Both of us agree sin is bad. For Christians this is not, perhaps, the most remarkable of agreements or insights. We also agree that there is a difference between a sinner who is sorry he sins and one who thinks his sin is awesome or justified. We come as we are to become different than what we are. Easy enough to write, but in reality these truths imply making some tough judgments.
Here is an easy example. We know that marriages contain strains and are works in progress. Everybody is welcome at church wherever they are on this married “pilgrim’s progress”. Yet we both have no tolerance for any man who justifies spousal abuse. Of course, being “sorry” would not be enough to avoid discipline and the legal consequences that should fall on such crimes, but it would not break Christian fellowship. If any man thought abuse was justified, he deserves not just prison (as abuse does) but excommunication.
When the two of us face such a man, we say: “If a sinner, you have to be sorry and the rest of us sorry sinners will try not to judge your sincerity if you will not judge ours! Unless you make us doubt your repentance, we will accept it leaving the final judgment to God.”
You justly point out, however, that Jesus had fellowship with sinners over dinner. Many of these sinners were “in their sin” and happy at the time of the dinner. Am I missing some act of charity by disfellowshipping Christians who make a virtue of their vice?
There is fellowship and then there is worship. I can fellowship with (almost) anyone but worship only with the redeemed. Jesus could hang out with unrepentant sinners in order to call them to repentance. Note that the sinners with Jesus knew they were sinners and were thrilled a righteous man would eat with them. They were looking for a way out of their sin.
Jesus was not partying with the “Jews Who Love Their Sin Action League.”
Stuffy people judged Jesus because they thought that eating with sinners condoned their sin. And after all, most Jesus called to repentance did not follow through and repent. The hypocrites did not like the social risks Jesus took. Jesus rebuked the hypocrites and narrowness and took the social risk. We should as well. You and I must eat with those we think might repent, love them, and call them to repentance when we can. Yet recollect that Jesus was having dinner not synagogue time!
Worship is different. Worship is “in the family” and the historic church reserved that service for people who were not seekers. It is inappropriate for unbelievers to participate in the mysteries of God, the sacrament of worship. If nothing else, it is as rude as going to somebody’s family Christmas and demanding they relate to your family Christmas and customs.
I would eat with any sinner, but with no Christian who calls sin virtue. A pagan is doing the best she knows when she sins, but somebody who knows better and then abandons the truth gets less slack. Of course that means my own willful sins are worse as well and I must repent daily. Hopefully, over the course of my life, people will be able to see a growth in love, mercy, and justice.
What of “seeker churches”? I think those worship services are confused. They conflate outreach to discipleship and probably do neither well. Any outreach service should be open to anyone. When the soul care begins for the people of God, we must (politely) ask the unbelievers to leave. We are engaged in family business.
The church welcomes sinners who repent, that includes me, but no sinner who glories in sin. Sinners as sinners must die to their sin nature to be Christians. Every human is invited to join that long process that is full of grace, mercy, and truth! There are sinners every day at my dinner table, but there will be no sin at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb.
We’d better get right.
Under the Mercy,
John Mark (Nicholas)