Sin, Heresy, Grace and Witness

Had an interesting conversation yesterday with a coworker.  He was talking about how his daughter, a student at Vanderbilt was interviewing for an internship at one of the large Christian publishing houses in Nashville.  They ask all of their interns whether they can abide by the no drinking and no sexual activity policy.  Apparently, because they saw that this young woman had pledged a sorority, they repeated the question FOUR TIMES!  Are you SURE you can abide?   He laughed a bit and said, “now that’s old school Baptist.”

But then he talked about how young people are leaving those old school traditions as they head out to college and not necessarily to enter a different church setting.  He also mentioned some research that indicated young people who grew up in churches that communicate a strict “do this-not that” code of Christian conduct often equate those codes with salvation.  Asked “What does one have to do to be Christian?” the young people in this survey listed off all sorts of behaviors, but never mentioned faith or grace.

It made me think about the times I’ve heard, You can’t really be Christian if you….

  • vote Democrat
  • are pro-choice
  • are pro-gun, pro-capital punishment
  • believe that homosexuals are “born that way” as GaGa would say
  • believe that homosexuality can be cured
  • don’t believe the Bible is (insert proper adjective here)
  • drink, gamble, cuss, have sex outside of marriage (between a man and a woman)

It seems to me that when we start setting rules about behaviors that assure we are “in” that we’ve removed grace from the equation and have moved into the realm of works-righteousness.   A sin becomes more than a behavior that separates us from the will of God and places us in need of confession, repentance and forgiveness.  It becomes something more akin to heresy or proof of lack of salvation.

I find this interesting in light of the current climate within the mainline church, particularly the PC(USA) and its sister churches in the American Presbyterian church scene.  Because the disagreements over sexual orientation as sin are seated in the interpretation of scripture, it is common for the “conversation” to move to accusations of heresy and apostasy. That’s a pretty serious charge to make, especially without ever meeting the person you accuse.

In most cases, well-meaning and faithful people are doing the best they can to defend their faith.  But what happens when young or new believers look on?  What do they learn from statements that are meant to be nuanced (at least sometimes) descriptions of sin in light of accepting God’s grace and salvation through the redeeming work of Christ… but come across more like checklists of what you must do in order to be among those worthy of being saved (or elect)?

It’s not that most young people (or any people, really) walk or stay away from the church because it has nothing to offer.  Nor because they don’t have questions about God.  Often, it is because they don’t have a personal faith to go along with the religious ritual they’ve grown up with. They’ve never really come to understand who they are in Christ, much less how living out that reality is so much richer and deeper than following a prescribed set of rules.

So much of the Apostle Paul’s writings and even his own testimony point to the dangers of getting caught up in the law.  Not so that we might ignore our call to Godly living altogether (so that grace might increase), but so that we might live according to the heart of the law- the commandments behind the laws to love God and to love one another.  When Paul and others writing letters that became our New Testament spoke to codes and commandments, the overarching message of those was to be a witness to the grace and love of Christ in all that you say and do.

In our zeal to assure that people know on which right side we stand respecting specific cultural rifts, what is our witness to grace that meets us right where we are?    Do we witness to a love that tore the temple curtain in two, allowing all to enter?  Do we witness to the joy that is knowing the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, moving us closer to Christ-likeness?  Do we witness to the truth that we really can’t know the mind of God, even with a really Good Book to guide us and the Spirit to illuminate it for us.

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