One of the ways I have missed the Gospel in my years as a pastor and church leader has been in relating and responding to people legislatively instead of pastorally. While of course there are times when rules must be set and policy must be followed—I’m a big fan of smart policies and procedures—it is always a mistake to apply them without a loving pastoral heart.

For example, remember Jesus’ encounter with the “rich young ruler?” It’s an amazing interaction:

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth (Mark 10:17-22, NIV).

I imagine if those first followers of Jesus had been more like us they would have reasoned, “Ah, so to be biblical, we must apply Jesus’ challenge to that guy across the board, to everyone. That means to enter the kingdom, you gotta sell everything; Jesus said so. Poverty is the policy. So, Zacchaeus—you’re out (half just won’t do). All you women who say you follow Jesus and provide his needs—give it all to the poor or you’re not a true follower of Jesus.”

Can you imagine? I can. Because we do it all the time. We try to legislate people’s paths. Rather than approaching people as varied as Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the rich young ruler, and others differently—personally and pastorally, according to their needs and gifts and so on—we strive for consistency and uniformity in conversion, discipleship, leadership, etc. Even though Jesus didn’t seem to do that.

To some extent, at least, I think we are often motivated more by a desire to control, than by faith. For example, take the woman who was caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). Jesus demonstrated compassion and forgiveness to her, and told her (after saving her from death by stoning) “Go and sin no more.” But where was the follow up? He didn’t prescribe a recovery group or accountability process. He showed what must seem to Twenty-first-century church leaders a surprisingly lax attitude toward her conduct after that moment (see this post). Was anyone responsible for checking on her? Was there any strategy to make sure she didn’t return to her sinful conduct? Or was it left up to her? Seriously?

To be fair, these incidents are not recorded in novelizations. The Gospel writers felt no need to tie up the loose ends of every encounter they recorded. But they do seem to contrast with the way we treat people today–as if laws and policies are more effective in changing lives than the living presence of the loving Christ.

I could be wrong. I’d probably like it better if I were.