In late 2008 British Prime Minister Gordon Brown spoke to leaders of British industry about the worldwide financial crisis. He told them: “It’s a mistake to consider the current financial trauma as something we must “fix” so we can return to the way things were before. The door we are going through offers no return to the past. No longer can we live in isolation—protected and parochial in our outlook, looking out primarily for our own national interest. We must now look at the total global picture. Our national interests are inseparable from the larger world community. The barriers are gone. What we do for ourselves, we do for others; and what others do also affects us.”
Listening to this I thought: How perceptive! This is precisely what Jesus said 2,000 years ago, either directly or through one of His apostles: “I have set before you an open door”; “In Christ there are no barriers”; “We view people differently than we used to”; “Go into all the world”; “Love one another.” He is saying: we are bound together. What affects one of us, affects all. The church’s most valuable assets are not dogmas or statements, but people. And so we must be spontaneously reaching out, taking hold of whomever we can reach, affirming their value to God and to our community, and bringing them in. And when we have brought them in, we must give them a home and make them feel loved and accepted. A church that is not willing or able to do this has failed.
I want to share with you some thoughts on the “climate” that Christ intends us to maintain within our churches—a climate that provides individuals a safe, welcoming place in which to grow. My comments rest against the background of a story told by Jesus, recorded in Matthew 13:24-30. The story is very familiar to you. It’s about getting a field ready for harvest, but the inevitable weeds come along and complicate matters. Who is responsible for these tares, and what should be done about them? The Owner of the field (and the field in this story is the church or the community of believers) is not responsible for the tares. The tares are just there; that’s the way it is in life—that’s how people are—and this also we find in the church.
So, what should we do about this mixture of wheat and tares? Should we investigate and determine what is what, and then deal with the tares? Jesus says: “No, that is not a good idea.” And He is actually quite final about it! “Leave it alone for now,” He says. “I will take care of it Myself in my own time.”
The story is unusual; our natural impulse is to deal with the weeds, to get rid of them somehow. But the Lord of the harvest says: “No, not now.”
This parable says much about how the Lord views humanity, and about the realities of life in the church. He is saying that the church consists of a very mixed lot; this is simply the reality we live with.
I believe that through the Spirit’s presence and working the church can become a better community; we can grow in our commitment and devotion, we can become more useful to Him, we can learn from our past mistakes. But I have no sympathy with those who are bent on a pre-Advent purging of the church, driven by a “let’s-toss-out-anything-that-looks-like-a-weed” mentality.
When the Landowner says “Leave the weeds for now,” He is not questioning that there are people within the church who are strangers to the Lord. They may at one time have known Him, but for one reason or other they have become weary of the walk. And yet they find it convenient or more secure to stay; possibly a job is at stake, or major family issues are involved. These are sad realities. To these realities the Lord says: “Leave them be. To ostracize these people, or for you, as the keepers of the garden, to conduct a general cleanup, is not a good idea. I will do it Myself in my own time. For you to do it is fraught with too many risks.”
And we may ask: “Surely cleaning up is a good thing—it makes sense, doesn’t it? What’s so risky about that?”
♦The risk is too high because of my own humanity. Is it not possible that I might make a terrible mistake in assessing another person? Do I really think that I know fully and accurately what goes on inside another person? Surely only God knows. And when an individual becomes difficult in the church, and particularly if that individual is a teenager, is it not possible that this behavior is precisely so because God, somehow, is getting through to them, prodding them and touching their lives? God only knows how much latitude He will put up with in our personal growing; I don’t.
♦The risk is too high because today is still the day of salvation. We may have been able to accurately identify and label the “tare,” but we must not forget that God has not yet finished His work. I’m not talking about those in our churches who are openly abusing or flagrantly defying the standards of the Word of God. These are people who must, for their own salvation’s sake, be placed under church discipline. The Bible gives the church the authority and responsibility to respond to such situations. But I’m talking instead about the much larger number of people who may be spending their time on the brink of the kingdom of God. We have many young people who disappear from the church because they feel unworthy and unwelcome. We make them feel spiritually unsuccessful. We presume to know the mind of God too readily! Is it not possible that God may be more generous than I am?
Listen to these words from the inspired pen of Ellen White:
“Although in our churches, that claim to believe advanced truth, there are those who are faulty and erring, as tares among the wheat, God is long-suffering and patient…. He does not destroy those who are long in learning the lesson He would teach them…. There is to be no spasmodic, zealous, hasty action taken by church members in cutting off those they may think defective in character.”*
♦The risk is too high because the church herself is harmed by people probing, even delicately, into the lives and opinions of other people. And the damage can spread quickly; the climate can become such that even good people are made to feel insecure in their own spiritual home. The climate of the church becomes unpleasant and unwelcoming, instead of a place where people feel warm and wanted, safe and secure, accepted and free.
♦Weeding in the garden is too risky because I, the investigator, am myself harmed by these activities. My misguided mission alters my own character and my personality becomes unattractive. I’m reminded of the words of one of my former teachers, speaking to someone who was somewhat self-congratulatory of his own accomplishments and critical of others: “So you are perfect, but do you have to be hostile about it?”
Our congregations are meant to be places of healing and renewal. They must be attractive places for unbelievers to be drawn to. And they must be places where the believer feels at home: valued and accepted. They aren’t meant to be battlefields, but cities of refuge. Can that be said of the church in which you and I worship? What kind of a spiritual climate are we creating? If your church is not the most appealing and attractive spiritual fellowship in your community, what are you going to do to change that?
Our churches are not exclusive clubs for those who are good enough or worthy. God is constantly justifying sinners; they are meant to be received warmly in our churches, for that is their rightful home. I will be frank with you: I would hate to spend my time surrounded only by people who think they had everything worked out just right. They become arrogant, clinical, and judgmental of those who still have growing to do. Christ accepted us all “while we were yet sinners” (Rom. 5:8, KJV). Acceptance is the breath of humanity. Where acceptance is denied our breathing falters. The air becomes thin and life itself becomes unbearable!
It is within our reach to create and shape the spiritual environment of our communities for the future. My appeal is that we create a good home, a warm family in which people can communicate, understand each other, respect each other’s space, and acknowledge that the Lord is ever at work making something better of that which, in our opinion, may be flawed.
* Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 45, 46.
Jan Paulsen is president of the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church.