"Vegas calling." You've probably heard the ad with Toni Roberts encouraging you to act "like a highroller in Vegas" on "your next romantic getaway." Jud Wilhite heard a call to Vegas but it wasn't from Toni Roberts. It was to become the pastor of Central Community Church, Las Vegas's largest church. He tells some of his story and stories of the people of the church in Stripped: Uncensored Grace on the Streets of Vegas.
Wilhite defines uncensored grace as "what you get from a loving God when all the religious types have gone home, and every last hope for your own effort has blown up in your face. Uncensored means that there is no formula or membership or performance that stands between you and God's goodness. Uncensored means that as wide and deep and high as your mountain of personal ruin might get, God's transforming grace is always wider and deeper and higher" (pp. 19-20).
He tells of that grace in the lives of strippers Donte and Stephanie, con-man and drug addict Sonny, American Idol contestant Jason, Elvis impersonator Brian, prodigal son Chris, chief financial officer of a slot machine company Geoff, AIDs-infected homosexual Scott, and Christian cop Henry. He also discusses Christ's view of sin and self-righteousness, parallels the sins of Corinth and Vegas, and deals with the philosophy of what it means to be part of the church.
Many churches, in an attempt to deal with this messiness head-on, have come to value a sense of belonging as primary. Some churches taught (and still teach) that first you believe, then you behave, and finally you belong. For these churches, belief in Christ is the first step in being part of a church, but you do not really belong until you behave. But many churches are more or less reversing this order out of a love for people far from God. Their philosophy is first you belong, then you believe, and finally you behave. (p. 173)
Stripped is well written and interesting. The stories are absorbing. Wilhite surrounds the more philosophical and didactic parts of the book with stories that draw the reader into the teaching he wishes to convey. He makes some excellent points about Christ's compassion and the compassion that we should have for "messy" humanity.
However, this book has some problems. I have a dear friend who was an exotic dancer. One of our former pastors and his wife, a wonderfully sweet Christian lady, had been drug abusers. A deacon whom I respected lost a hand in a drunken gun fight in a bar before becoming a Christian, and another Christian that I admired used to be a drunk and cheated on his wife. I praise God for each one of these people I've been blessed to know and for the powerful work of God in their lives.
Wilhite's story of Donte and Stephanie, the exotic dancers/strippers, shows one problem. Not that they were strippers who came to the Lord, but that after several years of coming to the Lord, they are still strippers. Donte and Stephanie are married and hope to start a family soon. "(T)hey can see the day coming when they won't be the top dancers on the strip" (p. 36).
They express a conflict between their faith and their jobs, but Stephanie "still relishes what she does. She views herself as a dancer, not as a sex object, and she is not playing in Hoboken” (p. 36) Does where she's playing make a difference in God's view of it? “She is one of about ten principal dancers on the Strip and perhaps the most acclaimed. The athleticism, the lights, the split-second timing of the routines, the electricity backstage just before the show starts--all produce highs for her" (p. 36). Drugs, alcohol, and shooting people give some people highs, so receiving a high is not an acceptable motivation to continue stripping. "I'm performing for other people in a sensual and sexual manner…But I'm still performing for people out there who are thinking lustful thoughts" (p. 36).
Wilhite ends his story of Donte and Stephanie with: "What have they learned from their remarkable journey? That He met them where they were. And that He holds their future" (p.37).
Stephanie and Donte both want to serve God in the church, but they don't feel they should while stripping. They recognize that others have lustful thoughts because of what they do, and Stephanie and Donte feel ashamed of what they do. Jesus said that if a man lusted after a woman, he's committed adultery with her already in his heart (Matthew 5:28). This means that Stephanie and Donte are contributing to others committing adultery in their heart. Wilhite ignores this. The apostle Paul offered to give up meat rather than cause others to stumble (1 Corinthians 8:13). Wilhite doesn't encourage them to give up stripping rather than causing others to stumble.
Also, aren't we warned against continuing in sin so that our own hearts don't become hardened (Romans 6)? By not warning this couple and teaching them, is Wilhite not risking their hearts becoming hardened and their consciences seared in order to be sure he doesn't offend them and lose their tithes? Aren't shame and conflict, on top of Scripture, evidence that God doesn't want them to continue stripping (Romans 2:15)? If so, why isn't Wilhite pointing this out instead of glibly saying, "He holds their future"? God's efforts to deal with them in the present are being undermined by their pastor who doesn't seem to see it.
A couple of chapters later, Wilhite takes on the critics, like me, who must be Pharisees. "Believers today share similarities with the Pharisees because they follow God, seek to obey the commandments, give financially, and send out missionaries. Yet Jesus singled out these religious leaders for His strongest attacks....The Pharisees were too ready to condemn everyone else for their sins while refusing to acknowledge their own" (p. 66). Wilhite sounds like those Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about in The Cost of Discipleship, "We justified the world, and condemned as heretics those who tried to follow Christ" (p. 58).
Comparing all believers today with the Pharisees is painting with a broad brush. It becomes a justification to disobey. If any of us are like the Pharisees in leading others into false religion, in performing prayers and almsgiving for show, in exploiting the poor and weak for our gain, then we deserve the same condemnation. However, Christ didn't condemn them or us for seeking to obey God's commandments or sending out missionaries. In fact, he told the disciples and the multitude in Matthew 23:2-23 to follow what the Pharisees taught but not what they did. Then he deplored their heart attitudes, not their obedience to God (Matthew 23:27).
Wilhite warns today's church against being like the Church of Ephesus in Revelation 2:4 which had lost its first love. He quotes D. A. Carson who says that the "failure of these Christians was not primarily loss of love for God but loss of love for people" (p.66). We should certainly all heed this warning, but Wilhite should read further in Christ's admonition to the churches. Almost every church receives a warning to "repent," but Wilhite doesn't mention repentance in Stripped. Though he writes of transforming grace and tells stories of several people who were gloriously transformed, he doesn't bring up repentance. Transformation becomes incidental.
Also, when it comes to the pattern of belonging, believing, and behaving versus believing, behaving, and belonging, Revelation 2 and 3 describe those who should not be tolerated in the church: those who hold the doctrine of Balaam which caused Israel to stumble in sexual immorality (Revelation 2:14), those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes who encouraged wife sharing and were a branch of Gnostics (Revelation 2:15), and the Jezebel who taught in favor of and committed fornication (Revelation 2:20-22). Jesus wasn't into just giving people a warm, fuzzy sense of belonging. One of the differences between the early church and the American church is that belonging to the early church cost people their very lives, their wealth, their freedom, and sometimes their families. Some of those people, such as Ananias and Sapphira, tried to belong to the church without behaving.
While Wilhite rightfully decries a self-satisfied, unloving, uncompassionate Christianity, he ignores the call to a repentant, obedient, and holy Christianity. In Revelation 2-3, from which he quotes in defense of his position against self-righteousness and a lack of compassion, he ignores the passages which call for a holy and obedient church. That might cut the attendance numbers on Sunday mornings in Sin City. – Debbie W. Wilson, Christian Book Previews.com
We look at Las Vegas and see the epitome of worldliness and sin: sex, scandal, gambling, drugs, alcohol, crime, and all the rest. God looks at Vegas and offers the epitome of love, grace, mercy, and healing—unconditionally. In Sin City , God’s grace is alive, thriving, and radically changing lives from the inside out. Pastor Jud Wilhite joins experienced journalist William Taaffe to tell the gripping stories of how God saves the souls thought to be beyond saving. Raw, gritty, detailed stories keep it real. But get used to it—if it can happen in Vegas, it can happen anywhere…