A few years ago, I took part in an action that I now deeply regret. It started me on a journey that redefined how I understand “Love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself” and how I understand the nature and responsibility of the Church. I was on the governing body of my local church when we made the decision to exclude a group of people from leadership in the church. We were so well-intentioned. We were trying to honor God by drawing a line in the sand and holding fast to biblical principle as we understood it and in doing so we singled out this one sin among the rest…making it the unforgivable sin among all sins. Shortly after this, God brought me to Matthew 23:23-24: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
My heart was convicted. Here I am – a sinner. A woman who had a child out of wedlock and not one but two divorces under my belt. By all holy and righteous biblical standards, I never should have been considered for, let alone asked to become an Elder. And not only did I serve but I was often commended by my peers and my pastors for my work. How could I turn around and tell another person that their particular sin prohibits them from living out God’s call on their life in the church, but mine doesn’t. Now before you go defending me…but your sin was in the past and forgiven and all that sanctifying stuff…Adultery was not my only sin. I am also a liar. I tell untruths from time to time and I lied during the time I was serving as leader of my church. And there were other sins I committed while serving as leader, some of which I still struggle with, but those didn’t prohibit me from being a leader in the eyes of the church.
In our human need to categorize everything, we’ve placed some sort of artificial hierarchy to our sinful acts. Consider this: The sinful act that separated us from God forever was the eating of a piece of fruit when God said not to. In our human understanding of right and wrong, that kind of thing is punishable by 5 minutes in time-out, but in God’s eyes, it was bad enough to cast us out away from his sight for eternity. By excluding these people until they got their act together, we were implying that we were somehow more holy, more righteous than they. Here’s how Jesus put it in Luke 18:9-14: To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus talks about this too, in John 9:39-41: Jesus then said, “I came into the world to bring everything into the clear light of day, making all the distinctions clear, so that those who have never seen will see, and those who have made a great pretense of seeing will be exposed as blind.”
Some Pharisees overheard him and said, “Does that mean you’re calling us blind?”
Jesus said, “If you were really blind, you would be blameless, but since you claim to see everything so well, you’re accountable for every fault and failure.”
People who seek to love God with all their heart and soul and mind and strength and their neighbor as themselves and yet are blind to the sin in their life that is so blatantly obvious to others—that’s all of us! Whatever the sin, it doesn’t make any one of us too sinful for God’s grace to cover or too “spiritually misguided” to answer God’s call to be in or to serve within the body of Christ. We are all being molded into Christ image, in his timing, in his way, by his hand, and we all need his grace to redeem us every moment of our lives just as much as the first time we fell on our knees and declared with our mouths that Jesus is Lord and believed in our hearts that God raised him from the dead. (Romans 10:9)
I’ve deliberately tried not to reveal the “sin” that we leaders deemed as qualifier of who is and isn’t good enough to lead God’s people in that church because it doesn’t matter what it was or is. It’s not the action of sin but the core of our own sinfulness in which our actions originate that equally separates each and every one of us from God. It isn’t the good we do or our efforts to not do bad that brings us back into his Presence, but the unlimited grace revealed in a single act by God himself on the cross. He endured our “time-out” so that we could again enter his presence redeemed—all of us.
“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (NIV)
“Go figure out what this Scripture means: ‘I’m after mercy, not religion.’ I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders.” (MSG)
“Learn what this means: ‘I want mercy, not sacrifices.’ I’ve come to call sinners, not people who think they have God’s approval.” (GW)