The church is sometimes accused of being bigoted, angry, hateful, arrogant, elitist, and hypocritical. This doesn't describe the churches I have been a part of, and in fact most of the churches I know well are characterized by love, generosity, humility, and the pursuit of godliness. Where does the negative perspective come from? Are they just "haters?" Unfortunately, no.
Churches sometimes get a bad rap because Christians, and often Christian leaders, are dogmatic in all issues, uncharitable in public interactions, and quick to pick a fight. Ron Edmonson recently put a label on it. Christians can be "mean."
How is it that a people of faith, a people who have experienced grace, be so graceless? I feel competent to speak into this issue because I was for years (and perhaps am often still) one of those mean Christians. Loud. Arrogant. Pugnacious. How do we get to such a place?
In short, because we forget grace. We grow mean because we forget ourselves and our God. We forget who and what we are by nature and grace and exalt ourselves (sometimes unintentionally) above others. We forget the Lord who not only stood for truth, but is truth, and yet remains merciful. The mean Christian is big on conviction and small on compassion. But the former should give birth to the latter. Let me explain by showing the way to put to death a spirit of meanness whole growing in a spirit of meekness.
Know Who You Are by Nature
There are two things true of every human being. There two truths should simultaneously give us a sense of respect and love toward others while leading us to a place of humility regarding ourselves.
First, you, and everyone else, is made in the image of God. The imago dei is imprinted into the soul of every man, woman, and child. This is part of the common ground upon which we all stand and should relate to one another. The wicked and the righteous, the right and the wrong, and believers and the blasphemous are all image bearers and because of this they are worthy of respect and love. God is our Creator, whether we confess this or not, and because all are his we must treat them as such. How do we treat that which belongs to God? Carefully and thoughtfully. This doesn't mean we never speak hard words, rebuke, or fight. But it requires that when we do such things we do so with care and grace.
Second, you, and everyone else, are sinful. "All have sinned" making us all lawbreakers worthy of condemnation. This too is part of the common ground upon which we all stand and should relate to one another. Both the morally upright and the morally bankrupt are sinners in need of the forgiveness of sins. This should lead us, especially the Christian, to a place of humility. We should see that, in one sense, we are no better than anyone else. We are broken, needy, and helpless and can only find hope in the offer of grace from God. This is where humility is born. Seeing ourselves rightly as sinners in need of mercy, just like everyone else. When we forget who we are by nature a mean spirit is quick to take root.
Know Who You Are by Grace
For the Christian our identity is not only found in who we are by nature, but who we are by grace. We are not only sinners, but sinners saved by grace. We are the church said during the Reformation, "simul justis et peccator"-- simultaneously justified, yet sinful. We are sinners and saints. We are the adopted children of God, forgiven, restored, loved, and secure in Jesus Christ. This, above all things, promotes humility and meekness for we know that what we are we are by God's mercy. There is no room for boasting in ourselves, but all reason for boasting in the grace of God which is offered to all. Grace begets gentleness. Love experienced leads to love expressed.
God has been kind to teach me kindness over the years. Sometimes I listen. When I don't it is because I have forgotten who I am and who God is. The mean Christian is an oxymoron. It really is more than that. It's not just an incongruity, but a betrayal of God and his grace.
Joe Thorn is Lead Pastor of Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, IL and blogs at joethorn.net. His book, Note to Self: The Discipline of Preaching to Yourself, was released through Crossway/ReLit. You can follow him on Twitter @joethorn.