As we endeavor to cultivate a grace-filled community, rooted in Jesus and his reconciliation of guilty sinners to God as Father and to one another as brothers and sisters, it is our hope that we are a place of safety for sinners and sufferers alike. We talk about an environment of grace consisting in gospel, safety and time. Reading through 1 Corinthians 5-6 this week devotionally, brings up an easy-to-overlook aspect of safety.
We typically talk about safety in the context of giving space for people to be open and honest about their real struggles, real sin and real suffering, without being judged, condemned or stigmatized. Safety is about a place to be known in weakness and guilt, and yet be loved and embraced. This is a necessary component of community for people to experience the transforming power of the gospel.
But what do you do when the safety one person enjoys to be “real” and to “struggle with sin” makes others unsafe around them. For example, if my home is going to be safe for all of my children, it can’t be safe for one child to attack another one, while we parents celebrate the authenticity of the first child's emotion. The anger of one child might be real, and they need a safe place to work through that struggle. But it might also be a real threat to the safety of a younger sibling if unchecked. Safety for one child can’t remove safety for another child and still be called safety. The safety of one child to bully another because of their personal struggles, makes that same environment oppressive and abusive for the child preyed upon. If a church is going to be safe for anyone, it has to be safe for everyone.
Safety Is Not About Permissiveness
First Corinthians 5 and 6 introduces us to this other side of safety. A church is a community established by God’s grace in Jesus, and empowered by God to embody the grace of Jesus. The church in Corinth had a member of their community nurturing an intimate relationship with his dad's wife (maybe his mom, maybe his step mom, either way... eww.), and they seemed to celebrate this perversion because they were the kind of church where someone doing something so plainly evil was “safe”. Paul goes so far as to say that even godless people would find this behavior deviant.
Essentially, what Paul is saying is that safety does not mean “anything goes.” It can’t mean that. "Anything goes" is not grace, it's the celebration of darkness as light. Safety to indulge every felshly impulse someone has is a counterfeit safety. And church family is responsible for creating a climate of real safety; safety for everyone; safety for guilty sinners to find forgiveness and freedom; safety for wounded sufferers to receive comfort and healing; not safety for sinners to flaunt sin or glorify sin; not safety for sufferers to accuse others and attack others; not safety to involve others in our sin or to inflict others with suffering.
If we actively applaud sin or passively accept sin, we begin to nurture a climate that is unsafe for everyone. That doesn’t mean people can't or shouldn't struggle with sin. Of course they will. It simply means that we must keep calling sin what it is… SIN. And we must keep dealing with sin ina biblically faithful, Christ-honoring, Spirit-induced way: through repentance and faith. We must keep repenting of sin and turning from sin and leaving our lives of sin.
Professing followers of Jesus living in open, persistent and unrepentant sin are a danger to the body of Christ, to her maturity, unity, and mission. And while leaders within the church bear particular responsibility for the health of the church they shepherd, the body itself bears considerable responsibility for the health of itself. This means that each individual member of the church shares in the health and flourishing of the whole church. We must each take our part seriously.
Not every individual pastor, or even every elder team, will know every little thing that goes on in the lives of every member of their church family. Just like brothers who share a bedroom in our household may hear each other speak in ways or confess involvement in activity that parents are unaware of, so individual members of a church family will have more detailed awareness of each other’s lives. They are uniquely positioned to speak into each other’s lives for redemptive purposes.
Safety Is About Process
Just as the body of Christ, as a whole, is responsible to create a climate of safety for one another, so the body of Christ, as a whole, must establish a culture where we call sin what it is, urge one another to repentance, and take seriously our shared upward call to Christ.
This is the other side of safety. Not that we judge, condemn, shame or stigmatize one another, but that we are committed to the maturity, unity, growth and health of one another. It is not safe for my toddler if I let them play in the street freely, without telling them of the danger’s of oncoming traffic. My desire not to offend them or make them feel criticized or condemned for wanting to play in the street is a lousy excuse to leave them in harms way. And should they get run over, my "non-offensive" silence makes me complicit in whatever harm comes to them.
For a church to be a healthy and safe place, it is imperative that individual members love each other enough to speak humbly and lovingly into one another’s lives, without leaders always having to be involved. That’s part of your contribution to the church as a whole. This is why gospel fluency is so important for us to learn and practice. We must learn to see and interpret the world and our relationships through the lens of God’s reconciling love, so that we can bring the ultimate reality of Jesus into every situation, embodying his grace and truth and in both word and deed.
So, how do you participate in this? What does it look like for each of us to take seriously the privilege and responsibility of ministering to each other and nurturing a safe environment for the transforming power of the gospel to be applied to our own hearts and each other’s hearts over a long period of time? How do we deal with the reality of sin in the lives of individuals in a church community and the reality of sin that can take root in a community? How do we take protection for sinners seriously while also taking the power and presence of sin seriously? How might we create space for guilty and broken people to come and live again, but where patterns of sin and brokenness are put death?
In part 2 of this blog we’ll dive into the Scriptures to gain some wisdom from God in how to be a church that “disciplines” itself… a church of disciple making disciples; a church where broken people are being made whole in Jesus, not where broken people are being made whole by their shared commitment to keep living in brokenness without saying a word to each other about it.