Where is the line between accepting someone and approving of what they do?
That’s a question I’ve heard occasionally. From my youth kids. From a few of their parents. From some of the other people at churches I’ve been to.
For many of us, that’s a real struggle. When you truly believe that someone’s actions are sinful, you want to love them in a way that will help them out of that sin. Not (as some people will tell you) because Christians want to exercise a level of control over other people, but because most Christians sincerely believe that sin is harmful to the spirit of the person who practices it, and they want that person to to experience the joy and the fullness of a life lived in line with the nature of God.
Thus, the question, “At what point does acceptance become endorsement?”
But I think that’s the wrong question.
One only has to look at Jesus to see that acceptance wasn’t something that he struggled with. He didn’t wrestle over how much acceptance was too much. He partied with prostitutes and tax collectors, even when the religious leaders frowned upon him for doing it. He spent hours alone at a well with a Samaritan woman, talking to her and being kind to her, even though that interaction was social taboo. He protected a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery and never asked himself the question, “What if it looks like I approve of adultery?” And while it’s true that he told that woman, “Go, and sin no more.” it was only after he had rescued her and the crowd of people had dispersed. Transformation followed acceptance.
Jesus didn’t worry about whether he was endorsing sin, because he was too busy worrying about restoring the sinner.
In my life, the times that I have been convicted of my wrongdoing and began to make transformations in my life have never come after someone distanced myself from me. Transformation in my life has always happened after I felt loved and accepted for who I already was.
And I think that, even though I have often told people that God loves them as they are, I’ve actually communicated that love as though it’s payment in advance for a transformation to occur later. Like if you don’t provide the transformation, that love will be revoked. Like God loves you as you are if you’ll stop being how you are. We don’t want to endorse your sin, so if we’re going to accept you, we expect that you’ll drop that sin in an expedient fashion, or that acceptance might go away.
But that’s not who God is. God is a God who loves creation without condition. Even in the Bible, the people who find themselves distant from God are the ones who have chosen to reject God themselves. In the Old Testament, God occasionally threatens to reject, destroy, or abandon the Israelites, but God never does. To the contrary, God is so drawn to God’s people, that no matter many times the Israelites reject God, God draws them back every single time they cry out for redemption.
And if we’re a church that seeks to be like God, we ought to be the same way. We ought to love and accept all the broken people. We ought to embrace the prideful person, the unmarried couple who are living together, the greedy workaholic, the cheating spouse, the drug dealer, the porn addict, the racist, and every other person we come in contact with who struggles to be the person God created them to be.
Which is, in case we forget, all of us.
None of us are finished being transformed. I am not finished becoming the person God created me to be, but the church loves and accepts me anyway. And when the church accepts me, and loves me, and allows me to serve as a minister, that’s not an endorsement of my pride, or my lust, or my greed.
Rather, the church is saying that despite all the ways I fail in my relationship with God, they recognize that God is doing something in me and drawing me to be more like God every day.
And if the church can do that with me and my sins, the church can certainly do that with anyone else’s.
Which is why we have to stop worrying about endorsement and approval.We don’t endorse sin by loving sinful people while they’re sinful. We endorse grace by accepting and welcoming them, believing that God is beginning a good work in them, even if we never see the end of that labor.
Which doesn’t mean we can’t encourage each other to be more like Christ. To the contrary, we should be a constant source of encouragement to each other. We should still talk about sin. We should talk about the lifestyle we believe God is transforming us into. We should share with people we love why we believe that God’s ways are better than our ways.
But if we aren’t willing to be friends with someone as they are, we haven’t earned the right to ask them to change, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise to us when they don’t want to. Acceptance comes first. That was God’s model with the Israelites, it was Jesus’ model with his apostles, and it should be our model as the church in the world.
People are always welcome in the Kingdom of God. No matter what they look like, no matter what they have done, what they do now, or what they will do tomorrow, the message of Jesus is for them and they are welcome to it.
We ought to be as accepting of the people we meet as God has been of us. We ought to encourage transformation without hinging our love and acceptance on it. Because it’s not our job to transform people. God does that. We just join them on the journey.