In my experience, consistency and fairness virtually vanish from the discussion once a church determines to embrace grace and truth. Read the Gospels and you will have a difficult time finding even one example of Jesus being fair. He chose twelve apostles from among hundreds of disciples. He gave preferential treatment to three of the twelve. He didn’t heal everyone. He didn’t feed every hungry crowd. He stopped in the middle of a virtual parade and invited himself over to Zacchaeus’ house. Why him? He ensured that strangers would live and allowed Lazarus to die. And what about the incident at the pool of Bethesda? John tells us that Jesus singled out one man among “a great number of disabled people … the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.” I don’t mean to be crass, but you can’t help but imagine him tiptoeing through the crowd saying, “Pardon me, excuse me, pardon me, excuse me.” Then he finally reaches the one lucky guy. I say lucky. He had been there for thirty-eight years. Jesus leans down and whispers, “Do you want to get well?” Whenever I read this, my mind goes back to my all-time favorite book in high school, Mad magazine’s Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions. Does he want to get well? Seriously? This must have actually happened. No one would fabricate that question and put it in Jesus’ mouth. The man assures Jesus that he does. Jesus heals him. And only him. Then tiptoes back through the crowds of sick people, followed by the healed man carrying his mat. Can you imagine? Talk about unfair. How about this one: He tells the fellow known as the rich young ruler that in order to gain eternal life, he has to sell everything and join his entourage. Then, a few months later he whispers to the criminal crucified next to him that on that very day they will meet in paradise! Seriously? One guy has to dedicate the rest of his life to Jesus; the other guy gets in with a minute left on the clock? I could go on and on. Jesus’ seeming inconsistency drove religious leaders crazy. When you read the New Testament, it may drive you crazy as well. At times, it must have driven the apostle John crazy. It’s John who describes Jesus’ healing of a blind stranger and then two chapters later tells us that he intentionally allowed Lazarus to die. With the advantage of hindsight and a few years of maturity under his belt, he chalked it all up to Jesus’ uncompromising commitment to grace and truth. I get the feeling that somewhere in the midst of Jesus’ seeming lack of fairness and consistency is a clue for how the local church was meant to operate.
I’ve worked in churches that tried to be fair. Eventually, fairness became an excuse for nonengagement. The quest for consistency became an excuse not to help. Before long, church leaders were hiding behind, “If we do it for one, we will have to do it for everyone.” To which I can hear Jesus shouting, “No you don’t! I didn’t!” If we’re not careful, we will end up doing for none because we can’t do for everyone. The better approach is to do for one what you wish you could do for everyone, knowing that everyone is not going to be treated the same way. I’ve seen churches attempt to be consistent. But I’ve seen a commitment to consistency get in the way of ministry. I’ve seen people with financial needs turned away, not because there wasn’t enough money to help, but because a line item had been depleted. That’s a tough one, isn’t it?
The Glorious Mess
Churches that are heavy on truth and light on grace face challenges unique to that approach. Truth-lite churches have their own set of problems to contend with.
Churches committed to embodying grace and truth will be forced to navigate yet a third sea of complexity. But speaking from personal experience, I’ll choose door number three every time. The grace-and-truth approach is messy. It’s gloriously messy. We have decided to be fine with that. One of our pastors, John Hambrick, has a saying that we’ve adopted organization-wide. He says, “We walk toward the messes.” In other words, we don’t feel compelled to sort everything or everyone out ahead of time. We are not going to spend countless hours creating policies for every eventuality.
Instead we’ve chosen to wade in hip-deep and sort things out one relationship, one conversation, at a time.
Our decision to cling to both grace and truth impacts the way we do just about everything. And that is important for you to keep in mind as you study our model. Do we get it right every time? No. You can’t get it right every time regardless of your model. And that’s not an excuse. That’s the reality of ministry.
I bet you knew that.
We are inconsistent and at times unfair. Not on purpose. We just find that clinging to grace and truth creates tension. Tension we believe that should not be resolved, but managed. Do we have guidelines for benevolence and things of that nature? Of course. But they are guidelines. Not hard-and-fast rules. We have virtually no policies and lots and lots of conversations. There are several questions we decided ahead of time not to answer via email. But these are questions someone from our staff is always happy to sit down and discuss in person. There are a couple of questions we refuse to answer at all. We learned that from Jesus.
Other examples of our attempt to be a grace-and-truth church: We put people into leadership roles too early, on purpose. We operate under the assumption that adults learn on a need-to-know basis. The sooner they discover what they don’t know, the sooner they will be interested in learning what they need to know. We have virtually no formal leadership training. We have new believers attempting to lead beyond their maturity. We think that’s a good thing. At times, it creates problems. We like those kinds of problems. We encourage our teenagers to lead small groups with kids just two or three years younger than they are. We encourage nonbelievers to sign up for short-term mission trips. But we don’t let ’em lead. They don’t always understand that. We don’t always explain it to their satisfaction. It would be easier not to let ’em go at all. Once again, we opt for messy over easy.