Jesus is love and He loved the unlovable. That is abundantly clear from Scripture, especially the Gospels. The examples of Jesus getting the stink eye because of the company He kept from the defenders of the religious status quo in His day are many. It is hard to imagine the famous celebrity "pastors" of our contemporary religious world hanging out with the equivalent sort of people today.
On the other hand we have a New Testament full of admonitions against sin and error in the church. Some of the language is quite harsh, even jarring to our modern, "enlightened" sensibilities.
So which is it? Is it radical forgiveness and acceptance or careful and unyielding defense against sin and error?
That seems contradictory. How do we reconcile Christ's message of radical forgiveness for even the most heinous sinner with a need to maintain lives of personal holiness inside of the church?
The answer in part depends of where the sin occurs. Rather than just sweeping blanket statements ("Jesus hung out with sinners"), we need to look at the text to see what it actually says and what it doesn't say. In an era when it seems cool and hip to downplay the importance of the Bible in favor of personal experience or the "prompting of the Holy Spirit" which often looks suspiciously like capitulation to the winds of the culture, it is even more critical to turn to the preserved revelation of God because a little Bible knowledge is a dangerous thing.
First let's look at a well-known example of the radical inclusiveness of Christ.
And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" But when he heard it, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.' For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." (Mat 9:10-13)
Notice the distinction in the first verse. There are two distinct groups here, "his disciples" and "tax collectors and sinners". Are the sinners who are eating with Him Christians? Are they born-again and part of the infant church? There is nothing to indicate that they are. Many people followed Jesus when it was convenient and left later. Regardless Jesus was welcoming and loving to the unlovely and the sinner.
Now let's look at Paul speaking in his first letter to the church in
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. "Purge the evil person from among you." (1 Cor 5:9-13)
You see the immediate and obvious difference in tone and emphasis based on the identification of those in sin as part of the church. The expectations are polar opposites. There is very little wiggle room. We don't expect unregenerate sinners to act like regenerate believers but we also shouldn't expect or "tolerate" people who claim the name of Christ that engage in wanton and unrepentant sin, or those who encourage others to do so, nor those who teach error in the church.
A lot of contemporary Christians recoil at the notion that certain behaviors are out of bounds. It is so contrary to our cultural attitude that the only thing that cannot be tolerated is intolerance. Amid this contemporary attitude there are many Christians who are legitimately wrestling with issues like homosexuality and how affirming or not the church should be about it. Others are gleefully using this issue to knock the foundations out of any sort of behavioral expectations that might put the brakes on acting on any human impulse, no matter how base. Into the fray we have the question of how we should deal with the sin all around us, a question that is doomed to fail unless we rightly recognize the difference between sin in the world and sin in the church.
We can overreach in two directions on this question. One is to be so concerned with holiness and separation from the world that we withdraw from the world like the Amish (which brings its own set of sin and problems, an issue for a different day). We end up standing on the outskirts, wagging our fingers at the unregenerate people acting like unregenerate people that we are supposed to be reaching. This has been the error of many "fundamentalist" groups through the ages. The opposite error is to apply the radical teachings of Jesus and His loving attitude toward unregenerate sinners within the church, excusing and even celebrating sinful behavior out of a misplaced application of "love". While 20 years ago I would have said the greater danger was being exclusionary, today the opposite is true.
To those outside of the church we should be models of loving, preaching the good news, the best news, of Jesus Christ who can redeem us from our sins. We should be the most loving people around to those who are as we once were. Inside of the church that same love demands that we have no tolerance for wanton sin and that we refuse to turn a blind eye to it, both for the sake of our brothers and sisters involved as well as for those who watch the church and wonder why we seem so confused about sin. This really is not a difficult concept when we learn to read the Bible rather than reading a collection of verses in a vacuum but it is a critically important one.