Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

I had a really weird, somewhat distressing interaction this week, and it is still on my mind days later. It’s one of those uncomfortable encounters that you would like to press the “replay” button on and do over. Like a v-mail recording that you can erase and re-record.

This conversation, as someone privy to it fittingly put it, seemed like an abrupt and awkward break-up after a first date that seemed to be going well.

Only this “break-up” was with another Christian from a different denominational place who places a really high value on purity and on defending the Lord’s name.

I won’t indulge details. But I’ve been left feeling deeply sad about the way in which purity, or a need to defend God and/or God’s holiness, can so divide Christians themselves—to the extent that our division prevents us from coming together to work on issues that are deeply in keeping with God’s redemptive mission in this world.

This week’s incident reminded me of a time when Christian social activist Toni Campolo came to speak at the evangelical flagship institution Wheaton College and, in a talk there, used a four-letter word. Campolo’s use of the word was for effect: he wanted to shine a light on the fact that his audience was more concerned about his potty mouth—purity (by my interpretation)— than about the problem of endemic poverty in this country and around the world.

The problem, as Campolo illustrated, was that this obsession with purity (again my word) actually hamstrings our call as Christians to participate in God’s mission. We get caught up on less important flashpoints rather than the larger, more important task of, as the prophet Micah puts it, loving justice, doing mercy and walking humbly with God; and, in the meantime, the rest of the world sees what a sorry lot we Christians really are in our efforts to come together across political and denominational aisles. “Impurity” (or at least one Christian’s interpretation of another Christian’s inherent holiness) thus becomes an easy excuse to walk away in God’s name from another Christian—another human being made in God’s image—and to indulge in self-righteousness while God’s mission actually suffers. Meanwhile those who are not Christian can find yet another often good reason to reject (if not Christ) the church that is Christ’s “body.”

This impulse to uphold purity over all else is understandable to a degree, but it also troubles me and makes me very sad. Does God’s purity need a defense?, I wonder. Is it God’s purity that we are really defending when we react sanctimoniously to the “impure” language and/or actions of those around us? Or, is it the purity of the church we seek to defend? An important distinction, I suspect.

Purity itself (be it doctrinal or moral) can be a good and necessary thing, but its shrill defense can quickly descend into a lack of love for neighbor. So I wonder aloud here: when we as Christians seek to uphold purity at the expense of other human beings’ sense of worth, is such purity worth it? And if upholding purity is important, how do we uphold purity in a way that in the end draws people nearer to Jesus and to one another, rather than erecting further divisions and obstacles to working together in God’s mission to reconcile and redeem all creation?

No answers here, only questions for your input.



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