An Inclusive Church

This is the second of our series of articles through the year from Spectrum, each taking a theme from the book of Acts…

by Tony Buglass.

Acts 10.1-33; 15.1-35

The church may either be inclusive of different types of people, or it may try to make everyone conform, excluding anyone ‘different’.  Following Jesus involves a journey, but that creates a tension between ‘God is leading us into new ways of living and believing’ and ‘we’ve always done it this way!’

The disciples were Aramaic-speaking Torah-observant Jews.  After Pentecost, the church began as Hebraic Torah-observant Messianic Jews with their own assembly, but also worshipping in the Temple. As the faith spread, it included not only converts from Pharisaic Judaism, more conservative regarding the Law, but Hellenistic Jews, who were generally more liberal.  The community into which the faith was spreading was mixed.

  • Hellenistic Jews spoke Greek, used the Greek version of the scriptures, and were more influenced by Greek culture.
  • Palestinian Jews spoke Aramaic, were more conservative, successors to the original Jews of the Promised Land.
  • The wider Gentile population was Hellenistic in culture, including pagan cults, alien to the ethics and practices of the Jews.  Galilee had seen an influx of Gentiles in its population.

This was the mixed ground over which the Christian faith spread, adapting as it went.  Terms like ‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’, which made sense to Jews, were meaningless to Gentiles; words like ‘Lord’ made sense to both, so one of the first major creedal statements was ‘Jesus is Lord’ (1 Cor.12:3).

There were cultural tensions from the start as the faith spread into more diverse communities.  The persecution under Saul of Tarsus scattered believers into Samaria and Galilee.  Peter and John touring the area met God at work in cultures far removed from their own. Both Peter and Cornelius had visions, leading them in the right direction.  Cornelius was a God-fearer, a Gentile who worshipped with the Jews, but not prepared to undergo circumcision.  Peter had just seen God at work among Gentiles, so felt able to accept the hospitality of Simon the tanner, an unclean trade which no ‘good Jew’ would normally accept.  His vision was triggered by hunger, and probably a memory of Jesus’ words about ‘unclean food’ (Mt.15:11).  He thus felt able to enter the house of a Gentile, which a Jew would see as making him unclean.  The scene was thus set for an outpouring of the Spirit and the experience of God working beyond the hitherto accepted boundaries.

Not all could accept the new understandings.  Conservative Jewish Christians insisted that Gentiles coming into the faith must be circumcised.  The Council of Jerusalem took place under the presidency of James in about 50AD: the claim that all should be brought under the Law in that way was answered by the experience of Peter with Cornelius, and of Paul and Barnabas seeing God at work in the Gentile community of Antioch.  The conclusion was compromise: Gentiles need not be circumcised, but certain laws should be observed.  Some are general ethics and morality, while those concerning blood and sacrifice would avoid alienating the Jews. They in turn were expected to accept the uncircumcised as fellow-believers.  The compromise was in time overtaken by events: the church became more Gentile as it spread, and the Jewish community less willing to accept believers in Jesus as Messiah.  Diversity happened, sometimes leading to schism, sometimes contained within the different traditions.  So it has continued, to the present day.

Questions:                                                                                                                                     

1. There is a tension between “we’ve always done it this way’ and “God is leading us into new ways”. How far can a church change without losing its original vision?

2. Ecumenical relations have come a long way in the last few generations. How far is it possible to accept one another and work together while disagreeing on what we believe?

3. “There are some churches where LGBT people are welcome, and some where they aren’t.  As long as there’s somewhere in the church where everyone is welcome, that’s all right.”  So said an LGBT member of their experience of the church.  Is it possible for the church to contain such opposing views, and still live together as one fellowship?

2 thoughts on “An Inclusive Church”

  1. The dimension of faith that pre-occupies many religious people is beliefs – the words with which we try to describe our experience of God in order to make sense of it and to share it with others. These descriptions may be given to us by religious leaders, be listed in catechisms or form part of liturgies. It is clearly important to have the language to discuss our spirituality but we need to know the limits of such descriptions. Humans are too complex for us to know even ourselves fully, so how can we comprehend the creative force that formed the billions of people and innumerable other life forms on this small planet which orbits one of trillions of stars in a 131/2-billion-year-old universe that is still expanding and would take us 43 million years to cross at the speed of light? All our attempts to describe God or the way God interacts with humanity are inadequate; they are our best efforts with the concepts and the language we have available.

    The stress on beliefs can make religion divisive and exclusive. People are seen as either ‘believers’ or ‘non-believers’ (and our beliefs are the only standard); they are ‘saved’ or ‘lost eternally’; they are ‘with us’ or ‘against us’. It leads to seeing those who experience God in a different way as peddling a false message, because we hold the only truth. This assumption that two different ways of expressing a relationship with God must be in conflict with one another is a failure of the imagination. Its consequence is a fractured approach to issues on which all faiths would agree, and evil flourishes in many areas for lack of a concerted effort against it by people of faith who are too busy maintaining the walls of their own religious fortresses.

    The rock on which faith is built isn’t intellectual agreement with religious propositions about God; it’s the heartfelt commitment to a life of love and service which comes from knowledge of God’s love and creative power that one feels from the very centre of one’s being. That’s what people of faith need to share. If they do communicate that confidence through their own commitment, they’ll understand what St Paul meant when he wrote: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. These are very interesting questions that Tony raises. It struck me that they presuppose an orthodox view as in “the original vision” and “what we believe”, so inclusivity has to fit around this orthodox view. Surely it should be the other way round! In the Middle Ages the orthodox view was that witches should be burned at the stake. Fortunately sense prevailed, change was accepted, and the new “orthodox view” became more inclusive.
    So I start with the radical inclusivity displayed by Jesus as in the parables of the prodigal son and the good Samaritan: Absolute unconditional love and forgiveness that is inclusive and non-judgemental. I know there are supposed sayings of Jesus, probably added by 1st Century “improvers”, that deny this, but I treat them with the suspicion they deserve.
    In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is the phrase “The quality of mercy is not strained”. In the same way I feel that love, forgiveness and inclusiveness are not strained; it makes no sense to conceive of half loving, half forgiving, half being merciful or half including!
    This Gospel of amazing love is enough for me and is the measure of how I approach Tony’s questions. Inclusivity is far more important than the credal statements I am supposed to believe.
    There are practical issues about safety and compliance with the law of the land, but Church has to be inclusive in intent and this means acceptance of change.

    Liked by 1 person

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