There are a lot of controversial topics church leaders avoid because they can easily become a trap and cause a lot of damage. But these topics ARE what everyone is talking about and The Church is missing out on a great opportunity to teach and influence society, which leads to cultural irrelevance. It doesn’t have to be this way. Jesus gives a perfect blueprint on how to navigate these dangerous waters.
In John 8:3-11, Jesus is confronted by a group of scribes and Pharisees, who bring forward a woman caught in adultery. They want to see how Jesus would handle the situation. The penalty for adultery under Jewish law is death, but Israel was under Roman rule at the time, so extrajudicial death penalties would come with severe consequences from Roman officials. So Jesus will either be labeled a heretic by the Jewish population or be arrested. Well played scribes and Pharisees. The trap is set.
Pastors today probably won’t face such dire circumstances. But if they are to build rapport with those outside their congregations, there are some topics that can easily become traps. Pastors don’t want to be labeled unbiblical by their own nor do they want to shut doors to engaging people who are already skeptical about the Christian faith. This is why topics like abortion, LGBTQ issues, etc. are avoided by many pastors.
Jesus responds to this trap perfectly in 3 simple steps. The Church can learn and do the same.
Step 1: CONTEXT
“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (verse 7)
The first thing Jesus does is to zoom out away from the specific issue of adultery and look at the broader context of sin, judgment, and punishment. He basically says, “OK, I know what the law (Jewish) states. But before we go there, let’s just take a look at ourselves. Who among us is worthy to take on the role of God in this situation?”
Church leaders can take this same approach. When someone asks, “What do you believe about _____?” don’t just jump into answering that specific issue. As Admiral Ackbar says, “It’s a trap!” Instead, try and figure out the context of why the question is being asked in the first place. You’ll find that behind the question is a person. It’s someone who has deeper questions than what is being asked. They are questions about identity, the nature of God, and how it all fits together. These are everyone’s root questions in life. It’s from here a pastor can shape the message and tie it back into the original question. If you start by establishing context, you move from defending your answer to beginning a conversation.
Step 2: GRACE
“Jesus straightened up and asked her, Woman, where are they? Has no
one condemned you?...Then neither do I condemn you,” (Verse 10-11a)
The next thing Jesus does is show grace. Among all the people there, the scribes, pharisees, and any bystanders, only Jesus was without sin. He was, and is now, in a position to judge. But Jesus chooses grace instead.
The interesting thing is that he hasn’t answered the original question about adultery and the accusers have already left. If someone’s goal is to trap you and your response is first context and then grace, they will not stick around because they were never interested in an answer or conversation to begin with. What does grace look like when you are asked a controversial question? It’s acknowledging the question is difficult. The issue is complex. The people who are affected, regardless of their actions and choices, are created in the image of God, worthy of love, dignity, and more than a thought experiment. If The Church can get to this point, incredible opportunities to reach people with The Gospel and show the love of Jesus Christ, will open up.
Step 3: TRUTH
“Go now and leave your life of sin.” (Verse 11b)
Finally, Jesus addresses the issue. But he doesn’t do it from the angle of judgment and punishment, even though as the sinless Son of God, he is the only one worthy to do that. Instead, Jesus focuses on action. He started by revealing to the crowd, the context of the broader issue of sin. Then he focuses on the woman and opens with grace. It’s in the third and final step that Jesus deals with the truth of the matter and calls the woman to action.
Most people jump to Step 3 first. If Jesus had done this, the woman would have been killed and Jesus arrested by the Romans. Biblical truth is important, but timing and application is everything. If someone sincerely asks difficult questions and pastors respond with context and grace, their defensive walls come down and misconceptions of The Church are broken. Then they will be in a place to hear truth and interact honestly with its implications on their life.
It’s understandable that most pastors and church leaders want to avoid controversial topics. It is after all, the safe approach. But Jesus gave the perfect way to address these difficult issues head on, and he certainly didn’t come into this world to be safe. The Church’s calling is too great and the stakes are too high to play it safe. CONTEXT, GRACE, TRUTH.…..go and engage a world desperate for answers and desperate for life.