Many churches display signs outside their buildings – or on their websites – that express something like, “everyone is welcome.” But what exactly does that mean and do those churches really mean it? From my 30 years of experience as a pastor, and nearly 40 years as a Christian, I would say that invariably the “everyone is welcome” sign is just an ill-thought-through platitude rather than a reality.
Consider Eric (not his real name) who sat very tentatively in my office a few months ago telling me his life story. Now in his 50s Eric is single, celibate and same-sex attracted. He’s been a Christian all his life, loves God with a passion, is intelligent and servant-hearted but has found anything but a welcome in churches that display “everyone is welcome” signs. He was told flat out that he wasn’t welcome in one church. Another church told him he could attend but not do anything. Finally he’s found Bayside Church and is starting to settle in and be a productive member of our community.
I think what churches actually mean when they say, “everyone is welcome” is, “everyone is welcome as long as you fit into our idea of what a Christian is. You’re welcome as long as you’re like us, middle to upper class, not too demanding, have problems that are fixed easily and believe and behave like we expect you too.” Everyone like that is welcome.
At Bayside Church we don’t have a sign that says, “Everyone is welcome” because not everyone is. Let me give you three kinds of people that we don’t welcome into our church community.
By this I’m not just referring to pedophiles although I certainly wouldn’t welcome those who prey on children into our church community where children are present. They would need to attend an adult small group where there are no children – ever. I love kids too much to expose them to that level of risk. But we’ve experienced some more subtle kinds of predators over the years. One Saturday evening after our church meeting I chatted with a new guy who told me that he’d been asked to leave a church nearby because he was always hitting on the women in the congregation. He told me he’d be coming to Bayside Church from now on. I promptly told him that he wouldn’t be. I value the women in our church community and, as their pastor, I will seek to protect them from the likes of him. I’ve had that conversation several times over the years and I’ll have it again! Sexual predators are just not welcome.
The apostle Paul encouraged the excommunication of such a man from the Corinthian church who was having an ongoing affair with his Stepmother (1 Corinthians 5). However, once this man had repented and changed his ways he was welcomed back into the church community (2 Corinthians 2).
We do not welcome spiritual predators either. These are the people Jesus warned us about,“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” Spiritual predators are actually quite easy to pick – they will always try and draw you to themselves rather than to Jesus. Watch out for them.
In his book, Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal with Destructive Conflict, Kenneth C. Haugk, a Lutheran pastor and psychologist defines antagonists as, “individuals who, on the basis of non-substantive evidence, go out of their way to make insatiable demands, usually attacking the person or performance of others. These attacks are selfish in nature, tearing down rather than building up, and are frequently directed against those in a leadership capacity.”
There are several warnings in the New Testament for Christians and churches to be on the lookout for antagonistic troublemakers. Paul told the Roman Church, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people” (Romans 16:17-18). He told Titus who was overseeing all the churches in Crete, “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them.” In other words, antagonistic, divisive, gossips that create unrest, division and disunity in a church are simply not welcome! Our church has been hurt and hindered more by these types of people over the years than anyone else. I used to try and reason with them but I love Paul’s advice – three strikes and you’re out!
The word “quarrel” is a medieval English word for the crossbow dart that was used to kill or wound the enemy. In combat, these darts were fired back and forth across the battleground. The enemy soldiers were said to be “quarreling.” The meaning is the same today although, instead of using darts, people use words to destroy their opponent. This is different to a robust but respectful discussion. The aim of the quarreler is the conversion of another person to their point of view or they will attempt to ruin them. The internet is full of blogs from quarreling Christians seeking to destroy the reputations of others. Have nothing to do with them!
The apostle James warned his readers about these sorts of people, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.” (James 4:1-2)
Paul warns Timothy, “Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen … avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene … don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.” (2 Timothy 2)
In a church community everyone needs to hold fast to the non-negotiable truth of the Gospel – who Jesus is, what Jesus did, what Jesus is doing and what Jesus will do. It’s all about Jesus. On any truth that does not affect people’s salvation there can be respectful discussion and we can agree to disagree. However, there are those in a church whose goal is to argue, quarrel and be constantly disagreeable. Once again, the New Testament warns us not to have anything to do with such people. They are not welcome. It’s the peacemakers who are blessed – not the quarrelers.