So many churches or groups or people seem claim that first, you have to behave right, and then you can believe the Gospel, and then once you have gotten that right, we will let you belong and become a member of our church or group. I believe it has to be the other way around. When it comes to church, I think the formula in a sense should be belong, believe, behave.
But the way I see Jesus’ life and the way He purposefully reached out to those who others wouldn’t—people like the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42), people like the lepers (Luke 17:11-19) and the blind (Mark 10:46-52) and the demon-possessed (Mark 5:1-20), and the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) and the sinful woman who anointed His feet (Luke 7:36-50)—it seems to starkly contrast the idea that people first have to get it right.
Jesus first let these individuals know that they belonged—that He loved them regardless of their behavior and sin and choice to follow Him or not. One of the most powerful verses is in Mark 10:21 where it says, "Jesus looked at him and loved him" [italics mine], talking about Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler who chose money over following Jesus. Even knowing the outcome, Jesus still loved the man and had compassion for him, and that is what He calls us to do—"whatever you do for the least of these, you do for Me" (Matthew 25:40).
Secondly, something that followed naturally from receiving the unconditional love of God is that people believed. They didn’t have to believe in Jesus before they were shown His love and compassion. Rather, they believed because of it. A natural response to having your sins forgiven—and being loved in a way that no person could ever get right—is placing your faith in Jesus and making a commitment to follow Him.
And only after the belonging and the believing comes the third step—behaving. Because I belonged, it led me to believe. Because I believed,
I am going to start behaving right. The Holy Spirit convicts me to clear up my act. He challenges my pride and my self-seeking and things like lust and lying and gossip and adultery and homosexuality and so on.
It really makes me angry when a church says for example that you first have to stop being homosexual before you can join us, or that you first have to stop sleeping around with your girlfriend or boyfriend before you can join us—something is wrong with this picture. This sort of attitude sends out the message that you have to behave right first so you can believe, and then we will let you belong.
Plus it creates the whole "us/them" division by highlighting some sins as worse than others … We don’t let people join our church who are “homosexuals,” but we have people in leadership who have questionable business practices? We don’t let people join our church who are sleeping together, but we don’t have such a problem that one of our leaders is an absolute gossip?
Hey? What is that? Matthew 7 reminds us that we should first deal with the plank in our own eye so that we can see the speck in our brother’s eye.
Jesus did not come to heal the well but the sick (Matthew 9:12)—how do we possibly reach the sick if we are banning them from our meetings or from joining our churches? Are we saying that those of us who have joined the church are not still sinning? Because the pile of stones is over there—take your pick, and give it a good throw …
Take a look at the church you belong to and ask, What kind of policy is it holding? One that condemns them to the darkness because we’ve decided that their sin is far worse than ours? Or one that encourages sinners to come in so that they can receive love and be directed towards the Person who can save them and help them change their behavior?
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