Our culture faces social breakdown. We see marriages under stress, single parent families, blended families and rising crime rates. Each of these situations generates other stresses producing damaged relationships and damaged people. Many appear stable, but are vulnerable and wonder who they can trust. So how does the church respond to such a situation?
Our first response must be to acknowledge the facts and not delude ourselves that we are living in a stable society. Wales is no longer the ‘Land of Song’. We are no longer a chapel-going, hymn-singing people.
Paul lists the sins and moral failure of first-century Corinth: ‘…the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, men who practise homosexuality, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers and swindlers’ and then writes, ‘and such were some of you’ (1 Cor. 6:9-11). People with these issues had been received as members in the church. John the Baptist and Jesus addressed a different culture. Therefore their context and preaching were different, but all three acknowledged their current and immediate social issues. As churches, we also must recognise change and address current issues. I grew up eating school meals, including stew and dumplings followed by a generous serving of sponge pudding and custard, because the government was responding to the malnutrition caused by the rationing of the second world war. Today this kind of ‘healthy eating’ leads to problems of obesity. Today’s health problems are equally life-threatening, but our situation is completely different, and so they demand an alternative but appropriate treatment.
As churches, entrusted with God’s good news we have to acknowledge the reality of social breakdown in our culture and respond. So, do we re-write the rule book or move the goal-posts? No! With the authority of the Bible, we are to confront the problems while embracing those damaged by the problems.
We confront the issues by reading the stories of the Bible rather than simply discussing its principles. By doing this, we find God-given marriage and family life have been threatened throughout history. Many families used by God were not perfect monogamous marriages. Polygamous marriages struggled with interpersonal tensions. Wayward sons (e.g. Jacob and Moses) spent decades away from home but were brought back to fulfil God’s purposes. That does not negate God’s pattern for marriage, nor his requirement that children honour their father and mother, but shows that throughout history God and his people have embraced broken people.
Jesus confronted the legalistic, hypocritical teachers of his day, calling them whitewashed tombs, and telling them their teaching created greater burdens for people. We must do the same, unashamed that God has given us clear principles by which to live. At the same time, Jesus challenged people who caused damage to their own lives through complacency or wilful sin. Having restored two individuals, Jesus told them to ‘sin no more’ (John 5:14; 8:11). While we must declare God is love, we must always call sinners to repentance and demand a change in lifestyle.
Sin is serious for both the perpetrator and the victim, but Christ (and the church) came into the world to save sinners. Sin also stinks, and there will be times when literally ‘the smell will be terrible’ (John 11:39), but if we hope to raise the dead we must be prepared to be polluted by the smell.
Our final and most important response to a horribly damaged society must be to embrace those who form it and cause its problems. The greatest compliment/accusation made of Jesus was that ‘this man receives sinners and eats with them’ (Luke 15:2). The religious leaders, who prided themselves on being separate from sinners, could not cope with a Messiah who mixed with sinners. Jesus was accused of being ‘a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’ (Matt. 11:19). In their opinion, he stank. The disciples and the church are called to follow Christ. Therefore, since Christ embraced sinners damaged by sin, we are to do the same.
We cannot hope to solve all the social issues of our day, but such should be our relationship with our culture that they know we have no intention of condemning them. People in our society have to know that we will do all that we can to help them mend. This will take time, faith and love.
Married couples facing difficulties need to be reminded that they have promised ‘for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; till death us do part.’ The inclusion of such promises in the marriage vows means that these issues will be faced, but they can and must be endured. Christ loves a far from perfect bride but is patient with her. When divorce has ended a marriage, we need to show the couple that it is not too late. Issues need to be addressed openly; each partner needs to be heard and respected. Faults, including adultery, need to be acknowledged and brought to the cross for forgiveness and healing. At the appropriate time, a marriage can be restored with renewed vows.
Substance abuse in its various forms has a devastating effect on individuals, families and churches, but can be forgiven. Rehabilitation centres are at times successful, but surely the church is where healing and sanctification take place. Jesus prayed, ‘I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one’ (John 17:15). He went on to pray that they might be sanctified in the truth. We can acknowledge a work of grace in a person’s life and embrace them as church members, while at the same time, helping them to grow in grace by applying the promises and demands of Scripture in their lives. None is perfect this side of glory. When slips occur, as they will, we are to remind them and ourselves that Jesus was prepared to forgive seventy times seven.
The contemporary church faces issues of sexual orientation and gender identification unparalleled in human history, but not beyond the knowledge and grace of God. As with the earlier examples, we embrace these people and these issues, in the truth. The truth tells us that every human being has been created by the power of God in his image, as either male or female. It also tells us that each one of us has been affected by the Fall, and is, therefore, a victim and a culprit of sin, but that Christ has come to save sinners, not to condemn them. God is uncompromising on the order for sexual relations and any deviation from that is sin, which can be forgiven upon faith and repentance.
With all sin, fellow believers may not gain immediate victory, but they must know that within the family of faith they are acknowledged, confronted and embraced.