Christians who have spent any amount of time in church have heard exhortations to the effect that members of Christian communities are supposed to love one another, encourage one another, bear one another’s burdens, and, as needed, rebuke/exhort one another, among other things. The call we experience is to be disciples, people who live out their faith commitment to the lordship of Jesus by following after his example. And we do this together, melded together, to use the language of 1 Peter 2:5, into a spiritual house of living stones. Individually, we are simply a pile of blockheads, but the Spirit makes us something wonderful together.
As New Testament texts describe the pilgrimage of discipleship, they repeatedly use language of discipline, perseverance, and growth. Christians are humans, and as such are subject to change. Discipleship ups the ante regarding change by reminding us that the Spirit’s work in our lives effects change in the form of spiritual growth — godliness, wisdom, maturity, and the like. These are revealed through the expression of our common humanity as we contribute to the common life of the community.
But what is interesting to me is that even as our lives are characterized by change in one dimension, they are characterized by enduring qualities in another. For example, our family histories are something that forms each of us, but something none of us can control. Whether we have happy memories of our families or traumatic ones, our pasts are our pasts, and we cannot change them. Our physical characteristics are another part of our identities that are often not as malleable as we would like them to be. I am a white male, and I cannot change that. Attributes such as my eye colour and my height are not really within my control. I recognize that some characteristics are subject to some degree of change, but I hope you will grant me my point for now.
What is clear in biblical passages that describe discipleship is that differences in who we are or where we come from do not indicate either different discipleship end points or necessary impediments to being disciples. No matter what our pasts may say, no matter what our ethnicities, no matter what our sex — in any of the areas of who we are that are beyond our control — we are in the same boat. We may travel different paths in the process of living our faith, but that is to be expected, because we are not all the same. What is important is less the path we have travelled than that we are moving in the same direction. And as followers of Jesus, we have been given the opportunity to reveal how the grace of God leaves a unique imprint in each of our lives.
The reason I am mentioning this is that in Scripture, instructions for Christian disciples focus on matters that are within the control of the disciples receiving the instructions. We are called to exercise self-control over our desires and actions, not our skin and eyes colour. What is more, we are reminded repeatedly that what we are called upon to expect in terms of spiritual change in our lives is not something that qualifies us to receive God’s grace, but rather something that is the evidence of God’s grace working in and through us.
Unfortunately, Christians have sometimes confused the priorities or the ordering that are revealed in Scripture (and sometimes both). Christians have made matters like skin colour, ethnicity, and sex criteria for fellowship, and in doing so have failed to honour people — fellow image-bearers. We have brought shame by focusing on what we cannot control rather than on what we can. In recent times, we have singled out individuals who experience same-sex attraction, gender dysphoria, non-binary sexuality, and others, in similar fashion. Christians have devoted inordinate energy to convincing people that they are not who they are, or that they ought to be different — preferably more like us. We have focused on the wrong thing. We have dismissed, excluded, and even condemned them beforehand. In the process, we have dishonoured our Lord and discredited our witness. We have sometimes insisted that people “clean up their acts” to make themselves acceptable for church fellowship. We have implied that people should do — on their own — what we believe can be done only through the power of the Spirit. What were we thinking?
Here’s what I think needs to change. We need to become affirming Christians. Here’s what I mean. No matter who we meet, or who comes through the door, our first response needs to be one of welcome and affirmation. Welcome, because everyone is welcome in the Kingdom community. Affirmation, because everyone is created in the image of God, created for reconciliation, fellowship, intimacy, and accountability in the family of faith. Do we affirm everything everyone does? Of course not. But we also don’t need to comment, at least up front. We all sin, and Christians are to help one another put sin to death in our lives. But we do this for everyone, and we address the issues as they arise. We don’t judge people beforehand. Actually, we don’t judge people at all. In biblical reference, judgment entails a finality that means that judgment is God’s responsibility, not ours. And we cannot predict with reliability what godliness needs to look like in others’ lives.There are some things we can know, at least in formal terms, but each person’s life manifests godliness uniquely. Each of those unique manifestations of growth is something to be celebrated and affirmed.
What do we do to help one another as disciples? We help one another in terms of processing what we can control so that we grow in faith and become more like Jesus. We may do this in words, but we do it at least as much by example. Jesus did. Do we have an idea what that will look like in our lives and those of others? Perhaps, but we should allow space for us to be wrong sometimes. We are always learning even as we are always growing. And in light of that, I think affirmation means celebrating our successes as family members. We should celebrate success as much as we mourn failure. How could we not?
There is a parody proverb that says “the floggings will continue until morale improves.” Unfortunately, too many Christians have convinced themselves that this describes an effective way to motivate people toward godliness. The early Christians did not win converts by being dour, or worse, judgmental, but by effusively showing love to others, even those who hated them. They affirmed others, because they recognized that those who were drawn to them were yielding to the Spirit’s invitation. Why else would they draw near to this small sect of followers of this failed rabbi named Jesus?
What is it about your fellowship that draws people to you? Don’t assume that you know, or that it is even something that is obvious to those around you. Instead, talk to people. Ask them what they think, instead of just telling them what to think. Affirm good things, no matter how small. If you are asked what you believe, respond. If you aren’t, then don’t waste time, because people probably don’t care anyway. Do what it takes to become known as people who go out of their way to do good, for people who least expect it (whether they seem to deserve it or not) and expect nothing in return. Don’t worry about being too “soft on sin.” If the Spirit isn’t convicting people about their sins, then why are you trying? Focus on your own.
That’s how to be an affirming church. Try it, and let me know how it goes. I’ll be standing by.