Sunday, January 23, 2011

Grace-Based Purity in the Church

I am really pleased that Matt Hosier from Poole wrote this article in the most recent Newfrontiers magazine - because it addresses an issue I've been worrying about and thinking about for some time. My church background (Dunstable and Sovereign Grace Ministries) has been pretty much obsessed with sin. Particularly in SGM, sin was talked about regularly and discussions on how to mortify it usually in "accountability groups". But what concerned me was that although these churches were admirably passionate about defeating sin if they could - both were harsh when it came to dealing with sinners who confessed. I witnessed people being disciplined publicly in Dunstable and of course was excommunicated myself from SGM (although the pastors have explained why this was done - an instruction from above).

My question was always - how on earth do the church expect Christian sinners to confess particularly what they see as "big" or "bad" sins such as sexual promiscuity when they are treated as such? It is perfectly okay to confess to sins such as "pride" or "lying" (sins, Jerry Bridges calls; "Respectable" and sins God hates by the way!) - but if you confess you struggle with pornography or homosexuality for example, then you are treated with mistrust and at times panic on how to deal with you.

So I am glad that Matt has addressed the issue (even though I don't think he goes far enough with his understanding of the gift of righteousness we are given in Christ Jesus). He says;

"The apostles were radically serious about sin, yet at the same time radically gracious towards sinners. This is a difficult line for us to tread. Typically we tend to fall into one of two traps. Either there is a seriousness about sin that leads to intolerance, or there is a compassion towards sinners that leads to complacency about sin. Both of these traps create serious problems in the life of a local church".

And this is so true. Churches either seem to reflect my Dunstable church or SGM - or do indeed act as though they are complacent about sin. The very serious problem of harshness towards sinners that I have experienced brings problems for non-believers - Matt says;

"If our church culture is one of intolerance, then sinners will walk in and feel they cannot possibly find a place among us – ‘Everyone here seems to have their life sorted, no problems. How could I possibly fit?’ In this kind of church no one ever confesses their sin because they fear that if they do so they will be treated like lepers and ostracised by everyone else. Inevitably this leads to hypocrisy, as all kinds of things are kept hidden which should be brought to the light. This kind of church becomes like a whitewashed tomb – outwardly respectable but inwardly full of worms".

And this was very much the case in my Dunstable church and in SGM. We heard of divorces and of child abuse at times in Dunstable - and I have friends in SGM in the USA who also have reported of shocking child abuse, affairs, addiction to pornography - all while these individuals are going to their "accountability groups". As Matt says; "outwardly respectable but inwardly full of worms".

I love the way that he uses the churches in Corinth and Galatia to highlight the point;

"It is helpful for us to consider the very different contexts of the churches in Galatia and Corinth. In the Galatian churches the problem was one of heavy-handed legalism, while in Corinth it was one of shocking immorality. Yet the solution Paul offers to both settings is the same: Grace!".

And the answer to the problem?

"For the Galatians this meant a fresh revelation of the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice, a sacrifice that brings us into freedom. In their desire to live in moral purity, the Galatians were taking their eyes off the grace that was theirs in Christ and relying on strictures of the law – and by so doing were failing to act in love towards one another.

By contrast, the Corinthians were letting pretty much anything go and had lost sight of the fact that a true response to Christ’s sacrifice results in holy living – and as a consequence they too were failing to display love towards one another. In both cases, the solution Paul offers is a deeper understanding of the work of Christ and a deeper response to his grace".

He says quite rightly that it is fear of sin that can lead to many of the problems faced here in so many churches;

"Often what can drive us to look more like Corinth or Galatia than like a people of grace is fear. Fear of immorality and the corrupting nature of the society around us can lead us into legalism and the errors of Galatia. But fear of legalism and a desire to be relevant to the society around us can lead us into immorality and the errors of Corinth. We are forever in danger of crashing into the twin rocks of legalism or license. The only safe course is not to keep veering between the two, but to sail in the clear deep waters of the grace of God. It is grace that frees us from fear and it is grace that keeps us secure".

My problem of course with this article is that rather than going into what the "deep waters of the grace of God" are - he doesn't. But as I said, I am really glad the issue of how sin is dealt with in church has been brought to the table. I hope it at least causes some church leaders to honestly assess how safe it is for their church members to feel able to be honest and loved for being human.

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