Conditional Acceptance – A Fundamental Flaw For Any Church

People come and people go. It’s the nature of life. Whether it’s new jobs, places to live, or friends to spend time with, change happens. And people are forever deciding how to live their lives, always ‘tasting things’ and opportunities and seeing for themselves; it’s people creating their own perception of truth based on their unique perspective. People will try new endeavours and a range of factors come in to play regarding whether the new endeavour or habit sticks i.e. whether it’s deemed ‘good’ or not.

People do this with churches. They can be established in the Christian faith or newcomers. They go and attend a meeting or two to find out for themselves whether what they taste is actually good — people define this for themselves. Nobody else decides but the individual.

One of the most fundamental and ever-present critical issues facing the church is how it relates with people, or more appropriately, how a church’s leadership and pastors are perceived in response to the Great Commission[1] (getting people into the kingdom of God and keeping them there [and preferably, growing]); in a nutshell, its the ‘key performance indicator’ regarding the very people it’s called to serve, teach, and evangelise to. The church needs to connect with people in meaningful, relevant ways that 1) espouse transformational kingdom truth via acts of love, and 2) negate destructive influences of the world.[2]

Wisdom is known by its actions[3] — real motives have a way of emerging. If a church leader leads in a way that is devoid of grace, it will bring him or her undone — and to be honest, who could realistically be perfect regarding grace other than Jesus himself? Yet there is infighting and factions in churches all the time. Legalism, unforgiveness, envy, indifference, the list goes on. Sometimes the church is the last place you find grace, much to the grieving of the Spirit of God.[4]

One way this is very relevant is acceptance. Such a simple word, “accept.” We’re commanded to accept one another,[5] and the testing ground for grace here is to accept things that really test our tolerance. Acceptance, by definition, intuits tolerance and universality or unconditionality. And we ought to accept everyone who genuinely seeks to learn of, and know God, apart from others who we ought to also accept.

And here’s the tricky bit that gets most churches, and church leaders stuck. What do we do when there’s someone doing things we struggle to accept? It depends what it is. Is it a sinful thing? Is it upsetting anyone? Is it a rejection of grace itself? Is it unbiblical? (These are but a few questions.) I used to belong to a fellowship that is renowned worldwide for accepting everyone — including, by definition, the scum of the earth. This fellowship is a crucial part of Western civilisation and was started by two Christian guys, one a doctor; both were alcoholic. I have seen with my own eyes the love within the rooms, and of these ‘elders’ of AA who’re called to carry the message on, to assist in bringing a very real and miraculous salvation experience to troubled alcoholics. The movement sustains itself and grows because it works. It works because it’s genuine and based in the love of unconditional acceptance. And this is why the church (in the broad sense) works.

So then, why would a ministry not grow? Why would people come and go — and not stay? Could it be that people see through a conditional form of love and acceptance? They smell something’s not quite right. Even kids can do it; they sense a lack of integrity a mile off. Almost everybody does. (But, it needs to be said right here that lack of acceptance is clearly not the only reason a ministry would shrink — there are a vast array of determinants.)

True love is unconditional. The trick is a trick of faith. People stop loving when their faith gives out — we stop loving when we don’t feel it coming back. Yet, the call of God is to love and keep loving; even toward our enemies. It seems to me acceptance is more about ‘me and my issues’ than the other person; God accepts them so why not I? (This is the personal and daily challenge before every person.) How is it that when someone does not do what we want them to do we start to get conditional in our acceptance of them? It is legalism and it’s devoid of grace. It is taking the undeserved favour of divine forgiveness and putting rules and disclaimers around it to get people to conform to our way of thinking.

Grace and truth are on either side of a knife-edge and one should never envy church leaders; on the contrary, we should always encourage and support them.[6] The challenge here for the church leader is to unconditionally and truly accept their flock, each one, warts and all, particularly if they see them trying. Sometimes in life there are no ‘pat’ answers. Yet we do not shrink from difficulty. Leaders should encourage each person and not condemn them with their words, body language, or lack of interaction (i.e. the ‘cold shoulder’). The leader who always accepts people knows how to love from the heart; they spend themselves serving their people, not the other way around.

And the ultimate truth is, love never fails; “it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”[7] Love finds a way to accept people and situations and events just like Jesus did.

Acceptance is tested most in times of difficulty. Can we still accept people when their actions irritate us? Jesus accepts us unconditionally even though we must seemingly irritate him all the time! Of course, God does not see us as we see each other. His acceptance and tolerance is truly unconditional.

© 2008, S. J. Wickham.

[1] In Matthew 28:19-20 (NRSV) Jesus concludes the gospel by saying, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
[2] Refer James 1:27.
[3] See Matthew 11:18-19. In other words, what goes around comes around.
[4] Hebrews 6:6 (NRSV) is cited as the consequence for falling away. Everyone is capable of falling away, even church leaders. The impact it has is to “[crucify] again the Son of God… holding him up to contempt.” The ‘basic teachings’ do not relate to things for the mature, such as the fruit of Christ-like character. To not ‘fall away’ in this context perhaps means we are to ‘go on’ to the advanced teaching of real character growth regarding joy, peace, love, goodness, faithfulness and so on. Those who ‘fall away’ are those who focus too much on the ‘basic teaching’ and become legalistic and stale in the process. The ‘my way or the highway’ approach to discipleship and evangelism never works in the long run.
[5] Romans 15:7 says, “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”
[6] See Hebrews 13:17 for instance.
[7] See 1 Corinthians 13:7 (NRSV).