The Bible speaks of the importance of drawing both lines and circles. It is not a question of either/or but both/and. Strong lines are drawn between the worship of the true God and idolatry, between righteousness and unrighteousness, between light and darkness, between the children of God and the children of the devil, between heaven and hell.
The first Psalm draws a clear line between the righteous man who fears God and the wicked man who ignores God. The righteous man does not keep company with the wicked and those who mock God. Jesus Himself drew a similar line when He taught about the final judgement (Mt. 25:31-46). All the nations would be gathered in the holy presence of Jesus, who “would separate … the sheep from the goats”.
The “sheep” would hear wonderful words of welcome while the “goats” on the other side of the line would hear some of the most terrifying words. There will be a clear line between them that will determine their eternal destiny.
The God who drew a line in the Garden of Eden, between the forbidden fruit and all other fruits, will ensure that His lines will remain. These divinely drawn lines are spiritual (between the life-giving reality created by God and the illusory
counterfeits of the devil), and moral (between the lifegiving law of God and devilish bureaucracies of legalistic religion).
When Jesus confronted the illusions and religious diversions of His people, He had to deal with the most prolific line-drawers of His day – the Pharisees. They began as a group with good intentions when pagan Greek culture was making significant inroads into their society. We can understand why they seriously and diligently wanted to keep God’s laws in such an environment and why they focused on being separate from those who were not strictly following the laws of Judaism. But in their earnestness, they created a complicated religious edifice of laws and prohibitions.
If the Pharisees were tightening up religiously, the Sadducees were their culturally suave cousins who had learned to compromise with pagan Greek influences to gain political power and cultural sophistication. They did not even believe in the resurrection and the afterlife. Their religion was reduced entirely to a this-worldly concern. Jesus condemned both the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
JESUS condemned the Pharisees not so much for drawing a line between the law of God and pagan licentiousness, but for not living according to the lines they had drawn. They had maintained the lines outwardly but in their hearts they were no better than their lawless neighbours. They did not realise that it is only possible to
live on the right side of the line through the forgiving grace of God which we receive with humility. The actual inner religion of the Pharisees was spiritual light years away from their outward religious forms. They had the right language but not the right life.
Therefore Jesus repeatedly called them hypocrites and whitewashed tombs, good on the outside but rotten inside (Mt. 23). The Pharisees also created many more additional lines of their own, thus ending up with a narrowly interpreted religion,
majoring on the minor, and eventually missing the point that holiness comes from knowing an awesome and loving God.
They enjoyed their line-drawing so much that they also endorsed and supported unjust social lines of prejudice that existed in their culture. Jesus challenged them by speaking well of the poor, the Samaritans (whom the Jews hated and looked down upon), the non-Jews, the women, and the marginalised of their day.
In His relationships with those socially marginalised by common prejudice, Jesus drew circles of acceptance. In so doing, Jesus was demonstrating the heart of God that Israel had misunderstood, failing to see that the lines that God drew were moral lines between good and evil, but never social or national. Hence, they had great difficulty in understanding that God wanted to call Egypt “my people” and Assyria “my handiwork” (Is. 49:23-25). Egypt and Assyria were Israel’s enemies and Israel thought that God had privileged their nation against the others by drawing a line between them. God’s line was real but it was a moral line that ran through nations and, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, through every human heart.
The church needs to draw straight moral lines as revealed by God in His holy Word, and it also needs to draw circles of love to draw people into God’s redemptive purposes. We can’t emphasise one without the other. If we only draw dividing lines, we would become the spiritual heirs of the legalistic Pharisees who failed to experience the love of God.
On the other hand if we draw only circles, ignoring spiritual and moral lines drawn by the divine Hand, then we are in danger of descending into a mindless, mushy, and sentimental form of religion that ends up rebelling against God.
How do we know when and where to draw lines and circles? The best thing we can do is to stay close to Jesus. Once, when a woman caught in adultery was brought to Jesus, the Pharisees, stones in hand, asked Jesus to endorse their intention to stone her. Jesus wrote something on the sand and told them: “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (Jn. 8:7).
Was Jesus blurring the moral line that His own hands had drawn on earth? No, what He showed was that that line ran through the hearts of the woman’s accusers. They needed to repent before they qualified to be the accuser and judge.
Embarrassed by their own consciences, everyone who wanted to shame the woman, left in shame.
Jesus looked at the woman and told her that He did not condemn her either but warned her to leave her sinful life.
Jesus did not abandon the God-drawn moral line, but in fact emphasised it by pointing to its existence in the hearts of both the accused and the accuser. By challenging the accusers He also exposed their socially prejudiced line, for they did not bring the man who committed the sin. Jesus erased that sinful line of social prejudice and evil. He invited the sinner to step over God’s moral line to the right side, and to step into the circle of the Kingdom, to step from darkness into light, from sin to holiness.
Like Jesus, in a world of sinners and sinful human structures, the church too must learn to draw lines and circles – in the right places, and in the right way.