Grace in a Strip Bar

Being a friend of sinners with discernment and love. /

Jesus was and is a friend of sinners. But it’s often difficult for us to grasp if and how we ought to follow in his footsteps.

A few months ago, Christians were debating (on the Internet, where else?) to what degree Jesus is a friend of sinners, and to what degree we should be. As often happens, the debate became rancorous.

On the one hand, some wanted to protect the integrity of Jesus and the gospel. So they qualified the notion that Jesus was a friend of sinners. I read things like, “As precious as this truth is—that Jesus is a friend of sinners—it, like every other precious truth in the Bible, needs to be safeguarded against doctrinal and ethical error.”

When we start using words like “safeguarding” in conversations about grace, well, it suggests a problem. A different writer with the same point of view showed what he thought safeguarding looks like. The blogger tried to discern under what circumstances Jesus—and today, Christians—could go into a strip club to fellowship with sinners. The blogger tacked on qualification after qualification until we arrived at this: Since Jesus had dinner/partied/hung out with sinners in the places where they congregated, “we should do so too when: (1) they are not engaging in sin, (2) we do so for the purpose of calling them to repentance, (3) when our presence does not condone sin or the mocking of God, and/or (4) when the sinners are not our fellow believers.”

The logic is persuasive in one way, but by the time we’re done, we have something that does not feel or sound like the gospel at all. It sounds like a new law. The gospel—the simple announcement of the good news of God’s core attitude to us—is hedged in from four sides.

On the other hand, I read an advocate who clearly wanted to mow any and every hedge. He believed in “a Christ who offers fellowship to all indiscriminately without condition, no strings attached.” This certainly sounds more gospelly, but this writer too often manages to turn the gospel into law: he often condemns conservative Christians for not being more gracious. Indiscriminate, without-condition, no-strings-attached grace becomes, in the hands of some, a bludgeon, something with which to condemn the behavior and beliefs of other Christians.

Our temptation to turn grace into a new law, or to hedge grace in with qualifications—well, it’s a perennial temptation that none of us successfully avoids, if we’re honest. We’re tempted to turn a simple and beautiful gospel assertion—Jesus is the friend of sinners—into either an idea that needs protection or a principle that can be used to bludgeon others.

Maybe the problem is that we’re trying to extract a universal principle of action from the gospel statement or Jesus’ example.

Not Following Jesus’ Example

Let’s remind ourselves about grace, with no ifs, ands, or buts. While we were sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). Not repentant sinners. Not sinners open to hearing the gospel. Sinners—just sinners—were died for, none of whom had a clue about it. For God so the loved the world (as it is—sinful) that he gave his son (John 3:16). The Word become flesh and dwelt among us sinners (John 1:14).

Some conclude that if Christianity is mainly about following Jesus, then of course, we have no choice now but to fellowship with notorious sinners and in the most sinful of places.

But contrary to popular assumptions, Christianity is not about following Jesus’ example. That is not the defining characteristic of Christian ethics. Loving your neighbor as yourself is the essence of Christian ethics, according to Jesus.

This means while we are called to love the neighbor, we are not called to do everything Jesus did, nor do it in the way that he did it. For one, we’re not called to die for the sins of others. For another, we’re wise to refrain from behavior that he may have been able to do in love, but which we generally cannot. Like when he called Peter satanic. Or when he overturned tables in the temple and whipped people and animals as they scurried out. Or when he cursed and killed a fig tree (not exactly an example of creation care).

Jesus, if he wandered the earth today, might be able to go into a strip bar and minister unaffected. But I’d guess it’s impossible for most of the men reading this to do so. I can’t even watch a strip bar scene in a movie without my mind wandering where it shouldn’t. Strip bars are not going to be the object of any ministry of mine. Not because those sinners don’t need Jesus, but because this sinner is too weak to do any good there. I’d spend more time lusting than loving.

On the other hand, I can imagine a female friend, deeply moved by the exploitation of women, who could make regular visits to the strip bar, to befriend the women and be a Christian presence.

The same logic applies to all the other debates we’re having—whether it’s about decorating a gay couple’s wedding cake, or sending our children to public schools, or whether we consume alcohol or marijuana. The question is not what all Christians must do in all circumstances, but what it means for me to love the neighbor in this moment.

Love without Law

To be sure, one thing “love your neighbor” always means is this: we enter into friendships with unbelievers because, among other things, we want to share with them inconceivable good news. Unfortunately, this does not sit well with some Christians as of late. Our gospelly friend above, for example, quotes an evangelical theologian who says, “Befriending someone so that you can evangelize them is manipulative and undermining of trust.”

Aside from the not-so-subtle condemnation of more evangelistically minded Christians, and the creation of a new law, note the assumption here: entering into a relationship to share good news is by definition manipulative and unloving. There seems to be some confusion here.

Let’s say I see a man lying in the gutter, dead drunk. My heart goes out to him. I want to help. I want to love him. I’d like to strike up a relationship with him so that I can steer him to Alcoholics Anonymous , so he can be healed of his addiction. If that is manipulative and unloving, we need more manipulative and unloving people in this world.

The gospel is good news. It is the announcement that God loves us, has become one of us, has died in our stead, has forgiven our sin, has reconciled us to him—is indeed the friend of sinners! Why should we not form friendships so that we can share this revolutionary news? To enter into a relationship to convert someone to my way of thinking, yes that’s a problem. To enter into a relationship to get another to adopt my religion, yes that’s a problem. But if in befriending someone we tell them the most extraordinary news in history—that strikes me as about the most loving thing one can do. It’s to be a friend to sinners.

And yet the good news is also this: there is no law that says you have to share the gospel with everyone you meet else you fail to love them. Just as there is no law that says you have to be willing to go into a strip bar to follow Jesus the friend of sinners. Just as there is no law that hedges in the magnanimous grace of the friend of sinners. Discernment, wisdom, and grace are needed in much supply to know how and when and where to love the neighbor.

In the meantime, we can let Jesus be Jesus, and grace be grace. And we can trust that when we too fall into a judgmental spirit, or try to hedge the gospel with a new law, there is grace to cover that as well.

Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today and co-editor of The Behemoth.

Follow The Behemoth on Twitter and Facebook.

Also in this Issue

Issue 9 / November 13, 2014
  1. Editors’ Note
  2. Big Eaters

    The cells that protect and defend us—by eating lunch. /

  3. The Day God Died

    The most terrible and wonderful moment in history. /

  4. To the Oldest Recorded Supernova

    ‘After two millennia / You are still here’ /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Links to amazing stuff

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