I saw the attached picture on Facebook as I made the rounds this week. It’s not the first time something like this has cropped up; it won’t be the last. As we live in eras that are increasingly more permissive than days past, a sign like this is shocking, to say the least, to even most churchgoers. There was a time when many of the rules on this list were standard in several denominations, while they might not have been posted. They were expected, and were a part of the unspoken ordinances that guided what was classified as church behavior. As a result, there were a variety of opinions and comments posted in regard to the picture. There were those who are still a part of those systems who feel that is the way church should be and that churches should be the guardians of such concepts, considering them to be marks of integrity. There were those who came from legalism who were grateful for freedom, seeing the perspective that all the rules and regulations seen once upon a time didn’t keep anyone saved. Then there were those who couldn’t ever imagine being party to such legalism. The replies varied from such a response as “BYE!” to the church, to arguments over whether or not the Bible advocates the message, “Come as you are.”
To be honest, I didn’t ever hear “Come as you are” in church when I was a kid. I was Catholic; we didn’t encourage people to come as they were. Being Catholic meant you were something else; you were Catholic. You weren’t “you” anymore in the sense that if you came, you got yourself baptized and you were now supposed to be something else. If this happened to you as an infant, it means you weren’t “you” long before adult converts. Thus, we never sang things like “Amazing Grace” or “Softly And Tenderly Jesus Is Calling,” because in Catholic mindset, becoming Catholic was something that they felt should have been obvious and an obvious difference in one’s life. If you didn’t experience that change, you didn’t work the system right, and the fault had to, of course, lie within you. Thus, I first heard the phrase, “Come as you are” in a song by Nirvana back in 1991. I still remember the first time I heard the lyrics, heralded with Kurt Cobain’s soulful, bluesy-haunting voice:
Come as you are, as you were
As I want you to be
As a friend, as a friend
As an old enemy
Take your time, hurry up
Choice is yours, don’t be late
Take a rest as a friend
As an old
Whenever I hear someone use the phrase “Come as you are,” this song with these lyrics is the first thing that comes to my mind, even all these years later. It’s pretty bad to say that my first thought is of a secular song, rather than acceptance found in the church, but the song doesn’t have something bad to say in it. I hear that message, which is not all that unbiblical, when we stand back and think about it. We may not find these literal, specific words in the Bible, but the concept that we should come, just as we are, as a friend, as someone who used to be an enemy of God but is no longer such, and that we should do such with haste…is not an unscriptural message, at all.
I didn’t comment on the picture I saw on Facebook because I knew if I did, all I would do was start a huge argument. Instead, I sat there and sang Nirvana lyrics in my head, and started thinking about the principle of “come as you are” and its concepts in terms of the Bible. Then I started looking at everyone’s responses and the Lord dropped in my spirit the following words: How many of us in church are doing the exact same thing as that sign, just with our unwritten rules and regulations?
Hmmmmm. Wasn’t expecting that one.
The catch is, what God said to me is exactly the truth of where we are in church today. Truth be told, not too many churches are from the school of thought to be bold enough and post a sign like that one I saw online earlier this week. But all over the world, especially within the western world as we divide over politics and ignore the love of our neighbor, we have all sorts of invisible signs posted that make it mighty clear that “come as you are” doesn’t apply here.
For example, how welcome would a gay person be in your church – or does your invisible sign say, “No gays allowed?” How welcome would a transgender person be in your church? What kind of an awkward position would you put a visiting transgender person in if they walked in your door? What about single mothers? You might not post a sign, but there is probably a lot of teaching from the pulpit that is going to make her feel excluded, unimportant, unwelcome, and like she is doomed for all eternity because she is a single parent. What about a woman who feels called to preach or minister? Is she getting the invisible sign, “NO WOMEN ALLOWED” when it comes to the pulpit ministry? What about people who are divorced or single? Every time we start extolling the virtues of marriage and how wonderful marriage is without teaching the counterpoint of its responsibility, we make someone who is divorced feel like a failure and someone who is single feel like they are hopeless. What about an infertile couple? You might not tell them they can’t come in the door, but when all you do is talk about family and how wonderful children are, they automatically only see what their life is lacking, rather than hearing the message that they can come as they are and receive from God.
…And the list goes on and on. We could go down the endless lists of people who have valid reasons to feel rejected, unwanted, and unloved at church. The second people get in the door, they are so bombarded with our thoughts and feelings, our opinions and our ideas, they don’t even get a second to collect their own thoughts and see God for who He is, because we are shielding His way. We might say “come as you are” with our mouths, but often what we really want to say is, “Come as you are, but when you get outside the door, get exactly like us.”
People aren’t perfect. I’m not meaning to imply that we don’t need to work out issues in our lives, including sin, including alienation from God, including the host of things that people want to bring up when we start talking about “come as you are.” It doesn’t mean that once we come to God, we have nothing to work out with Him (although what we might think is most relevant to work out is probably not what God will put on their table to begin with, although that is a topic for a different message). The problem is that while we might be horrified at the idea of someone posting something that suggests expectation, most churches in the world have their own expectations, unwritten social pressures, that take various forms of closing people out, insuring someone won’t feel welcome and won’t want to return because they feel God rejects them in the same way that we do at church.
1 Corinthians 9:19-23: For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to everyone, so that I may win more [for Christ]. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews [for Christ]; to men under the Law, [I became] as one under the Law, though not being under the Law myself, so that I might win those who are under the Law. To those who are without (outside) the Law, [I became] as one without the Law, though [I am] not without the law of God, but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became [as the] weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means [in any and every way] save some [by leading them to faith in Jesus Christ]. And I do all this for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings along with you.
When God started dealing with me about the principle of becoming “all things to all people,” it wasn’t a Bible passage I was familiar with. He used a bisexual distant ex-boyfriend of mine and an openly gay minister that I didn’t like to challenge me on the concept that if I was going to be a true apostle, I needed to be willing to work with anyone He sent to me and go anywhere He sent me, no matter how uncomfortable, awkward, or societally unacceptable it might be. Talk about awkward, one of them I talked about marrying at one point and the other one was so annoying, I couldn’t wait to get off the phone when he would call. Before that, it was HIV patients and HIV testing. Before that, it was women who contemplated abortion or who had abortion. After that, it has been a host of people, issues, concepts, and ideals that often many would probably question or tell me it wasn’t really “God.” Yet I know His voice, and I know God uses the things of this world misunderstood, confusing, and awkward to teach His people the lesson they need to hear.
Our “Come as you are” isn’t just for those who come; it’s for us, too. It’s for us to learn how to converse, talk to, and stand as agents of healing for those who need nothing more than to come before God without reservation, just as they are, and find the love and acceptance they need to be complete as human beings. It stretches our love for our neighbor because it makes us look to God just that much more and receive His love for us so we can extend it to others. Becoming all things to all people isn’t just about getting people saved. It’s also about walking in and adopting more of the image of Christ. Doing it isn’t an option, it’s a requirement. If you claim to be a part of love transformed, then you, too, must show yourself transformed by love.
Matthew 11:28: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavily burdened [by religious rituals that provide no peace], and I will give you rest [refreshing your souls with salvation].” (AMP)
It’s been a lot of years and yes, I still hear Nirvana. Yet after this week, I am also hearing “Softly And Tenderly Jesus Is Calling” – that’s my version of “Come as you are.” It’s something we all need to hear, even if we have heard it a million times before. Come home, come home, ye who are weary, come home. Why? Because softly and tenderly Jesus is calling – not with a billboard that tells you all the reasons you can’t come in, or the way you have to come, but just tells you that this is where you need to be…and now you are home.
© 2016 Lee Ann B. Marino. All rights reserved.