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A United Methodist Reflects on Inclusivity

A United Methodist Reflects on Inclusivity

By William Ryzek

Avoiding confusion, contradiction, and deception in religious discourse requires clarity of meaning and consistent application of important words and concepts. An example is how the word "inclusive" is used by the United Methodist Church to describe a distinguishing feature of its overall mission.

In common usage the word means "to make someone or something part of a group," or "to have something as a constituent element." The Book of Discipline describes inclusiveness as: "openness, acceptance, and support that enables all persons to participate in the life of the Church, the community, and the world. Thus, inclusiveness denies every semblance of discrimination." Our theme of "Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors" reflects these definitions and is appropriate insofar as the Gospel provides the context of its proper ecclesiastical use. However, it is precisely this context, or its absence, that is problematic.

I have asked congregates, church leaders, and students what they think the word "inclusive" means and, almost without exception, they confuse it with pluralism. In the absence of clear definition and application, it is easy to see how this might happen; they both imply openness, multiplicity, and non-confrontation. Yet, the words denote very different concepts and, even after making the difference clear, many remained convinced that pluralism should be what inclusive means.

Pluralism is the belief that a multiplicity of views on a particular matter is possible and that each view has equal validity. So, religious pluralism claims that all religions are equally valid expressions of humanity's quest for ultimacy. Epistemological pluralism claims that all truth claims are equally valid, including religious ones. Moral pluralism claims that no single group within society, religious or otherwise, is justified in saying that its views are morally binding for all people. Therefore, if inclusiveness is intended to suggest that "openness and acceptance" mean the ideas and beliefs of all religions are essentially the same as Christianity or vice versa, that all claims to the truth are equal, or that morality is purely subjective, then it is in fact pluralism. Failing to see this distinction will soon turn "open minds" into empty heads, "open hearts" into another form of secular humanism and sentimentalism, and "open doors" into closed ones because there will be nothing left of the Gospel found in the church.

On this matter there seems to be some confusion about the relationship between openness/acceptance and limitation/constraint in the church. Sometimes they are treated as contradictory positions; they are not. To be included in something, whether an organization, a certain group of people, a church, or anything that is possible to belong to, requires that it have delineating parameters and definition. Otherwise, its identity is lost and belonging to it means nothing.

For the Christian church to have anything to say about sin and holiness or exercise any discipline over its adherents, the meaning and practice of inclusiveness requires limitation and constraint in matters of theology, policy, and morality. Replacing these excluding distinctions in the name of some kind of generic peace and love, or openness and acceptance, will drive our churches toward a featureless homogeneity, tame their zeal for the things of God, and rob them of their power.

Consider the meaning of the Biblical word "church." Translated from the Greek word ekklesia it means, among other things, "to be called out from." It can be applied to any group of people who separate themselves from society-at-large in order to fulfill a particular task or function. In our culture, the Elks Club, the Kiwanis, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and other similar secular organizations can be described by the word ekklesia.

However, its use in the New Testament is applied specifically to a community, a fellowship (koinonia), of people called out of the world by God, wholly dedicated to God's purposes, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Membership in this community requires at the very least repentance and conversion from sin, faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and baptism as an outward testimony of that commitment. Although the possibility of membership in this community is open to all (inclusive), actual membership places a person into a unique and sacred fellowship of human beings (exclusive). Add to this the frequent injunctions found in the New Testament to avoid, or exclude certain kinds of people and practices, it becomes clear that limitations and constraints are a necessary part of the Christian experience.

Therefore, the fact is that Christianity is inherently exclusive because it is not Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, or Jainism; nor can it be combined or synthesized with them. Christians are exclusivists because they believe that the holiness and righteousness of God is the only acceptable standard of a truly moral life, not a matter of popular or personal opinion. They are exclusivists because of the conviction that the revelation of God through Christ and the Word written into words is the truth, not merely one religious view among many that are equally legitimate.

Another related issue concerning the use of words found in UM literature is the interplay between inclusiveness and tolerance. The logic goes something like this: since the UM Church is inclusive, it must be tolerant of all kinds of beliefs and behaviors. Being critical of a misguided belief or a behavior is to be intolerant and intolerance is antithetical to inclusiveness. So, if inclusiveness means tolerance, then we are bound to tolerate some of the beliefs and behaviors in our churches that we should in fact condemn. But, to condemn such beliefs or behaviors would make us intolerant. After all, we are the church of open minds, open hearts and open doors. Hence, inclusiveness and such wholesale "openness" cannot tolerate intolerance. I think the irony is clear.

Now, what tolerance means in most contexts is the acceptance of other people who hold different views on an issue than we do and putting up with the irritating or otherwise unpleasant friction that follows. For the sake of argument, let's suppose that the issue is the kind of church pew a new church should have. Some might think they should be made of oak and be traditional in form and function. Others might think they should be soft, comfortable, made of cloth, and have a contemporary look. Now, this is not an issue about which one view is right or wrong; it is a matter of taste. Although the posteriors of the padded pew party might welcome the comfort of cushioned pews, they can tolerate their traditional minded fellows and bend a little.

However, let's suppose the issue is whether Christ was equally God and man. Here the issue is central to the Christian faith and the answer given has far reaching implications concerning the message and mission of Christ's church. Because the stakes are high, tolerance of any view that denies the full divinity and humanity of Christ is to entertain heresy. The upshot is that issues determine what is tolerable. Simple wholesale tolerance for the sake of inclusiveness or vice-versa is simply muddle-headed.

God tolerates our sin but he also condemns it. God tolerates our unfaithfulness, but he also commands us to walk worthy of his calling. We can tolerate saints and their foibles, as well as sinners and their sins in our churches, but only with the proviso that sinners become saints and saints become more saintly. We can tolerate different views about the meaning of the Christ event to humanity, but we cannot tolerate a denial of who or what he is as the Christ. We can tolerate differing interpretations of God's word, but we cannot tolerate a denial of its truth on matters concerning the condition or the eternal destiny of humanity.

Inclusiveness and tolerance, then, really mean that we as a church create no barriers preventing a person from experiencing the love, grace, and salvation of God through Christ. It does not mean that we ignore sin or heresy and their innumerable manifestations. Luther said of the church that it was a hospital for sick souls and so it is. It is also a place of healing, restoration, and renewal. Any truly Christian church should accept all the sick, the alienated, and the downtrodden that seek it out, while at the same time, give them the truth that will set them free. It is an exclusive truth that happens to be inclusive of the whole world.

William Ryzek, Ph.D. has been the senior pastor of several churches and has taught classes on religion, ethics and philosophy in various colleges and universities. He also conducts seminars on relevant theological topics in local churches and has a book set for publication entitled Faith for a Doubting Thomas.

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