For those of us who believe that the ideal of the Christian church is to extend equal welcome to all, there is an unavoidable puzzle. How can that welcome be extended so that both those who have traditionally been marginalized and excluded, and those who believe that such marginalization and exclusion are right and proper, are held together in a community of Christian love? To illustrate, let me tell a story. Call it a parable, if you will.
A congregation of moderate size in a pleasant town not too far from here likes to think of itself as being very open and friendly and welcoming. The pastor talks about this regularly, and everyone nods in agreement. But just a few weeks ago, Sam, one of the stalwarts of the congregation, walked into the pastor’s office with Bible in hand and a glower on his face.
“Pastor, we have a problem. I have just found out that
Clyde, who joined the church last fall, is a mule breeder. That’s against the word of God. It says right here in Leviticus 19:19, ‘You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind.’ What he is doing is wrong. I told him that, and he just stared at me. We can’t have that kind of person in our congregation, influencing our kids.”
The pastor sighed and asked him to take a seat. She spent the next hour talking with her upset member. She explained the Holiness Code and how many of the rules and regulations in Leviticus were meant to help the Hebrew people form a nation and set them apart from their neighbors. What was appropriate for that social context doesn’t necessarily apply to ours. She talked about the vast differences in scientific and biological knowledge between the time that passage was written and today. She pointed out that Jesus never said a word about animal breeding, but he did say a lot about loving your neighbor, and that for Christians the teachings of Jesus are the normative standard in the light of which the rest of scripture is to be read.
But at the end of the hour, Sam remained unconvinced. To him the word of God was clear. What
Clyde was doing was sinful, and he should either stop it or get out of the church. The pastor gently reminded him that all who profess Christ as savior were welcome as members in their church, and that Clyde had made such a profession when he joined. “You certainly have a right to believe what you do, Sam, but there are faithful Christians who believe differently. You do not have a right to exclude them from our fellowship, or to impose on them what you believe. We are all seeking to live in God’s way. I ask you to respect the differences and to work with the rest of the congregation to witness to God’s love for all humanity.”
To that Sam retorted that the congregation’s declaration of welcome to all was hypocritical because his belief clearly was not welcome. He left the office muttering under his breath that if the pastor wouldn’t preach the true word of God, he would have to do it himself.
About a week later the pastor had another troubled parishioner in her office. This time it was
Clyde. “Pastor, my family and I joined this church because you said that all were welcome. Well, we sure don’t feel welcome any more. Sam has been telling anyone who will listen to him that I am an unrepentant sinner because I breed mules. He pulled his kid out of the Sunday School class that I teach, and says that I shouldn’t be allowed any contact with the children. And today my wife got this in the mail.”
The pastor looked at the paper he was holding. It was a photocopy of a page from 2 Corinthians, Chapter 6, with verses 14 and 17 underlined: “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? … Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord.”
Well, that’s the end of the story, but just the beginning of the discussion. How indeed does one congregation, one denomination, one holy catholic and apostolic church gather into communion members holding such wildly disparate beliefs? Does extending welcome include the obligation to protect some members from the words and actions of others?
Sam is absolutely certain that he is witnessing as the Bible requires, that his is the lone voice in the congregation speaking up for righteousness against sin and depravity.
Clyde is equally certain that the gospel has freed Christ’s followers from the law, and that what he does for a living is no more sinful than eating the ham and cheese sandwiches that the women’s circle prepared for the church picnic. The pastor is certain that God’s love embraces all of her flock just the way they are. She also knows that part of her calling is to keep them from doing injury to each other while they figure that out.
Real life is messy. Neat, happy endings are rare. This article doesn’t have one. Instead I invite all of you to live in prayer with the questions, humbly seeking to walk in God’s love.