All Welcome. No Exceptions.

Yesterday we were motoring through Poway, a leafy suburb of San Diego, and we drove past a large Episcopal church with a large, temporary banner proclaiming, “All Welcome. No Exceptions.” That message was striking as it was brief. It struck me as a good thing to say to the world. Everyone is welcome in our services. Of course, were we to exclude sinners and hypocrites, our assemblies would be empty. It is a good thing to announce to the world that sinners are welcome to attend Christian worship because, Scripture, history, and experience tell us that people tend to assume that only those who are already sanctified (holy) are eligible to attend Christian worship. Christians have too often certainly given the impression that only the sanctified are permitted to attend. The culture has heard that message and reinforces it in film—to give but one, albeit dated, reference, Footloose—television, and other media.

We know from Scripture that there were groups during Christ’s earthly ministry and after who sent the message that only those who are outwardly clean and holy are welcome to attend public worship services. The Pharisees were opposed to any association between those they regarded as “holy” and those they regarded as “unclean.” They attacked Jesus for breaking this taboo:

And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt 9:10–13; ESV)

According to Jesus, the Pharisees had replaced God’s Word with the “traditions of the elders” and they had built a “fence” around God’s law by which they tyrannized the consciences and lives of God’s people (Matt 23:3–4). They did all their deeds “to be seen by others” (Matt 23:5). Matthew gives us a hint of the social order of the synagogues in Jesus’ words about where they Pharisees sat in the synagogues (Matt 23:6). Of course Gentiles were not only regarded (and treated) as “unclean” but were referred to as “dogs” (Matt 7:6; 15:26). Jesus spent time with those whom the Pharisees regarded as unclean. He ate and drank with them. He broke down the Pharisaic fence and set people free by rejecting the tyranny of human opinion. He obeyed God’s holy law with all of his heart, soul, mind, and strength. Of course, the Pharisees were among those who sought to put him to death for it thereby proving Jesus right that it is not what goes into a man but what comes out of him that makes him unclean (Matt 15:11, 18).

History and experience tell us that the spirit of the Pharisees lives in each of us. Have you never thought “what is he doing here” on a Sunday morning? Should a notorious person wander in and sit down during the service, would you think “praise the Lord!” or would you think something else? A quick search for “dress codes” and “public worship” yield a remarkable harvest. There is a de facto dress code in most churches. In some congregations it is suit and ties but in others anyone with a tie would be spotted as an outsider. Most American evangelical congregations are racially segregated. Without fear of contradiction we may speak of white churches, black churches, Hispanic churches, or Asian churches. What happens if someone from the wrong group walks in? To address the sexual elephant in the room, what if an overtly effeminate homosexual or a transgender person visits a congregation? It is startling to see a man dressed as a woman. Would they be made to feel welcome or would they be made to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome?

So, the banner was a good reminder that You and I were accepted by God by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) and not for anything done by us or in us. Jesus came to us when we were “unclean” and he imputed his righteousness to us and is even now graciously transforming us into his image. Therefore we must die to man-made social codes and to our inner Pharisee and live to Christ, who ate and drank with scandalous people and who called them to become his followers.

At the same time, I have the strong impression these messages of inclusion communicate only part of the Christian message. Jesus began his public ministry with these words: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15; ESV). He not only ate and drank with everyone, he also called everyone to repentance and faith. Repentance is an acknowledgement of the greatness of our sin and misery. Affirming, e.g., homosexual behavior, a transgender lifestyle, heterosexual fornication, or heterosexual adultery is not faithful to the Jesus of Scripture. Jesus was constantly calling for repentance. He preached a message of repentance to Chorazin and Bethsaida and denounced them when they did not repent (Matt 11:20, 21). When the Scribes and Pharisees asked for a sign, Jesus contrasted them to the men of Nineveh, who, when they heard the law and the gospel, repented and believed and to the Queen of Sheba, who saw Solomon’s wisdom. Jesus’ generation was worse off because they did not repent and they did not believe and one greater than Jonah and greater than Solomon was among them (Matt 12:38–42). I have the clear impression from the mainline churches (who are the congregations most likely to signal their affirmation of sexually immoral lifestyles that the only people from whom they are demanding repentance are evil corporate titans and the running dogs of capitalism. They have their own fence around God’s holy law, their own man-made standards, and their own brand of Pharisaism.

The Apostle Paul was quite conscious of his murderous past. He knew that he deserved nothing but condemnation but nevertheless, by mere grace, God not only gave him new life but made him an Apostle. By grace alone he came to see that his religious accomplishments were nothing but dung (Phil 3:8). The only thing that matters with respect to our standing before God, being “found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil 3:9). As a consequence of that new life, however, Paul knew that he had to die to his own way of thinking and behaving and, by grace alone, seek to bring his mind and life into conformity to Christ, to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:14).

The Corinthian congregation included people from pagan backgrounds who had been sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, homosexual, thieves, greedy, drunkards, revilers, and swindlers (1 Cor 6:9, 10). Now, however, through the preaching of the law they had come to see their sins for what they are and through the preaching of the gospel God the Spirit had brought them to new life and the same Spirit had brought them into union with the risen Christ. Now Paul is able to say, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11; ESV). They had been freely justified and now they are being freely sanctified. Paul’s was a message of inclusion and sanctification. We must not set them against one another.

The mainline message of inclusion is a good reminder to check our inner Pharisee but it is only the beginning. If we are to respond faithfully to and minister faithfully in the name of our Savior we must articulate and model the first part of the message: “Welcome!” We must also, however, articulate and model the second part of his message: “Repent and believe” for the Kingdom of God is at hand.

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  1. “All Welcome. No Exceptions.”

    This is often code for, “we don’t have a problem with homosexuality, transgenders, etc.

    A banner on a church near my home reads, “God is still speaking” which of course means, the Bible isn’t sufficient.

  2. My wife’s choir did a lutheran (ElCA) this morning

    The sermon was against works-righteousness

    which is good , except

    The argument of the sermon was—everybody has already been saved, therefore salvation is not by works righteousness

    This is not to say that universalists are exempt from self-righteousness. I am sure they would exclude anybody who does not include in the way they think they do.

    Jesus Christ rejects many sinners as His guilty clients, because Jesus was never the mediator for many guilty sinners. Jesus Christ saves one sinner and another, but for no reason in either sinner.

  3. I like the sign. When interacting with various groups, I’m always tempted to kill that message with a 1000 qualifications.

    I suspect that many homosexuals presuppose that Christians hate them. I ran into a cousin a few years ago who had come out. After I told him I converted to Christianity and became a pastor, his first question was, “What do you think of Westboro Baptists”? I replied, “they’re wackos” and thus opened the door to conversation. He left knowing that I don’t agree with homosexuality but have no personal animosity to homosexuals. If/when they visit our churches they will hear the law as well as the gospel, and it may offend them, but then they’ll have to grapple with that.

  4. Matt says A banner on a church near my home reads, “God is still speaking” which of course means, the Bible isn’t sufficient.

    Not sure that means necessarily an ‘of course’ Matt. If God is not still speaking, we ought not read His word then?

    And in the spirit of this post… He is still speaking – His word is living and active – and He says to every church: “I know…”; “He who overcomes…” and “ He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

    • Sorry, the “of course” would’ve been understood had I said a UCC church near my home, as I meant to.

  5. “All Welcome. No Exceptions.”

    Of course, in contemporary Episcopal circles this pious-sounding slogan doesn’t actually apply to: Orthodox Anglican believers who actually embrace the 39 Articles in their plain import. Republicans. Those who reject women’s ordination. Those who believe homosexuality is a sin. Basically anyone who doesn’t tow the line with the “progressive” and so-called “inclusive” modernist theological agenda that dominates the contemporary Episcopal Church.

    And, of course, most Diocese of the Episcopal Church today would exclude from ordination those unwilling to affirm and celebrate gay marriage, homosexual ordination, women’s ordination, pluralistic universalism, etc.

    In short, the slogan is fine of itself, but in the context of the Episcopal Church today it represents deceptive hypocrisy. In other words, it is false advertising, and basically a lie.

  6. I’m guessing you drove past the big episco church on Pomerado, St Barts (that’s a stone’s throw from my parents’ house). Wife&I visited there once, before we were reformed, when we were church shopping. Very liberal.

    Great choir though. I have a friend from work that goes there and sings in the choir, he’s a great singer, he is the proud owner of a grammy for being in the choir of a recording of Carmina Burana.

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