During an interview the other day I was asked if progressive-minded Christians such as myself are hypocritical– if we are people who preach inclusion, while excluding some of our more conservative brothers and sisters.
At first I agreed with the premise of his question… sort of. I believe we as Progressive Christians have blind spots, just as others do. Also like others, I believe that we (humans in general) often have a tendency to do the right thing in the wrong way, and thus can become a caricature of the very thing we claim to oppose.
While I do believe we are often guilty of doing the right thing in the wrong way, and thus become similar to the very thing we claim to be fighting (and I am at the top of that list), when it comes to the case of excluding our more conservative brothers and sisters, I’m not convinced we’re as guilty as I initially thought.
I believe, and always will, that the most radical part of the message of Jesus is the reality that God’s table has room for everyone.
The Kingdom of God does not suffer from an economy of scarcity. There are not a limited number of invitations to this banquet, nor is it a situation where one sincerely shows up only to find that there aren’t enough chairs or they didn’t meet the entry requirements.
When it comes to pulling up a chair at God’s table to draw close to the heart who made us and loves us, anyone who sincerely wants to be here is welcome to stay– right along with the rest of us.
I even believe God’s table includes a seat for my right-wing brothers and sisters. While I strongly oppose their horrible ideas, they are still image bearers of the Living God and are just as invited to show up as I am. God’s table includes an available seat for the Franklin Grahams and the Jerry Falwells, just like it includes an available seat for me. However, the reality is that even though everyone has been invited, and even though there are enough chairs to go around, we almost never end up staying at the table together– at least, not for very long.
There’s a good reason for that, and it’s not because Christians such as myself want to pull out a chair for everyone but them.
You see, the difficult task of including the excluders is that they do not want to be with those they feel should be excluded.
My whole life I’ve heard preachers and teachers say that the biggest barrier that prevents people from entering into God’s Kingdom is a refusal to repent of sin. And, well, when I look at the Gospels and survey my own life experience, I have a slightly different take:
One of the biggest reasons so many Christians never truly enter the Kingdom is simply because they object to whoever they’d have to sit next to.
I’m not sure I fully appreciated this fact until my story began to include elements of people leaving because they didn’t want to sit next to me.
There was the pastor who let African refugees meet in the basement of his church, but who told me– within twenty minutes of meeting him the first time– that he’d have no choice but to throw them out of the building if I continued being a pastoral figure to them… all because I admitted that I didn’t think it was a sin to be gay.
I distanced myself from the refugee community to protect them, but he threw them out anyway.
Or, then there were my close friends– friends, who publicly challenged and questioned me when I was nominated to the position of an elder. The same friends who broke bread with me week after week at small group, had now become the people who placed me in front of a panel of voters to answer whether I “really was” the head over my wife, as if years of seminary education and being able to teach were trumped by not being as “in charge” at home as they thought I should be. By the time I suggested that having a vagina shouldn’t disqualify someone from leading in areas where God has uniquely gifted them, and that we shouldn’t kick a member out for being gay, the writing was on the wall.
I went on to preach, and they went on to leave the church and end our friendship.
And of course, there was my fellow elder who came to believe there wasn’t room at the table for both of us and made the church vote– essentially saying it had to be him or me that left. Suggesting we shouldn’t deny church membership to mature Christians simply because they had been baptized as babies or by a church that wasn’t “evangelical”, and suggesting that maybe we should leave our guns in the car when we come to worship the Prince of Peace on Sundays, proved too much to have the chair next to me.
He left– but not before his wife stormed out of the church yelling because I had suggested in an interview that pro-life people should also support a living wage for the poor.
I was okay sharing a seat next to all of them; never once did I think any of them were less than fully worthy to come to the table. But in the end, they weren’t interested in the meal if it meant they had to accept that my seat at the table was as legitimate as theirs.
I assure you, the biggest barrier to entering God’s Kingdom isn’t a refusal to repent of sin: the biggest barrier to people entering the Kingdom is a refusal to give up control over the guest list.
There’s nothing new under the sun, as the Bible says, and such was the situation in the life of Jesus. Those who knew they were sinners, and those who were excluded, were the ones quick to accept the invitation and pull up a chair next to Jesus and everyone else.
But those who wouldn’t follow Jesus and wouldn’t enter the Kingdom– even though they thought they were in communion with God? Those people were religiously pure. They kept all the commandments. They knew Scripture backwards and forwards. They were the people who seemed to be doing everything they were supposed to be doing.
And yet, in the end their chair at God’s table remained empty– not because there wasn’t room, and not because they were uninvited. The reason their chairs, and so many others remain empty, is this:
The difficult task of including the excluders is that they don’t want to be included if it means the rest of us are, too.
Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. www.Unafraid-book.com.