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Truly inclusive churches

18 December, 2007

A term you may see on various church web sites is inclusive. You might see “we are an inclusive church”. The definition of inclusive (as an adjective) suggests what is comprehensive, broad, and what incorporates (includes) the extremes or stated limits. By reasonable extension the word has to do with a tolerance, a welcome, and a non-judgmental attitude towards others.

On one hand it is a positively accepting attitude and practice. On the other hand it is a way of describing a contrast to those who are exclusive. So inclusive involves including “outsiders” — and this might mean ethnic and or racial minorities, the disabled, the poor, political refugees, and gays and lesbians. Inclusive also involves including “outsiders” so to be distinguished from those who are not inclusive of ethnic and or racial minorities, the disabled, the poor, political refugees, and gays and lesbians.

If I am using the term as many would have it employed, inclusive has a moral weight. One is inclusive on the basis of principled ethics. Inclusive also relates to justice: positively, inclusiveness is a matter of justice; negatively, inclusiveness is against injustice.

In church circles inclusive and inclusiveness are understood to be theologically derivative. Because the one true God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is loving, merciful, forgiving and gracious, therefore (derivatively) men and women are called to be inclusive — so the argument goes, if I understand it rightly.

In fact, some would argue, precisely because the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ (the gospel) is about God accepting men and women through Jesus Christ then the gospel is a message of inclusiveness. Inclusive and inclusiveness are antithetical to judgment and, well, exclusion. Exclusion is, ultimately, anti-gospel.

To be an inclusive church, therefore, is to be a church which tries (however imperfectly) to model God’s gospel-shaped inclusiveness. Any notion, rhetoric, policy or behaviour that is exclusionary is morally, ethically and theologically wrong. And here is where the shoe pinches.

You see, it is almost impossible to argue against inclusiveness if the only alternative is an exclusiveness that is, in effect, immoral, unethical, unjust and theologically wrong. Who’d really want to side with exclusiveness if this is the only alternative to an inclusiveness that otherwise makes us nervous because it sounds too inclusive, too comprehensive? But sometimes, given some rhetoric in church circles, you might think there is no real option to the extremes.

Truth is, inclusive does have limits; there is a form to inclusive. Actual inclusiveness draws lines – there are some things that even inclusiveness cannot accept. Inclusive churches do not include the active practice of child molestation, sexual abuse, or drug dealing — such are rightly excluded. There are limits or forms to inclusiveness, even if we do not always know exactly where the limits are in every case and situation. This means, therefore, that it is false to think the only alternative to inclusiveness is an immoral, unethical, unjust and theologically wrong exclusiveness. It is a false dichotomy.

So, here is my question (asked in a really long-winded way!) cannot there be truly inclusive churches today? Is it too far fetched to imagine churches (local gatherings of people) who, under the Word of God (the Bible) by which the Lord Jesus Christ rules and pastors his people, truly are inclusive? Isn’t true inclusiveness actually a theological, moral, justice-based, derivative attitude and approach that says, “The gospel is God’s power for salvation for all people (see Romans 1:16).”

In as much as all men and women are sinners and under divine wrath and judgment and we are only rescued and pardoned through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and by faith in Jesus’ rightness, not our own, then in this specific sense no one is excluded. No one is ‘beyond the pale’ because of their ethnicity, race, economic status, gender, sexual orientation and practice or moral behaviour.

Yet there is a shape (call it form) to this gospel inclusiveness. Four contours come to my mind.

First, true inclusiveness is only true to the extent that it is derivative from God’s inclusiveness. This means that I am in no position to shape inclusiveness in ways that twist or distort. For example, I cannot rightly insist that active child abuse can be included when God excludes this active behaviour. There is a repentant, Holy Spirit enabled, grace shaped form to inclusiveness. This reality means that, to continue the example, child abusers are not beyond the gospel; but there is a provision, call it condition: they must out of grace dependent obedience renounce their predilections and practice. So must I in all areas of my life, even if child abuse is not a part of my life.

Second, true inclusiveness recognises the on-going struggle of gospel obedience. True inclusiveness acknowledges individual and corporate failures and struggles in personal and corporate conformity to Christ. So there is patience, mercy, forgiveness and help. But the key to gospel inclusiveness is faith. Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ means a dependence upon his goodness, his substitutionary death on the cross, his resurrection and his present lordship. Accordingly, gospel inclusiveness is just that — gospel inclusiveness. Any attempt to construct an inclusiveness that omits the gospel and gospel obedience (which in every case necessitates obedience and repentance on a moment-by-moment basis) is out of bounds.

Third, true inclusiveness is costly and demanding. If we really are welcoming we will welcome those whom we may not initially find attractive. It will mean, possibly, that our welcome taxes our patience, aesthetics, personal preferences, preconceived notions of acceptability and love. True inclusiveness is hard, demanding and physically and emotionally exhausting.

Fourth, true inclusiveness is counter-cultural. I dislike this hackneyed expression but it works. True inclusiveness may well mean that the local church includes people whom the wider society find odd, smelly, embarrassing, politically problematic and so on. True inclusiveness implies a congruence with God’s assessment of people — and sometimes this is really at odds with the ways our society assesses and values people.

I wish inclusive wasn’t a politically charged term. I wish conservative evangelical churches would gladly use the expression truly inclusive church to describe themselves. I wish churches of other traditions would not unintentionally dismiss the form of inclusiveness out of a concerted effort simply to contradict those with whom they disagree. I wish our disintegrating societies and culture (and civilization) would see within the churches of the Lord Jesus Christ true inclusiveness.

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