One of the themes of the letters of the Apostle Paul is unity. For example, in Ephesians 4:1-6, he says,
“Therefore, I, as the prisoner in the Lord, encourage you to walk worthily of the calling to which you were called, with humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, being diligent to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace; one body and one Spirit, just as you were also called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, the one who is over all and through all and in all.”
Notice the stress on the unity factor? Why?
I believe it goes beyond just a practical expression (how can the church function if it is not united) to something much deeper and at the root of one of, if not THE one, direct result of sin entering the world – separation.
Before sin entered the world, separation was not known on earth. All three existing relationships (God/humanity, humanity/humanity, and humanity/creation) were in perfect harmony and communion one with another. No strife, no conflict, no shame, no hiding, no separation, and other than male and female, no other distinguishing characteristics were found within humanity.
So, when sin entered, separation, as a direct result, also made its initial appearance and has maintained a ever-continuing presence on the stage of history. There are now numerous characteristics which can cause labels to be placed upon people, which often lead to a segregation of people, whether intentional or unintentional.
As a direct result of segregation, I believe certain mindsets or prejudices become commonplace about certain people groups. For instance, I know people who think there is a direct correlation between a person’s skin color and predilection toward criminal activity and, therefore, that person needs to be watched closer than someone else of a different color of skin.
From all of this, cultural and societal norms are often established. These norms guide what one is supposed to do or not do. And these norms can even be based upon a religious code. In certain groups, even the act of entering a bar was looked upon as a shameful act. From these norms, proper behavior was established.
This type of thing was also true in Jesus’ day. The religious leaders of that day had established cultural norms for the Jews, norms that were based upon what we know as the Old Testament. And a person’s commitment to God and level of spiritual maturity was based upon how well s/he maintained those norms.
The gospel, though, works to break down those barriers. Even Jesus himself went against the societal norms of the day INTENTIONALLY! One time, instead of taking the approved route around Samaria (because coming into contact with and interacting with Samaritans was forbidden), Jesus went through Samaria and, stopping at the well of one city, began a conversation with a Samaritan woman who was living in an adulterous relationship.
Think about how many norms Jesus “violated” in doing this. He traveled a road good Jews were expected to avoid. He was in a region good Jews were told they were not to be. He engaged a Samaritan in conversation. He conversed with a woman with an adulterous lifestyle. Then he interacted with the WHOLE town! He did all this so that he would have opportunity to share himself with this woman and the people of this town. Jesus could not have cared less about the number of societal norms he was violating in doing this. His good news, the gospel, transcends all societal norms.
But how many times in the present and recent history have people used societal norms and expectations to shape the gospel? A “good” Christian wouldn’t go there. A “good” Christian wouldn’t do that. A “true” Christian would only do this. A “true” Christian wouldn’t interact with those “people.”
I remember a conversation I once had with someone one summer after worship. I mentioned that I was planning on mowing my yard that afternoon. This person (jokingly) said to me, “You’re not to supposed to mow your yard on Sunday! That’s working!” My response? “I’m a pastor; I work every Sunday!” We shared a genuine laugh.
But at one time, the societal norm of certain activities not being allowed on Sunday was prevalent. I remember while in college at a conservative Christian college that working or shopping on Sundays was strongly discouraged. What I found very ironic was that though this was the mindset, the administration saw no problem with forcing its own employees to work on Sundays in the dining hall.
Because the gospel transcends all societal norms, even those established by the church, these norms cannot be allowed to limit the scope and reach of the gospel. That means potentially going places and doing things that, while not sin in God’s eyes, that would be viewed as wrong by some in the church.
For example, I have read of a ministry known as “JC’s Girls.” The women of this ministry go into strip clubs and gentlemen’s clubs and minister to the women performing in them, with the goal of sharing Jesus’ love with them and see them leave this lifestyle. There are those who would say that this is not allowed because it is a place which is taboo for a “good” and “true” Christian. But these women have not allowed human-made norms of behavior to keep them from the ministry to which they believe the Spirit has called them. This is “Samaria” for them.
It is crucial for the people of God to not allow norms to be used in restricting the reach of the gospel. When these norms are allowed to keep God’s people from meeting people where they are and with the expectation that those people should and must come to us, the reach of the gospel is restricted. And this just cannot be allowed for if it is, this just furthers separation, that direct result of sin.
Where is your “Samaria?” Who are “Samaritans” for you? Maybe that is the place to where and those are people to whom God is calling you. If so, don’t let cultural norms established by the church to keep you from going and interacting. God is above the church and the gospel transcends the church.