I will never forget once hearing John Wimber say to a Christian audience that God wanted his church back. It had a deep effect on me because I really had never looked at the church in that light before. Of course I knew that we are here for the glory of God, that our lives were meant to exemplify that of Christ, that we are meant to walk together in harmony along the path of God’s will. I knew all of that – but somehow the stark statement that God wanted his church back surprised and, I think, shocked me a little.
One of the effects of John Wimber and indeed of the whole charismatic movement in the church in the past fifty years has been that the churches have become more God-directed than they were.
The emphasis on the Holy Spirit has come to the fore nowadays. Some churches have gone off down tangential avenues – fixated on healing, or tongues, or singing choruses or whatever. But there is a mainstream of charismatic churches where the Holy Spirit is truly revered, known experientially and obeyed. That emphasis has also diffused somewhat into a wider circle of churches, touched by some aspect of the Charismatic renewal, but retaining, perhaps, many of the characteristics of pre-Renewal churches.
But all these churches have - as all churches should have - one objective clearly before them: to seek to be led by the Spirit. They seek the Spirit’s guidance and power as they introduce people to the gospel, as they lead them forward in their Christian lives, as they endeavour to inspire them, as they seek to correct them where they have gone off the lines.
It is this last function that I want to explore a little in this article: the ‘correcting them’ function.
In too many churches, I believe, the Holy Spirit is usurped in the task of correction. Some churches have taken it upon themselves to correct other Christians where they think they have gone wrong. To some extent that is one of the roles of the church – but only under the Lordship of the Holy Spirit.
The history of the church has been abysmal over the centuries in this regard. There have been endless splits and divisions. They have also certainly corrected their flock of faithful Christians when they thought that their beliefs were wrong in some way. You only have to think of the Inquisition. The heinous torture and pain inflicted in the name of Christ hardly bears thinking about today. We shudder at the very mention of the evil that was done in the name of God through the centuries by such men.
Over the centuries the church has disciplined their people by fines of money (which they called indulgences), by boring repetitive actions (such as endless repetition of certain prayers in the name of penitence), by cutting them out from their fellow Christians and isolating them (called excommunication) – and these are only some of the methods used. The catalogue is forbidding and terrible. Indeed, it is hardly creditable that these deeds were done in the name of Christ. It has been one long history of not just ineptitude or authoritarianism, but of downright evil domination.
Today we are learning that it is the Holy Spirit who does the introducing, who does the leading, who does the correcting, not us. The more we are dominant in the activity, the less effective it will be. The more the Holy Spirit directs and commands, the more likely for there to be permanent change in individuals.
If you stand back for a moment, it is obvious that this must be so. Human beings do not change when they are dominated, they simply remain dominated. And then they rebel. If you want human beings to change – the whole point of the gospel – then it has to be done by persuasion and in an atmosphere of freedom.
So instead of condemning gay Christians and shutting them out of church, they should be brought in and loved and welcomed and cared for, and treated as you would Christ himself. They should be embraced, not condemned.
But how can it be right, some might say, when we believe that what they are teaching is heretical? But let me ask: are you really saying that you have all the truth? That you are the perfect judge of what is heretical? Are you really saying that your version of the truth will last ten thousand years? That endless changes of culture will have no effect on almost every jot and tittle of your doctrine and practice? If you do so claim, then I can only turn away and go to someone else, for it is obvious that your mind is closed tight shut.
So what are we supposed to do with these gay Christians, whose ideas are so contrary to our own? Should we not correct them if correction is necessary?
The answer is that you should not ‘correct them’ for two very good reasons:
1 there are millions of true Christians who actually disagree with you. You must see that you are not the only Christians in the world with ‘the truth’. You must admit that there is very real doubt as to who is right. This should give you pause for thought.
2 that correcting them will not change them – as suggested above it will only set them firmer in the groove of their present belief. In other words, correcting them is counter-productive. It doesn’t work!
There are millions of Christians who see it as obvious that gay Christians should be welcome in every church. There are millions of Christians who recognize that becoming judgemental and trying to correct them is just plain wrong. It is wrong in principle, and it won’t work.
When Christians condemn other Christians they need to be very careful. Above all things they should have regard to their own attitudes, their own fixed ideas, especially their own feelings of righteousness. It is at that point where we feel most righteous that we are most at risk in our spiritual lives.
There is the story of the monk in a dessert community around eighteen hundred years ago. He attended a meeting of his community where he was censured by his brother monks for some offence. They were right to consider he had done wrong. They decided to banish him. As he walked out of the meeting, between the assembled brothers, the Abbott of the community got up and walked down the aisle beside him, saying that if the monk had to go because of his failure, then so did he.
That is the key. Every sin of a brother serves to show me my own sin, my own deficiency. Every failure of another should make me throw myself on God’s mercy all the more. Every critical thought about another Christian instantly transporting me to that green hill far away, and to the foot of the cross.
That is why the Christian Church – the body of all believers throughout the world – has endured all through the centuries. Survived in spite of splitting into thousands of separate organisations. Not because the Churches have been doctrinally correct – they haven’t. Nor because they have been morally correct – they haven’t. But only because there are true Christians everywhere who allow the faults of other Christians to drive them to God in confession of their own inadequacy.
It is not the Church Militant but the Church Penitent that has enabled the witness to go on from century to century. Not because we are so very good at excluding error and heresy, but because we have seen our own sins and, bowing low before God, we have humbly asked for forgiveness.
When we see our brother Christian in sin we have two choices. We can take a proactive role in correcting him, getting him sorted out, re-establishing the pure truth (as we see it) – or we can let the encounter lead us to self-questioning. Whereupon we will be forced to recognize our own failure, hardness of heart, error. In this latter case we will leave it to the Holy Spirit to correct our brother – we will trust that God is able to do whatever is necessary.
If we opt for the self-righteous position then we close our hearts to our own reality and, in doing so, we close our hearts to Christ, however orthodox and ‘correct’ we are.
But what about heresy? Well, I sit easily to the threat because it seems to me that mankind is on a steep learning curve as regards ultimate truth and Christian good practice. The theology of last century has been expanded, refined, corrected and enlarged this century. And the way we apply our Christianity has changed in every century since the earliest days. Were they so very wrong, a hundred years ago? No – they were at a point on the learning curve a couple of inches below us today. And the Christians of 2200 will be a couple of inches above us. God is able to deal with heresy, as he has done these past twenty centuries.
Heresies come and go and, to some extent, infect every generation. Does it matter? Yes, of course it matters – we have to follow the gleam of truth no matter how much we have to leave the certainties of the past. We have to live the truth as we see it. But it is the Holy Spirit who leads. It is the Holy Spirit who enlightens. It is the Holy Spirit who is teaching the church, through the ages, about the treasures of the Kingdom.
We must listen to the Spirit. Not try to dominate those we think wrong and deny them the fellowship of the church of Christ.
God wants his church back – he wants to take it out of the hands of those who are dominantly certain that people who are gay are going to hell. He wants it back from those who would exclude other Christians with a valid experience of Christ because they are gay. He wants it back from any so called Christian who thinks himself superior because he has all the right doctrines.
God smiles on those who look, not at the sins of their fellow Christians, but at their own deficiencies. He blesses those who kneel in penitence, not those who stand in pulpits and denounce other Christians because of their orientation.
God forgive me a sinner – that is the hallmark of the true Christian. The rest we can safely leave to God.