Almost from the date of their authoring over 2 Millennia ago, most of the Old and New Testament books of the Bible have been under attack. Governments have feared their power and influence and individuals have been offended by their intrusion into behavioral choices. Yet in spite of the vicious attacks and wholesale attempts to destroy the divine writings, God preserved them in unique ways through His faithful followers who often suffered persecution and martyrdom for their efforts.
Still, one method that was never chosen by our Christian ancestors to preserve Judeo-Christian tenets was a technique many of our modern church leaders seemed to have opted for: namely rewriting and/or reinterpreting sections that ever-changing cultural and societal norms deem unpopular. When Jesus proclaimed early on in His ministry that He was the One whom Isaiah prophesied was to be sent “to bind up the brokenhearted and to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners,” He wasn’t inferring that sinners should be made to feel OK about their corrupt nature and that they had no need to repent and change course. Yet that’s what many would have us believe.
On the other side of the coin, many “Word people” think that merely adhering to scriptural truth makes anything they say justifiable. But even quoting scriptural truth can be hurtful and destructive, if not laced with care and compassion.
There are good, well-intentioned people on both sides of this issue, and I have no doubt that most, whether they’re ministering to the hurting and needy or they’re simply giving everyday advice to their friends and acquaintances, have pure motives and a sincere desire that their words and their actions be effective. But to be most effective, there has to be a balance between invoking of scriptural truth and a demonstration of God’s grace and unconditional love.
So how does one mold the presentation of the message to attract persons who are naturally skeptical of Christianity, and still not alter the message itself?
Whenever we have a difficult issue like this to deal with, the obvious course is to ask, “What did Jesus do?” and imitate Him.
No one can ever accuse Jesus of being wishy-washy about dealing with sin. Nor can one accuse Him of wearing rose colored glasses, blind to the fact that many in the crowd rejected His message and ministry. At one point in His ministry, Jesus began to teach almost exclusively using parables and only providing an explanation of their meaning to His disciples. When they asked why, He explained that the hearts of the people had grown dull, their ears hard of hearing, and their eyes kept closed. In other words, those who continually rejected His message were to be left behind in their spiritual deficiencies.
Nevertheless, Jesus showed respect to each person he crossed paths with regardless of their standing in the community, their moral behavior, or their acceptance or non-acceptance of Him personally or His message. People will usually listen to and receive from those who treat them with respect; whereas they will reject those that dishonor them. This is a lesson we all could learn from: to be persuasive, we must not be abrasive.
While Jesus never shied away from controversial discussions of the Law and sin, His harshest words were (a) for those who laid claim to spiritual superiority, (b) for those who led the weak down a crooked path and (c) for those who harmed or took advantage of the innocent. On the other hand Jesus went out of His way to help anyone who acknowledged their weaknesses and shortfalls as lost sheep in need of a shepherd to set them free and bring them the truth. This attitude drew all kinds of people into His circle of love: sinners, those possessed by evil spirits, those whose manner and place of worship were contrary to God’s Law, and even idol worshipers who brought their children to Him for healing and deliverance.
Are we as tolerant of people who are “different” than us?
Most of us have a tendency to rank-order sin based on what we personally regard as disgusting and evil behavior. In contrast, to Jesus, to the leaders of the 1st century Church, and to the Bible in general, all forms of rebelliousness are sin and all manner of sin will separate a man from God’s best.
In His “Sermon on the Mount” Jesus spoke of sins of lust in the heart as being equivalent to adultery and of unjustified anger and unforgiveness as being equivalent to murder. Paul, whose letter to the Romans is often quoted for his warnings regarding the risks homosexuality poses to one’s eternal salvation, in another letter lists thieves, the covetous, drunkards, revilers, and extortioners as being equally in danger of not inheriting the kingdom of God as those who practice acts of sexual perversion. While Genesis 18 & 19 focus on the sexual immorality prevalent in Sodom just prior to its destruction, Ezekiel 16 explains that “Sodom’s sins were pride, gluttony, and laziness, while the poor and needy suffered outside her door.” And when King Solomon listed the seven things God considers as an abomination, he included: “a proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that are swift in running to evil, a false witness who speaks lies, and one who sows discord among brethren.” Is sexual perversion anywhere to be found in the list? Perhaps, if you read it into the words, “feet that are swift in running to evil.” But that’s a stretch!
Could it be that we’re not on the same page with the Lord
when classifying and dealing with sin and sinners?
Consider for example the situation when a woman caught in the very act of adultery was dragged before Jesus to test His obedience to the Law which commanded that she be stoned to death. How did He handle that situation?
First He challenged the religious leaders – “OK. Then let the one who has never sinned cast the first stone.” This statement accomplished two things: (a) it equated adultery with other sins and (b) it let the leaders recognize their own hypocrisy of condemning the woman, while they were sinners themselves. While the leaders were thinking about what Jesus said, He began to write something on the ground. He let the religious leader’s own consciences convict them and drive them from the scene. And once Jesus and the woman were alone, He elected to not use the Law (which said stone her) against the woman. The grace of God took precedence over the Law. “Neither do I condemn you.” Jesus established a compassionate relationship with her (i.e.: He drew her into His circle of love and trust.) So when He commanded her “Go and sin no more,” she was able to receive it.
Our early Church leaders imitated Christ’s attitude toward sin and sinners
The apostle Paul is a perfect demonstration that the early Church leaders “got it.” He paradoxically considered himself “free from all” groups, yet a “slave to all.” In order to win over the peoples whose Roman, Greek, or Persian cultures were much different than the Judaic, Paul used the folkways and customs of each culture. He molded his presentation of Jesus to eliminate any nonessential barriers that would hinder his proclamation of the gospel, but did not adapt the latest public novelty or get caught up in their cultural extravagances. The apostle’s method was uncompromised preaching, whether he was in a synagogue, in a home church or on Mars Hill. And he preached just one message, Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
Paul once posed the following question to his converts in Corinth: “For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him?” He recognized that each human being acts and thinks and responds based on a lot of variables in their life – most of which only they and God understand. Unlike Paul, many of us think we’ve got it all together – especially if we’re “into the Word,” and we think that merits us a special “long black robe” of morality and a seat behind the bench in God’s courtroom. But who amongst us really has it “all together?” We may not have the same bad behaviors that we witness in others (and may even be disgusted by); but each of us is capable of being where they’re at, given a different set of life circumstances and if we let our sin nature dominate us. In truth, each of us once occupied the defendant’s seat ourselves. Therefore, mindful of the grace that changed the course we were on, we should be sitting at the defense table next to them, encouraging them to accept Jesus’ offer to act as their attorney just like He stepped in to advocate for us.
When I was much, much younger, it used to bug me when a senior citizen would corner me with advice. It was as if they regarded the mere fact of years of existence on the planet as giving them some market on wisdom. Oh, I listened politely; but 95% of what I heard ended up on the shelf, and only occasionally got drawn down from. It’s interesting that after accumulating a few decades of my own I often see myself as a sage, volunteering unasked for guidance on any number of issues that my acquaintances face; likely irritating many of them the same way I was once bugged by my elders. I don’t think I’m that much different from a lot of others with a few years and several experiences under their belt.
But what really qualifies any human being to give advice – especially when it comes to another’s personal or relational problems? Certainly maturity, formal training, book knowledge, prior experience, hands-on familiarity with the specific type of situation all contribute something to an advisor’s qualifications.
In truth, the only one who can rightly offer unfettered guidance is the One who can read and judge the heart of a man. The natural man can judge an action, but neither the natural man nor the spiritual man can ever judge any heart but our own. Many use Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 2 regarding the fact that as believers, “we have the mind of Christ” and that “he who is spiritual rightly judges all things,” as rationale for judging and condemning another person’s behavior if it seems to deviate from Biblical norms. But that takes Paul’s words totally out of context. For the Apostle made it abundantly clear that the purpose of spiritual knowledge was “that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.” In other words, this knowledge is to uplift others and show them a better way; never to judge and condemn their heart.
After all, of what relevance is my or any “expert’s” opinion of another person’s behavior and their life choices? Very little actually! The only “opinion” of value is God’s. So before I offer to express what I believe is God’s position on a behavior I witness or presume, I’d better be pretty sure I do so in the proper Biblical context and with a godly motive, method and heart.