Churches as Contempt-free and Condemnation-free Zones

It is generally acknowledged that our society has become increasingly mean-spirited. Unless today’s politician is chronically incensed and habitually scornful, no one will take him or her seriously. The so-called “liberal elite” are famously contemptuous: that conservatives are morally-challenged dimwits is for them a matter of orthodoxy. I, who have expressed thoughtful opposition to gay marriage, have been repeatedly belittled and insulted.

But the contempt of the irreligious for Christians has been frequently matched by Christians’ condemnation of the irreligious. David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, a research and communication company that explores cultural and religious trends, reported in his book UnChristian that 87 percent of unchurched people born between 1966 and 2002 believe present-day Christians are “judgmental”.

That perception is not limited to people outside the church, either. When Philip Eaton was president of Seattle Pacific University, a Christian liberal arts college, he asked: “Why are Christians so mean to one another so often?” and went on to speak of a “meanness within the Christian community, a mean-spirited suspicion and judgment that mirrors the broader culture.”

These two issues, contempt and condemnation, devaluing others and damning them, are clearly addressed in the Bible. Jesus spoke to both issues in the celebrated Sermon on the Mount. He saw contempt and condemnation as so destructive that he prohibited his students from engaging in either.

Jesus warned his followers that contempt, expressed in invective and insult, would place them “in danger of the fires of hell.” He knew that contempt opens the door to abuses that could not otherwise happen. Sexual harassment, gay-bashing, racial discrimination, and every other crime of hate begins with contempt.

The Nazis are the ultimate example. They turned contempt into a science. When Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and people with disabilities has been transformed by propaganda into something subhuman, the population was able to ignore, and in some cases even applaud, the atrocities committed against them.

Jesus also warned his followers, in no uncertain terms, against adopting a posture of condemnation. He told them, point-blank: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged…”

Contempt and condemnation are analogous to two poles of an electromagnetic field. It is possible to distinguish between them, but they come from the same source. In the case of contempt and condemnation, that source is self-righteousness. When people enter a contempt-condemnation field, they can feel it. Some will be attracted by it and others, good people, will be repelled by it.

No one should ever enter one of these contempt-condemnation fields by going to church. Churches ought to be contempt-free, condemnation-free zones. This does not mean that appropriate rebuke and correction cannot take place. It can, and sometimes ought to take place, but it must be performed in a manner like that of St. Dominic. He was said to reprimand “so affectionately that no one was ever upset by his correction and punishment.”

Of course, churches are not condemnation-free, contempt-free zones. (Just ask 87 percent of young, unchurched people—or ask churched people, for that matter). If they are ever to become condemnation and contempt-free, it will not be because they implemented diversity training or held communication workshops, however valuable these may be. It will be because they took seriously their commitment to Jesus and put his instruction into practice.

In the absence of a strong commitment to live Jesus’s way, our differences with each other will produce contempt and condemnation. Indifference to the lordship of Jesus virtually guarantees our differences will divide us. But it is right here that the genius of the church is most apparent: when we share a commitment to Jesus as our leader, our differences make us stronger.

That shared commitment does not lead us to value diversity in the abstract, but to value each another – in all our diversity. This is such a rare feature in contemporary society that when people see it – even the 87 percent of young, unchurched people – they stand up and take notice. Jesus clearly foresaw this when he told his followers, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Really, who else lives like that?

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/27/18

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2 Responses to Churches as Contempt-free and Condemnation-free Zones

  1. Shayne,

    I appreciate the way you take aim at both ends of the spectrum at once, inviting us to see that we’re all subject to self-righteousness, regardless of which side of the spectrum we’re on. It would be much too easy to read your essay and say, “Amen! You tell ’em!” I remember you preached a sermon on this sometime within the past year, about thinking that the sermon was meant for somebody else other than us. In this essay today, you invite us to see that we’re equally likely to become self-righteous, whether we come at it from the conservative or liberal side.

    I also especially appreciate how you lift up the Lordship of Christ as the cure for this malady. If we take the Sermon on the Mount as our manifesto and the Christ of the Mount as our King, then we cannot allow ourselves to regard others with contempt or to condemn them. And although it is hard to steer clear of either of these tendencies, it is Christ Himself who can heal of us these infirmities and make us the loving people we were made to be. We need to be reminded of this repeatedly.

    Finally, I like the distinction you make between “valu[ing] diversity in the abstract” and “valu[ing] each other — in all our diversity.” That’s a crucial difference, and one that we need to think about long and hard.

    Thanks for these very thoughtful remarks.

    Ron

  2. salooper57 says:

    Thanks, Ron. I’m reminded of the flower-child era song, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” I think another way of saying the same thing is: “What the world needs now is Jesus the Lord.”
    Shayne

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