The Sin of "Grace"

Holiness.jpg
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The evangelical world, broadly speaking, is in turmoil. At least, it should be over the rampant sexual abuse, exploitation and systematic dis-empowerment of women in their churches. In the words of Al Mohler regarding the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), “judgment has come.”[1] But this is not just a “Southern Baptist” problem. True, the SBC became what it is today through well documented conspiratorial power grabs, eliminating moderate dissent and promoting a male-only view of leadership (what could go wrong?), but they are not alone in the promulgation of their theology and misconduct.   

Maybe as a whole, we evangelicals are a mix of those who are horrified by the exposures (most recently out of the Southern Baptist denomination), those who are dismissive and those who are hopeful either because we have faced horrendous obstacles by abuse from our own or openly advocate for those who have. I tend to think we are finally at a point, comparatively, where our problems are more difficult to ignore, more difficult to further pile on those exploited. And yet, in the midst of this a haunting dichotomy lingers: judgment vs. grace. Didn’t Jesus die for the sins of the worst sinners? Didn’t he eat with the sinners? Wasn’t he the one that said, “go and sin no more” and desires us to have the same response towards the fallen?

I believe we fundamentally misunderstand grace and judgment if we see them as polar opposites or dichotomous. They are not.

There is actually a consistency between what God says he likes and dislikes and how he responds to others. The God of the Bible repeatedly makes it clear that he detests those who prey upon the vulnerable and promote injustice. He says that he is sick of the outward religiosity and that really didn’t change between the Old and New Testament. All of Amos 5 stands as God’s scathing critique of evil:

21 I hate, I reject your festivals;
    I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.
22 If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—
        I won’t be pleased;
    I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.
23 Take away the noise of your songs;
        I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
        and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

 Then enters Jesus. The God, the Word, who “tabernacled” (ἐσκήνωσεν) among us (John 1:14). To put it mildly, he was not thrilled with what was happening in the temple of his day and he was not thrilled with the sins of the religious leaders. So often, the picture painted of the religious leaders vs. the people of Jesus’ day by evangelicals is one of stringent rules vs. people who are unable to follow them. However, this is not quite right.

Sometimes, those who are the most judgmental are the most willfully evil.

The Holy Elites vs. “The Sinners?”

Let’s take a look at how the biblical text describes these religious elites. Certainly they lacked grace for those “outside the circle,” but was their crime really their attempts to be holy? Was their problem really that they just had such high standards and no grace for those who couldn’t be as holy as they were? Not so much.

Luke 20:47 says they “devour widows houses.” They are identified as “children of snakes,” “evil,” “guilty” and will have to answer for themselves on Judgment Day in Matt 12:34-37. In Matthew 23 Jesus points out that they do not in fact “practice what they teach.” Instead, they crush others. They love the show of holiness, but they are really “hypocrites” and “children of hell,” “greedy,” “self-indulgent,” “lawless.” Sure, they love to do lots of outward signs for show—as do many of our “men” of God today—but they ignore “other aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith.”

Then lets look and see how they treated Jesus. Sure they claimed they were just concerned about the law, but most of their actions expose an underlying power hungry jealously to the extent that they are well known to have broken the law to get an innocent man, in this case Jesus, killed. And this was not the first time. In Matthew Jesus points out that God sent them prophets and teachers of the law but they killed some by crucifixion, flogged others in the synagogues, and displaced others. They “will be held responsible for the murder of all godly people.”

What about the so-called sinners Jesus ate with? True, often the crowd or religious leaders called them sinners but seldom does the text (with some exceptions such as the woman at the well or the later addition to John of the woman about to be stoned). However, these people are often extremely marginalized and made out to be the evil ones. And the ones who did have sin and were marginalized are invited into grace—to live on without sin—and change their life.

The Sin of “Grace” i.e. Injustice

The consistent voice of the Bible is that God desires the protection and value of those individuals society and even the religious community wrongly devalues. AND there is a consistent call for the exposure and displacement of those who prey on other people. But we have it all backwards, we heap rhetoric of “grace” without restitution on serial abusers enabling them to continue their activity and by extension forcing their victims to march on with the weight of their burden strapped to their backs. We enable abusive behavior and use perverse interpretations of Scripture to do it. We take the Lord’s name in vain. And those who have suffered? We decide what they really need is to “forgive.” That is the go-to. And by forgive we mean “moving on” i.e. not being hurt, angry or insisting on justice and even maintaining messed up relationships with abusers. We do not wish to hear of their anguish. It’s tiresome. And we feel good about ourselves because we have extended “grace.” But not for them.

The God of the Bible has consistently called for grace towards those who stumble and repent and doubly those who are exploited and marginalized. The God of the Bible has consistently hated serial evil aka abuse and injustice. Hate may be an understatement. The God of the Bible has consistently loved those who try and live a holy, righteous life in their interactions with others. He is a God of love and wants us to be people of love. Grace and judgment flow from the common fountain of divine love. And in the context of this discussion love means propagating justice in the every day. Jesus called out the powerful regardless of rank and attempted to shame them in public for clear, willful exploitive behavior and he physically sat with and ate with those who were not in the “in crowd.” He identified himself with them and identified them as the people of God (i.e. Sons or daughters of Abraham).

Church, go and sin no more.

 

[1] "Judgment has now come to the house of the Southern Baptist Convention. The terrible swift sword of public humiliation has come with a vengeance. There can be no doubt that this story is not over."