Making it Easy
We have been talking about what a church is and what a church should be and there is a another aspect of church that I think a lot of people don’t get. How difficult should church be. What i mean is how hard is it to join a church or to be a member of a church. How hard is it to stay at a church? What are the requirements of joining a church and how hard or how easy should it be to get kicked out of a church, perhaps even more importantly how hard is it to feel unwelcome at a church or to make someone else feel unwelcome?
To answer these questions I wanted to take us back to the first century Christians and see what they might have thought and how they might have dealt with these issues.
As you might already know the first Christians were Jews who had converted to Christianity. Of course they were not called Christians until much later and they still considered themselves to be Jews. The person they were following, Jesus Christ, was a jew and they were Jews so why would they consider themselves anything else?
But then a strange thing happened. God called Paul to be a minister to the Gentiles, the non Jews of the world and Paul was phenomenally successful. In fact it did not take long until the number of non Jewish Christians outnumbered the Jewish Christians.
There were many who considered following Jesus to be a Jewish thing, they did not see following Jesus as a new religion or even as a new division of Judaism but as being a Jew the way God intended them to be Jews.
So when Gentiles began to follow Jesus they thought that the way to do that was to become proselyte Jews and follow Jesus the way they did. After all, the idea of a gentile becoming a proselyte Jew was not new, they had been doing it for generations.
So an argument arose, if a gentile decides to become a Jesus follower does he need to convert to Judaism or not, Paul said no and some Jews said yes and it was heading toward a major split in the church. Here is how they handled it.
Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren. When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.” The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. “And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. “Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” All the people kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me. “Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name. “With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written, ‘After these things I will return, And I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen, And I will rebuild its ruins, And I will restore it, So that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, And all the Gentiles who are called by My name,’ Says the Lord, who makes these things known from long ago. “Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas—Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, and they sent this letter by them, “The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings. “Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls, it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. “Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word of mouth. “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.” So when they were sent away, they went down to Antioch; and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. When they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. Judas and Silas, also being prophets themselves, encouraged and strengthened the brethren with a lengthy message. After they had spent time there, they were sent away from the brethren in peace to those who had sent them out. But it seemed good to Silas to remain there. But Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch, teaching and preaching with many others also, the word of the Lord.
A major split in the church was avoided and everyone came together on the same page welcoming the new Christians into the church. What were they really trying to decide here? Were they trying to decide what you had to do to get into heaven, no they were not. James and the others knew that God decides who gets into heaven not them so they must have been deciding something else. They were deciding who got welcomed into the fellowship of believers, in other words who joined the church.
Remember that they did not have official church roles or distinct congregations like we have today they just had those who gathered together to worship and follow Jesus, in other words they had the church. The question was what regulations do you have to follow to be considered part of the church.
They mentioned three things, don’t eat mean sacrificed to idols, don’t eat meat from strangled animals and don’t fornicate. That leaves out a lot of stuff, it leaves out a lot of scripture. Do you think James was saying that if someone is a murderer and a thief that’s OK as long as they don’t eat strangled animals? Do you think he was saying its OK to commit adultery but not to fornicate? Do you think they were teaching the gentile Christians that they could ignore the 10 commandments as long as they didn’t eat meat sacrificed to animals? Of course not!
As a matter of fact didn’t Paul later say he didn’t care if you ate meat sacrificed to idols or not because and idol was not anything but if it would cause your brother to stumble eat a carrot instead. Apparently these three things were not the worst sins you could commit and they certainly were not all inclusive of the things a Christians should or should not do so what was this all about?
It’s obvious that they were not saying that these three things are all you need to do to be a good Christian so what were they really saying? Do you think that any of the Christians in the early church ever lied, or hated their neighbor, or lusted after another woman or broke any of the other commandments, did they ever sin? What about in the church today, are there people who lie or cheat, are their sinners in the church today? Of course there are.
Can someone be saved and still tell a lie, or steal something, or lust after someone.... Of course they can. If a saved person, a person who is destined to live forever with Jesus in heaven does lie, cheat, steal, lust or commit some other sin do they lose their salvation because of committing one sin? If not after one sin what about after two, or two hundred do they lose their salvation then. Of course not. There are people in the church who sin, saved people destined for eternity with Jesus who sin, in fact there are no other kind. The bible tells us that if a man says he does not sin he is a liar and the truth is not in him.
But these early disciples were not trying to determine who is destined for heaven and who is not, they were not judging who is saved and who is lost, that is now and has always been God’s job not ours. These early Christians were determining who would be included in the fellowship of the church.
Do you wonder why they did not mention that if you are a serial killer, or if you are sleeping with every married woman in town you were not to be allowed to join the church, probably because this was not a problem. Those people were not asking to join the church and if someone did ask to join and you talked to them and they told you that for fun they went out and killed random people every weekend there would be not debate about letting them join the church, they can’t, its not even a question.
But apparently there was a question about these three things. Interestingly enough they all had to do with the idol worship that was everywhere in the world at that time. Animals were strangled at the temples and the mean was sold in the marketplace or used for big parties and orgies in the temple square. There were temple prostitutes and even young girls from good homes would sometimes spend a season as a temple prostitute sleeping with whoever came to the temple to worship. It was a major problem and an accepted part of the culture of the day.
Because these things led so many people away from God and into idolatry you could not have someone be recognized as part of the church who did these things. It caused too many people to stumble into sin and into idol worship, it just could not be allowed.
That did not mean that other sins were OK or acceptable, it was just a recognition that we all sin and church members, especially those who were new in the faith were going to struggle with sin and were going to fail from time to time. You still encourage them to correct it, you still hold them accountable but if we threw everyone out of the church who committed a sin there would be no one left to throw us out when it came to our turn.
James and the early Christians recognized that there is room for grace in the church and room for love and forgiveness in the church. They also recognized that someone who was just saved yesterday could not be expected to know the same things and have the same behaviors as someone who had been following God for years.
They made entering the church easy, they made the burden light. Did they teach sound doctrine, they did. Did they confront and correct sinners, a lot.........read the letters of Paul and how often he preached for moral behaviour and for turning away from sin, Paul was tough on them and he called it the way it was, but out of hundreds of people who he called to repent and time after time he confronted sin head on, out of all the times he expressed disappointment and maybe even anger with the church there were just a hand full of people that he urged the church to turn away from and only after he had tried and tried to restore them. Even then he only urged that the church break fellowship with them until they repented, the goal was to restore them not punish them.
What about today. I don’t believe it was ever God’s intention that we make it difficult to become part of his family, I think he went out of his way to make it as easy as possible. I think we should make it as easy as we can to join our fellowship. Now once you are here we should do everything we can to encourage you to live a moral and Godly life, we should help you when you need help and get in your face and call you down when you need to be corrected, not so we can be better than you but so you can be better than us. We know that we will need help sometimes and we will need to be confronted and corrected sometimes, we won’t like it, but we need it.
Part of the churches job is to make it as easy as possible to become part of a church and to stay part of the church, and active part of the church. It should be a place where help is always there and a place where we know we are accountable for our actions, a place where we are encouraged to be the best Christ followers we could possible be.
What would our three things be, what might we refuse someone a chance to be part of our fellowship for. In today’s wold homosexuality might be one, It is a hot topic today that divides the church. Some believe it is fine and some read that it is an abomination to God. Is it worse that murder or worse than adultery, no. they are all sins, but in our day it is a divisive issue in the church and we should take a stand on it. Does that mean a homosexual can’t be saved, certainly not. But if you are a practicing homosexual I will oppose your request to join our church, it causes too many people to stumble and fall away from God today to be accepted.
Fornication is probably still a good one to add, if you are into free love and casual sex then I would oppose your membership in the church because it would lead too many people away from God and Godly behavior.
Are there others, there may be. The point is you don’t have to be perfect to join a church, we should not expect a new Christian to act like someone who has been saved for 20 years, there is room in the church for grace, there is room in the church for love and there is room in the church for forgiveness.
When someone comes into our fellowship who is not perfect, help them grow, don’t run them off. When someone in our fellowship stumbles help them up don’t kick them while they are down.
I have failed in my life, and I know that I will fail again. You have failed in your life and you will fail again. Allow others the same grace you want for yourself, allow others to fail, then help them up and even carry them for while if you need to, we are a body, a fellowship. If the little toe is in pain the rest of the body becomes intensely interested in helping that toe because it affects the whole body. If your toe throbs all day long it can ruin everything about your day and you have a strong interest in easing that pain because your whole body is affected by it. As it is with the physical body so it should be with the church body.
Let us welcome people in, lift them up and help them grow, let us be willing to be lifted up ourselves when we stumble and let us give grace and love and forgiveness in abundance.