Your Church Is Too Safe: Why Following Christ Turns the World Upside-Down

When Clean and Unclean Touch

Recently, a young couple started coming to our church. Both are funny, smart, attractive. They’re very likable. They married a few years ago somewhere on the other side of the country, then migrated west until they arrived in our town, then moved around churches until they ended up in our church. Both are Christians who take their faith seriously. Both are seeking a place where they can worship, serve, grow. They want a loving and Christ-centered environment in which to raise their daughters in the “nurture and admonition” of the Lord.

Both are women. Linda and Rita are lesbians.

My first question to them: “Why us?”

There are two or three churches nearby that have no theological issue at all with same-sex marriages: they perform them, celebrate them, welcome those in them. Our church is not one of these churches. We’re firmly embedded in our evangelical heritage: a strong emphasis on the Bible, on personal holiness, on evangelism and activism.

And strong feelings about homosexuality. Very strong feelings.

Linda and Rita actually grew up in this kind of a church, and that was part of their answer to “Why us?” The other part of their answer was more intriguing: they see life and joy in our church, and they want in on it.

We didn’t know what to do with them. I lost more sleep over this than almost anything else in my twenty years of pastoral ministry. My heritage told me to give them the heave-ho. My theology told me they were living in defiance of God. But a stirring inside me which I can only describe as the Spirit of God told me something else: that God himself had drawn these women here. He had done that not so that we would overturn our heritage or revise our theology but because he was doing something deep in Linda and Rita, and he was entrusting our church to join him in his work.

* * *

But let me back up.

Our church embraces two values with equal vigor, and in the case of Linda and Rita, and many other people beside, those two values are in almost constant tension.

The first value is the truth and trustworthiness of the Bible. As good Baptists, we teach, believe, and try to live out that the Bible is “our one true guide for life and godliness.” We believe we are under the Word of God, that though our understanding of it is often patchwork and our obedience to it halting, we have no right to impose on the Bible our own meanings or agendas. If we have done our best interpretive work with the Good Book and have concluded that it teaches a particular truth, then we are beholden to that truth no matter how costly or awkward or unpopular it might be.

That’s one value.

The other value is that Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. He did this, and then asked you and me to keep up, on his behalf, his questionable work.

Jesus—we all know this—shocked, angered, and offended the religious community in his day by his easy rapport with disreputable people. He really liked being around people whom religious types aren’t supposed to have anything to do with. He not only liked them; he sought them, welcomed them, invited himself to their houses, initiated conversations with them, enjoyed meals with them, let them off the hook, with scarcely a reprimand, for big-ticket sin items like adultery and thievery and shacking up.

The best I can make out here is that Jesus was working on the same stirring I had with Linda and Rita: God is doing something deep here, in Zacchaeus and Mary Magdalene, in the woman at the well and the woman caught in adultery and the woman who washes his feet with her tears; in all these sundry “sinners and tax collectors,” God is revealing, convicting, wooing. And he invites Jesus to join him in his work. “The Son … can do only what he sees his Father doing,” Jesus said, “because whatever the Father does the Son also does.”

So Jesus watched his Father welcome sinners and eat with them. Jesus watched his Father stride over to Zacchaeus’s house and scatter blessing on it. Jesus watched his Father welcome those whom Pharisees shunned. And Jesus jumped right in and joined his Father.

So we jumped right in (so to speak) with Linda and Rita and joined whatever the Father was up to.

As of this writing, we’re still in the thick of it. It’s been an interesting, often awkward, mostly grace-filled, always amazing journey. One of our pastors, Shane, was counseling Linda about some communication struggles she was having with Rita. Linda was trying to explain her frustration. Finally, she looked up at Shane and said, “Well, you’re married to a woman. You know what they’re like.”

As Shane said later, “They never taught me at Bible college how to handle that sort of thing.”

* * *

But our journey with Linda and Rita clarifies some of the convictions we’ve developed at our church. These convictions have been good companions as we wade through this situation and many others like it. These convictions help us keep our bearings. I’ve already shared two of those convictions—the Bible is our only true guide for life and holiness, and Jesus welcomed sinners, just as his Father did, and asks us to welcome them too—but let me walk you through a few of our other convictions. I think this will help if you find that your church is too safe—too prone to avoid “sinners and tax collectors”—and you would like your church to be more dangerous, more subversive, more out in the highways and the byways: in short, more ready to join God in the deep work he’s doing in the lives of people all around you.

Conviction 1: God is here.

One of our pastors was leading a staff time and wanted each of us to identify one or two “core convictions.” I was edified and fascinated to listen to the people I work with every day, some over many years, tell about what forms and transforms them.

I shared last and had only one I’d come up with: God is here. I could tell I underwhelmed the others with this, so I explained a little.

“There are few atheists in the world. But there are a lot of practical atheists—people for whom God’s ‘thereness’ registers not at all. I sometimes call them apatheists—joining the word theist and the word apathy. Apatheists believe God exists but don’t care.

“I’m trying not to be one. And so I nurture the conviction that God is right here, right now. In this place. Closer than a brother. And to believe that if my heart is fully devoted to him, he’s come near to strongly encourage me. The main spiritual discipline for fostering this sense of God’s nearness is curiosity. I try to stay more interested, regardless the situation, in what God is doing than in what man is plotting or in what the devil’s up to. I don’t want to be unaware of the devil’s schemes. But I want to obsess over the Father’s presence and the Father’s work. I want to reserve all my strength for pursuing the kingdom of God and his righteousness.

“So my deep conviction is that God is here.”

A few weeks later, the pastors and elders gathered to think through biblically and practically our response to our gay friends. I began the conversation with this question: “If gays and lesbians want to come to our church, do you see in that mostly God at work, or mostly the devil?”

To a person, everyone answered, “God.”

God is here.

Which leads to our next conviction.

Conviction 2: When someone comes into the light, it’s always God at work.

God is the Father of light (Satan, the Prince of Darkness). Jesus said that he is the light that has come into the world, and he’s come not to condemn the world but to shine his light. Those who come into the light step into a place where they can receive truth and grace (see conviction 4). Those who don’t come into the light condemn themselves.

Anytime a man or woman brings their true self into the light—letting themselves be seen for who they really are—God’s at work. Think of the two men in Luke 18 who go up to the temple to pray. One is a Pharisee, one a tax collector. The Pharisee is a moral exemplar. He is a paragon of virtue. He’s a ready candidate for chairman of the board, president of the Rotary, spokesman for the Neighborhood Watch.

And he knows it. His prayer is lengthy, polished, eloquent, and the entire thing an extended brag on himself. I’m this; I’m that. I’m not this; I’m not that.

The tax man is a scoundrel. He’s a bad egg. He’s the sort of person whom “good” people point to—the Pharisee, in fact, does this—and say, “Thank God I’m not him.” You give men like him a wide berth and never turn your back.

And he knows it. His prayer is short, stark, desperate. It is a confession and a plea. He’s a sinner. He needs God’s mercy.

Jesus is pointed in his verdict: the tax man walks away justified before God, the Pharisee doesn’t.

Why? Jesus says, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” But that exaltation and humbling has much to do with light and darkness. The Pharisee brings into the light only those parts of himself he wants God and others to see—his virtue, his fidelity, his generosity. But most of who he is remains in the dark. But the tax collector hauls his whole sorry, sordid self into the burning light. He hides nothing. He brings before God all his miserable fallenness, his deplorable folly, his pathetic brokenness, his real evil. He stands without excuse. He dares to ask for the only thing that can help: God’s mercy.

And God gives him mercy in spades.

Jesus doesn’t demand that first we sort ourselves out and clean ourselves up before we dare step into the light; he invites us to step into the light in order to get sorted out and cleaned up. It’s impossible to clean a mess in the dark. We usually only make more mess.

Unless a man or woman of God will come into that mess, those in it are probably going to remain in it.

And that leads to the next conviction.

Conviction 3: When someone brings their mess into the light, their mess usually doesn’t get cleaned up unless one of us wades into the mess with them.

“Brothers and sisters,” Paul writes to the Galatians, “if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If any of you think you are something when you are nothing, you deceive yourselves. Each of you should test your own actions. Then you can take pride in yourself, without comparing yourself to somebody else, for each of you should carry your own load.”

This is a remarkable passage. The role of the mature—those “who live by the Spirit”—is to wade into another’s mess, not to judge them or join them or feel superior to them or codependently take responsibility for them (“carry each other’s burdens,” Paul says, and then right after says “each of you should carry your own load”). The role of the mature is to wade into another’s mess in order to “restore that person gently.”

The word gently is two words in the Greek: pneumati praotçtos, literally in “a spirit of meekness.” Meekness is strength under control. It means that disciplinary encounters are not standoffs or court-martials. They’re not a show of power. Discipline in the church is actually a ministry of the Spirit, the Paraklete, the one who comes alongside, gently, to counsel, comfort, plead, guide.

And the work of those who live by the Spirit is to restore. Again, the Greek here is worth noting: katartizete, literally “be ye attuning.” The picture is of an instrument capable of producing beautiful, resonant, evocative music, but badly out of tune. Roughing up the instrument will only worsen and make permanent the problem. Discarding the instrument is stupid; it’s a Stradivarius, a possession of great worth, inestimable value. It’s just badly mistuned, and what should sing and woo instead squawks and yowls. It needs a gentle, masterful touch, a tightening here, a loosening there, a lowering of the strings or a straightening of the neck, a slow, painstaking removal of grime and a lavish, penetrating kneading-in of oil, to restore it to its true potential.

That’s the work of those who live by the Spirit.

Often, those who step in to help clean the mess will look to others like they’re endorsing the mess. I think of a pastor from another church who called me up a while back and told me he was concerned about our church. He had heard rumors. I asked what rumors. He listed three: a couple living together, a couple having sex outside marriage, and a gay man attending. All three were “messes” that we knew about and had stepped into in an effort to “gently restore.” When I told him that, it made matters worse. “What are you doing helping these people?” he asked. “I would have kicked them out a long time ago. I don’t understand how you can tolerate sin in the camp.”

I don’t know how I can avoid it. Several years ago, our church made it our prayerful ambition “to win the heart of the Cowichan Valley.” We’ve been doing that, but the heart of the Cowichan Valley is coming to us broken, afflicted, dark, confused. It is, for the most part, a deeply hurt and unhealthy heart.

But we asked God for that heart. And so we’re trusting God that, as we live by the Spirit, he’ll give us what we need to tune that heart to sing his praises.

Which leads to the next conviction.

Conviction 4: What we bring to the work of tuning hearts is grace and truth.

According to John’s gospel, Jesus Christ, as a reflection of the Father, came full of grace and truth. We talked about this in the last chapter. Here, again, are some key verses: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. … Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the
Father, has made him known.”

John wants to make clear the nature of Jesus’ relationship with the Father, primarily by telling us how Jesus reveals the Father. It’s through grace and truth. John contrasts this way of revealing the Father with Moses’ way of revealing God—through law. The Mosaic law is an unambiguous manifesto of the standards of a holy God. Nothing in the law is up for discussion or debate. Law largely deals in commands and prohibitions—do this, don’t do that. It’s cut and dried. It’s black and white. It’s short on interpretation, long on pronouncement.

Then Jesus comes and changes the rules (see conviction 5). It’s not that God no longer cares about his own standards of holiness. But Jesus brings a fresh revelation. Where Moses revealed, in stone, the unbending standards of a holy God, Jesus reveals, in flesh, the beating heart of a Father God. It’s a heart full of grace and truth.

Full. God is full of grace and truth, and so Jesus is full of grace and truth. Jesus never had to wonder or ponder how to act or to speak in any situation. His holy instinct, wired in by the Father, was always and everywhere to act and to speak with complete grace and complete truth. He didn’t choose between the two. He didn’t dial one down to play one up. He didn’t alternate from one to the other according to the situation at hand. Every time Jesus spoke, everywhere Jesus acted, he revealed God in the fullness of truth and grace.

That day the pastors and elders met to talk about how to respond to our gay friends, we spent most of the time looking at John 1. “What does it mean,” I asked, “that whatever we say or do be full of truth?” That generated a lot of discussion that, frankly, was well-trod territory for Baptists: sin is sin.

But then I asked, “What does it mean that whatever we say or do be full of grace?” It means, we concluded, that at every point Linda and Rita—or anyone else we “who live by the Spirit” come near to—should know in their bones that we love them and that our deepest desire is for them to win.

We ended that day by coming up with a little proverb of sorts. It’s this: when we speak truth, it should be so grace-soaked it’s hard to reject; when we show grace, it should be so truth-soaked it’s hard to accept.

All this leads to what may be our most startling, and most subversive, conviction.

Conviction 5: Jesus reverses the flow of influence between clean and unclean, and empowers us to do the same.

The teachers of the law accused Jesus of breaking the law of Moses. What Jesus actually did was more radical: he reversed it. The law was established to keep us safe from moral and spiritual taint. But Jesus, full of grace and truth, came to make us dangerous. He came to turn us into agents of moral and spiritual cleansing and wholeness. He meant for any ordinary Christian to be able to show up at the gates of hell with no more than the Holy Spirit brimming inside them, and for the gates of hell to collapse beneath the weight of our presence.

That’s how Jesus did it. Jesus didn’t run from sin; he put sin on the run. He didn’t fret about corpses or invalids, blood or open sores, whores or lepers, demoniacs or Gentiles. He didn’t flinch from brushing his robe or hand against sin and sinners, and worry that he’d thereby stained his unblemished whiteness. He got very close to all and sundry, reaching out to touch, to embrace, because his holiness exerted an irresistible power over the unholy. Unholy things had no power to corrupt him. Unclean things had no power to taint him. They either submitted to his influence or fled.

This is not the way Moses envisioned it. Moses wrote law upon law to uphold this fundamental spiritual truth: to “keep the Israelites separate from things that make them unclean.” And for good reason: if ever something clean touches something unclean, the clean thing always—always—becomes unclean. It never works the other way around, not in the law of Moses. So the law—primarily the three books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—has warning upon warning to steer clear of unclean things, and rule upon rule about what rigmarole is required of you—penalties, quarantines, sacrifices—if you don’t.

And then Jesus comes and changes the rules. He reverses the way spiritual things work. He reverses the f low of clean and unclean. Now, astonishingly, when clean and unclean touch, the unclean becomes clean. This, in a word, is a revolution. It is a revolution of staggering proportions. It is a revolution that the church has mostly ignored or opposed. Jesus, after all, called his followers the salt of the earth and the light of world (an appellation he also uses of himself). Light assumes darkness, and salt assumes both blandness and rot. But both salt and light need to get up close to do their work.

Jesus sends his followers into a dark and bland and rotting world, to get up close to do our work. He looses this revolution upon the earth. He makes several comments announcing this revolution. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” he said. “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” But even more, Jesus commits several acts that stage the revolution. We’ll take a close look at two.

The first is in Luke 8, the account of the woman who has had a flow of blood for twelve years. The story is embedded in another: Jesus is on his way to the house of Jairus, whose twelve-year-old daughter is dying. Both stories are embedded in yet another: Jesus’ demonstration of power over both the natural order—he calms a storm with just a word—and the supernatural order—he calms a demon-stormed man with just a word. The Jairus story and the story of the woman with the flow of blood form a pair, linked by a chronology of events but also by the number twelve: in the case of the woman, twelve years is too long to suffer on this earth; in the case of the girl, twelve years is too soon to leave this earth. Together, with the twelve-years-afflicted woman, with the twelve-year-old dead girl, Jesus demonstrates his power over sickness, no matter how chronic, and his power over death, no matter how sudden.

The ground themes of all four stories—storm-tossed sea, demon-tossed man, sickness-tossed woman, death-tossed family—are twofold: human fear in the face of such tossings, such turnings, and Christ’s power in the face of the same. Jesus emerges as Lord over all these realms. He’s Lord over the natural, the supernatural, the physical. He’s Lord over death.

And one more thing besides. There’s one more area over which Jesus is Lord that this sequence of stories shows: the religious world. Jesus is Lord over the Law. As Christ meets with Moses and Elijah (representing the Law and the Prophets) in Mark 9, God says about him, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” “Listen to him.” The Son has the trump card. The Son possesses overruling authority. The Son has the last word. In fact, Jesus’ lordship over the religious world may be the loudest statement of all in Luke 8, but it takes a little teasing out for most of us to see.

The portrait of Jesus’ lordship over religion is evident in the Legion story and the Jairus story, but especially in the story of the woman with the f low of blood.

First, that:

As Jesus was on his way, the crowds almost crushed him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years, but no one could heal her. She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped.

“Who touched me?” Jesus asked.

When they all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.”

But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.”

Then the woman, seeing that she could not go unnoticed, came trembling and fell at his feet. In the presence of all the people, she told why she had touched him and how she had been instantly healed. Then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”

This woman is the poster girl for Leviticus 15:25-27: “When a woman has a discharge of blood for many days at a time other than her monthly period or has a discharge that continues beyond her period, she will be unclean as long as she has the discharge, just as in the days of her period. Any bed she lies on while her discharge continues will be unclean, as is her bed during her monthly period, and anything she sits on will be unclean, as during her period. Whoever touches them will be unclean; he must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening.”

This is that woman. For twelve years, this has been that woman. She is a breeding ground of ritual uncleanness. She is an infestation. Her chairs, her bed, her sofa, her car seat—she’s tainted it all. And not just inanimate things, not just f