Originally published on johnpavlovitz.com
When people find out you’re a pastor, they have one of two responses. They either purposefully or unintentionally distance themselves, feeling they need to conceal the rough edges of their lives. Others move closer, trusting you with things they might not feel safe to share with even the people close to them. Emily is the latter.
I met Emily at a local restaurant here in Raleigh where she works and where I’m a devoted regular. Initially we exchanged the kind of surface level small talk many people share with acquaintances: the weather, vacation stories, stuff in the news. But slowly she began to mention struggles she was having, theological questions, even asking for specific prayer. Yesterday was different. In a pause in the conversation, she said “I do have something I want to talk to you about.”
Emily had been raised in a Christian home, but as many people had done she’d slowly drifted from church attendance after leaving high school. She continued to have an active personal faith though; praying and reading on her own, but without meaningful spiritual community. This year she’d starting dating a guy named Ryan who’d grown up in the Catholic Church but had gradually discarded religion and had little interest in reconnecting to it when they met.
Their relationship over the past year has deepened and a few months ago Emily finally convinced Ryan to visit a large church nearby with her. They began attending services regularly, joined their young adult group, and have been meeting monthly with a pastor to talk about life and faith. The last couple of times we’d spoken I could see a different lightness in her. I noticed that lightness was gone as she shared her story with me.
This week Emily and her boyfriend told their pastor that they wanted to be baptized. They were excited to make a public declaration about their adult faith together.
“That’s going to be a problem.” he said “Our church won’t baptize you if you’re living together.”
They sat stunned. He continued on.
“I’m not saying you need to get married, and you’ll probably practically still be living together, but having Ryan move out will make a statement about your commitment to Jesus.”
Emily told the pastor of the financial hardships they’d both faced in recent years, and how sharing an apartment was something they each needed from a basic survival standpoint.
“Well, there are these residential hotels nearby where you can get a room for like, fifty dollars a week.” He was clearly not going to entertain their request without a change.
Emily and Ryan told the pastor they would talk about it and get back to him and quietly left the meeting.
Right now they’re devastated. Right now they feel judged. Right now they’re hurting.
Emily said to me, “This whole thing has changed how this all feels to me. Now I feel like a bad person. For Ryan, it’s kinda put the brakes on Church all over again.”
I imagine many of you out there believe this pastor did the right thing.
I disagree with you. I think Jesus does too.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ disciples scold a group of adults who bring their children to Jesus for blessing. Jesus reprimands them saying: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” He was reminding them that no one gets to give or deny access to Jesus.
Emily and Ryan are children trying to get to Jesus, and their pastor has become a hindrance.
Rather than celebrating their decision to publicly declare their faith together and to walk alongside them, he’s taken their cohabitation and made it a baptismal deal-breaker—and there’s absolutely no Biblical precedent for it.
This idea that people need to prove their commitment to Jesus to another human being is nonsense.
In the Book of Acts, the record of the early Church’s beginnings, the writer tells us of Peter speaking to the crowds, and of three thousand being baptized in a single day. I could be wrong, but I’m guessing these folks weren’t all screened for their living arrangements, sexual orientations, political affiliations, sexual activity, drug use, or any other qualifiers before getting consent.
Their belief and their desire to follow Jesus were the qualifiers.
Their faith gave them the consent of Jesus—which is the only one required.
No one was sitting in front of these folks giving them a list of conditions to meet in order to receive a love that was unconditional.
Emily and Ryan’s pastor told them they need to “make a statement about their commitment to Jesus”—yes, and it’s called Baptism. I imagine he feels quite justified in his stance. I’m sure I could find a hundred pastors in a five-mile radius who would agree with him, but I’m not interested in those pastors.
I see a different group of people. I see people like Emily and Ryan; imperfect people working and living and struggling, and trying to make it through the day and doing the very best they can.
I see them longing for spiritual community, moving toward Jesus, and needing someone to come alongside them and cheer them on. When a pastor, priest, church worker, or Christian peer decides that they can police another’s behavior or determine by their exterior lives whether or not they’re ready to be a Christian—they’ve made themselves God. They’ve made themselves gatekeepers of the Kingdom. They’ve compromised the whole system.
Emily and Ryan don’t need to earn access to Jesus. They don’t need to deserve proximity to him.
You don’t either.
Never believe that lie that your authenticity is anyone else’s business.
Pastors, another person’s moral worth is not yours to determine. Your job isn’t to manage their behavior until you’re comfortable with it. It isn’t to make people jump through hoops in order to make your church feel righteous. It isn’t to sanitize the exterior of community until it looks pretty. Your job isn’t to screen people to determine their worthiness of Grace.
Your job is to set the table for people to meet with Jesus and to trust Jesus with the result.
Stop building walls and set the damn table.
Do not hinder the little children…