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ruleBackground

Gospels

John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

February 5, 2001

People Are Watching

Christians sometimes talk about burdens God has given them. A friend may tell you they feel a burden for the poor, or for the unsaved, or for missions — and that it becomes a part of how they live out their Christian ministry in this world.

One of the burdens God has placed on my life is a painful awareness of how our sins as Christians negatively affect the mission of the church. Recently Kevin Cowherd of The Baltimore Sun wrote a column that touched this nerve. It was about a 57-year-old man named Britt Minshall.

When Minshall was in fourth grade in Chester, Pa., the local Methodist church formed a Boy Scout troop. He tried to sign up with an African American friend. Cowherd writes [emphasis mine]: "This did not thrill the white guys in the church leadership. That night, Britt was told to call his buddy and tell him a new Scout troop wasn't forming after all."

Minshall said, "I was done with God and the church right there." For 33 years he was angry with God. He lived a lifestyle as opposite from Christianity as possible. As an adult, he would take his children to church, then sit in the balcony and make obscene gestures at the pastor during worship.

"That's how much I hated God and hated the church," he told Cowherd. "If He was going to hate black people that much, I was going to hate Him." [Emphasis mine.]

Well, there it is again, I thought. When Christians act badly — violating God's commmandments, trampling what Jesus taught and how he lived — the effects on non-believers tend to be:

  • God is misunderstood and accused of all kinds of things.
  • Jesus' followers get a black eye.
  • The non-believer is even further separated from the only Person who can help him.

*****

Christians have an enormous responsibility to be faithful witnesses to those who don't know Jesus. For those of us holding leadership positions within the church (both clergy and laypeople), the effects are magnified, and God holds us even more accountable. (See James 3; 1 Peter 5; Titus 1:6-9)

I have been in churches where laypeople sin and turn on their pastors, and I have been in churches where pastors sin and hurt their laypeople. As much damage as we do to each other, I'm always struck more by what happens to the people on the periphery, some of whom are not yet believers. They slowly, silently disappear from sight, and often they don't resurface — anywhere.

Who was it who represented God to the nine-year-old Britt Minshall? It was local church leaders, laypeople who probably didn't have any clue what lasting repercussions their sin — in this case racism — would have on an impressionable boy.

*****

We may try to fool ourselves, but there are always repercussions to sin. It doesn't matter whether we commit an outwardly visible sin like theft, anger or dishonesty, or whether we feed sins of the heart like pride, lust, or coveting. We don't get away with any of them, and even if we don't realize it, our sin has a pinball effect on others.

Take Jesse Jackson. Like all Christians, the man knew better. He broke one of the Ten Commandments. He knew that even if he could hide his actions from everyone else, he could not hide them from God. Yet he was brazen to the point of advising the President of the United States on morality while he was himself having an affair.

When his sin became public, non-believing people were watching. In many minds around the world, Jesse and his sin got added to that big pile labeled "Christians are hypocrites," and made those people that much harder to reach with the truth.

Someone once asked Mahatma Gandhi why he never became a Christian, since he had great admiration for Jesus and lived out so many virtues of the Christian life.

His reply cut right to the heart of the situation. Gandhi said, "I like their Christ, I don't like their Christians."

Gandhi was watching to see how the lives of Jesus' followers reflected the Jesus he had read about in the Bible. Because he didn't see enough of Jesus in the Christians with whom he came in contact, he never came to Christ.

*****

Even people who God greatly uses sin. Too often the pattern of sin is that not only does it hurt others during their lifetimes, but also down through the ages. That's how bad sin is.

Take the famous reformer Martin Luther. Despite the mighty ways God used him to course-correct the church, there's a particular area of his life that still causes great pain to both Christians and non-believers.

At some point, Luther became virulently anti-Semitic. He hated Jews. And he wrote about it.

Luther didn't realize his attitudes were sinful. They were in line with opinions prevalent in his day. But his writings about Jews still have the ability to hurt people today.

In Lee Strobel's book, The Case for Faith, church historian John D. Woodbridge acknowledges, "Some of his statements are so horrific that it is totally appropriate for Lutherans to repudiate them [today] and for all Christians thoroughly to reject them. Christians simply cannot be anti-Semitic. It should be unthinkable for any follower of Jesus."

Woodbridge concluded, "I'm very, very sorry for what Luther said; those things are absolutely out of line with the teachings of Christ, and this is one of the problems that we, as Christians, face — we don't always live up to the ideals of Jesus."

*****

Luther's example helps us to recognize that we can sin in ways of which we are not aware. Of course we should stop doing those things we know are sin. Repentance when we realize we've sinned is of incredible importance. But another key is to have David's attitude in Psalm 139:23-24:

"Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life."

God has the ability to reveal to us the sins of which we're not aware. Like David, we can ask God, who knows our hearts better than we do ourselves, to show them to us. Then we need to acknowledge they are there, confess them to Him, and and rely on His power to keep us from committing them in the future.

*****

Britt Minshall's story has a happy ending.

God got through to Minshall when, as an adult he watched a country music movie called "The Gospel Road," featuring Johnny Cash. It depicted Jesus' life.

Watching the movie, Minshall suddenly realized Jesus didn't hate anybody. Quite the opposite. He repented, accepted Christ, and his life changed. A year later he felt the call to the ministry. Today he pastors an interracial chuch in northeast Baltimore.

Evangelicals will tell you that if a person sincerely seeks God, God will find a way to get through to them, no matter what their circumstance. I believe they're right.

But I'm also convinced it's possible for each of us to stop harming the cause of Christ because of our sin. This can only happen when we're honest with ourselves and with God, when we ask him to reveal our sin to us, when we keep a clean slate before him, and when we rely on his power to keep us from sinning.

.

. O God, you know how foolish I am; my sins cannot be hidden from you. Don't let those who trust in you stumble because of me, O Sovereign Lord Almighty.
— Psalm 69:5-6a