Some years ago, I stood in a long line at the pharmacy in a Target store. The young lady behind the counter was exceptionally friendly, cheerful, and helpful, and she kept her customers in a good mood during a long wait. It happened that this young lady had as many metal-filled piercings in her face as anyone I had ever seen. There were six or seven in each ear, several near her eyebrows, one at each side of her mouth and one or more in her nose. When it came my turn to be cared for, I told her that I pastored the First Baptist Church of Bridgeport and invited her to come visit us. Using words I had often employed before, I said, “Come see us. We’ll be nice to you.” The smile fled from her face and an extremely serious expression took its place. “Thanks,” she said. “Most pastors aren’t.”
I suspected the reason she had received a less-than-warm reaction from other pastors, but I played dumb (not a particularly difficult role for me to fulfill) and said, “Why not?” She waved her hand in front of her face and said, “Because of this.” How sad it was to me that pastors had condemned her because of the piercings on her face. Before they let her know that God loved her; before they explained to her the plan of salvation; before they told her that Jesus Christ had died for her sins, they let her know that they did not approve of her appearance. There are three ways we can respond to imperfect people, only one of which is scriptural.
In this response, we reject the person in order to confront the problem. From the get-go, we feel we must let them know that we disapprove of some element of their lifestyle and behavior.
This was the response of the Pharisees in John 8:3–5, when they brought a woman to Jesus who had been taken in adultery. They brought her not for the purpose of restoration, but only for the purpose of condemnation. This was also their attitude in Luke 19:7 when they were shocked that the Lord Jesus would have a meal with Zacchaeus.
When I was in college, I watched as a street preacher gave the Gospel to people who had assembled at a bus stop. I admired his fervor and courage, and I stood by to give encouragement to his message. But in the middle of his Gospel presentation, he noticed a couple who appeared to be in their late teens or early twenties standing close to each other. The young man had his arm around the young lady’s shoulders. My street-preacher friend immediately interrupted his Gospel sermon to give a discourse on David and Bathsheba.
Having told the story, and warning the couple of the potential consequences of inappropriate physical contact, he concluded his detour from the plan of salvation by pointing his finger at them and saying, “Now, take your hands off of her!” I have no doubt that the couple understood his position about young men and young ladies displaying physical affection before marriage. I also have no doubt that whatever good he had done in preaching the Gospel had been completely erased by his aggressive attack.
When a new convert was baptized in an independent, fundamental Baptist church not far from ours, he was excited. God had done a work in his heart, and he was beginning to grow. But he had unusually long hair. One member of the church went to this new Christian, and, rather than congratulating him on his decision to trust Christ, said, “You need to get a haircut.” The wise pastor recounted the story in the evening service and concluded, “Now, whoever said that needs to have his tongue cut!” How often in our churches have self-appointed guardians of truth, righteousness, and the Baptist way pummeled new, weak Christians?
In this response, we ignore the problem in order to reach the person. Those holding to this view would believe that we should never—either personally or publicly—do or say anything that would make an individual uncomfortable or unhappy. The word conviction does not seem to be in their vocabulary. All behavior must be deemed appropriate.
This was the approach of the Corinthians when they allowed a man who had an immoral relationship with his stepmother to maintain full fellowship in the church. Of course the Apostle Paul condemned them for this in 1 Corinthians 5:1–2.
In the biography of a well known new evangelical pastor, the author tells the story of two young men, newer in the church, who had asked to sing a duet. When they did, one of the singers was wearing a T-shirt which advertised Budweiser and had a curse word on the back. The author explained that while this would have been a problem in most churches, it was merely a mild amusement in this non-judgmental church. In order to reach people, the philosophy went, we must acquiesce to some things with which we may not agree.
By following this philosophy, unmarried individuals have been allowed to attend and share a room together at couples’ retreats. The babies of teenage girls born out of wedlock have been dedicated publicly to God without any indication that there is anything wrong or unusual in the situation. I even read of one circumstance where the teacher of an adult class, guilty of an adulterous affair, was allowed to continue teaching because, after all, his church did not judge people.
Aggression allows no room for growth, and acquiescence promotes no growth at all—both of these positions are unscriptural. But there is a third, scriptural way to love the person while still standing against sin.
Here, we receive the person while opposing the problem. This was the method used by the Lord Jesus with the woman at the well in John 4:4–26. He accepted her and engaged with her in conversation and answered her questions. Then half-way through His encounter with her, He asked questions that gave Him the opportunity to confront her sin and find real help.
Acceptance does not indicate approval. I tell our people that if a sharp family, carrying their King James Bibles and dressed in modest clothing comes into our church, and a tattoo-covered, body-pierced couple comes, both families should be greeted with the same smile, the same handshake and the same heartfelt welcome. We do not approve of tattoos and body piercings, and we do believe you ought to look sharp when you come into the church service. But with equal fervor, we believe that all should have an opportunity to come and hear truth. We recognize that those who experience rejection will never be open to God’s correction. Acceptance means that we love the individual because God loves them, welcome them to our fellowship, and provide for them an environment for spiritual growth.
On several occasions, unmarried young ladies in our church have found themselves expecting a baby. While I do not force this, I recommend that since their sin will be obvious to all, they stand before the church and allow me to say something like this: “This individual has committed a sin which not only brings reproach on the name of Christ, but also on our church. She has sought and found God’s forgiveness and she now seeks ours. Remember, once a person gets right with God, those who fail to forgive her are the ones sinning, not that person.” The Scripture tells us, “Him that is weak in the faith receive ye…” (Romans 14:1). God asks us to treat weaker Christians with every kindness. People need to know that while they are growing, they are with people who love them as they are for Christ’s sake.