The ex-felon and the gospel
Several years ago, I stood in front of our congregation and introduced a new member. That, in and of itself, was not strange. We regularly introduce new members as we prepare to extend to them the right hand of Christian fellowship – a traditional practice of our 49-year-old congregation.
However, this was different. Not only did I introduce John (not his real name); I also told the congregation about his life story and conversion experience. John was an ex-felon. He served time in prison for a variety of drug and violent-offenses charges. In other words, John had a rough background. But all that was different now. John was a new creation in Christ Jesus and becoming a part of our assembly of God’s people, right?
Back then, I was not sure how members of our congregation viewed the gospel’s power to change a person. Therefore, I took the opportunity to present John as case number one of the gospel’s amazing power. After telling his story, I challenged the congregation to receive John as a brother-in-Christ, with no stigma attached to his membership. Specifically, I asked them to remember (1) the former state of every believer before salvation, (2) our Baptist commitment to regenerate church membership, (3) our Lord’s command to do well to them who are “of the household of faith,” and (4) how we are not to be like the Pharisees, the hypocrites or the ungrateful servant who would not forgive others after he had been forgiven.
Certainly, we had members with concerns. Sadly, many were unfounded. Our congregational sense of “testimony” meant that everyone knew his background. This was great as far as transparency and honesty. Unfortunately, this sometimes led to overreactions. John had committed certain crimes, not every possible crime. Therefore, we should never assume that he would always make a wrong choice in every situation.
Does new life make things new, or not? Now, obviously, we don’t want to tempt a brother in an area of previous sinfulness. Therefore, a former thief can do most things in the church except count money. A former sex-offender can do many things except work with children. Bottom line – we should not be hyper-suspicious of the ex-felon in the alto section of the choir or serving as an usher on the third Sunday.
If John was no longer condemned by God (Rom 8:1), did we have any right to treat him as if he were still condemned in the midst of the congregation? Should the forgiveness of congregations be more difficult to receive than the forgiveness of the thrice-holy God? Certainly not! Several years into my pastorate, I knew I was staking out new ground that day. Our suburban congregation with successful people was stretched that day. Thankfully, they did not break. This ex-felon was welcomed in our congregation and treated like a repentant sinner who received the forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ – just like the rest of us. The rest of the congregation also has a history of sins that offend the very holiness of God.
As Baptists, we believe our congregation members are those who have been “born again” by the Spirit of Christ. Therefore, the ticket for entry is not a cute little moral life without any obvious smears on one’s record. I reminded our congregation that our ticket for entry is the testimony and reality that says, “I once was lost, but now I’m found.” And it matters not how lost one was – that’s the incredible testimony of the gospel’s power to save (Rom 1:16).
Once it was clearly understood that this brother was part of the family and “in the house” with us, my next concern was how he would be treated by members. Would he merely be tolerated and treated as a second-class citizen? Would he be embraced as a brother-in-Christ (Gal 6:10)? This was at great concern for me. John was a babe-in-Christ. John still had friends from his previous life who were suspicious of how we “church-folks” would really treat John. Also, the gospel was in question as his former friends wondered if John had really been changed. I spoke to our deacons and small group leaders about John. I spent some of my pastoral capital and warned about mistreating him. Too much was at stake – the gospel and the reputation in the community of the so-called gospel people, the church.
How do you take every opportunity to do “good” to a member with a criminal background? You love them and help them grow in the “grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 3:18), with consideration of their background – as you would for any other member of the congregation. In the case of John, we wanted to do several things: (1) help him develop relationship with several men in the church of different ages and from various backgrounds; (2) help him get back into the flow of living outside of prison; and (3) press him to grow in Christ and not wear his background like some sort of “scarlet letter.”
Am I a unique pastor and is our church special? No! Hopefully, we just trust the plain truth that “if any man [even an ex-felon] is in Christ Jesus, he is a new creature: old things are passing away; behold, all things are becoming new” (2 Cor 5:17).
Kevin L. Smith is assistant professor of Christian preaching at Southern Seminary and pastor of Watson Memorial Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.