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Are we Eating with the Right People?
Thoughts From 1 Corinthians 5

by Jon Zens

“When I wrote in my letter to you not to associate with
people living immoral lives, I was not meaning to include
all the people in the world who are sexually immoral, any
more than I meant to include all usurers and swindlers or
idol-worshippers. To do that, you would have to withdraw
from the world altogether. What I wrote was that you should
not associate with a brother Christian who is leading an
immoral life, or is a usurer, or idolatrous, or a slanderer,
or a drunkard, or is dishonest; you should not even eat a
meal with people like that. It is not my business to pass
judgment on those outside. Of those who are inside, you can
surely be the judges. But of those who are outside, God is
the judge.” 1 Cor. 5:9-13

Many churches today are faced with a very serious problem
and are not even aware of it. If people who were poor or
homeless or immoral or generally lower-class were to appear
as visitors or new converts in many churches, our initial
response would be negative. We would be put off, perhaps, by
the way they smell. Or we would say “we don’t want our
children around such undesirables.” The result of these
attitudes is that churches have isolated themselves from
those with needs, and feel threatened when the security of
their homogeneous, white, middle-class atmosphere is
violated. Why is this the case?

Its ideology, at least, has to do with the doctrine of
“separation” that was crystallized in many denominations
earlier in this century. Church leaders taught those in the
pew that Christians were to be totally separate from
unbelief and sinful lifestyles, using 2 Cor. 6:14-18 as a
proof-text. To be sure, there is an important element of
truth in such sentiments. Christians must not mingle with
society in ways that compromise gospel values. However, this
separation doctrine seems to have translated into church
practices which flatly contradict both the example of Jesus
and the teaching of Paul in l Cor. 5:9-13.

Apparently the Corinthians had misunderstood what Paul had
tried to express in a previous letter. They thought he had
meant for them not to have any association with the immoral
people of the world. But here Paul emphasizes that we must
mix with unbelievers to some degree in the normal course of
life. The apostle finds nothing wrong with that. His concern
is that we do not have social relationships with professing
Christians whose lifestyles are obviously out of line with
the gospel. Paul leaves the judgment of unbelievers to God,
while urging the community of faith to exercise discipline
among themselves.

We have missed the apostle’s teaching in at least three
critical ways. First, while Paul assumed that Christians
would rub shoulders with unbelievers, much of the
contemporary evangelical church functions on the assumption
that believers should have nothing to do with outsiders.

This clearly, does not follow Jesus’ example. Having come to
seek and to save the lost, he purposely sought out those who
were shunned by the religious leaders. Christ was severely
criticized, but rightly perceived, as a “friend of sinners.”
I wonder how many Christians today would like it if people
thought of them the same way. But no need to worry: we
hardly ever deserve the title. Unlike Christ, we don’t have
the problem because we don’t eat with the wrong people.

Author Gib Martin tells the story that as a depressed school
teacher he began to frequent a bar after work. There he met
a Christian – a former alcoholic – who went to the bar every
day, sipping coffee and sharing the gospel with patrons as
the opportunity arose. Gib was drawn to this man, and
ultimately became a Christian as a result of his concern,
prayers, and message of hope. The man encouraged Gib to
begin attending a particular church, and he did. The irony,
however, was that this church had a very negative attitude
toward the man because he ministered in a place frequented
by sinners. As a result, this church and others like it
often become monasteries, except that only the affluent and
well-behaved are welcome.

Second, Paul maintains that believers must withhold table
fellowship from those who identify with Christ’s name but
whose way of life flagrantly contradicts the gospel. How
many times do we ignore the unpleasant fact that our fellow
Christians are inveterate gossips or engage in shady
business practices, even though Paul explicitly says we
should never tolerate slander or dishonesty. In too many
cases in American Christianity, we calmly maintain
fellowship with deliberately sinful believers, while
avoiding healthy contact with unbelievers in the name of
being “separate from the world.” We have reversed the
apostle’s concerns, and sealed ourselves off from effective
ministry to those who are most in need of the touch of God.

Third, I commonly hear preachers fill their sermons with
emotional rhetoric describing how bad it is in the world,
sprinkling negative remarks about gays, those with AIDS,
teenage mothers, and needle users throughout their
diatribes. But Paul rejects such misguided preaching,
knowing that judgment outside the body of Christ is left to
God. He urges the community of faith to focus on discerning
and solving the problems within its own context. Further, it
is cheap and easy to hurl denunciations at those outside the
confines of a church building, but who is taking the
initiative to go out and minister to these needy groups?

Jesus made a conscious effort to reach out to the “sinners”
of his day. He mingled openly with the wrong people, those
declared “unclean” by the experts in the Law. But now the
church is perceived as an institution that is a haven for
the “right people,” the upwardly mobile. Our doors are often
closed to the undesirables.

A French pastor related to me an experience which, though
somewhat corny, helped him break out of his churchy shell
and begin a significant ministry. He had set up a dinner
appointment with an eye surgeon to discuss the possibility
of surgery for his wife. After dinner they retired to the
living room. The surgeon asked the pastor if he would like a
cigar. He did so mostly out of politeness, anticipating a
negative reply at so “worldly” an activity as smoking. The
pastor’s initial mental reaction was to say, “No, thank you.
I don’t smoke.” However, he felt that he should resist this
inclination and replied instead, “Yes, I will; thank you.”
As it turned out, the pastor’s action broke a barrier with
the surgeon and they ended up having a long discussion about
the gospel. The surgeon was later converted and became very
active in the local church.

Now eye surgeons are not exactly among the undesirables in
society. Nonetheless, the pastor had to shrug off a piece of
his churchy culture in order to break through to him. We
must very often do something similar. In mingling with
people outside the body of Christ we must discern what is
merely cultural and what is true truly central to the
gospel. We need to know what is really Christian and what is
just churchy.

A recent public television documentary on religion in
America examined the ministry of a large, inner-city, upper
and middle-class church. It showed a wealthy Sunday School
teacher giving instruction on prosperity from Proverbs to a
slickly-dressed class. Then it showed a different teacher
from the same church preaching hell-fire and brimstone to
skid row people at a rescue mission run by the church. The
first pastor was asked why lower-class minorities were not
present in the main church. His reply was disconcerting:
“Birds of a feather flock together.” One could hardly
imagine reversing the situation and hearing the prosperity
message unfolded at the mission and the hell-fire
proclamation booming from a pulpit surrounded by affluent,
white Americans. Yet that reversal may be exactly what is
needed.

We will not change this perverted image of the church until
we become a compassionate people who will step out of our
comfortable edifices and reach out to the needy. Jesus was
marked as a person who ate with the “wrong” people. It’s
time we started eating with them, too.

Christ was severely criticized, but rightly perceived, as a
“friend of sinners.” I wonder how many Christians today
would like it if people thought of them the same way?

Lees Frank Viola se blog

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