I recently had a conversation with someone who suggested that a person should be excluded from their congregation because they were living in sin. The thought was that if they wanted to join the church, they needed to repent and clean up their act beforehand.
I don't disagree with the fact that we should all be working on those sinful parts of our lives. The thinking that only those folks who have their act together can become part of the fellowship seems to go against everything I had ever learned about Jesus. The truth is that Jesus seemed to seek out the rejects, the fallen, the broken, the sinner and welcome them in.
Neil Livingstone says it something like this: In a world of religious in-groups and out-groups, Jesus created a "Come on in" group. The kingdom of God is open to every one who will come, he said. It's like a party to which everyone is invited, rich or poor, employed or unemployed, clean or dirty. So scandalously inclusive was Jesus' teaching that it took decades before his top disciple, Peter, could really accept it (Acts 10) and even Peter waffled in his endorsement of Jesus' come on in policy. It was just too radical. Yet Peter and the other disciples were probably considered just as dirty as most of the people whom the religious leaders often pointed to as being unclean. After all they had a tax collector, a religious zealot and murderer, and a bunch of other very ruddy men in the group.
The truth is that Jesus was crucified because he was the friend to sinners. The religious leaders thought he was polluting the faith by his blatant disregard for the ritual cleanliness laws. A good Jew was not to associative with sinners. Yet Jesus supped with them, healed them, forgave them, loved them. He once told the religious leaders that he had come to seek and save the lost. He then claimed the title of the great physician.
Which leads me to the question that has often been asked about the nature of the church. Is it a repository of the saints or a hospital for the sinner? I believe it is the latter. All of us come to the church to be nurtured back to health and wholeness by Christ. It is through our fellowship with one another and the power of the Holy Spirit working in our lives that we come clean over time. Joining a church fellowship is the first step in a process that may take a lifetime, but it is a process that leads to a growing awareness that we are loved and that God is calling us to a more excellent way of life.
I don't know if my friend and I will ever agree. We read the same scriptures but we read them differently. I like to say that I will err on the side of grace and let Jesus sort it out.