Note: Most of following post was written exactly five years ago, when First Christian became an official open and affirming congregation. I’ve added a few additional thoughts.
There has been something that has been bothering me for a while. Usually when people start talking about gay ordination or same-sex marriage, someone on the pro side will say something to the effect: “Jesus was inclusive,” or “Jesus welcomed everybody.”
Now, I’m all for welcoming people into our churches in the way that Jesus did. I’ve been fighting for LGBT inclusion in the church for years. But when someone says something like the sentences above, I get a weird feeling, like something isn’t right.
Recently, after reading a blog post, I finally understood what was bothering me. In the contemporary liberal church, the highest goal, the highest good is to be “inclusive.” As I’ve said, being inclusive matters to me. But should our faith be only about inclusion? What are we including and why? Why are we being inclusive? What are we being inclusive for?
Rod Dreher linked to an article from Slate on the controversy brewing among Catholics in San Francisco. The bishop wants to make sure that teachers working in Catholic schools don’t say anything that contradicts church teaching on issues such as homosexuality. Needless to say, this has bothered a lot of people. But the problem is less the bishop’s policy, but the response to the bishop. The protestors want the church to be nonjudgemental- something that Will Saletan from Slate believes is impossible:
The protesters are confused. They reject morality clauses but call the archbishop’s behavior sinful, shameful, and wrong. They belong to a church but seem to think it shouldn’t forbid anything. They insist that no one can be judged, except for issuing judgments that contradict their own. They can’t explain or even acknowledge the moral differences between homosexuality, contraception, and abortion. The nonsense of nonjudgmentalism has turned their brains to mush. It’s clouding their ability to think and speak clearly about society’s mistakes—and their own.
Saletan isn’t a conservative, he agrees that the bishop is wrong. But he thinks that many of the liberal Catholics don’t understand their own faith, ignoring church teaching and thinking the highest goals in Catholicism are inclusiveness and tolerance. He argues:
The dictionary says churches are supposed to teach doctrines. But the campaign against Cordileone says they shouldn’t. Students at one Catholic school “are very upset” by the new policy, says a teacher. “They’re afraid it’ll lead to indoctrination.” A statement signed by more than 200 opponents of the policy says Catholic leaders should follow their flocks: “Most U.S. Catholics believe very little of what is in the Archdiocesan document and actively reject much of it. The role of the bishop is to articulate the faith of the people.”
In place of morality or doctrine, the archbishop’s critics preach acceptance, inclusiveness, tolerance, affirmation, and diversity. An online petition, signed by more than 6,000 people, says his proposed rules violate “Catholic values of inclusion and diversity.” “By forcing morality clauses, you’re taking away all inclusivity and diversity in these schools,” adds a supporter on Twitter. Haider-Winnett says students need “affirming environments.” The campaign’s hashtag is “#teachacceptance.”
Of course people can argue against church teaching. And teachings change over time. But it’s one thing to argue that teachings must change, it’s another to say that things like doctrine have no place in the life of faith.
Which gets me back to why we need to be inclusive. What is the theological reason for this? I think we should, but why does it matter that churches have to be inclusive and diverse?
I tend to think that in many liberal churches (the tribe that I hang with) gay and lesbian inclusion and indeed, all inclusion is based on moral therapeutic deism (MTD), the defacto civil religion in the United States. Writer Damon Linker explains what MTD is all about:
1. “A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.”
2. “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.”
3. “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.”
4. “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.”
5. “Good people go to heaven when they die.”
I think this is what drives inclusion these days. Now there are some outliers, liberal Lutherans have enough classical Christianity that they still talk about sin, cross and grace. But this what my side of the debate on LGBT issues tends to believe in, which I think is pretty thin gruel.
The church should be open to people of various sexual orientations and gender identities. Church should be tolerant of differences. But if we want to include them into the life of the church, there has to be some there there. We can’t just talk about being inclusive, because Christians are supposed to be nice. Inclusion should then lead people to discipleship, to learning about who Jesus is and allowing Jesus to change us.
Churches can and have become places where all that matters is to be nice and tolerant, but I wonder. Is this what we fought for? I think people sacrificed a lot for us to join a church that simply teaches one to be nice.
The thing is, inclusive churches don’t have to give up orthodox belief in order to be inclusive. In this blog post from 2014, an Episcopalian priest named Matt Marino noted that he is getting a number of calls from gay Millennials that are looking for a place where they can talk about Jesus, resurrection, evangelism and the like. They were in churches where such talk was not cool and longed for community that talked about a faith worth having. Here’s what one such gay Christian said to the priest:
“Well, when I talk about ‘Jesus, and the power of the Resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings,’ I get raised eyebrows. When I talk about evangelism, historic doctrines, or believing the Creeds, people tug at their shirt collars…and clergy their clerical collars. They are very excited about Spong, Borg, Crossan and the Buddha, but they get the willies when I want to talk about Augustine, Aquinas, NT Wright and the Messiah.” They tell me ‘we welcome questions,’ but it seems that orthodox answers are the only ones not tolerated.
Marino continues wondering why such “inclusive” places are not so inclusive to those who they don’t agree with:
Imagine that you are a twenty year old Episcopalian. You view the world through post-modern eyes…you place high value on maintaining relationships with people, including those with differing viewpoints from your own. Whether gay or straight, you are coming of age in a world in which, chances are good, that you have not fought over sexuality. In that world, young Gay Episcopalians seem to be seeking out the theologically orthodox for supportive Christian discipleship.
My snarky side wants to whisper, “Gee, that sounds like actual tolerance.” You know, from before “tolerance” was code for “progressive,” when it was a word that presumed disagreement. After all, I don’t have to “tolerate” those I agree with. We already agree. Much has been written about the exclusivity of “inclusivity” – How the only idea that is out of bounds is the idea that some ideas are, in fact, out of bounds. The old and inherently contradictory notion that there is no objective truth except, of course, the statement that there is no objective truth. But now my iPhone call log is showing a growing list of indicators that at least some of the group the Episcopal Church has most tried to enfranchise are feeling disenfranchised. What kind of inclusivity is it that is gives Gay Millennials the experience of being excluded for simply wanting to follow Jesus according to the traditions and doctrines of our faith, as set out in our prayer book and Scriptures?
I can understand back in the day that one might want to tone down on the sin talk since many gays were coming from places where they were considered sinful, if not damned to hell. I can understand the need to talk up the love of God more than God as Judge.
But I’m beginning to think that many LGBT folk are yearning for a more robust faith, something that asks of them. Yes, they know God loves them for who they are and they want to share that love with others.
Last fall, Lutherans were abuzz with an article entitled “Will the ELCA be Gone in 30 Years?” The article explained what was going on within the ELCA and other denominations like our Disciples. What can stop the slide in among mainline Protestants? It’s basically about getting back to the basics:
Too many churches are cluttered with all sorts of programs and activities that aren’t really designed to form Christian identity and practice. Many of these are holdovers from previous eras. They may be meaningful to legacy members but not transferable to newer generations or diverse neighbors. We need to rediscover and reclaim the simple practices that Christians have always done–prayer, scripture study, service, reconciliation, Sabbath, hospitality, etc.–and make these the center of congregational life. Such disciplines must be expressed in forms ordinary members can practice in daily life throughout the week as they discern and join God’s leading in their neighborhoods and spheres of influence.
They add that churches have to move to a more participatory spirituality:
Faith cannot be primarily something performed by clergy or staff for people to watch or consume; it must be something that everyone is equipped to practice in daily life. This means creating pathways for simple, accessible spiritual habits and disciplines that can be adopted by everyone.
For LGBT folk and their allies, it is time to move beyond MTD to something stronger. Jesus didn’t call us to simply be tolerant, we are called to be disciples. Inclusivity is a very important first step, but it is not the only step. Inclusivity is about welcoming LGBT folk to become disciples of Christ or at least it should.
That’s why we should be inclusive. That is what being inclusive is for.
Photo by Matt Meltchley.