With Charity for All, Part 5: Mind Your Own Business

religion

Since the Constantinian age, Christians have sought to remake their culture into one that is infused with Christian values along with laws that reflect those values. America itself was established, in part, as a Puritan “city set on a hill”, and it did not take long for those who said they sought religious freedom to begin binding their religion and their moral claims on everyone else. This is a tendency in all religion that makes truth claims, and thus the reason so many in our culture are now turning from religion that claims a superiority of truth such as Christianity claims. To claim a superior truth is to claim power, and it is this association of truth with power that has so many spiritual people on the run from Christianity. It’s not a rejection of the God of Scripture, the God of Jesus Christ, but the God of Christians that seems to be the problem.

This should come as no surprise to us. Since the advent of televangelism, those on the edge of faith or outside of its borders have heard preachers speak of the evils of secularism, liberals, and the “immoral”. They have watched as Christian leaders call for the dominion of government institutions by Christians so as to pass laws that reflect a particular brand of Christianity. Those who support abortion rights in some situations are called murderers, and those who support gay equality are compared with polygamist and those who practice incest. They sense that Christians do not really care to live in a democracy where ideas must take hold in the marketplace of ideas but would rather live in a theocratic state where their values are enshrined in law. Prohibition, abortion restrictions, segregation and bans on gay marriage all have been attempts by some in Christianity to bind their will on a public where no clear cultural consensus exists. Yet, Christians seem unable to refrain from binding the principles of disciples on others who have not consented to those same principles or to the religion that inspires them.

Furthermore, they see Christian leaders whose talk exceeds their walk. Evangelical politicians in “The Family” parade their Christian beliefs on Capitol Hill, seek to influence policy towards “family” values, and then have adulterous affairs. Conservative politicians and evangelical preachers rave against gay rights and gay marriage but have “discreet encounters” with members of the same sex in the shadows (or in airport bathroom stalls). Those outside of Christianity sense that something is wrong with this kind of religion, and they are right. It’s the kind of religion that plays “gotcha” with outsiders, and also turns its back on those inside when they fall. There is no grace for those who are honest, either inside or outside. So this means that insiders must be dishonest hypocrites, and outsiders must relegate themselves to the realm of secularists because there appears to be no religion where grace can be found and where God is a lover and not their lawmaker or prosecutor.

There is such a God, and this is the God of Israel and Jesus Christ. It is the God who created a universe on the first days of creation so that the whole universe is crafted with his love and is sustained by his presence. Humans were made in the very image of God, this God who is love. This God loved Israel, but God was clear from the beginning that those who find themselves outside of the religious community are those who he doggedly pursues and who He loves with undying affection (Ex. 19:10; Luke 15). And Scripture is clear throughout: God does not hold those outside the community of disciples to the same standard as those who have chosen to follow the way of the cross. This is not because God is more gracious to outsiders or is flexible with virtue. Rather, since the beginning, God has respected human freedom to choose God and to choose God’s ways. God’s people have not been so generous.

In one of the most demanding and harsh texts in the New Testament about sexual immorality, Paul admonishes the Corinthian church that they should demand the highest of sexual standards from their fellow disciples in the church (I Cor. 5). For those who felt that the freedom of the gospel left them free to live however they wished in the body, Paul is clear that this is not the case. For authentic communities of trust and dignity to exist, they could not tolerate the corrosive nature of sexual affairs in their midst — and especially sexual practices not even approved by the broader culture. As many in our culture are coming to understand, “hooking up” erodes trust and breaks down relationships. “Casual” sex in a loving community is not possible. And so Paul calls on these Christians to pluck someone from their midst who engages in that kind of immorality. As I read the Old and New Testaments, the moral demands of discipleship are high. The gospel calls disciples to live up to the highest imaginable standards — but to not bind these on those outside the Christian community. Listen to Paul in this same text:

“I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy, and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case, you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral … .” (I Cor. 5:9-11). Notice here that Paul assumes that Christians will eat, drink and do business with those in the world who do not live up to the Christian ideal, and he even goes so far to imply that Christians should not isolate themselves to protect ourselves (most often called “protecting our children”) from those who do not live the lifestyle of a disciple.

But Paul goes on to say, reflecting the statement of Jesus in Matthew 7 about judgment of others, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.” (I Cor. 5:12-13). Paul seems to say here, “What’s it to you if a person outside of your most trusted and authentic community is having an affair? How does it impact you if your neighbor is having homosexual sex? What business is it of yours if people who haven’t signed up for discipleship are not living like a disciple? Demand these high standards from each other, and leave the outsiders alone.”

Further into the Corinthian letter, Paul also addresses Christian ethics when it comes to eating meat that had been offered to idols in pagan rituals. Some worried that Christians would appear to be supporting these rituals or the idolatry if they were seen to be eating the meat, and especially with those same pagans. But Paul did not think this way. Instead, he told the church, “Eat the meat with the pagans.” He did not suggest avoiding the appearance of evil when it came to the outsiders. Instead, he came down solidly on the side of gracious hospitality and relationship. Christians were only to be concerned about the opinions of those inside their community of faith and truth, not those on the outside (I Cor. 10:27).

Paul knew that it’s impossible to say you love someone that you insist must live up to your standards in order to win your approval. You can’t declare that you love the sinner, but then publicly work hard to penalize them legally because you hate “their sin”. It’s hard to enter into real community with those you already have stereotyped, judged and labeled as “sinners” (or “secularists” or “homosexual” or “liberal” or “Christian Right”) because that will be the primary way that you will view that person — even if just subconsciously. When it comes to those outside the faith who do not live up to your values, Paul has only one response: “Stay out of their business. Take care of your own.” And then go to dinner with them. (Matt. 9:10-13). They have not signed up for the same training program as us.

Paul must have known that Christian leaders who insist that others outside the Christian community live up to their same standards will not fare so well, and the gospel will take the hit. Those who are most judgmental on those outside often tend to fall themselves, and often to the very same immoralities. Love and grace can only be given by one whose primary stance towards those outside is understanding, mercy and affection. For that reason, Paul says leave those outside of your faith community alone. Their lifestyle is none of your business. Then call yourself to lead the most ethical and moral lifestyle imaginable because that kind of consistency and virtue will be respected by those inside and outside the Christian community – but it will never have a harsh edge because it is truth coupled with grace, virtue coupled with mercy (John 1:14).

As one of my good friends Dale Pauls has written, “Be hard on yourselves, and always graceful to others.” That way the gospel remains the gospel, and you become more and more an authentic community of grace and virtue in a world where both are hard to find.

This article is Part 5 in a series on Christians in culture called “With Charity for All”, beginning with this entry. 

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