by Donald A.G. Burling
There is a well-known story of a farm labourer who had heard a sermon on sin. When asked what the preacher had to say about the subject, he replied “Oh, he was agin it”. This was thought funny, because of course any preacher would be against sin,
However, that was years ago. Nowadays few preachers would be willing to appear so “judgemental” as to show themselves unequivocally opposed to sin. Our present culture does not see sin as a problem, and the related word “wicked” is often used with a meaning of exciting and attractive. Yet if sin really is not a problem, much of the Christian Gospel is irrelevant. Why talk about salvation if there is nothing to be saved from? Indeed, why the sufferings and death of our Lord Jesus on the cross?
How then, should we as Christians react to this cultural shift? As we study the Gospels we see that our Lord’s attitude to people recognised as sinners was one of friendship. He was willing to eat with people who collected tax for the hated Roman occupation forces, and He defended the notoriously sinful woman who poured ointment on his feet. His refusal to condemn the woman caught in the act of adultery is often quoted defensively by people whose conduct invites criticism. But anyone who thinks that Jesus was justifying adultery should look at his final remark to the woman telling her to go and sin no more.
How should we deal with cases of blatant sin occurring within our churches? 1st Corinthians 5 gives us a case study. A member of the church had been guilty of gross immorality and incest. Everybody knew about this but nobody was doing anything about it. St Paul orders the church leaders to remove the wicked person from among themselves. In the next chapter he lists a number of lifestyles which will disqualify us from inheriting the kingdom of God.
But in the second epistle we discover that the offender has accepted his punishment and repented. The apostle is pleased to recommend that the church should receive him back into their fellowship.
We are entitled to sing “All are welcome in this place” and endeavour to make it a reality, whatever they look or smell like. In that sense we should seek to be “inclusive”. But we are also entitled to make them aware that we have standards which we would expect them to observe while they continue among us. After all, why encourage them to continue in ways that would prevent them from inheriting God’s kingdom?
I have some experience of prison ministry and know it can often lead to disappointment. Many former criminals experience true conversion while in prison but once they are exposed to temptations outside, they need special care. It is unwise to make too much fuss of them or to allow them to be in positions of trust for which they may not be ready. At the same time, let us remember that we are, as they are, sinners saved by the grace of God. If they spot faults among us, we need to be honest and if necessary, accept their correction. And if their conduct disappoints us, let us continue to love and pray for them. Finally, if we think that their conduct demands that a stand should be taken, let us make clear that the door to repentance is always open.