God is infinitely forgiving. That much is, for those of us who subscribe to the Hebrew scriptures (“Old Testament”) and/or the Christian ones (“New Testament”), pretty indisputable. In the scriptures, God ultimately forgives Israel’s people for innumerable affronts against God (Exodus 32 being an early, prominent example). The teachings of Jesus in the Christian scriptures expand upon this idea of God’s unlimited capacity for forgiveness, culminating in Jesus’s incredible prayer that the very people who were crucifying him be forgiven (Luke 23:34).
But the modern Christian reading of these and other biblical stories too-often misses the point: forgiveness comes, but it does not come free. When the people of Israel turned to idols and false gods throughout the Hebrew scriptures, the one true God did not offer his forgiveness (nor relieve Israel of ongoing national calamity) with no-strings-attached. Forgiveness came in abundance when—and only when—Israel rejected the false idols and turned back to God. Forgiveness came contingent upon repentance, and that did not change with the coming of Jesus (Luke 3:7-14, Luke 13:3-5, Acts 2:38, etc.).
In today’s churches, there’s a lot of talk about forgiveness and not so much about repentance—or turning away from sin and going in a different direction. Likewise, there’s a lot of talk about acceptance and not so much about God’s expectations that we live moral lives. There’s a lot of talk about salvation and almost none about earning it, or even trying to though we inevitably fall short.
This passive, wholly-accepting, sin-friendly, free-forgiveness Christianity that we are surrounded by today is not a Christianity rooted in it’s own scriptures or the Hebrew scriptures and traditions that preceded them. It is a different creature entirely.
The Bible—supposedly the guidebook by which Christianity operates—demands something more than most modern churches provide. We cannot and should not demand absolute perfection from church members, but scripture does instruct that those who are “immoral or greedy or worship idols or curse others or get drunk or cheat” should, indeed, to be expelled from our communities (1 Corinthians 5:9-13). A church rooted in scripture will not turn a blind eye to ongoing immorality among its members. A righteous church community will not try to rationalize sin away as “between the individual and God” or, as some modern churches do, simply defer to outside society’s definitions of right-and-wrong.
Since we have all sinned, the blanket expulsion of sinners would make for some empty pews. But that’s not what the writer of 1 Corinthians is asking for. There is a difference between past- or incidental-sinfulness and an ongoing, active, intentional sinfulness. It is the unrepentant sinner—he who hears the Judeo-Christian teachings but continues living immorally with no intent to change—who has no place holding membership in our churches. Jesus himself implies as much in the book of John when he twice instructs those he has saved from illness or stoning to go and sin no more, lest worse things happen to them (John 5:1-14, John 8:1-11).
My own denomination, the United Methodist Church, is among those that reject this biblical teaching and accepts anybody, no strings attached, into permanent church membership. No matter if you’re walking the walk, all we ask is that you talk the talk. Just say “I do” and “I will” a few times in a brief membership ceremony, and you too can continue living in sin and call yourself a card-carrying member of the United Methodist Church. You can lie, cheat, steal, sleep around, engage in homosexual activity (Leviticus 18:19-30, Romans 1:18-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10), blaspheme, and break any of God’s other laws and commandments, and you still get to be an official member of Christ’s holy church.
But the UMC, like many other modern Christian denominations, has it wrong. We don’t get to decide who goes to heaven or hell—their admissions policies are strictly God’s business—but we do have the authority and responsibility to decide the criteria for continued membership in our churches. These criteria must be based on scripture, not transient societal values, and they must be consistently enforced. This is the charge given to us by our religious texts and by God himself. The ‘great commission’ was to go and make disciples (Matthew 28:16-20); it was not to fatten our rosters with insincere, nominal members who never intend to actually attempt a godly life.
Jesus was never afraid to challenge the teachings of the society he lived in. He didn’t preach the societal norms of the day, but a transcendent morality that ran true through the Hebrew scriptures before and the Christian texts that were soon to follow. Likewise, our churches should not be afraid to challenge the moral decay that surrounds them today—even if the righteous stance is unpopular or ‘offensive’ in some (or even all) circles.
The church should not worry about offending unrepentant sinners by calling their ongoing immoral behavior into question, and if some (or all) of them choose to abandon the religion they clearly don’t subscribe to anyway, then so be it. Churches exist to spread God’s word in the world, and God has great expectations. He expects more than moral relativism. He expects us to live right, even when nobody is watching, and even when nobody else is harmed by our personal immorality.
(And let me state, unequivocally, that I do not hate homosexuals. Likewise I do not hate practicing [religious] Jews, Muslims, or Buddhists, but I don’t think they should be granted membership in our churches either. If your personal belief structure is incompatible with Christianity, then you shouldn’t be allowed to join a church—and I fail to see why you’d want to anyway! See A Compromise on Gay Marriage for a more in-depth look at my thoughts on homosexual rights from a socio-political perspective.)
Where our government cannot—and often should not—take a stand, our churches must. The church’s stance should be independent of prevailing political thought or law. Whether government permits or prohibits abortion, homosexuality, gambling, public prayer, the Ten Commandments, premarital sex, or polygamy shouldn’t matter to the church. The church should be concerned with what is morally right, and not give a hoot whether something is legal (or about trying to change its legal status). “Give the Emperor what belongs to him and give God what belongs to God” (Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, Luke 20:20-26).
I am very tired of churches spending their time—on the right-wing or the left—telling their congregations how to vote when they should be teaching their congregations God’s clear, Biblical values of right and wrong. How I vote on a homosexual marriage amendment is a matter of my political beliefs, not a direct matter of my faith. Someone who considers homosexuality sinful can recoil at the thought of their church (like the U.S. Episcopal church) endorsing and accepting it, while simultaneously recoiling at ill-advised laws that aim to prohibit gay marriage. You can abhor immorality without taking away peoples’ freedom, when there is no external harm, to be immoral.
So, maybe our churches should reevaluate their priorities. Maybe the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church should figure out what God thinks about homosexual marriage, rather than harping so much on what the Commonwealth of Virginia legislates. Maybe we should focus on making sure our own church policies spread the word of God and the Bible’s teachings in the world, rather than worrying about whether it ‘offends’ society’s modern ideas and moral relativism.
And, if a church denomination really wants to make law and modern social values the basis of its beliefs, then it should just admit that it is no longer a Christian body and abandon the ancient scriptures entirely. You can’t have it both ways: You either follow the Bible and it’s teachings or you don’t. Churches like the U.S. Episcopal Church and, sadly, my own United Methodist Church need to make a choice whether they will adhere to Christian teaching or hang their theology on something else. It is better for our churches to pick one or the other, at the real risk of losing half their members, than to maintain an untenable middle-ground between righteousness and sin.
Everything you were taught can be put into a few words: Respect and obey God! This is what life is all about. God will judge everything we do, even what is done in secret, whether good or bad.
— Ecclesiastes 12:13-14.