Can the gospel be orthodox and inclusive?

Can the gospel be orthodox and inclusive? August 18, 2016
"Bible with Cross Shadow," David Campbell, Flickr C.C.
“Bible with Cross Shadow,” David Campbell, Flickr C.C.

One of the tragedies of our civil war in United Methodism has been the bifurcation of the terms “orthodox” and “inclusive” according to whether one opposes or supports LGBT inclusion in the church. Both sides are operating with a caricature of the other. Does supporting orthodoxy mean that you’re innately pharisaic? Does supporting LGBT inclusion mean that you no longer have a coherent gospel? A recent Confessing Movement newsletter asked “What is the gospel?” So I wanted to take a moment to answer that question as I understand it in a way that I think is both orthodox and inclusive.

First, we need to acknowledge that the Bible contains many different articulations of the Christian gospel. Every Pauline letter has a different slant on what the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus accomplish for humanity.

In Romans 5, Jesus’ cross and resurrection justify sinners and provide eternal life. In 1 Corinthians 1, the message of the cross is good news to the weak and the foolish whom God has chosen to shame the strong and the wise. In Colossians 2, Jesus triumphs over the powers and principalities through his cross and resurrection. In Ephesians 2, Jesus’ cross destroys the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles. In Philippians 2, Jesus’ cross models the self-emptying that is the foundation of Christian ethics.

These are only a few versions of the good news that the apostle Paul has to share. The quest for one all-encompassing articulation of the gospel often causes Christians to sideline large portions of the biblical text as secondary and inessential and to cram these secondary texts awkwardly into an overly simplified doctrinal system. The pop-evangelical “Romans Road” gospel of American Christianity turns salvation into an individualist consumer product of afterlife insurance rather than recognizing Jesus’ work as a cosmic act of liberation. It’s a tremendous irony when Christians who denounce the infiltration of worldly values into Christianity advocate a gospel that has been shaped by the intuitions of a door-to-door sales model of evangelism.

In general terms, the Christian gospel describes the way that the life, death, and the resurrection of Jesus deliver humanity from sin so that we can be reconciled to one another and to God. But there are many ways to articulate the transformation that is accomplished on both a personal and global level.

In the Wesleyan articulation of the gospel, we give emphasis to justification and sanctification as the two basic aspects of our salvation. If we accept the justification of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins, then we can receive the sanctification that the Holy Spirit accomplishes by perfecting our love. This is because the basic thing we need to be liberated from is self-justification, our imprisoning need to be right at all times. Sanctification can only happen among people who know that they are wrong and that they are loved unconditionally by God.

So how does inclusion play into the gospel as I’ve described it? Does inclusion mean that people no longer need to be justified and sanctified because everyone is just fine exactly the way they are? This is what conservatives seem to think when they hear the word inclusion, and indeed there may actually be progressive Christians who believe this (though I haven’t met any). If inclusion negates spiritual transformation, I would agree with conservatives that it is no longer orthodox Christianity.

But I see inclusion fitting into the gospel in a different way. Inclusion is not the negation of my need for transformation; it is the reason I need to be transformed. The way I put in a tweet is to say that John 3:16 only accomplishes the gospel when it causes Matthew 25 to happen. It seems like many conservatives make Matthew 25 an ancillary bonus to the real gospel; I would say that Matthew 25 is the fulfillment of gospel. The world receives its good news when Christians respond to their liberation from sin with the pursuit of mercy and justice for all.

We are not justified and sanctified to be trophies on God’s shelf of holiness. Christian holiness is always for the sake of our hospitality toward the other, as Miroslav Volf so aptly demonstrates in his monumental Exclusion and Embrace. That’s what it means that God desires mercy not sacrifice. God needs our hearts to be emptied of their idols so that we can be his solidarity with humanity. True holiness is sacrifice for the sake of mercy.

If my heart is divided and distracted by sin, I am not available to share God’s love with people who are alienated and marginalized. The ultimate goal of my holiness in conjunction with the holiness of every other Christian is to create a world of shalom, the just peace where everyone contributes and everyone belongs. That’s why I reject any vision of the world in which a subsection of humanity is told that they simply don’t belong, not because their identity actually undermines their love of God and neighbor but because previous centuries didn’t have a category for them.

I can understand why my egotism, my greed, my gluttony, laziness, my envy, my anger, my lust, and many other types of sin interfere with my ability to be self-emptied and thus sabotage God’s reconciliation of humanity to himself. These aspects of my character need to be put on Jesus’ cross so that I can be made into a new creature who is radically hospitable and capable of full, rich communion with God and other people. What I cannot understand is how a person’s non-normative sexual orientation or gender identity inherently sabotages God’s reconciliation of humanity.

When I read the Bible given my understanding of why sin is bad and what God is trying to accomplish through Jesus, I simply don’t see condemnations of minority sexualities or gender identities as such. I see condemnations of promiscuity, adultery, and pagan sexual rituals, all of which were endemic to the historical context (no, Robert Gagnon did not persuade me otherwise) and all of which are understandably incompatible with Christian teaching.

So when I fight for queer inclusion in the church, I’m not fighting against the pursuit of holiness that is critically necessary to the reconciliation God wants to accomplish. I’m fighting against a caricature of that holiness that seems to me like a self-congratulatory normality which is itself sabotaging God’s reconciliation of humanity. Any time holiness is equated with living inside of a norm for its own sake and for no other reason, it doesn’t look to me like the holiness Jesus embodied. It doesn’t make us like Jesus to spend most of our energy talking and thinking about the sin that we perceive in others.

I think the most important Wesleyan doctrine is Christian perfection, the pinnacle of Christian holiness. It is the best news of the Wesleyan gospel and our greatest hope: that the Holy Spirit can empty our hearts of their idols and fill them entirely with love for God and neighbor. The perfection of Christian perfection is not the flawless articulation of doctrine that so many Christians seem to have as their goal. It means that we have been absolutely and thoroughly conquered by love.

I hope that one day the thing people most notice about me is that I have been conquered by love. As a pastor, it seems more fruitful to help my students encounter and embrace the conquering love of Jesus than to preach a moral legalism of sin management. In my own experience, it is not my efforts to feel guilty about sin that liberate me from sin; it is the degree to which my desire has been captivated by God. So that’s the best I can do in talking about the gospel right now. I’m learning more every day and I’m happy to receive any wisdom you have to share.

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