The Temptation All Churches Face

One of Israel’s kings once wrote: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”[1] This concept is simultaneously discouraging and encouraging. On the one hand, we often think that we are entirely unique. According to Solomon, we are almost never as special as we are tempted to believe. On the other hand, Solomon’s insight reminds us that we are not alone. The problems we face are rarely new; instead, they’ve probably been handled before.

Solomon’s insight also applies to religious leaders and churches. In Matthew 23:27-28, Jesus warns the religious leaders of his day against becoming like “whitewashed tombs.” By this, Jesus means that they work very hard to maintain a stellar outward appearance. They make sure that they look holy and religious. The problem with this mindset is that it ignores the root of unrighteousness. Unrighteousness does not travel from our actions inward; instead, an unrighteous lifestyle often begins with an unrighteous heart. Jesus criticized the attitude that seeks to appear righteous on the outside while the inside remains unchanged. This leads people to be like “whitewashed tombs.” They’re brilliantly white on the outside while concealing all manner of rottenness within. In the name of outward holiness, the Pharisees had sacrificed internal repentance.

If we remember Solomon’s insight, we’ll know that we’re not immune to the temptation to seek outward holiness before inward repentance. Though Jesus said this in a different language to a different religious group approximately two thousand years ago, the insight is stunningly modern. This is a temptation that my church faces. This is a temptation that all churches face. If we aren’t careful, we’ll become like whitewashed tombs. We’ll put on a brave face, dress correctly, and say all the correct phrases while remaining totally depraved in our hearts.

Perhaps this temptation is most noticeable in how we treat visitors and new believers. All churches face the problem of being a holy, accepting community. On one hand, we want to be holy and pleasing to God. That means that we cannot countenance public, unrepentant sin in our midst. At the same time, we want to be open to those who don’t know how to behave like a Christian.

This is an extremely challenging problem that all ministering churches must address at some point. We cannot simply ignore lifestyles that are antithetical to Christ’s kingdom. We must, instead, stand for holiness. At the same time, we must not beat sinners into conformity (metaphorically, of course). While we stand for holiness, we must remember that the real issue is the person’s heart. While we want to see their outward lives align to scripture, we want the change to come from a repentant, redeemed heart. Unfortunately, heart change is often a long, difficult road to travel. It often requires more patience than churches are willing to exhibit.

Jesus’s warning to religious leaders in Matthew 23:27-28 applies directly to our churches. The religious leaders in Jesus’s day lived lives of rigid adherence to the Law even while their hearts were hostile to God. The temptation churches face is to allow people to have unrepentant hearts as long as they look like they belong in a Sunday morning service. The good news is that we aren’t the first people to walk on the edge of this knife. Christians have always struggled with how to be a holy, accepting community. Maybe the best answer is simply to be aware of the difficult nature of the problem facing any church that is actively ministering to those for whom Jesus came.

Notes & Sources

[1] Ecclesiastes 1:9, NIV.

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