I have recently encountered a couple of incidents where a selectively ‘inclusive’ welcome was offered to people, and thought they might be worth reflecting on for a minute, because of who was welcomed and who was not.
The first comes from an event held back in October, the second annual “Evolving Faith” conference–which, it appears to me, would probably be more accurately named something like the “Rejecting God” conference. As reported by Religion News Service:
During the opening session, Christian author and journalist Jeff Chu…welcomed a long list of groups ranging from introverts to the disabled, from the “frozen chosen” to the pansexual, from “you who do sex work to pay the bills,” Chu said, “and (to you) who are clutching your pearls because I just said ‘sex work.’”
“You who doubt, you who struggle, you who feel lost, you are loved.” Chu continued. “Atheists, agnostics, seekers, you are loved.”
Now, I want to make the significant caveat that this is not a full list of who Chu welcomed to the conference, which the report calls “a long list of groups”. So it may be that they were far more inclusive than the RNS report gives them credit for in what groups it mentions.
But, as far as the RNS report goes, the list of who is welcomed is as significant for who is unmentioned as for who is mentioned. Perfectly innocuous personality traits, such as introverts, are acknowledged, together with sins such as atheism and sexual immorality–not that the people at Evolving Faith would see these as sins.
And, indeed, even people with a more conservative worldview receive a welcome (of a sort): those who don’t approve of prostitution are given the backhanded welcome of being classified as elitist prudes. Already the ‘inclusivity’ seems a little thin.
But what about all the sins that the Evolving Faith people would actually consider sinful–apart from the fairly banal ‘sin’ of prudery? Perhaps they were included, but not mentioned by RNS. Or perhaps the Evolving Faith welcome didn’t mean to include anything they regarded as sin; given their openness to atheism, the category can hardly apply in any strong sense.
These observations are really only prelude to the more interesting ‘inclusive’ welcome I encountered recently. The more interesting welcome was found outside the doors of an evangelical church. A large placard posted on either side of the door welcomed all sorts of people to the church, expressing delight to have them there.
Now, a placard welcoming people to the church is a wonderful thing. All kinds of people should be welcome in the church. All kinds of sinners should be welcome to come and be loved and hear the gospel. But when you begin to list who is welcome, it raises certain difficulties: who do you list, and who do you not list, and what message is being sent?
This church’s placard included numerous innocuous personality characteristics, such as liking lattes or NASCAR. But it also included a smattering of sins: divorce, homosexuality, gambling, and substance abuse. Nothing on the placard suggested that they regarded these things as sins, but knowing the church’s institutional affiliation, I think they probably do.
But this is a very interesting selection of sins to include, and it is very interesting to think of some of the sins that aren’t included. The sins mentioned are all ones you can safely put on a placard without a hint of disapproval, because our culture’s disapproval for them is tenuous at best. Our culture outright celebrates homosexuality, sees divorce as perfectly permissible, is overall favorable towards gambling, and substantially regards substance abuse as something to be pitied as much as to be condemned. In short, this is basically a list of socially acceptable sins.
So we may ask, why didn’t the church include more unsavory sins in their ‘inclusive’ welcome? Why are not white supremacists, child abusers, and rapists welcomed? Where is the greeting for human traffickers and pedophiles? Are these not also sinners who need Jesus?
I don’t think that if I sat down with the elders and asked why these groups weren’t on the list, that the honest answer would be “we certainly would have included them if we’d thought of it.” I think the honest answer would have to be something more like “that would make people uneasy about coming to our church” or “listing those things together with a bunch of innocuous characteristics in a welcome message might suggest that we don’t strongly disapprove of such acts.” Precisely.
A list of acceptable sins may be good PR, but as far as the message of the church, it either says too little or too much. As far as the actual radical welcome of the gospel, it says far too little: it is not only socially acceptable sinners, but also radically unacceptable ones, who need Jesus. But as far as the church’s social stance goes, it says far too much: lumping sins together with neutral differences of preference and personality weakens the prophetic stance of the church in calling sinners to repentance.
The church has a different standard than the world. We can’t give a list of acceptable sins, because there are no acceptable sins. Welcoming select sinners sends the wrong message.
The gospel is utterly inclusive of all sins and all sinners, and utterly exclusive, that all who would be saved must come to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith. Paul says to the church in Corinth:
“Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
There the gospel declaration and the prophetic witness of the church meet.