The Sex Police

I was a bit taken aback the other day when a colleague referred to an aspect of their pastoral ministry as being "the Sex Police". A group of us were having a discussion about a very sensitive pastoral issue, that of the personal ethics expected of a person who is in the process of becoming a follower of Christ. One of us was dealing with such an issue - in this case, a defacto partnership but in other situations it could be something else such as swearing or smoking - and wanted to unpack the dynamics of the situation confidentially with colleagues. This pastor had developed a growing pastoral relationship of trust and communication with the couple concerned, but had been asked by their oversight team to tell these preChristian people that there are some ministries in the church where they cannot serve.

This led into a robust discussion, because all of us present have had to deal with this issue in some shape or form. One pastor had quietly facilitated the removal of a young leader who was not only sexually active but preying on girls much younger than him. Another had been part of an eldership decision to allow a woman in a defacto partnership to serve as a mother help in a children's ministry, but to discreetly rule her out as a commissioned leader. In a third situation, a young person was found unacceptable as drummer for the Sunday worship group because of their moral conduct. Interestingly all these situations focussed in on Sexual Ethics. We wondered together whether we would have anyone teaching Sunday school, singing in the choir or serving the tea, if all persistent sinners were ruled out?

The debate made it clear that as individuals and congregations we have varying "takes" on these matters. We have different life experience, personalities and areas of gifting, and some will be more concerned to express grace, especially when a person is on a journey towards committed faith, while others will feel the need to set clear boundaries for holy living among those who follow Jesus. It's a tightrope to walk and we won't always get it right. My mum told me recently of several young folk in her church who had been through a baptism/confirmation class, but had decided not to go ahead with a profession of faith because they could not give up smoking. I am utterly sure the minister leading the class would not have laid this down as a parameter - he was a pipesmoker when we were in seminary together! - but somehow these girls had got the idea that their tobacco habit ruled them out of the kingdom. How sad.

I came home from that pastors' meeting with all sorts of thoughts churning around in my head. While I have clear convictions about what is outside "God's best" for believers (such as being in a defacto relationship or a practising homosexual), I can't see myself as the sex police, unless a crime has been committed, or there is a clear leadership issue at stake. I picked up a book I had started some time ago - UnChristian, by the Barna Group's David Kinnaman. Based on three years scientific research with pastors, leaders and young people, and in particular interviews exploring perceptions of Christianity among American 16 - 29 yearolds who are not Christ -followers, this book uncovers a powerfully negative image of faith that is far from what Jesus intended. I had only read a few chapters, on themes like "hypocrisy" and "politics," but this week I jumped straight to Chapter Eight - "Judgemental," with the subheading "Christians are prideful and quick to find fault in others."

Kinnaman's style in this book is to counterpoint research findings with anecdotes taken from his interviews with young Mosaics and Busters, and in particular the generations born between 1977 and 1991. The project defined as "outsiders” those looking at the Christian faith from the outside, a group that included atheists, agnostics, and those affiliated with a faith other than Christianity. Nine out of ten of the "outsiders" said that the term "judgmental" describes present-day Christianity. The end of the chapter recounts tale after gruelling tale of people searching for spiritual meaning and feeling excluded and judged by Christians with narrow, black and white views on issues like abortion or tattoos. Believers who focus on other people's faults are particularly problematic for that 16 - 29 year age group, because their "postmodern" culture is one that values ambiguity, choice and respect. This makes them suspicious of people who are more focussed on condemning and marginalising people that in helping them come to know Christ.

Kinnaman acknowledges the need to take a stand against sin, but goes on to describe four ways in which Judgmental attitudes serve to alienate people from Christ and his church.
  • Wrong Verdict - judging people according to stereotypes
  • Wrong Timing - getting into issues of morality at an inappropriate stage in a person's faith journey
  • Wrong Motivation - the temptation to make ourselves feel good by demonising others
  • Playing Favorites - treating some people less than equally because of our own values or preconceptions
The research data showed that a majority of born-again (a Barna definition that makes more sense in the US than it does here) Christians said they are “very convinced they are right about things in life,” and try to persuade people to change their views. Only a small percentage (16%) of young outsiders thought Christians “consistently show love for other people.” Lets face it, finding would probably be duplicated in New Zealand, though perhaps less dramatically. The chapter reminds us of the "kindness and sternness" of God described in Romans 2: 1- 4, and encourages followers of Christ to listen with respect and avoid labels and pat answers. Kinnaman would like to see that negative perception of judgmentalism replaced by a new view of Christians as people who show grace by seeing the good, and the potential to be a Christfollower, in others.

We finished our pastors meeting by remembering encounters Jesus had with known sinners like the Samaritan "Woman at the Well" and the tax collector Zacchaeus. The gospels show us a Master who found the perfect balance between extending grace and speaking truth. How I would love to know how he handled that mealtime conversation with Zacchaeus, who came forth ready not just to make restitution but to show lavish generosity to those he had cheated. But I am still trying to work out what being salt and light looks like, because in reality we are all "in the process of becoming" a follower of Christ.

To Chew Over: Was there a time this week that you felt judged or excluded by others? Was there a time when you were the one making judgments? Could you have expressed your concerns differently?
May the mind of Christ, my Savior,
Live in me from day to day,
By His love and power controlling
All I do and say.

May the Word of God dwell richly
In my heart from hour to hour,
So that all may see I triumph
Only through His power.

May the peace of God my Father
Rule my life in everything,
That I may be calm to comfort
Sick and sorrowing.

May the love of Jesus fill me
As the waters fill the sea;
Him exalting, self abasing,
This is victory.

May I run the race before me,
Strong and brave to face the foe,
Looking only unto Jesus
As I onward go.

May His beauty rest upon me,
As I seek the lost to win,
And may they forget the channel,
Seeing only Him.
©Kate Wilkinson