I was asked recently for my thoughts on a Melbourne Age article about homosexuals in the church. It had to do with the Anglican Church and its view on homosexuality. It quoted a very liberal Anglican lay woman who bewailed the fact that fewer homosexuals could be found in the church because of what she regarded as fear and hostility.
My friend said this was a tough issue, and asked for my opinions on the matter. Well here they are. My first response is to say that in one sense this is not a tough issue at all. After all, the Bible is quite clear that homosexuality is a sin, and like all other sins, it separates us from God. Christ came to help set us free from the sins which entrap us and separate us from God. So in one sense at least the church should be a sin-free zone.
But I suspect my friend was thinking more about how the church should deal with homosexuals and others struggling with sin in its midst. This is both a pastoral and biblical question.
The truth is, the church is a place of sinners. Indeed, there can be no other people there. More specifically, the church is a place where sinners who have been forgiven come together. It is a place where redeemed sinners grow in their faith, fellowship with other believers, hear the word of God, and so on. The church is simply a collection of forgiven sinners who are now travelling down a new road.
A key passage here is found in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11: “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders 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.”
The key phrase is “that is what some of you were”. Sinners of all stripes who have repented of their sin and forsaken their former way of life make up the people of God. Those who have entered into God’s family have renounced their old way of living and have committed themselves to a new way. Indeed, Scripture speaks of putting off the old man and putting on the new. Baptism is a symbol of this process of exchange. We give Christ our sins, and he gives us his righteousness. It is the world’s most unfair transaction, but one that we all are desperately in need of.
So the church is simply a collection of individuals who have partaken in this grand exchange. Long ago Augustine said the church was like a hospital: it is for sick people. We are all sick, broken and needy. It is Christ who offers healing, restoration and forgiveness. The church is to be the place where the forgiveness and grace of God is played out.
The company of the redeemed is made up of those who have said no to sin and yes to the Lordship of Christ. That does not mean struggles will no longer occur. It does not mean we achieve instant sinless perfection. Sanctification is a lifelong process. We all will struggle with sins which have been renounced, and a life of vigilance, dedication, and dependence on the Spirit will be needed.
The fact that the church is a collection of forgiven sinners who seek to become more like their saviour is of course a different matter from how believers may wish to structure their churches and church services in relation to the lost.
It is of course possible to have a welcoming environment for non-believers to come and learn about Jesus and the claims of the Gospel. The Alpha Course is a case in point. We need to open ourselves up to those who are seeking God. How far one can go in seeking to do two different things simultaneously (feed the believers, and win non-believers) is a matter of some consideration and prayer.
So unlike the liberal Anglican who laments the fact that certain sinful lifestyles may or may not find a place in the church, the truth is the church is full of sinful people. But they are sinners who have been saved by grace and are seeking to become more like their Lord each day.
Thus we are to show patience and grace toward one another as we move along the path of conformity to Christ. But as the New Testament documents make clear, this does not mean tolerating sin in ourselves or our congregations. It is a hard balance to reach.
C.S. Lewis once put it this way: we should be Arminians (emphasising our own choices) when it comes to our own weaknesses and our brothers’ strengths, and Calvinists (emphasising God’s initiative) when it comes to our own strengths and our brothers’ weaknesses. Showing grace to others while being tough on ourselves is a good starting point.
The aim of being conformed to the image of Christ means no less than striving for perfection, as Jesus told us in Matt. 5:48. That means holding one another accountable, admonishing one another, and urging one another on to new heights in Christ. But it will also mean being forbearing, forgiving, patient and humble as we travel down this road.