A pastor of a megachurch once related how a member had criticized his sermons. The woman scolded him for preaching too much about the love of God, demanding he throw in some other topics. Having heard him preach, I knew he did sermonize on sin, depravity, hell and judgment; the full spectrum of soteriological concerns was present. We were both confused as to why someone felt you could emphasize love without mentioning the others. After all, the love of God finds its fullest expression in the context of such as those.
I think there’s a deeper problem at the root of her criticism, however. It seems she was more interested in knowing what the church was against than what it was for; the cons seemed to matter more than the pros, if you will. To be fair, even the most devout, God-loving Christians use the againsts as a litmus test for orthodoxy. In our day and age, the things the original Fundamentalists considered, well, fundamental (the virgin birth; the inerrancy of Scripture; the divinity of Jesus; his bodily resurrection and second coming; and substitutionary atonement) take a back seat to other criteria phrased in the negative. Sure, you believe Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Christ, but are you against gay marriage? Do you speak out against abortion? It’s sad, but it’s what most of us do. We never even think to question the former; our entire view of the church under scrutiny hinges completely upon the latter.
One of the more contentious debates in my home region of Appalachia is the preferred Bible translation. I’ve actually seen more than a few church signs openly advertising “KJV ONLY.” I’ve heard preachers from the pulpit call all other translations “phonies,” “not real Bibles,” and the like. (I wonder who had a real Bible before Elizabethan English was formed.) Of course, other places fight that particular “con” battle as well, not just churches around here. Just yesterday a friend linked me to the website of a church in Orange County, California stating the only real Bible is the 1611 King James Version. As the 1611 still contained the Apocrypha (it wasn’t removed until 1666 for some editions and more universally excluded in 1769), I wondered how many of that preacher’s sermons came from Tobit, Susanna, or Ecclesiasticus. (For a fuller treatment of Bible translations, see here.)
The OC church’s website had a number of other “cons” listed: the music of Bill Gaither; CCM; evangelicalism; Calvinism; Arminianism; Pentecostalism; the ecumenical movement; the Roman Catholic Church; Billy Graham; Rick Warren; Jerry Falwell; the pope; rock-and-roll; recorded sermons; . . . you get the idea. I’d say over half of the “What We Believe” section is the cons, not the pros. It honestly reads a bit like a manifesto from the church in Footloose. My friend remarked the page left him with a much greater sense of what this church was against than of what it was for.
And that’s just backwards.
What is our witness to the world, to the unsaved, if their view of Christianity is dominated by the cons? “Oh, Christians? They hate gays. They don’t support women’s rights. They don’t like good music. They stand against other churches.” None of those should be true for any congregation — no, not one. But that can easily become the popular perception of a church who worries more about the cons than the pros. It’s a great way to destroy an outreach program, shrink the existing membership, and generally scare people away from Jesus.
Instead, what would they say about us if we focused on the pros? “They’re a friendly church. They help in the community. They tell me God loves me and Jesus died for me. They play well with other congregations, even if they don’t agree on everything they believe.” Which church would you most like to be part of? I prefer the second — which is why I have never visited a church with the KJV disclaimer on the sign. And I think most people would agree with me.
Do we need to preach hell, sin, damnation, and judgment from the pulpit? Absolutely. These are biblical truths, spiritual realities, and they demand to be part of our proclamation. Without them, we can’t even explain the why of the cross. We can’t call lost souls to be saved if they have nothing to be saved from. We can’t show the fullness of the love of God in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ if our God has no punishment for sin. We have to proclaim these doctrines as well. Those people out there — whether “there” is a padded pew or a brothel — need to hear these; they need us to preach them. But they can’t overshadow the love of God in our sermons and lessons. Socio-political issues can’t upstage Jesus. We are called to preach Christ, and him crucified, not a political party platform. We speak to those polarizing issues from a place of biblical truth, to be sure, but if our public image is “the homophobic church” and not “the Jesus-loving Church,” I’d be hesitant to call it a church at all.
And so a challenge, church: let them know us by our love. Tell them who and what we are for, first and foremost, not what and who we are against. Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But the truth is, God loves us, and from that flows all else.