On its long journey through history, our faith has faced many challenges. In its earliest years and for a few centuries afterwards it was persecuted, often mercilessly. No one became a Christian because it was socially acceptable; it was, Pliny said, a religion for women and slaves. It was certainly not respectable, but then Christ did not associate with the ‘respectable’ people of His day; indeed the Pharisees told him off for associating with the dregs of society. He responded by warning his disciples not to be like those who stood in the Temple and thanked God they were not like the sinners over there. One of the problems of becoming the State religion was not only that it became ‘respectable’ but it became socially desirable in career terms to be a Christian. It is very easy to master the basics about what one must say and do to be considered a Christian, and my Daddy used to tell me how, in South Wales, if you reached a certain ‘level’ on the social scale it was common to defect to the Church of Wales, it being more ‘respectable’ and middle class than going to the Baptists or Wesleyans. This, I think, has posed an often unrecognised challenge for Christians down the ages.
Christ came to save sinners – which is the lot of us. We all tend to condemn the sins to which we are not prone and excuse the ones to which we are: I am quite hard on adultery (as any woman who has been cheated on might be) but surely it can’t be that bad to wish I earned what another woman earns? Well, sadly for me, it is. We can, as some churches do, divide sin into mortal and venial, but sin kills, and all sin is bad.
Jesus recognised what one might call, in his honour, the ‘whited sepulchre’ syndrome. We have all read stories of rich (usually American) evangelists who, having preached hell-fire sermons, are either fornicating with their sexy young assistant, or have a hand in the till – or even both if they have lots of energy. The need to say one thing often hides the urge to do the other, whilst, at the other end of the spectrum, one might say that if all sin is bad, might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. But in your Sunday going to church outfit, it is easy to present as whiter than white. But we are told that by the judgment we give, so too shall we be judged.
No one thinks they are being harsh when commenting on someone else, because in their own minds they are not. They are giving voice to a consensus they share about what is and is not respectable, and most of us want both to be accepted and to be respectable – which, oddly, is one of the reasons many modern Christians take a more liberal view on sexual sins – because society finds that more acceptable than the view society used to endorse via the law. The search for respectability often becomes a search for being accepted by a society whose values are not ours – and as, for example, the development of views on homosexuality shows, what was once not only respectable but mandatory under law, can become the opposite very quickly. Best build on Christ, who is love, and leave society to its ever-changing ways.