The basic assumptions one begins with usually determine the destination he reaches. How do we see ourselves in relation to God? How do we view sin? What is our conception of the church? Is it a resort hotel for "saints," or is it a hospital for the sick? Do we conceive of those in the church as sinners saved by grace, or as "good people" with whom we enjoy our association?
Before we moved to Lakeland, one of the men in the business meeting asked me: "What do you think is the greatest problem facing the church today?" Now, I am not an authority on such questions, and you may disagree with my answer, but my reply was that we are a "self satisfied society." Too many brethren look upon the church as a "social club" composed of good people with whom they enjoy affiliation. Basically, they conceive of it as a hotel for saints, not a hospital for the sick. If we do not consider ourselves as needing the "Great Physician," we are not apt to be longsuffering and forgiving toward others who are sick.
Let us look at some characteristics of the "resort hotel concept." You go to a hotel get away from pressure and responsibilities. It is a place for leisure and relaxation; a place where you want to leave your troubles behind. It is a place to be served. You don't have to make up the bed or clean the room; someone else is responsible for the work! You want to go home rested, relaxed and feeling good. Does this describe the attitude of many brethren toward the church?
The resort hotel is for those who "have it all together." Who wants to spend time in a hotel listening to the problems of others, or even sharing his own problems with others? The "hotel Christian" has no sympathy for the suffering, because he is not sick. He is "living right," like the elder brother who stayed home. He may be jealous, unforgiving and even gossipy, but he is not "living in the pig pen." Have you ever wondered how the elder brother knew what his younger brother had been doing? Even if he did know, what good did it do for him to repeat the information after his brother had repented? We would have made the elder son a deacon, or maybe an elder, but Jesus ended the parable with the self-righteous son outside, and the younger brother who had lived in the pig pen inside. On another occasion Jesus said: "Verily I say unto you, that the publicans and harlots go into the kingdom of God before you" (Matt. 21:31).
We should view the church as a hospital for those who are ill. You go to the hospital for the "big cure." You know something is wrong and you need the good physician, maybe the specialist, working on you.
God said that we "have all sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23), therefore all of us need the Physician. If I have been healed of a disease, will I look condescendingly on someone else who has the disease? The only reason we would look down on another is if we think that his disease is "worse" than ours! Was the rebellion of the younger brother worse than the self-righteousness unforgiving attitude of the elder brother? (Read Matt. 21:31 again!) The fact is that the self-righteous do not consider themselves as being in real need. After all, God is fortunate that they have chosen to stay in His hotel!
What is our attitude toward sinners? How forgiving are we when those who have "wallowed in sin" repent? The answer to those questions depends upon our perception of the Lord's church. Paul wrote the Corinthians: "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God" (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Would the former thieves look down on the former sodomites? Not if they realized that their own "disease" was also terminal!
God's call is to "all who labor and are heavy laden," not to those who "have it all together." It is to those who want to live, not to those who think they are living (Matt. 9:12). The elder brother's unforgiving spirit may be considered "worse" than the "fornication" of the younger brother because it kept him from fellowship with his father. Any disease that kills us is worse than one that has been cured!
I believe that there is a desperate need for an attitude change in many. We need to look upon the church as a hospital for those who have been cured of terminal illness rather than as a hotel for "good folks" who need no physician. When I understand that the great physician extended mercy to me, and have a heart of gratitude for that cleansing, I will be more compassionate and forgiving toward others who need His healing.
(A special thanks to my son, Randy, and to John Haley for the basic thoughts in this article.)