Thursday, April 29, 2010


There's always a lot of discussion in the Christian community about what it means to be open and accepting to all people. After all, we're supposed to love everyone, right? God did create every one of us, and we are all precious in His sight. Not one of us is intrinsically past redemption, and Jesus would have us show kindness and respect to all people, no matter what they've done.

But that's not the whole story. We are also called to live to a high standard of conduct. As Christians, we're supposed to be as a people set apart, a righteous community dedicated to God. We often fall short of that ideal, but we still strive for it. We don't want to encourage people to do whatever they want in the name of acceptance, or we won't have any community standards at all. We don't simply accept that some people are thieves or pedophiles and just let it go with no response. We have to be able to address conduct and try to hold ourselves accountable for the good and health of the community and out of service and devotion to God.

So where's the balance between judgment and acceptance? Many people explain it by saying, "Hate the sin but love the sinner." That language turns some people off, but it at its heart it gets to the deeper issue. Unfortunately, that distinction is sometimes hard to make.

Let me start with myself. I have to accept that I am a flawed person. I make mistakes, and I don't always live up to the goals I set for myself. There are things I wish I could change about myself that I simply can't change. In order to go forward with God and my neighbors, I have to learn to accept myself and love myself, flawed as I am. At the same time, I need to be able to tell the difference between my successes and my failures so that I can learn from them. I need to be able to admit that I've done something bad without condemning myself as a bad person. There are some things I just can't do, but that's OK. I do the things that I can do and I leave the rest up to God, and I thank everyone who supports me in that.

So many of the issues we discuss are charged. If we tell someone that they we don't think they're the best person to perform a particular task because of things they've done and choices they've made, are we failing to be accepting? I don't necessarily think so. I honestly wouldn't choose someone with questionable theology or a reckless lifestyle to teach Sunday School to my children. But let's put this in context—I also wouldn't chose someone who can't explain topics well, has no patience, or isn't interested in discussing Bible stories. Our suitability for specific tasks has to do with a lot more than our track record—it also has to do with our personalities, gifts, and calling.

We probably shouldn't authoritatively dictate what other people can and can't do (except where we need to have a say about how their actions affect us directly). Still, our thoughts about someone's suitability to do a particular task is not a question of acceptance. We aren't evaluating whether they're good enough to live, after all. I would simply note that none of us is an expert on what other people are qualified to do. As someone who had persecuted Christians and perhaps even aided murder, Paul probably doesn't seem like a good choice for an evangelist. But God turned him into one, and He can work similar miracles in us. As Christians, we should use good judgment but remain open to the work of God's hand.

In the meantime, we are called to accept everyone. That means that nobody has to pass a test in order to earn love, forgiveness, respect, or even our attention or company. I should be able to speak to, associate with, or do something kind for anyone—including people whose actions I find reprehensible. I won't help them do the things I disagree with, but I can be kind and civil to them in all other respects. If I can help others and think they would appreciate my help, I should help—no matter whether or not I think they've "earned" it. Acceptance means that I worship with everyone who is willing to worship with me, I talk to everyone who's willing to talk to me (and sometimes people who aren't), and I work for the good of all people, both directly and indirectly.

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