How far does grace take us? Does the grace of God have limits? The struggle of living with grace is that grace asks us the question, “When is it time to no longer be gracious?” There is a very honest struggle happening inside of Christianity (and I use that with a big “C”) today. To be a follower of Christ, as perceived in the biblical account, is to live a life of radical grace, both received for us personally, and given through us to others.
When we look at the Bible and use Jesus as our model, we discover someone who offered grace to everybody He came in contact with. But, when we read through the Epistles, the books written by Paul in particular, there is little doubt that there is a list of moral do’s and don’ts that Paul contends are required for the church to function harmoniously and in a holy manner. So the struggle that exists in Christianity today is a very honest one: how do I live like Jesus in His graciousness, love and inclusiveness, and understand these moral imperatives we see in Paul?
How do Christians respond to the theological mindfields that are up for discussion right now in our time, when we face questions like the nature or the existence of hell, or oppressive systems of power that create hell on earth? When we face issues like homosexuality and the place of gay people in the church? How do we take the Bible intelligently and seriously whilst recognizing its cultural context? How do we navigate these issues with biblical integrity, our best theological thinking and a gracious heart?
For me, we have to have a humble hopeful, starting place if we are going to engage these issues. We have to have a faith anchor that gives context to the rest of these discussions. I believe that Jesus was our model, and is our model. How He acted, what He said, how He received confrontation, how He engaged people who were unacceptable culturally, how He loved. What made Him angry? What made Him feel joy? Secondly, and this will not be very popular with people who are still holding onto a black and white orientation towards the questions of life, but I believe when it comes to our biblical integrity and our theological efforts, we need to hold first to the very honest recognition that our very best work biblically and theologically is always flawed.
That the Bible will forever be both revelation and mystery to us. That our theology will forever be our best thinking about God, which is actually what the word “theology” means. Our best thinking is not perfect.
In the last 1500 years people have defended theological positions based upon their understanding of scriptures that have put limits on the grace of God, particularly since the enlightenment which has been in the last 400 years, and continues today.
Here are a couple of examples. Racism and its worst expression – slavery – was often defended from a biblical and theological perspective. As you read this now you most likely would say that slavery is obviously wrong, but if we were to rewind a few hundred years, people who loved God with all their hearts contended to the point of civil war that people of different colour were lesser and were subjected to a sincere prejudice even unto slavery because that was the way God had ordered the world. It was a moral issue for them because they believed they were right!
Another example is that of patriarchy and the masculine dominance over women in the church. Women, even today in many churches, were, and are, subjected to the dominance of men because of biblical interpretation that somehow Eve is not the full revelation of God as Adam is. They believe that the man is somehow a little better, though they would never say it that bluntly. Now with this example some of you reading this blog right now will say, “That is ridiculous.” Others might say, “That is biblical.” But herein lies a great example – we differ – who is right? Both theologically and biblically, people feel they are right on these issues. And this is where I come back to my faithful anchor:
God is gracious and to be human is to error. Therefore, I must find the place in my heart and mind where God, as revealed in Jesus Christ, is gracious.
Were I to err, I will err in a way reflective of the Jesus we see in scripture and experience personally. I have accepted that if I were to err, which I never aim at, I will err on the side of grace, which receives everyone as loved and makes everything beautiful, releasing the shame and pronounces value.
When it comes to the theological hot buttons of today in our church and in our culture, the equation for me is very simple. It is always first grace, then hell. It is first grace, then homosexuality. It is first grace, then people who oppress. It is first grace, then religious dogma. It is first grace, then orthodoxy (which is the big hairy, scary word that conservatives throw around which simply means, “If you don’t believe like I do, or my group does, then you are a heretic.”)
For me, I have accepted that with the best of intentions, the best of efforts, and with the most integrity possible, I will always choose grace first, second and last. And I will never use my best thinking, or your best thinking, to exclude anyone or confine anyone from experiencing the full and life-changing gracious love of God.
Sean Graham is pastor of The Cove church in North Vancouver, BC, and he blogs at gardenstate.ca.