I saw a pamphlet recently which gave me pause for thought. It was all about welcoming people into the church, and was specifically aimed at a particular group of people. The leaflet pointed out that God loves everyone, and so everyone is welcome into the church – irrespective of their lifestyle or background. It went on to quote Jesus, and told the reader that He welcomed one and all.
I take no issue at all with efforts by the church to be more welcoming. Churches are rarely as welcoming as they think they are, nor are there any that cannot be improved. The word “welcome” has a specific meaning though, and sometimes we think to be “welcoming” we must change everything that we believe and do, so that we do not offend. Wrong!
We think to be welcoming means to accept everyone who comes through the door, no matter what their lifestyle and never point out biblical truth to them. Take a practicing serial killer who refuses to give up their lifestyle of murder – how might we welcome them? Does welcoming them mean we also welcome their life of crime?
Next week, let’s look at what it means to be a welcoming church. For now though, I want to think more about what some seem to think welcoming means.
One issue I had with the pamphlet is that it did not actually quote Jesus properly. In fact, it misquoted Him. I am all for quoting Scripture, but not for taking it out of its context and even editing it to make it say what we want it to.
In this case, Jesus was quoted as saying, “Come to me all of you and I will give you rest.” A nice message indeed, but not strictly what He said.
Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest.
Matthew 11:28 (WEB)
We see that actually Jesus did not say, “Come to me, all…” but “Come to me, all who labour and are heavily burdened…”
I know that some will think i’m splitting hairs here, but the danger is that we can take any Bible verse we like, tweak it slightly, apply it wrongly, and then make it say whatever we like.
Too many of us – and this can often apply to us “bloggers” – quote single verses here and there without giving sufficient thought to its wider context. We “google” a Bible verse which seems to support our point, and then paste it in. Sometimes that’s ok, but sometimes we take such verses out of their proper setting and imply a meaning that is not there.
Scripture must be interpreted by other Scripture. We must understand who is speaking and to whom, what the context of the chapter is, what the context of the book is, and finally how it fits into the whole of the Bible.
As I’ve written more lately, working on books, blogging, writing and recording sermons, I’ve felt the weight of responsibility. I do not want anyone to be misled who reads what I am teaching. No one has perfect understanding, and so we will all make mistakes along the way, but I hope and pray with fear, that God helps me to share only His truth.
Welcoming is not the same as approval
We believe in welcoming people to church, and preach the message “Come as you are!” Quite right too. No one needs to clean themselves up before they come to church! The church is full of people who know they need a Saviour! None of us is perfect, and if we were, we wouldn’t need Christ!
The problem is that many churches aren’t just saying “Come as you are,” they are adding on, “Stay as you are.”
“Come as you are” is welcoming, but “stay as you are” is not biblical.
Jesus welcomed everyone, but He taught them the right way to live. His message was not “Come as you are and stay as you are,” it was “Come as you are and repent!”
Let’s look at the woman caught in adultery from John 8.
The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman taken in adultery. Having set her in the middle, 4 they told him, “Teacher, we found this woman in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now in our law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. What then do you say about her?” 6 They said this testing him, that they might have something to accuse him of.
But Jesus stooped down, and wrote on the ground with his finger. 7 But when they continued asking him, he looked up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw the first stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground.
9 They, when they heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning from the oldest, even to the last. Jesus was left alone with the woman where she was, in the middle. 10 Jesus, standing up, saw her and said, “Woman, where are your accusers? Did no one condemn you?”
11 She said, “No one, Lord.”
Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way. From now on, sin no more.”
John 8:3-11 (WEB)
The first thing we notice is that the scribes only brought the woman to Jesus. Last time I checked, it took two to commit adultery. Where was the man?
The scribes here are clearly not trying to exercise moral law, but rather thinking they can catch Jesus out. If He condemns her, then it ruins His reputation as a Man of the people, and yet if He lets her go free without punishment, He breaks the Jewish law.
Jesus is cornered – right?
He drops down and begins to write on the ground with His finger. Many are frustrated that they do not know what He was writing. This is a mark of authenticity for the Bible, because if this story was fictional, then the writer would not have put such an untidy detail in. It suggests that the eye witness simply could not see.
Many have speculated about what Jesus could have been writing. I personally favour the idea that He was writing out the Ten Commandments. The ground where he stooped was not sandy or muddy, like we might imagine, but stony. And so the finger of God wrote on stone… remind you of anything?
He gave to Moses, when he finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, stone tablets, written with God’s finger.
Exodus 31:18 (WEB)
Assuming I am correct, then as the scribes began to read the Ten Commandments on the ground, they became acutely aware of their own sinfulness. And notice that the older ones left first. Perhaps the older we get, the more aware we are of our failings.
Jesus, fulfilling the Law, says essentially that she should be stoned for her sin – but let the one who is without sin cast the first stone. The only One who could do that was Jesus Himself, and He chose not to.
Acknowledging that no one had condemned her, Jesus tells her to be on her way. But He adds something very important. “Go and sin no more!”
Jesus welcomed this woman, despite her sinful behaviour. Praise God for this! However, He did not lower His standards in order to do so. Jesus was very clear that He did not want her to carry on living as she had.
When we welcome someone into church, we should absolutely meet them where they are. I am not at all suggesting we had them a list of rules as they come in, and expect them to abide by them from then on. However, at some point, we must share what we believe. If they want to go on and become a member of the church, then they must start living their lives in line with Christ’s teaching. Refusing to do so is a refusal to submit to Christ as Lord.
Where does the welcome end, and the teaching begin? That is not an easy question. As per my silly example at the start of this post, even if we could bring ourselves to welcome a practicing serial killer, they cannot continue this way and claim to be a follower of Christ.
Likewise, whatever sin we replace serial killing with, we too must give it up to follow Christ.
Being welcoming does not give any of us the excuse to accept sinfulness and not challenge it with God’s Word.
We will think about what it means to be a welcoming church next time. For now though, consider your own life. Are there sins you continue to hold on to, despite knowing what God thinks about them? Ask for His help to change, for you cannot do it in your own strength.