“Be more accepting” is a phrase far too commonly used in conversations about politics and social issues. People are urged to embody the value and virtue that undergirds popular stances on social issues. Society tells us that loving our neighbors means accepting them. In doing so, we must deem their behaviors and choices as “right” or even “good.” Often Christians are told that they have to accept various lifestyles, sexual relationships, or understandings of gender that have traditionally been outside of Christian orthopraxy in order to love their neighbor.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the verb “to accept” is defined as “to receive… to give admittance or approval… to regard as proper, normal, or inevitable… to recognize as true.” There is both the sense of accepting a person into a specific community and the sense of accepting ideas, beliefs, or practices as good and normal. However, society views a person’s identity as inherently intertwined with their actions and beliefs, thus mandating that in order to love someone else, we must accept everything about them. But is this acceptance Biblical? Must one accept a person’s actions in order to treat that person as part of their community?
A survey of the word “to accept” in the Bible reveals that it is most frequently used when describing which temple sacrifices, worship forms, and prayers were pleasing to God. A handful of times in the New Testament, a variation of the word “to accept” is used to describe accepting either the true Gospel or a false gospel (Mark 4:20, 1 Cor. 11:4, Gal. 5:2, 1 Thess. 2:13). Most uses of “acceptance” are in the context of the worship and behavior that God finds pleasing–since God possesses the authority to determine what is acceptable according to His holy standards of right and wrong.
According to Scripture, no one is acceptable to God because everyone falls short of His perfection. While God accepted the sacrifices of the Israelites when they were done according to His instructions, the New Testament is clear that those sacrifices did not take away their failure to meet God’s standards (Hebrews 10:10). Simply put, those sacrifices didn’t solve their sin problem. Only Jesus’ sacrifice was acceptable to God to take away sin (Hebrews 10:1-18). Here lies the beauty of the Gospel: because of Jesus’ acceptable sacrifice, God chooses to separate us from our actions by forgiving our sins—based on the merit of Jesus’ sacrifice—and to accept us into His kingdom and family once we accept Jesus as our Lord and accept His sacrifice as sufficient. God accepts us into His family and we accept God as our Father. In light of this, God is the greatest model of acceptance and He alone defines what is acceptable.
God has given to all who believe in Jesus an equal status in His family, not based on personal merit or past actions. As members of God’s family, Christians are called to conform to God’s standards and to submit to His authority. Being a member of God’s household means abiding by His household code. It means trusting that God is the Father who provides good things for His children without showing favoritism. Though God accepts people regardless of their past actions, He does not accept all behavior or choices. If He did, there would be no need for the Ten Commandments (Ex. 1, Rom. 13:8-9) or to “pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace” (2 Tim. 2:22). Therefore, Christians can love people while not accepting their choices or lifestyles if they contradict God’s standards.
One of the underlying reasons that “acceptance” is so often talked about in society is because people have an inherent need for community. When this underlying need is unmet, society’s answer is for ultra-acceptance—for everyone to accept a person’s lifestyle and choices without discretion—but God has a different solution. When God invites people to accept His authority, He is also inviting people to trust Him to provide the good community and relationships that they need as they submit to His authority. It also means that God’s children are called to be that good community for others. This community cannot be good by going against what God says is right. In the same way it is not loving to lie and tell a person that a behavior or choice is acceptable to God when it is not.
Biblical acceptance, grounded in the Gospel, calls Christians to be loving and holy in submission to God’s good authority. It is not enough to maintain a Christian sexual ethic while treating people as second-class Christians. It is not loving to “accept” a person into the community but to treat a sinful behavior as good. For Christians, there is no choice between love or holiness. There cannot be one without the other. As members of God’s household, Christians must both submit to God’s authority and love their neighbors. This is acceptable to God.
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not proport to reflect the opinions or views of the Gordon Review, editorial staff, or its members.