I usually consider myself fairly open-minded. That’s how I normally come across to those who walk into our church for the first time. In fact, that’s the kind of ethos we’ve been working very hard to establish within our community of faith. Everyone is welcome, regardless of creed, gender, sexual orientation, education, or economic status. A single mother once walked in after I’d been pastor for a few months and said: “I used to come here…until I had my son…and then all I received was judgement.” She had stopped coming for about 10 years. And although I personally had nothing to do with her reason for departure, I felt a corporate responsibility to ask for her forgiveness on behalf of our church, and told her that she was welcome back with open arms, without fear of judgement.
I believe that the missional church movement has done much to correct the old saying: “I don’t smoke, I don’t chew, and I don’t date guys/girls who do.” As a pastor with the denomination, I was even presented with the option of drinking alcohol at my own discretion, a choice unavailable 10 years ago. We have missional church planters meeting in pubs and bars discussing the latest trends and innovations of church. Such groups believe that “drinking holes” and other common areas of community (i.e. restaurants, poker games, Starbucks) should be the church’s mission field, and rightly so. Hell, let’s even light a cigar once in a while.
We are coming out from a time in church when being Christian meant you didn’t smoke, you didn’t drink (alcohol, that is), and you didn’t have sex before marriage. And because that became our focus, it turned into legalism. For many years we were quick to judge and we failed to love people regardless of their background. If people didn’t fit our Christian “box”, then they were rejected. Now, in the last decade or so, many churches have realized how wrong we have been in turning away so many people looking for love, acceptance and ultimately, God. We’ve become more missional. We are feeding the poor, we care for the orphan and the widow, we speak up for social justice issues, we buy more expensive bottled water so that part of the proceeds will go to dig wells in Africa for people without clean drinking water.
However, I have an increasing suspicion that the missional church’s message of openness and acceptance has unintentionally aided in swinging the pendulum from “extreme legalism” to “all-out license.” My suspicions continue to be confirmed over time. I have had numerous conversations with young men and women regarding sexuality where inevitably, the questions center upon how far they can push the “boundaries” before it is considered sinning, such as: Is oral sex wrong? Is masturbation wrong? What about “dry humping”? Is it possible to be a spiritual virgin again once I’ve lost my physical virginity? (I was actually asked that last question). I am continually asked to intervene in situations where the individuals’ experimenting with sex, alcohol and drugs have gone too far. Weekend drunken sprees have become the norm among the college and career groups. Each of these circumstances I have encountered among communities of faith.
In many senses, then, I contend that parts of our missional faith communities look exactly like Hollywood. “Let’s feed the poor, care for the earth, wipe out AIDS in Africa. But…no one should tell us what to do with our money, how much we should drink, or what we can or cannot do with our bodies.”
I propose that the solution to “extreme legalism” is not “all-out license”, but missional morality.
What then is missional morality? Well, If we follow Jesus, then we should love our neighbours, hang out with them, watch a flick, have a beer or two, go dancing– go into the marketplace – AND TRANSFORM IT. I’m pretty sure Jesus is fine with drinking a little wine or beer, but getting hammered is a different story. I’m pretty sure he’d be alright with dancing, but bumping and grinding against someone who’s not your spouse is a little iffy. All of us know how Jesus feels about sexual activity outside of marriage. No question about that, he was very clear. Jesus was the one who equated lusting after other women with adultery. He was the one who equated cursing another person as murder in spirit. He said that he had came not to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them. No one would ever accuse Jesus of being a legalist, since even his enemies charged him of being a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.”
Most missional individuals would identify Jesus as their prime example. One of the core attributes of missional living would be a renewed appreciation and reverence for the life and teachings of Jesus. I believe Jesus to be the most missional person to have ever lived. Jesus loved the poor, he elevated the status of abused women, he ate and communed with sinners and prostitutes.
I also believe Jesus to be the most moral person to have ever lived. Jesus did not sin, and he never condoned the sinful behaviour of those whose sins he forgave. For example, once the legalists had left the scene, to the adulteress Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” Zacchaeus the tax collector was so moved by Jesus’ presence as his dinner guest that his repentance and restoration resulted in him giving HALF his possessions to the poor and pledging to pay back FOUR TIMES the amount of anything he cheated off another. On one occasion, a “sinful” woman wet his feet with her tears, and proceeded to kiss Jesus’ feet, wipe them with her hair, and pour perfume on them. To her Jesus said: “Your sins are forgiven, your faith has saved you, go in peace.”
I have seen people enter our churches looking for redemption and leave because they were judged for sinful mistakes of the past. I now see people being accepted into our churches, regardless of their sinful habits, with no desire on their part for a redemptive morality and no “back-bone” on the church’s part to call them to account. I wonder what our churches would look like where sins are forgiven yet not tolerated, and sinners are restored yet continue to be exhorted to”sin no more.”
For years now we have been challenged to be as missional as Jesus was. Perhaps it is high time we follow his example of morality as well. He once said:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. 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.
I believe missional morality is, in the words of Jesus, “practicing the latter, without neglecting the former.”