In the church we talk about having faith and being faithful, but rarely do we talk about experiencing grace and being gracious. Churches are actually at times some of the most ungracious places on this planet, and Christians are at times some of the most ungracious people in our universe. If as Christians we boldly claim to be the recipients of God’s grace and mercy, doesn’t it make sense for us to respond by being equally gracious and merciful? If grace is the method God chose for ministering to us, shouldn’t it be the method we use to minister to one another? If grace is good enough for God, should it not also be good enough for us? How is it that the church, which has been built on the foundation of God’s mercy, has become so merciless?
I fear that the church has become the unforgiving servant from Jesus’s parable. The unforgiving servant was a slave who could not settle his accounts and therefore had to be sold along with his family and all their possessions. The servant pleaded with his master to forgive his debt, and his master obliged. But when a fellow slave came to the forgiven servant owing a much smaller amount of money and asked that his debt be forgiven, the servant refused. Instead, he had him thrown in prison until the debt was repaid. After hearing what had transpired, the master summoned his servant and said, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” (Matt. 18:32–33).
As Christians we claim to receive God’s grace and mercy through Jesus Christ. The time has come for us to show grace and mercy to one another. But how do we change the way our churches function so that our congregations become more gracious? In response to this challenge, the church I pastor, Salem Covenant Church, in Washington, Connecticut, has sought to develop what I call an “I’m not okay, you’re not okay” approach to Christian ministry. This approach embraces an ethic of love and takes the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” very seriously. It is an open approach that allows people to be honest about who they are and about their sinfulness and brokenness. It is the means by which congregations can effectively become honest to God churches. This approach is very different from the two other approaches that churches have traditionally taken.
Many churches have tried the “I’m okay, you’re not okay” approach. Christians using this approach see themselves as okay, while everyone outside the church is not okay. Churches embracing this approach follow an ethic of perfection rather than love. Often they are very judgmental and rigid. Very little room exists for grace after a person is converted. Legalism, rather than love, becomes the primary defining characteristic of these churches. It is not wrong to strive toward perfection. A problem exists, however, when people pretend to be perfect even though they are not.
In response to this approach, many churches have inadvertently taken the “I’m okay, you’re okay” approach. In these churches, Christians do not expect much from anyone, even themselves. They replace judgmentalism with an ethic of tolerance. But an ethic of tolerance is not the same as an ethic of love. Tolerating someone is not the same thing as loving them. Love is deeper and more significant. Tolerance demands only that we give people space. Love demands that we enter into their space. Besides, if on our own we are okay, why do we need to be part of a church? If we are already okay, then why do we need God and one another?
I recommend the “I’m not okay, you’re not okay” approach. This approach embraces the teaching of Martin Luther that we all are saints and sinners simultaneously. Churches following this approach raise disciples who readily admit to the mess within their lives. They admit to their sin and brokenness and see God’s grace as the only means for straightening out their lives. With this approach, we do not have to pretend that we are okay when we are not; we do not have to fool others into thinking that we are perfect. In these churches, we are asked to come as we are between the extremes.
So, on the one hand, an ethic of perfection leads to intolerance, which leaves little room for grace. On the other hand, an ethic of tolerance leaves too much room for ambivalence and, therefore, does not see any need for grace. Tolerance is better than judgment, but love is deeper and more able to transform our lives than either tolerance or judgment. Jesus’s ethic of love leaves room not only for grace, but also for graciousness. Grace is the gift of God’s forgiveness, acceptance, healing, and transformational power. Graciousness is the gift of respect, forgiveness, and acceptance that we offer each other. We offer graciousness when we seek to understand others before judging them. Therefore, beneath the ethic of tolerance and perfection lies the ethic of love, guided by Christlike compassion, and dominated by Christlike action. Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Embracing the “I’m not okay, you’re not okay” approach takes honesty, courage, and vulnerability. It enables us to acknowledge that it is not us, but God, who is righteous. God is perfect, and through the process of redemption, he is perfecting us by his perfect love. This approach invites us into an open and honest redeeming relationship with Christ in which we are allowed to be ourselves. There is no “bait and switch” here. We do not offer grace at first and then judgment later. We offer grace to get people in the door and to keep them growing in the warmth of God’s love. This grace is offered throughout a person’s life and spiritual journey.
Excerpted from The Honest to God Church: A Pathway to God’s Grace, copyright © 2007 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go to www.alban.org/permissions.asp.
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