Chapter Nine: Open Arms
Two of Kenmore and Regina’s children were born with cleft palates. The second of the two was bom with a severe case. When the baby was ready to leave the hospital, the doctor asked whether the parents wanted to take the baby home or leave him in the state’s care. Kenmore and Regina were surprised he would ask such a question. The doctor explained that some parents choose not to keep this kind of child. For Kenmore’s family, this was unthinkable. They were confident that they could care for the child. They loved him and wouldn’t think of giving him up.
The son is now grown. He had five surgical operations to correct his condition. Since he wears a mustache, one can hardly notice he ever had a cleft palate.
Upon reflection, Kenmore believes this is a parable of the church. There are times God sends seemingly undesirable new children to the church. The church may reject them, choosing to let someone else care for them. But new Christians can grow and mature until one is proud they are part of the family. What a loss it would be to not have them!
The story is told of a man who walked the streets of a large city one Sunday morning, looking for a place to worship. He found a church whose services appealed to him. But the ushers refused to let him enter because his skin was the wrong color. Dejected, he sat on the pavement outside. Soon, a stranger came and asked what was wrong. He poured out his feelings of rejection. The man comforted him, saying, "That’s okay. They wouldn’t let me in either/7 As the stranger faded away, the rejected man realized it was Jesus who had appeared to him.
People have long rejected the very person or God they claim to worship. In Jesus’ day, there were two places of public worship for Jewish people—the temple in Jerusalem and the synagogues in various towns or cities. The men in charge of worship were called synagogue rulers, scribes, or priests. The high priest and the Sanhedrin (which functioned like a religious parliament) had primary control of spiritual life. They enforced the rules for fitting into the religious system.
Jesus clashed with these leaders, especially the Pharisees.
…you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: "These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men" (Matt. 15:6-9).
The traditions and teachings of the Pharisees, originally intended as guidelines to help persons obey the law, had turned into a law themselves. Now, in effect, they worshiped their own law instead of the God they claimed to worship.
"You shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces," Jesus accused the religious leaders. "You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to" (Matt. 23:13-14; Luke 11:52). The leaders, appointed as guardians of the door to life, were refusing to enter themselves.
They were also blocking the way for others. Lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, countless needy people who couldn’t meet the rigid Pharisaic law—all were excluded. How tragic! The gatekeepers had replaced the door to salvation with an impenetrable wall.
Was it that these people wanted no converts? No. Jesus went on to say, "You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are" (Matt. 23:15).
Apparently they made heroic efforts to make new converts. But they would accept only those willing to conform to all prescribed laws and customs. By forcing these would-be believers into the same legalistic mold they had made for themselves, they pushed them away from the kingdom of heaven.
Could a similar tragedy happen in the church today? Yes, new people have come to a church only to discover that tradition and rules have replaced genuine worship of God. When this is true, new people are the first to feel it and be excluded, since they don’t fit into the religious system. Genuine worship introduces people to God without demanding legalistic conformity to a set of rules.
Some of the saddest words in Scripture were written by the apostle John.
The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him (John 1:9-11).
Sometimes Jesus was refused hospitality even by those who professed to believe in him. He said to the church at Laodicea, "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will go in and eat with him, and he with me" (Rev. 3:20). These words are sometimes used to represent Jesus seeking entrance to a sinner’s heart. Perhaps that’s an appropriate application. But the words were spoken to a church! Apparently church members were blocking Jesus from their lives because they didn’t think they needed him. They thought they were doing well enough without him.
People who haven’t received Jesus into their own lives can’t genuinely welcome others in Jesus’ name. It is Jesus himself who makes it possible for us to receive others from the heart, even though they may have a different skin color, think differently, or wear clothing that seems strange to us.
Guidelines for Invitations
While at the home of a prominent Pharisee, Jesus noticed how the guests picked the best seats. He told a parable to teach the importance of humility (see Luke 14:7-11). Jesus gave a radical solution to the problem of playing favorites. He said:
When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous, (Luke 14:12-14).
In his letter to Christians, the elder James wrote:
…as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, "Here’s a good seat for you," but say to the poor man, "You stand there," or "Sit on the floor by my feet," have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, "Love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers (James 2:1-4, 8-9).
Most of us enjoy being with people we respect. Given a choice between a needy new member or someone who is resourceful, we often choose the latter. But the Scriptures warn against showing hospitality only to those who meet our criteria for respect.
The apostle Peter learned this lesson some years after he came to faith. Through a vision. God sent him to the household of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. According to Jewish teaching, Peter shouldn’t have entered the man’s house. But the Spirit prompted him to do so. When he saw the gathered group, he said, "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right" (Acts 10:34-35).
Peter had probably known this truth in some measure earlier. But coming face-to-face with eager inquirers helped the truth sink in. Now he not only knew but experienced the truth. The same can happen to us as we learn to know new believers personally. We’ll experience for ourselves the joy of seeing how God welcomes people into the family.
Jesus consistently accepted and loved people others rejected. Most memorable is the incident of a woman he loved despite the scandal it caused. A sinful woman approached Jesus while he ate with Simon the Pharisee, and anointed his feet with perfume and her tears (Luke 7:36-38). Jesus told Simon,
"Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little." (Luke 7:44-47)
Simon, the host, hadn’t provided even the basic courtesies. Perhaps he didn’t want to appear too hospitable, since Jesus was a controversial figure. But the woman ministered to Jesus. Simon had grudgingly given him a place in his home. Her tears, kisses, and perfume showed she had given Jesus a place in her heart. There is a vital difference.
A church may provide a formal greeting and warm handshake, but these alone won’t draw people into fellowship. People must sense a welcome from the heart.
Ray Stedman tells of an incident which took place at the Peninsula Bible Church. While preaching, Stedman had read 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, which gives a long list of sins, then promises God through Jesus can cleanse us from such sin.
On an impulse, Stedman decided to ask people to stand if they had been redeemed by Christ from any of the sins mentioned. There was a long pause. No one moved. Finally, a frail old woman stood. Then several others stood. After a time, people all over the congregation were standing. Ray thanked them for their honesty and openness and thanked God for cleansing their sin.
Later, Ray discovered that a young man who wasn’t a Christian had been in the congregation. Never having been in church before, he was "nervous as a cat." He told Ray that when he saw all those people standing to admit that they were saved by God’s grace from all those sins, he relaxed and thought to himself, "These are my kind of people!" As a result, he committed his life to Jesus Christ!
Regardless of the nature of our sins, we can be saved only by the power of Jesus Christ. There is no room for pride or boasting which excludes others as not good enough to belong to our group. Nevertheless, from the time of the apostles, the faithful church has struggled to determine the grounds for full acceptance into the congregation. The way the early church dealt with the matter can be helpful to us today.
Spiritual Barriers to Acceptance
After a period of rapid growth and the commissioning of two missionaries, the multiethnic congregation at Antioch was feeling the strain of divided loyalties. Paul and Barnabas, the cofounders of the church, were being challenged by teachers from the "home church" in Jerusalem. These self-appointed instructors were declaring, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1).
This challenge distressed the new believers and brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute with the guest teachers. At that time, circumcision was universally understood as the distinguishing mark of a Jew. Gentile converts who refused to be circumcised seemed to be rejecting the Jewish faith and the Scriptures. This was unthinkable for persons whose Jewish roots were a vital part of their spiritual life.
Since the issue couldn’t be resolved on a local level, Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with others, to consult with the apostles and elders at Jerusalem. The foremost church authorities carefully considered this controversial issue.
In short, it was a question of how the Gentile converts could be received into the predominately Jewish group of believers. Would new Gentile believers need to become practicing Jews? Or could they worship God by simply following the way of Jesus Christ?
In a landmark decision, the Jerusalem church decided that the Gentile Christians could be believers in their own right (see Acts 15:1-35). They didn’t need to become Jews or keep the law of Moses. The convention issued a letter to be sent to all the churches. It notified them of the official decision and indicated that the Holy Spirit had played a key role.
Even so, Paul battled for years with the Judaizers (strict Jewish teachers), determined to persuade new Gentile Christians to keep Jewish laws. Paul makes many references to this problem in his letters to new churches (see 1 Cor. 7:17-20; Rom. 4:9-12; Gal. 2:11-16; 5:1-12; Phil. 3:2-4).
In addition to circumcision, some churches were divided on matters of lesser importance. Believers in the churches at Rome and Corinth were accustomed to buying meat formerly offered to idols as part of the worship ritual in an idol’s temple. The meat was sold at bargain prices, and frugal Christians were taking advantage of the savings.
Some new believers, just converted from a life of idol worship, found this practice threatening to their newfound faith in Christ. They spoke against the practice, apparently accusing others of idolatry. They knew that if they themselves frequented the idol temples, they might well be pulled back into their old way of life. For this reason, Paul referred to them as "the weak." He urged the mature Christians to "accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters" (Rom. 14:1).
Paul urged the stronger persons to demonstrate love, rather than engage in rational arguments.
Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God (1 Cor. 8:1-3).
Paul understood that love would be the only adequate solution to this difficult problem. His approach to such disputes is summed up in the saying, "Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God" (Rom. 15:7). To accept one another means to recognize that the other is part of the body of Christ, even though there may be disagreement on matters not basic to salvation.
Tragically, new Christians rejected by someone in the church sometimes become discouraged and return to a life of sin. Love compels us to accept those who have named Jesus as Lord. We mustn’t reject them because we disagree on matters of doctrine not basic to salvation.
Growing, maturing churches maintain a careful balance between Christian freedom and strict adherence to rules or tradition. The former may cause compromise of Christian principles. The latter may lead to legalistic bondage.
New Christians coming into the church can help older Christians experience the freshness of a new commitment to Christ. Older Christians can help provide guidelines for faithful obedience. When a spirit of mutual acceptance prevails, the atmosphere is ripe for sustained Christian growth.
Understanding the Feelings of New People
It was the custom in my boyhood church for the pastor to ask a committed layperson to pray publicly without advance notice. On one occasion, the pastor called the congregation to prayer, and asked Fred to lead. He was referring to a middle-aged gentleman who was an adult Sunday school teacher and a committed member.
That Sunday, another man named Fred, who rarely attended any church, was a guest. When he heard his name, panic crossed his face. The pastor soon noticed and clarified which "Fred" he had intended. But that look of panic is etched on my memory.
Although your church might not call on a member of the congregation to pray, the unchurched guest may still be on edge, not knowing what will be expected.
The unchurched or very irregular attenders may feel uncomfortable and uneasy for a variety of reasons. They may feel conspicuous and out of place, because the church is foreign environment to them. They may fear being laughed at by unchurched people who discover they have been to church. They may fear being asked to read Scripture or pray aloud. How does your church help put new people at ease?
For Review, Study, and Action
- Read Revelation 3:14-22. What do you suppose Jesus meant when he said he stands at the door and knocks? Was he speaking to the fellowship as a whole or individual members? What might he be saying to your fellowship?
- What kind of person might your fellowship be most reluctant to accept? What kind of person is most readily received?
- Discuss the relationship between hospitality in the home and in the heart.
- Discuss spiritual barriers to acceptance. What issues in your church are similar to the issue of circumcision in early Christian times?
- Can you think of an occasion when a weak brother or sister was caused to stumble by lack of acceptance and understanding? Share any helpful insights.
- What kind of acceptance have you experienced when visiting other churches? Share any helpful insights gained from your experiences.
- Make a list of new people who have come to your church in the past six months. What feelings might they have? Has anyone lent a listening ear regarding the events that preceded their coming to your church?
For Further Help
Creating Communities of the Kingdom, by David W. Shenk and Ervin R. Stutzman (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1988). Chapters seven and eight give guidelines for dealing with questions of cultural differences in the congregation.
Key to a Loving Heart, by Karen Burton Mains (Elgin: David C. Cook, 1979). The author shows how the love and forgiveness of Christ helps us open our hearts to others.
A World of Difference, by Thorn Hopler (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1981). This is a delightful description of cultural differences and how these differences affect a people’s perception of the gospel.