Loving Pagans and Tax Collectors

February 14th, 2012

You may have read the story on Matthew Paul Turner's blog recently about a young man named Andrew who was part of Mark Driscoll's Mars Hill Church in Seattle (not to be confused with the church in Michigan that was, until recently, pastored by Rob Bell) who, when faced with a moral crisis, put his trust in his church and was treated horribly, under the pretense that such treatment is in accord with God's will. You can read Part 1 and Part 2 of Turner's posts about Andrew's ordeal and his "excommunication" from Mars Hill.

I want to offer my own take, not on Andrew's particular situation, or individuals like Driscoll or even churches like Mars Hill. Other bloggers like Chaplain Mike at Internet MonkRachel Held Evans, and a guest poster on Turner's blog named Stephen have already done so in more gracious and thoughtful ways than I would. Instead, I want to take a look at the "biblical basis" for Andrew's excommunication.

As the document in Part 2 on Turner's site says, the model for their actions is Matthew 18:15-18. In this passage, Jesus says

If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister.  But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector.  I assure you that whatever you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven." (CEB)

I've heard people who are on various places on the theological spectrum quote this passage, and focus in on the "treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector" part as a justification for shunning someone.

Since the words of Jesus are being used here, it follows that the actions of Jesus should tell us how one treats a pagan or a tax collector. How did Jesus treat these folks? Did he shun them and protect himself from them so as to not let their sinfulness infect him, as I've heard this passage applied?


Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors, not to mention prostitutes, thieves, and all other kinds of "undesirables" with love and respect. He didn't just talk to them for the purpose of encouraging them to get their act together.

When he encountered Zacchaeus the tax collector (Luke 19:1-10), he didn't even wait for Zacchaeus to say a word before saying that he would dine with him. Zacchaeus' declaration of turning over a new leaf was in response to Jesus love. Grace came first, then repentance. But in the church we've flipped the equation around.

Let's also remember that Jesus' harshest words were reserved for the religious people that thought themselves too pious to associate with the common "sinner." He called them "broods of vipers," among other things. It was the religious people who wanted to exclude everyone they didn't approve of who conspired with the Romans to kill Jesus.

So if you find someone in a place where you think they're harming themselves and others through their sin, if you've talked with them about it and they disagreed, then you talked it through with others and the whole group talked to that person and they still disagreed, what does Jesus say you should do?

Keep loving them anyway. Don't shun them. Don't become so preoccupied with your own sanctity that you throw a relationship away over a disagreement. Love them. Eat with them. Show them that you'll never give up on them. That's what helps people understand that they're forgiven and that they can make a new start.

Perhaps if the church practiced more radically inclusive love and less superiority and exclusion under the guise of "church discipline," the rest of the world wouldn't find us to be so at odds with the Christ we worship.

comments powered by Disqus