The Myth of Inclusion (Jonathan Storment)

Jonathan SThe Myth of Inclusion, Part 1

Maybe you saw over the holidays, there was a fascinating conversation in the New York Times between the Journalist Nicholas Kristof and the well known Pastor, Tim Keller.  The name of the article interestingly enough was “Am I a Christian, Pastor Keller?”

And Keller’s answer was no.

It was a bit surprising to stumble upon a conversation like this in the New York Times, I found it refreshingly honest and respectful, even while they talked about their disagreements.

Kristof begins the conversation by sharing that, while a great admirer of Jesus, many of the doctrines of the Christian faith i.e. resurrection, miracles, etc. are problematic for him.

But, he wondered, could he still be considered a Christian without believing any of those?

Keller responded like this:

If something is truly integral to a body of thought, you can’t remove it without destabilizing the whole thing. A religion can’t be whatever we desire it to be. If I’m a member of the board of Greenpeace and I come out and say climate change is a hoax, they will ask me to resign. I could call them narrow-minded, but they would rightly say that there have to be some boundaries for dissent or you couldn’t have a cohesive, integrated organization. And they’d be right. It’s the same with any religious faith.

Since then, plenty of people have come out criticizing Keller’s response, Scot himself wrote a great blog defending what Keller did. Some of those criticisms have been fair and helpful, but most of them have been more of a disagreement about where Keller drew the line, not that he drew one.

So maybe for some of us the line isn’t whether or not you believe in the Virgin birth, but whether or not you believe in the prosperity Gospel, but chances are, we still are drawing a line.

Which means we have a disagreement in degree, not in kind.

I have thought about that point a lot over the past few days. I am currently preaching through the Gospel of John, which is the most sectarian Gospel we have. In John, Jesus is clearly asking people to cross a line if they are willing to follow Him. In John, Jesus loves the world, but the world hates Him…and those who follow Him.  In the Gospel of John, there is a difference between those who are inside the life of Jesus and those who aren’t. And it turns out the way isn’t for everyone.

Which gives us heartburn, right? This kind of stuff honestly does keep me up at night.  All of us know the pain of being excluded and how demoralizing and dehumanizing being on the outside of something can be.  But do we have any real alternative?

Last year, in her great book The Crucifixion, the Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge, wrote about her experience of ministering in a mainline denomination, and how the desire for including everyone was a great idea, but it was a myth. She said that we must reject discrimination, but:

Congregations are claiming for human beings what is possible only for God. No congregation can include everyone. No self-identified inclusive and welcoming church can live up to this assessment of itself. Many a person who has attended a church advertising radical hospitality has come and gone from church coffee hours without being greeted by anyone. There are many categories of people who have not been welcomed in churches. The congregation that makes a place for torchbearers with Down syndrome might fail to embrace an unwashed, unmedicated, disruptive man off the street. The parish that welcomes a transgendered person might give up on a woman with a narcissistic personality disorder. Members of a congregation who do not hold all the views currently designated as correct will find themselves marginalized, even insulted. Despite the good intentions of congregations that proclaim themselves as diverse, welcoming, and inclusive, the fact remains that no one and no group can be, in this life, all-embracing. There will always be someone for whom the sign “The Episcopal Church welcomes you” will be a mockery. There will always be some who, despite the United Methodist Church’s claim to have “open hearts, open minds, open doors,” will find a less than open-hearted welcome. Sometimes this will be because of serious disability or annoying personality, and sometimes because of deeply held beliefs that run counter to the prevailing orthodoxy. Therefore new types of exclusions replace the old, more obvious race-or class-based types. It is part of sinful human nature that this is so.

To be clear, Rutledge isn’t bashing her denomination or the others that she mentions, she is just trying to point out that, for all our good intentions, we are unable to fully live out total inclusion anywhere.

That is what made this article in the New York Times so refreshing, here was someone on no small platform, answering a very fundamental question in a respectfully counter-cultural way.

No, this isn’t for you.

Think about why this matters so much.  At some point, for those of us (and I consider myself in this camp) for whom radical hospitality and inclusion matters so much, we must be wary of what we are actually trying to include people in.

There is a real danger of inviting someone to belong to something that isn’t worth belonging to. And often in trying to make sure that everyone is included, we lose the calling that we have to be set apart or different.

I am an Anabaptist, and we believe that the Church should be good news for the world, primarily by a counter-cultural force community, different from the world.

Anabaptists believe “who should be saved?” is answered by “The ones who want to be.”’

I get the pushback to this post, and next week I plan to address the other side of this, but for today the problem with total inclusion is that it is impossible, but there is an alternative and it is better.

Everyone is going to belong to a group that is not for everyone. The question isn’t should everyone be included, but how do we treat and care for those who are on the outside of the boundaries. I think that is what the way of Jesus is after. The Church is the only institution in the world who exists for those who don’t belong to Her.

The way of Jesus isn’t for everyone, but for those who belong, we are called to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and be an alternative society for the world to see what God is like.

And for those who want to belong to that, welcome in.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.