I visited a former church for a social event the other night and the scuttlebutt was that a fight was happening within the church body over matters of theology. It burdened my heart… because nothing had changed.
Sixteen years ago, my family was kicked out of that church over a difference of theology. But it was not the theological differences that hurt us, it was the fact that our supposed “friends” turned on us and treated us like we were inhuman, like we were dirt. My dad went to an elders meeting and was not spoken to with kindness, but was ganged up on and given a sound emotional beating by people he had thought were his friends. My mother was not treated much better, but instead was not spoken to directly – instead, people took their differences to my dad, leaving her feeling as if she was not even worthy of being spoken to. And even though I was too young to be directly involved, I too felt shunned, particularly when the sermon was a thinly veiled assault on our family.
That was the last week we went to church there.
Much later, we realized that their theological stance was more scriptural than ours, but what truly mattered was how we were treated. It was not with compassion and love, and it was unworthy of the God that we all claimed to serve. That church incident scarred us for more than ten years; it drove us so far away from “legalism” that we wound up in churches that did not revolve around the Word, and that were adrift in meaninglessness. We stagnated and we hurt, and we licked our wounds. It hurt the most because Christians are supposed to be different from everyone else, but it felt like Christians had hurt us worse than anyone else.
And it was with a sinking feeling the other night that I realized… this particular church is still at it. They are still so focused on being “right” that they are hurting other Christians left and right; trying to enforce a higher standard not through love and salvation but through rules that if you do not agree with them, you are turned out into the cold.
Jesus was not hard on everyone; he was just hard on the Pharisees who thought they had religion all figured out, who thought they were better than everyone else because they followed the “rules.” When He met the woman living in sin at the well, He did not yell at her for living with a man outside of marriage, He was kind to her, and transformed her life, and then told her to go and sin no more. Christians have two things that are most important in their lives: to love God above all else, and to love one another. Love for one another does not include brutal dictatorship or condemnation; it does not include shunning or ganging up on someone, or living according to the Law and excluding the simple commandment of love.
Dealing with sin is one thing; if a member of the church is openly and sin and refuses to change even after that sin is addressed, they should be removed from the membership for a time, just as Paul encouraged them to do in the case of the man who was sleeping with his father’s wife. (He later repented and changed, and the church had to be told to let him back into the church… they were not fast learners.) But when it comes to matters of theology, churches need to be careful when implementing “laws.”
The irony is that now we are in a church that holds the same theological view of the church that so hurt us; but it does not come across as legalistic, because the people are so genuinely loving toward one another. It is a flourishing church filled with friendship and support and strength, rather than division and fighting. But it took us a long time to get to a point where God could heal us enough to gently show us that our theological stance was wrong. And He did it not through condemnation and shunning, but in love. God cannot tolerate sin, and He does have guidelines by which Christians are to live, but He deals with us in love first, and if the love does not work, that is only when He hauls out the whip and starts turning tables over.
Love one another as you love yourself; deal with conflict not with shunning and coldness, but in love. And if you are in a church full of division and anger, that is always embroiled in conflict and fighting, get out, because it’s not a godly church.