Jesus met up with lots of sins he couldn’t affirm–especially lifestyle sins. But we only use the phrase “welcoming but not affirming” when we talk about gays and lesbians, not when we talk about sinners in general. We’ve already seen that the phrase itself is murky, at best. Surely, there must be a Biblical precedent for how to welcome but not affirm gays and lesbians. The church can’t possibly be using a method that Jesus himself would not endorse, and practice. Since there are no visible gays and lesbians in the Bible, we’re going to have to expand to those other sins that Jesus encountered. What did He do when He met up with greedy tax collectors, two adulteresses, a prostitute, the Pharisees as a group and as an individual, and rambunctious, argumentative disciples?
Jesus must be against greed. It’s a sin. Now Zaccheus was a greedy little man, but Jesus went over to his house. He eats there, accepts his food and family. He makes a public show of his acceptance to the whole crowd both outside and inside the house. He doesn’t say anything against Zaccheus, neither privately or publically that we can find. In fact, it is Zaccheus who repents because of this outpouring of acceptance. So Jesus never affirmed greed, but he also never displayed any disgust, any judgment, any reprimand, any opinion against greed. How do we know he didn’t affirm it? We know Jesus. Oh, wait, he did have a tax collector as his disciple, Matthew. We don’t know if Jesus ever publically rebuked Matthew. But the words we know he said to this sinner, of whose sin he didn’t approve or affirm, “come follow me.”
Jesus can’t have approved of sexual sin. But he does meet up with an adulterous woman, a promiscuous woman, and a prostitute.
The adulterous woman appears in Mark. He does save her life. He condemns the people around her publicly. Privately, he asks her where her accusers are. And then he privately tells her not to sin any more. He doesn’t reprimand her, doesn’t accuse, doesn’t fear touching her or being with her. Adultery was about stealing another man’s property, not his love. She’s told not to commit adultery again. But then adultery isn’t a lifestyle sin.
Prostitution is. The prostitute Jesus meets up with pours expensive perfume on his feet, and rubs it with her hair. When Judas condemns her, and the waste of money in that moment, Jesus publically rebukes Judas. He publically accepts the gift of the prostitute and then never says a word about her prostitution. He saves his rebuke for Judas who is condemning the woman and her gift, but for the prostitute he is open and accepting of both her gift and her love.
When Jesus meets up with the promiscuous woman at the well, he talks with her, offers her living water, casually telling her that she’s been married four times and that this last man she’s with is not her husband. She doesn’t feel rebuked, or judged, or rejected. In fact, she stays and talks. In the end, she becomes an evangelist for her people, the Samaritans, as she brings Jesus into her town and tells everyone what he’s offered. He follows her into town and because of her, wins many souls, we are told. So, if he doesn’t agree with her lifestyle would he have wanted her assistance, or service in his evangelism?
Now, surely Jesus doesn’t affirm their lifestyles: greedy, adulterous, prostitutional, promiscuous. But his actions never showed any difference between acceptance and affirmation. His words, except for one word to the adulterous woman, never showed disapproval. How are we supposed to pick up the realities and practical application of the “welcoming but not affirming” stance?
His most vocal disputes, corrections, disapproval, negations—all those words that “not affirming” means– are with the Pharisees (which he calls “blind guides” and “brood of vipers” in Matthew). I think that’s a “not affirming” stance…and yet, those tirades don’t seem very welcoming. The one Pharisee who comes to him in the night to ask him questions is treated differently. Though Christ had a lot to say about Pharisees, none of it comes up when he’s with Nicodemus. Nicodemus has not come asking forgiveness, nor is he repenting. And we know because of Jesus’ tirade against them exactly how He feels. But he says nothing, accepts everything, and expects no penitent action from this Pharisee.
Finally, Jesus has a rambunctious crew of disciples, and certainly they showed their share of sins. James and John, feeling a lot of pride, want to be sitting on either side of Jesus when he comes into his kingdom, and boast of it. Peter lies so that he doesn’t lose his own life when questioned about his association with Jesus. He cuts off a man’s ear in a violent reaction to the men who’ve come to take Jesus away. Judas betrays Jesus, sells him out. Together the disciples are hard-headed, overprotective, whiny, fearful, argumentative, overzealous– in essence, they are human. Being human is a lifestyle sin, I’m afraid. We never repent of being human, only our choices to hurt each other.
What does Jesus say to these disciples in their humanity? Well, sometimes he rebukes them–asks if they’re even listening! And these are the men he’s trusting to carry his message. Sometimes he’s dumbfounded when they don’t get it. But for the most part, despite these sins, Judas is not rebuked, Peter is not rebuked for rejecting Christ, the prideful brothers are given what they ask for, the man’s ear is healed and Peter is held back. Jesus, tirelessly, explains things in the Bible so the disciples will get it. It’s certainly not the rebuke that the Pharisees receive. But the disciples are really like all of us—they make human mistakes. We’re both affirmed for our humanity and we get corrected for our correctable ideas, and we’re all pulled in as disciples—all of us. If swarthy-tongued fishermen get into the club, with their brawling, their fights, their pride, their rambunctiousness, then surely we can be forgiven for the same kinds of behavior. Certainly the Pharisees wondered why the Christ would ever come and gather fishermen–instead of scholars like them, or scribes who would be more trustable with handling the record of the Gospels. Oh, he could have been wiser, eh? But then maybe Christ didn’t want the perfect people, the scholars, the ones who had everything down already (and had it down the wrong way). Christ welcomed fishermen, in their flawed humanity, and didn’t push them away because of their flawed humanity.
So if we’re to look to Jesus we’d have to say that “welcoming” was something he did all the time–publicly, embracing, eating with, encouraging, offering, loving–and that “not affirming” was something he didn’t really practice on the outside. He never withheld his love over a sin he disapproved of. Never. If he disagreed with a sin, he certainly didn’t change his behavior in any small or large way to indicate, to communicate, with the public or with the person, that he didn’t affirm them.
I believe that Jesus always affirmed people, even if he didn’t privately believe in the behaviors–and that’s an important distinction. Remember Jesus was perfect—in every person there was something he couldn’t affirm. He could never affirm sin, but he always affirmed people. He ate in the wealthy house of Zaccheus, food and decor paid for by the man’s greed; he accepted and appreciated the gift of expensive perfume paid for by the prostitute’s sexual lifestyle; he drank the water drawn from the well, and he followed the promiscuous woman into town, talking to every person that she knew. This is affirmation—affirmation of the person, not the sin. If he had publicly “not affirmed” these people, as churches do today, he wouldn’t have been able to speak to any of these people.
Affirmation is a public act. And we see no difference in Jesus’ public acts when he encounters sins he privately knows are sins. If he’s going to welcome someone, he’s going to affirm them–because within each of us is a person worthy of loving and saving. His behavior is the same towards everyone–loving, open, accepting, affirming.
If Jesus is truly our example, should we practice “welcoming but not affirming”? Should we even have a sign in our church that says we are “welcoming but not affirming” to gays and lesbians. Isn’t that in itself a rebuke of gays and lesbians as people? Jesus never pushed anyone away.
We must always open our arms to every person who walks through our door, without rebuke, without “not affirming” them, but fully accepting and affirming them as flawed humans (be they your biggest church funders, or the homeless, or the single people, or the family) because that is what Jesus would do.