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Are We Eating With the Right People?

By Jon Zens

When I wrote in my letter to you not to associate with people living immoral lives, I was not meaning to include all the people in the world who are sexually immoral, any more than I meant to include all usurers and swindlers or idol-worshippers. To do that, you would have to withdraw from the world altogether. What I wrote was that you should not associate with a brother Christian who is leading an immoral life, or is a usurer, or idolatrous, or a slanderer, or a drunkard, or is dishonest; you should not even eat a meal with people like that. It is not my business to pass judgment on those outside. Of those who are inside, you can surely be the judges. But of those who are outside, God is the judge.  1 Cor. 5:9-13

Many churches today are faced with a very serious problem and are not even aware of it. If people who were poor or homeless or immoral or generally lower-class were to appear as visitors or new converts in many churches, our initial response would be negative. We would be put off, perhaps, by the way they smell. Or we would say “we don’t want our children around such undesirables.” The result of these attitudes is that churches have isolated themselves from those with needs, and feel threatened when the security of their homogeneous, white, middle-class atmosphere is violated. Why is this the case?

Its ideology, at least, has to do with the doctrine of “separation” that was crystallized in many denominations earlier in this century. Church leaders taught those in the pew that Christians were to be totally separate from unbelief and sinful lifestyles, using 2 Cor. 6:14-18 as a proof-text. To be sure, there is an important element of truth in such sentiments. Christians must not mingle with society in ways that compromise gospel values. However, this separation doctrine seems to have translated into church practices which flatly contradict both the example of Jesus and the teaching of Paul in l Cor. 5:9-13.

Apparently the Corinthians had misunderstood what Paul had tried to express in a previous letter. They thought he had meant for them not to have any association with the immoral people of the world. But here Paul emphasizes that we must mix with unbelievers to some degree in the normal course of life. The apostle finds nothing wrong with that. His concern is that we do not have social relationships with professing Christians whose lifestyles are obviously out of line with the gospel. Paul leaves the judgment of unbelievers to God, while urging the community of faith to exercise discipline among themselves.

We have missed the apostle’s teaching in at least three critical ways. First, while Paul assumed that Christians would rub shoulders with unbelievers, much of the contemporary evangelical church functions on the assumption that believers should have nothing to do with outsiders.

This clearly, does not follow Jesus’ example. Having come to seek and to save the lost, he purposely sought out those who were shunned by the religious leaders. Christ was severely criticized, but rightly perceived, as a “friend of sinners.” I wonder how many Christians today would like it if people thought of them the same way. But no need to worry: we hardly ever deserve the title. Unlike Christ, we don’t have the problem because we don’t eat with the wrong people.

Author Gib Martin tells the story that as a depressed school teacher he began to frequent a bar after work. There he met a Christian – a former alcoholic – who went to the bar every day, sipping coffee and sharing the gospel with patrons as the opportunity arose. Gib was drawn to this man, and ultimately became a Christian as a result of his concern, prayers, and message of hope. The man encouraged Gib to begin attending a particular church, and he did. The irony, however, was that this church had a very negative attitude toward the man because he ministered in a place frequented by sinners. As a result, this church and others like it often become monasteries, except that only the affluent and well- behaved are welcome.

Second, Paul maintains that believers must withhold table fellowship from those who identify with Christ’s name but whose way of life flagrantly contradicts the gospel. How many times do we ignore the unpleasant fact that our fellow Christians are inveterate gossips or engage in shady business practices, even though Paul explicitly says we should never tolerate slander or dishonesty. In too many cases in American Christianity, we calmly maintain fellowship with deliberately sinful believers, while avoiding healthy contact with unbelievers in the name of being “separate from the world.” We have reversed the apostle’s concerns, and sealed ourselves off from effective ministry to those who are most in need of the touch of God.

Third, I commonly hear preachers fill their sermons with emotional rhetoric describing how bad it is in the world, sprinkling negative remarks about gays, those with AIDS, teenage mothers, and needle users throughout their diatribes. But Paul rejects such misguided preaching, knowing that judgment outside the body of Christ is left to God. He urges the community of faith to focus on discerning and solving the problems within its own context. Further, it is cheap and easy to hurl denunciations at those outside the confines of a church building, but who is taking the initiative to go out and minister to these needy groups?

Jesus made a conscious effort to reach out to the “sinners” of his day. He mingled openly with the wrong people, those declared “unclean” by the experts in the Law. But now the church is perceived as an institution that is a haven for the “right people,” the upwardly mobile. Our doors are often closed to the undesirables.

A French pastor related to me an experience which, though somewhat corny, helped him break out of his churchy shell and begin a significant ministry. He had set up a dinner appointment with an eye surgeon to discuss the possibility of surgery for his wife. After dinner they retired to the living room. The surgeon asked the pastor if he would like a cigar. He did so mostly out of politeness, anticipating a negative reply at so “worldly” an activity as smoking. The pastor’s initial mental reaction was to say, “No, thank you. I don’t smoke.” However, he felt that he should resist this inclination and replied instead, “Yes, I will; thank you.” As it turned out, the pastor’s action broke a barrier with the surgeon and they ended up having a long discussion about the gospel. The surgeon was later converted and became very active in the local church.

Now eye surgeons are not exactly among the undesirables in society. Nonetheless, the pastor had to shrug off a piece of his churchy culture in order to break through to him. We must very often do something similar. In mingling with people outside the body of Christ we must discern what is merely cultural and what is true truly central to the gospel. We need to know what is really Christian and what is just churchy.

A recent public television documentary on religion in America examined the ministry of a large, inner-city, upper and middle-class church. It showed a wealthy Sunday School teacher giving instruction on prosperity from Proverbs to a slickly dressed class. Then it showed a different teacher from the same church preaching hell-fire and brimstone to skid row people at a rescue mission run by the church. The first pastor was asked why lower-class minorities were not present in the main church. His reply was disconcerting: “Birds of a feather flock together.” One could hardly imagine reversing the situation and hearing the prosperity message unfolded at the mission and the hell-fire proclamation booming from a pulpit surrounded by affluent, white Americans. Yet that reversal may be exactly what is needed.

We will not change this perverted image of the church until we become a compassionate people who will step out of our comfortable edifices and reach out to the needy. Jesus was marked as a person who ate with the “wrong” people. It’s time we started eating with them, too.

Christ was severely criticized, but rightly perceived, as a `friend of sinners.” I wonder how many Christians today would like it if people thought of them the same way.

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