Over the past couple of days I’ve been looking at Jesus’ teaching on marriage and adultery. It’s challenging stuff for the faithful, let alone for those who come across it for the first time. Which raises the interesting point – how do we apply this teaching pastorally?
After all, those who come into the church for the first time are more than likely to be in a whole variety of relationships. Many of them have experienced real pain and are looking for acceptance and healing. The first thing we must do is welcome them as they are, in whatever situation they find themselves. That is the only possible humane response, as part of our calling to follow Jesus’ teaching.
But is a warm welcome enough? Some churches promote full acceptance of a whole variety of relationships as demonstrations of a warm, inclusive love, and it is easy to understand why. They see those who hold to the orthodox teachings of Scripture as judgemental and harsh, and there is no doubt some in the past have used Jesus’ teaching to purposely exclude those who are different.
However just because some have used Scripture harshly in the past does not mean we have to reject the teaching of Scripture itself. If God has given us His teaching in His word, it is presumably for our good, and if we are rejecting those parts of Scripture we disagree with, then we are seeking to change our understanding of God.
So how do we bring newcomers to understand Jesus’ teaching on marriage and adultery? My answer would be that we need to introduce such teaching gently and clearly, not fudging on what He is saying, but not forcing a response from those who hear. Instead, as with any other teaching, we pray for the Holy Spirit to write God’s word on people’s hearts and as people are baptised in the Holy Spirit, so they are given the strength and wisdom to change.
This may lead to quite a “messy” church where the lives of people in the congregation are not yet in line with the whole counsel of God, but I believe God is big enough to deal with the mess (after all He is constantly dealing with the mess in all our lives). However within an atmosphere of love and acceptance there is also an understanding of challenge and change.
And that to me seems to be far closer to the kind of church we find in the New Testament than the inclusive, loving church that superficially seems so attractive. Because when all kinds of lifestyles are uncritically accepted, there is no expectation of change, no note of challenge, and in practice God’s word comes to be seen as something that can be ignored as you see fit.