Turning Gray into Black or White

I’ve been doing a lot of research and interviewing lately about what has happened to the spiritual lives of the younger generations in Europe. You see, it isn’t a pretty picture over there. Or so missionaries keep telling me. Churches across Europe are emptying out and aging as each year passes. Younger folks aren’t taking the place of the dearly departed. In fact, in many cases the younger generations would rather believe in no God than step foot in a church. The reason has nothing to do with reason at all. It’s emotion more than logic. Their main objection to the church? Well, I’m going to boil it down to a major failure in church leadership over the past few centuries. Leaders have turned gray areas of Scripture into black and white rules. Don’t drink. Don’t smoke. Don’t wear tattoos. Go to church every Sunday. Read the liturgy. Take the Eucharist. Dress nicely. Don’t swear. These are some that come to my mind from the church here in America.

The reality is… younger people are tired of legalistic religion that preaches dos and don’ts while its followers practice the don’ts when the priest and church ladies aren’t around. Oh, and they judge younger generations based on those same rules. So the younger generations have taken a hike. What will get them back? Grace and the Grey Areas. That’s the only way.

You see, the gray areas became black and white a long time ago. Moses came down from the mountain with the Law and its 600-some-odd commands in 1440BC but the people could not keep all of the laws. So during the time between the testaments religious leaders developed more laws to help people keep the laws that already existed. After all, what breeds obedience more than law? This was the culture Jesus was born into. When He came and showed that the laws themselves were not the issue but the attitudes behind the laws, people called Him a revolutionary. His point was that what forms in the heart affects what is done with the hands. Sin is a heart issue, not a hands one.

And so forgiveness was obtained through His death and grace was preached to the ends of the earth. But to those formerly ruled by law, grace was a strange and unwelcome thing. So the early church started developing laws to prevent sin. By the middle ages, those laws had laws, which in turn, had laws and so forth. The civil institution of the church developed and pretty soon the laws were officiated by the church and the people had no choice. It became law by rule and intimidation. If a person did not go to church, they needed a darn good reason that included a contagious disease or falling down a well, otherwise it was jail time or, worse, excommunication followed by execution.

This was the culture that Martin Luther, Edward Zwingli and John Calvin rebelled against. But if you look at church history, little freedom actually came with the formation of Protestantism. New rules replaced the old ones and expectations for obedience were just as high. But no longer was there a high church putting people in prison and forcing obedience by the sword. Well, in MOST countries. But let’s not get into that. The bottom line is that the church has always turned the gray areas into black and white. Where there is silence in Scripture, there is noise in the church. Only in recent generations, I believe, has the reality of true freedom of life in Christ emerged. I cannot tell you what was the catalyst for this. I simply don’t know. I was raised in a household where the gray areas were areas of freedom. My church has always held to freedom in Christ. The motivation for obedience is not law or guilt. It is grace. God loved us and always will love us, so we love God and each other.

I write this little piece about gray areas and grace because I’m in the process of choosing a missions organization to partner with and shelter under. One of my criteria for choosing is that the agency believe strongly in the grace of God in Christ. And that it believes that there is freedom in the gray areas. Any organization that tries to handcuff a church plant is like a bird handler who clips a wing and then tells the creature it’s free to fly away. It just isn’t fair. Thankfully, I’m about to start a dailogue with an agency that has as one of its core values: “We believe in the power of God’s grace to transform lives, and reject attempts to legislate the Christian life through human rules, especially in gray areas. We embrace diversity, respecting differences of belief in non-essentials. We deal with issues redemptively rather than judicially. We aim at righteousness and emphasize values and principles, avoiding legalism and rule setting.” I won’t say more about it right now but reading through the core values brought up this topic of discussion in my mind.

Also, I came across a passage about Peter tonight as I read Acts 10-11. In it the apostle has just seen a vision from God showing him that all legal things he considered previously unclean were now clean in God’s sight, a reference to the Gentiles. Peter reported to the apostles in Jerusalem: “Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” God had opened the Gospel to all people, Gentiles included, so don’t try to stop it. Many times we put obstacles in front of the Gospel message for the sake of our own comfortableness or based on old laws and regulations. We turn gray areas into black and white. And the Gospel suffers when that happens. It has happened in Europe. And I see it happening here in America, too — the “land of freedom.”

I believe that grace and love will be the chisels that break down the rock hard objections to Jesus and his Church in Europe, Asia, and everywhere else. It won’t be reason. Why not? Well, I can reason with folks until I’m blue in the face and they’re bored to death. I tried that once in a workplace. But if the heart isn’t ready to receive the truth, then the head won’t receive it. So, with the Holy Spirit, I hope to work on the heart. To love them. To show them grace. And then I pray that they will see the Savior.

— John