants in our churches. These lines may come from our Confession of Faith or certain Scripture passages (like Galatians 5:19-21), but normally this high jump is designed so that those who set the bar can clear it with ease. We are upset about drugs, but we do not worry as much about gossip. We get mad about unmarried people living together but turn a blind eye to the marriage that is full of anger and spite.
A pastor with far more experience than I stressed the importance of welcoming people as they are, loving them without any conditions. The basic idea is that in welcoming people to our church, we are not starting a new “project.” We cannot give conditional love based on some future transformation. God’s love isn’t conditional on making a high jump, even if we were able to clear it easily.
We wouldn’t expect a person with a physical disability to be able to jump as high as someone who is able bodied. At some point we must acknowledge that many people in the world have spiritual and mental disabilities that may prevent them from clearing the same high jump we have cleared.
Another pastor shared the story of a woman who has been homeless for most of her adult life.
She has struggled with drugs and prostitution and spent years in jail. When she was 4 years old, she watched her mother drown her sister. She has never been the same since.
How do we work for redemption when this woman may never function emotionally at a level we would consider normal? We will learn much about God’s powerful work of redemption if we are willing to embrace her instead of thinking we need to protect the church from her.
Using this high-jump understanding of discipleship, we diminish both discipleship and welcome.
In this model, we cannot welcome fully those whose sin is “worse” than ours, and we no longer require Jesus to shape and mold our minds—our discipleship journey is over. The high jump confirms our worthiness while denying the worth of those unable to clear it. The boundaries give pride to those inside and shame to those outside. That is exactly the opposite of the ministry of Jesus Christ.
We are called to share the good news that God loves everyone as they are, and as we step into that love, we work harder to show and cultivate God’s love in all parts of our lives. If we have cleared the high jump, have we arrived? Or is baptism the beginning of a lifelong journey to get closer to God? I believe we are all on a journey together, and we must not leave anyone behind simply because they cannot jump as high as we can.
Bob Brown is pastor of Stahl Mennonite Church in Johnstown, Pa.