The mainline message of inclusion is a good reminder to check our inner Pharisee but it is only the beginning. If we are to respond faithfully to and minister faithfully in the name of our Savior we must articulate and model the first part of the message: “Welcome!” We must also, however, articulate and model the second part of his message: “Repent and believe” for the Kingdom of God is at hand.
Yesterday we were motoring through Poway, a leafy suburb of San Diego, and we drove past a large Episcopal church with a large, temporary banner proclaiming, “All Welcome. No Exceptions.” That message was striking as it was brief. It struck me as a good thing to say to the world. Everyone is welcome in our services. Of course, were we to exclude sinners and hypocrites, our assemblies would be empty. It is a good thing to announce to the world that sinners are welcome to attend Christian worship because, Scripture, history, and experience tell us that people tend to assume that only those who are already sanctified (holy) are eligible to attend Christian worship. Christians have too often certainly given the impression that only the sanctified are permitted to attend. The culture has heard that message and reinforces it in film—to give but one, albeit dated, reference, Footloose—television, and other media.
We know from Scripture that there were groups during Christ’s earthly ministry and after who sent the message that only those who are outwardly clean and holy are welcome to attend public worship services. The Pharisees were opposed to any association between those they regarded as “holy” and those they regarded as “unclean.” They attacked Jesus for breaking this taboo:
And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt 9:10–13; ESV)
According to Jesus, the Pharisees had replaced God’s Word with the “traditions of the elders” and they had built a “fence” around God’s law by which they tyrannized the consciences and lives of God’s people (Matt 23:3–4). They did all their deeds “to be seen by others” (Matt 23:5). Matthew gives us a hint of the social order of the synagogues in Jesus’ words about where they Pharisees sat in the synagogues (Matt 23:6). Of course Gentiles were not only regarded (and treated) as “unclean” but were referred to as “dogs” (Matt 7:6; 15:26). Jesus spent time with those whom the Pharisees regarded as unclean. He ate and drank with them. He broke down the Pharisaic fence and set people free by rejecting the tyranny of human opinion. He obeyed God’s holy law with all of his heart, soul, mind, and strength. Of course, the Pharisees were among those who sought to put him to death for it thereby proving Jesus right that it is not what goes into a man but what comes out of him that makes him unclean (Matt 15:11, 18).
History and experience tell us that the spirit of the Pharisees lives in each of us. Have you never thought “what is he doing here” on a Sunday morning? Should a notorious person wander in and sit down during the service, would you think “praise the Lord!” or would you think something else? A quick search for “dress codes” and “public worship” yield a remarkable harvest. There is a de facto dress code in most churches. In some congregations it is suit and ties but in others anyone with a tie would be spotted as an outsider. Most American evangelical congregations are racially segregated. Without fear of contradiction we may speak of white churches, black churches, Hispanic churches, or Asian churches. What happens if someone from the wrong group walks in? To address the sexual elephant in the room, what if an overtly effeminate homosexual or a transgender person visits a congregation? It is startling to see a man dressed as a woman. Would they be made to feel welcome or would they be made to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome?
So, the banner was a good reminder that You and I were accepted by God by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) and not for anything done by us or in us. Jesus came to us when we were “unclean” and he imputed his righteousness to us and is even now graciously transforming us into his image. Therefore we must die to man-made social codes and to our inner Pharisee and live to Christ, who ate and drank with scandalous people and who called them to become his followers.
At the same time, I have the strong impression these messages of inclusion communicate only part of the Christian message.