I was having a very nice stuffed chicken breast out in the burbs with two of my oldest friends on Saturday night and the subject turned to sin. Specifically, it turned to the gossip my friend had heard that Circle of Hope is “soft on sin.” I think I said, “Are you serious? That is still going around? You heard that?”
One time, a long time ago I think, one of the pastors at one of the Presby plants (purportedly) warned his people that Circle of Hope was soft on sin. People have been warning others about us ever since. The word came full circle to me over a nice dinner and my dear friend knew the source.
So our church has two reputations going around. If you look us up on Google, we look like we are hard on sin, since a loosely-connected slanderer unjustly tried to take us down in the City Paper one time (before it folded under its own weight of spurious reporting) for being hard on certain sins which are popular targets for legalistic Christians. Wasn’t true. But if you run into us in the Christian gossip mill, we apparently look like we are soft on sin, since they know of many instances when we have embraced people before they believed and they know we include people before they are moral. We work things out, not cut things off; we travel with people along their way, and don’t tell them they can join us when they get on our correct path. They are right about what we do, but they are wrong about what it means.
So I want to say a few things about our reputation, particularly about being “soft on sin.”
1) For one huge thing, what does “soft on sin” even mean?
What Christian ever had a call from God to be “hard” on sin? And what person is not already hard on themselves because of their sin, even before some Christian tells them they are bad? Donald Trump acts like he is hard on sin, even as he is sinning! — but he apparently has a personality disorder.
If there is a sin the Bible calls us to be “hard” on it is probably the sin of presuming we can judge the righteousness of others! Paul says he does not even judge himself; and Jesus says to leave judgment to God. I think we are hard on the sin of being hard on sinners, such as ourselves. So, in the minds of some, that might make us “soft.“
2) Do Christians really have to compare one another?
Christians seem to treat each other like rival fast food franchises, don’t they? — “our righteousness is better quality, unlike those other people!” I wish it were not so. Comparisons are odious. It is not always easy, but I try to stay positive about the Christians who are not in my “camp.” There is often a particular genius I can admire. Presbyterians are stuck in their cave-in to modernism, but they are often great Bible teachers. The Pope fronts some of the greatest heresies ever normalized, but Catholics have a great system to teach contemplative prayer. Even though Ted Cruz grew up in one of the scariest fringe groups ever, I hear he is a pretty great husband. Much of the time the Brethren in Christ don’t know what to do with us, but our denomination’s historical synthesis is still theologically and practically brilliant.
But do any of the growing number of unbelievers in the United States care about the boundaries between the many variations of Christians? The ones I’ve met who know about them largely cite the differences as a good reason not to get involved with us.
3) Actually, we are very adept at dealing with sin.
One of our proverbs warns us: “Everyone is recovering from the sin addiction; expect conflict.” We are not afraid we will be tainted by sin because someone is sinning; we accept that everyone is bringing their version of sinfulness with them. There will be problems. Like Jesus in the wilderness, we are all in our process, being tempted and coming to our fullness through the struggle. We are conflicted inside, and the whole church has a tendency to fight because sin is at work in us.
But as the scripture goes on to say, the Spirit of God is also at work in us because Jesus has saved us. If some folks want to protect themselves from the “liberals” over at Circle of Hope, it will be a delusional task, since they are already infected with sin and their judgment demonstrates the fact. Likewise, if Circle of Hope people (like me) get super angry and self-righteous over the supposed attacks from people they have not met and sources they have not verified, then they will, likewise, be demonstrating how broken they really are. If any of us falls to following a new law or relying on our manuals of proper behavior, we will miss the freedom of forgiveness by which Paul goes on to say: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2). Some people thought Paul was “soft on sin” because he taught the truth of the gospel like that. Not so.
I hope I can get the same kind of criticism as Paul, now and then. It makes me feel like we are doing something worth noticing; so it is affirming in a back-handed way. This weekend, it was just rumors that I had heard before. I can hardly call a criticism based on hearsay an actual criticism, can I? It’s like an insult-once-removed. When I meet up with the slanderer in the age to come, we can work it all out with joy. Until then, I hope to be as “soft on sin” as the One who shared mine, died to undo it, and raised me to walk around consciously wounded by it but also transcendent.