The Divisiveness of Inclusion

People who know me well understand that I am committed to creating a more inclusive Church. My commitment to inclusion is grounded in the Great Commandment (the call of Jesus followers to love God and love neighbor). My commitment to inclusion is also built on the foundation of the ministry of Jesus, who reached out in hope-filled love and mercy to the most marginalized, overlooked and outcast of His day.

In my experience, inclusion has been one of the most divisive topics within the Church. Whenever I have made a strong statement (or even a veiled statement) regarding inclusion, I have faced the most pushback…even had my faith questioned by some.

I believe part of the divisiveness of inclusion centers on our reduction of inclusion to matters surrounding human sexuality (marriage, ordination, etc.). To me, inclusion definitely involves human sexuality. However, it also includes matters of race, gender, socioeconomics, education, abilities and more.

I am firmly committed to an inclusive Church that makes room for those who happen to disagree with me. I am often labeled as a progressive, both theologically and politically. Labels often don’t encompass the whole story. As a progressive, there are stereotypes that I am going to be closed off to traditionalist. Being closed off to anyone really misses the heart of inclusion. And, here’s the deal, I like to consider myself humble enough to recognize that “I could be wrong.”. I’m also egotistical enough to admit that I don’t really think I’m wrong!

I desire to see a Church that creates a safe and welcoming space for all. Being welcomed is more than tolerating someone’s presence. It involves expressing that all are wanted and included. One of my guiding questions in ministry is this, “is there room at my table (or church) for my enemy?” If the answer to that question is “no”, there is still work to be done on inclusion.

Some of my best friends and closest colleagues do not share my theological or political perspective. However, because we have mutual respect and trust for one another, we continue on this journey of faith together. We believe the best about one another and know that we are each doing our best to be faithful in living out our call to follow in the way of Jesus. Therefore, there are times we “agree to disagree.” I believe it’s one of the most beautiful expressions of our faith when people of opposing theological and political perspectives can join together in a common, uniting mission.

Let me be clear, for most of my friends that do not share my views on inclusion, it’s not that they are opposed to all people having a place in the church. Generally, the opposite is true! They do desire that all be welcome in the church! It’s not as if my friends who have different theological and political viewpoints on matters of inclusion, marriage or ordination love people less. It’s not like I have it all figured out and they are wrong. We have just arrived at different conclusions…and I like to think that it’s okay!

My commitment to inclusion stems from growing up in the church and my personal journey.

I grew up in a time when the old mantra of “don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t chew, don’t go with girls who do,” was a core teaching for young people. In addition to that, there was a very clear teaching of, “don’t be gay.” In fact, it seemed to be that, as long as you were not gay, you could probably get away with drinking, smoking, and chewing.

In many ways, whether intentional or not, there was a clear teaching that homosexuality was the worst sin ever. Now, no one could ever give a defense beyond the standard line of, “well, the Bible defines marriage as one man and one woman. God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” (As a began to take my faith more seriously, I started to notice many of the flaws in these lines of defense…for example, there are many Biblical definitions of marriage).

In various Christians circles, it appeared that the accepted definition of biblical marriage was used to make sure that, 1). We weren’t gay; 2). We wouldn’t have sex outside of marriage.

One day in a Bible study, I decided to challenge the accepted teaching. “So, I was reading the Old Testament the other day. What about that? That’s the Bible too, right? Dudes had multiple wives and multiple concubines. And, wives who were having trouble getting pregnant had their husbands have sex with their slaves. And, what about David? That guy had an affair and arranged to have his mistresses husband killed. What about divorce? The Bible seems to be against it, but we all seem to accept it. Doesn’t that seem like a bigger threat to the sanctity of marriage than being gay?”

There was a long, uncomfortable silence. Then, I received the “go to” defense. “Well, that’s the Old Testament. We’re New Testament believers.” (Again, as I began to take my faith more seriously, I started to notice many of the flaws in this line of defense…for example, just take a look at what Jesus has to say about divorce and adultery in the Gospel of Matthew).

As I was learning about a God of love, I was also learning about systems of behavior that either included or excluded people. The messages were mixed. On one hand, we were taught the old Billy Graham mantra (which is beautiful, and I still cling to this idea) that “it’s the Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and our job to love”). On the other hand, we were taught to judge others based on their behaviors.

My senior year of high school through the end of my sophomore year of college, I took a brief hiatus from church and religion. I loosely held on to a belief in Jesus. I would pray when I needed assistance to get out of a jam.

I was wrestling with questions, doubts and challenges to my faith and the community of the church. Those questions, doubts and challenges made most of my religious friends uncomfortable. I’ve come to discover that God is big enough to handle our questions, doubts and challenges.

One of my biggest struggles was that there didn’t seem to be room for many of my friends in the life of the church. They would only be welcome if they curbed their behaviors first. They needed to behave and believe before they would be welcome to belong.

The reality is, I had been around gay people as long as I can remember. My mom was an educator and often had student teachers. One of my favorite student teachers (other than my ultimate favorite, my wife Emily) was a homosexual man. This was the 80’s in Muncie, IN. While not uncommon, it definitely wasn’t the norm. But he helped breakdown some of the stereotypes and generalizations that folks in small Midwestern cities held in regard to the homosexual population…well, at least in my mind.

The thing is, I never saw my homosexual brothers and sisters as outcasts doomed for hell. I mean, that’s the message I was hearing in certain Christian circles, but it was a hard message for me to accept.

I saw these folks as friends, family and teachers. I couldn’t imagine a God of love sending these amazing people to hell because of who they love. Yet, that is what I was being taught. So, that is what, for a time, I believed too. As a result of that belief, I know there were times when my words and actions towards the LGBTQ community caused harm. However, this belief really never felt right.

As I gained more independence, my circle expanded. The skateboard, music and art scene of my mid-sized Midwestern college hometown was full of interesting characters…straight, gay, bi, trans, black, white, Hispanic, Indian, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, rich, poor, you name it, it was part of our circle. Here’s the beautiful thing…everyone was welcome. Everyone was included. Everyone was valued. Everyone was loved. Everyone looked out for one another. The common response when differences were expressed was, “That’s cool, dude.” In the some of the Christian circles I associated with, when differences were expressed, the common response was, “I will pray for you to change your evil ways.”

I believe my non-religious circle had more impact on shaping my views on what the Church can be than my Christian circles!

The LGBTQ members of our circle were (and still are) among the most creative, kind, caring, generous and loving people I’ve ever known. When we begin to make someone who is supposed to be our “enemy” our “friend”, walls begin to break down. Once an issue has a face and a name, it’s hard to continue drawing divisive lines.

Yet, my faith family taught me that these friends were out. These friends were excluded. These friends needed to change their ways before they could be accepted. These friends needed to suppress who they are in order to be “in”.

I was walking a dangerous line befriending such worldly people. But my heart and mind could not agree with the conclusions my faith community had drawn.

Rather than fight, reconcile or justify my “alternative beliefs” within the community of faith, I fled. Now, I didn’t flee for long, but for a season, I was out. Instead of finding community within the Church, I found community and connection in this oddball collective of freaks and outcasts.

After a few years of rejecting my childhood faith, I discovered a longing to return. There was an emptiness and a desire for more. Don’t get me wrong, I was seemingly happy. I had a great circle of friends. But, something was missing. I attempted to fill the void with all the typical resources available to an 18-21-year-old guy. Yet, nothing addressed that strange sense of emptiness. I was having fun, yet longed for something deeper and meaningful.

My heart kept pointing me to Jesus. I tried to connect in the obvious spaces…campus ministries, the church all the cool kids were attending, but it all failed to connect. I was hearing the familiar refrains of what we stand against (gays, abortion, drinking, dancing, fun) and very little about what/who Jesus was for (love, outcasts, everyone).

I came to a conclusion that if I were to fully connect in a Christian community, I would either have to change my thoughts or suppress my beliefs on inclusion.

I then began to learn more about the church of my childhood, The United Methodist Church. I learned that we believe that “all people are of sacred worth” and that “all people” have a place in our church…that “all people” are to be welcomed and included in the life and ministry of the Church. Now, I realize we still have work to do. But, within our tradition, we have a commitment to being in ministry “with and for all”. Regardless of our theological interpretations and political perspectives, we are called to make room at our table for everyone!

I know that the church I love is committed to making a place at the table for everyone. Gay or straight; traditional or progressive; Republican or Democrat; rich or poor; longing for a more inclusive church or hoping to have stronger definitions in regard to matters of human sexuality; whatever issues and labels that are typically used to divide should be checked at the door. We have a call, as followers of Jesus, to be with and for all…yes, even those with whom we disagree! So, if you are offended by my perspective, that’s okay! There’s a place for you!

My longing for a more inclusive Church means that people from all walks of life will be welcome, wanted, included, safe, known and loved within the community of believers, so that all might experience the life-transforming love, grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.

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