Judging to divide or with hope to restore
Years ago, when my son was a preschooler, he would sit on the floor with a bucket of miniature cars, trucks, bulldozers, tractors, motorcycles and airplanes. He would either line them up in a straight line or in a perfect circle around himself. But he would never sort them out after their kind.
As an analytical person this used to drive me crazy. Why not put all the cars together here? And the farm machines there?
I tried to encourage him to sort but gave up quickly when I saw he had no joy in adult organizational technique. He just loved seeing them all together in one big line or circle. For my son it was neither car nor truck, tractor nor bulldozer, motorcycles nor airplanes, but just one big family of dinky toys.
Thinking back, maybe I needed to learn the lesson that it isn’t always good to presume to know how everything, people especially, should be sorted out.
Why do we play this sorting game, even within the Church? It was a lesson Peter needed and a reminder many of us may need today.
It took a vision from God to change Peter’s mind that even Gentiles could have the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out on them (Acts 10:11,45). Peter later shared this good news to the Jerusalem council – God does not discriminate between Jews and Gentiles. Both are saved by grace (Acts 15:9–11).
You would think by then Peter would have had the lesson firmly in mind.
Yet Paul later had to scold him when he began to shrink back from eating with the Gentiles, as if by their presence he was in danger of becoming unclean. So great was Peter’s influence that Paul lamented even Barnabas the great encourager had been led astray (Galatians 2:11–13).
It’s hard not to sort, secretly or not, who’s in and who’s out. Like Peter we may be tempted to point out the New Gentiles from whom we need to be separated.
Separating people into acceptable and unacceptable, safe and unsafe, politically left and right, vaxxed and unvaxxed, Presbyterian and Baptist, Catholic and Protestant – and the list could go on indefinitely – appears to be a favourite Christian pastime. It’s the perennial attempt to put asunder those whom God has put together (Mark 10:9).
So why does the glorious yet not yet fully sanctified Body of Christ continue to do this?
Identifying the New Gentiles in our midst is yet another way of justifying ourselves before God, even long after we’ve already been justified freely by His grace. The fleshly habit of wanting to show ourselves better, more sophisticated, more informed or more theologically astute is at root. It isn’t enough to be graciously accepted by God. We want to be accepted for something we bring to the table over and against others (1 Corinthians 11).
Discriminating among ourselves also reveals our deep thirst for security. By keeping away from those frustrating people in our churches, we feel more in control, less likely to have to deal with things outside our expertise and experience.
This isn’t to say the Church should never make judgments. Sometimes it is called precisely to call out moral and spiritual failure (1 Corinthians 5:1–5). But when we do so, it is in hope of restoration and reconciliation, not to ostracize or divide.
Who are the New Gentiles we have identified and from whom we, the inner circle of the Church, think we need to separate?
Loving God and neighbour must mean refusing to label the New Gentiles in our midst. For in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, clean nor unclean, and yes neither vaxxed nor unvaxxed. Such things have nothing whatsoever to do with the Body of Christ.
Remember James’ critique of the early Christian gatherings who still showed favouritism between rich and poor with the declaration that to do so is to become "judges with evil thoughts" (James 2:4)? Indeed, he declares, to show favouritism (to discriminate among ourselves) is to be convicted as lawbreakers.
How devastating it would be to discover that in identifying the New Gentiles we ourselves have become the lawbreakers! Let us rather, as James says, keep the royal law found in Scripture – Love your neighbour as yourself. This is what it means to do right (James 2:8).
David Guretzki of Ottawa is executive publisher of Faith Today and serves The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada as executive vice-president and resident theologian. Photo of wooden figurines by Shutterstock.com