We began our Lenten journey by going straight back to the beginning of our Christian faith: At the tomb of Jesus, where he had just risen from the dead. Why an Easter story during Lent? Because Easter is not a one-day-a-year thing, it is the every-day-of-the-year reality of who we are as Christians. We are a resurrection people, formed at a fundamental level by the reality that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead. We looked at some of the specific things we will find when we look at the place where Jesus lay: specifically that Jesus is alive, that God has done it all, and that the possibility of connection with God is now a reality.
We are now looking at what it means for us as the Church to be a resurrection people, to live as the people of a resurrected savior Jesus Christ, even in the midst of a world which is becoming increasingly hostile to the Christian way of looking at things, a world in which we as Christians have lost and are losing much of the privilege and influence we once had even as recently as a decade or two ago. A world in which we find ourselves in exile, in a manner of speaking–not actual, physical exile but a situation which in many ways resembles the situation faced by the Old Testament Jews in Babylon and the centuries which followed. In the past few weeks I have addressed some specifics as to what this will look like, which I will not rehash at this time. Go back and read for yourselves if you are interested; they are in the archives and will be there forever and ever, or at least as long as there is an internet.
This week, allow me to begin with a question: Are our churches safe places to repent of serious sin?
In order to guide our thinking on this, let us go to 1 Corinthians 6:9-11:
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
These verses contain a nice juicy list of serious sexual sins, and I would be willing to bet that a lot of you have heard a fairly good amount of preaching on these sins and on how those who indulge in these sins will not inherit the kingdom of God. But don’t miss the back half: “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
The Corinthian church was a monumentally flawed community. Riddled with factions, dysfunction, lack of mature leadership, and egregious abuse of the Lord’s Supper, this community was taken to task by Paul for all these things and more over the course of this letter. Yet they apparently were getting one thing right: This community must have–at some point, at least–been a safe place to begin the process of repentance and transformation, and become accepted members of Christian community.
“And that is what some of you were”–meaning that some members of the Corinthian community were engaging in the serious sexual sins listed here. Yet in the Corinthian church they found a safe place to begin the process of repentance and eventually become fully accepted members of Christian community.
They were like this to a fault. Earlier in the letter Paul berates the Corinthians for accepting, and celebrating their acceptance of, someone in a Jerry Springer-esque relational situation which was not compatible with Christlike character. Without mature leadership, the Corinthian church went off the rails and into the ditch because of their tendency to accept. But if they had to go into the ditch, better that it was on this side of the road.
Repentance and spiritual transformation happen somewhere. We do not arrive fully formed. Spiritual transformation is not instantaneous the moment you accept Jesus Christ. It is a process. We travel a road, and that road is very long and not always a straight line. Thus the Corinthian church was filled with all sorts of people at all sorts of different places in the process of repentance and spiritual transformation, all going at different speeds in the process of changing from one sort of person to another, working out in real time and real life what it means to turn away from sin and be all that we are in Christ. Messy place, that.
All our churches are like that, too, whether we are willing to admit it or not. But we can’t admit it, given the ways in which we talk about spiritual transformation in evangelicalism.
Our only other option is to assume that anyone guilty of serious sexual sin was cast out, or else didn’t even bother showing up at the Corinthian church, until they straightened up, until their repentance was complete. Then and only then were they welcomed into the Corinthian church. Then and only then did they become part of the “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified…”
In other words, repentance and spiritual transformation happened outside of Christian community.
This is compatible with much of evangelical belief; spiritual transformation is believed to be instantaneous the moment you accept Jesus Christ. We have little to zero patience for the idea of repentance as a process–especially a long, drawn-out process which often involves lots of setbacks and crazy detours. This process is unspeakable–unless it is complete. We love the story of the horrific drug abuser who heard the Gospel, got straight, cleaned up his life, started going to church and Bible study, and became a brand new person. We have little to zero patience if the journey of repentance is an imperfect journey, if the story involves lots of occasions where the person relapsed and disappeared from Bible study for long stretches at a time, only to show up again with promises to get straight and then disappear again later on, etc.
That bothers me.
As evangelicals we love to believe that certain types of sexual sin are beyond the reach of God’s grace and those who engage in them are outside the pale of Christian community and churches who welcome such people have departed from the Christian faith. There are examples of this too numerous to mention from the writings of Owen Strachan and Thabiti Anyabwile.
I also raised concern a few months back about a church in Fairfax, Virginia, that was receiving pushback for having a registered sex offender on staff. Some of that concern was justified; I am by no means saying that the victims of sexual sin should not have their stories and concerns heard and that the perpetrators should be shielded from the consequences of their sin. What I am saying is this: There has to be a way for everyone, including the perpetrators of serious sexual sin, to have access to Christian community in some form or fashion.
This is a Gospel issue. If the Gospel of Jesus Christ is big enough to cover all our sins, then it is big enough to cover all, including the most serious sins, sexual and otherwise. Our churches have to be communities where the process of repentance can happen in real time, in real life, even if it is imperfect, even if it involves lots of setbacks and lots of crazy detours. Where people are at all sorts of different stages in the journey from “And that is what some of you were” to “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified…” and are free to talk about it openly, even if only with a few close and trusted friends.
As a resurrection people who follow a resurrected Savior, we have to believe that repentance and spiritual transformation can happen in our midst. That there is no sin, and no sinner, who cannot be reached by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Repentance and transformation happen somewhere. Let our churches be places where it can safely happen in our midst.