Inclusive or exclusive – ways of being church

The two words of the blog post’s title describe two very different ways of being and doing church. An inclusive church is one which welcomes all types of people, people who might otherwise be rejected for reasons of class, race, sexual orientation or age. Such a church tries, sometimes with difficulty and cost, to live out Paul’s statement that ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ’.

Exclusivity in Church presents a quite different vision of what it is about. For exclusive Christians, there is placed a great priority in ensuring that those allowed in church are worthy or pure enough to be there. They will also all have passed through a common conversion experience of ‘giving their heart to Jesus’. They will then be examined to see if they believe a series of statements connected with Christ, his sacrificial death and the need to trust divine revelation revealed in the Bible. They are then believed to be part of a redeemed humanity which, so their church informs them, is saved and destined for eternal life with God in heaven.

This second way of being church is linked to a world view that places a great gulf between good and evil. Human beings are engaged not only with defeating temptation and evil in their lives but also they are called to fight in the cause of righteousness against the forces of evil in the world. The powers of evil are believed to be full of lying and deceit and so exclusive Christians are encouraged to be suspicious of everything and everyone who is not closely identified with their cause. Even those who call themselves Christian must be regarded with, at best, suspicion if they do not speak in the same way as the exclusive Christians. They must be rejected if they allow people who are ‘sinners’ to be part of their fellowship, especially homosexuals. In some places Christians who submit to the ministry of female clergy are also to be shunned.

One of the strengths of this, admittedly extreme, presentation of conservative Christianity is that it is so counter-cultural that those who support it are paradoxically made to feel special. Because they feel the irritation and even hostility of those around them, they have to cling together for mutual support and protection. That closeness is a source of warmth and strength. They also find consolation from the passages in Acts which describe when Christians are persecuted.   If we are persecuted, so the reasoning goes, then it must be because we are true Christians.   The passages from Acts where it is said that the Christians attracted the good-will of the surrounding population are conveniently forgotten in order to sustain the martyr narrative.

To return to the inclusive Christian group, the disadvantage of seeking to live in harmony with the neighbourhood and indeed to serve it, is that no one is trying to persecute you. You will lack that self-righteous buzz of being martyrs for God. There is no reason to have to live in close dependence on your fellow Christians for your survival. The stories of how you became a Christian which draw on a fairly predictable conversion narrative, are absent. Indeed the sheer variety of members’ narratives in an inclusive church could be a problem in taking a church forward because there are so many versions of what it means to be a Christian. It will be for the minister to attempt to identify a common thread in the many accounts that all can identify with. The inclusive church will thus often be untidy and unpolished in exactly what it stands for.  No doubt the more confident exclusive churches around will describe it as ‘wishy-washy’.   But meanwhile it will continue its vital work of trying to reach out to people of all kinds.  Individuals, rich and poor, black or white, native or foreign, young or old, male and female will hopefully find themselves drawn to seek out the mystery of depth that is known to Christian tradition as God. The journey into that depth is helped by the experience of other human beings who have travelled a similar road. Above all, Christian people are drawn into a pondering of the life and death of a particular human being known to us as Jesus. His life and teaching, as well as the events of his death and resurrection, contain within them clues to the greatest mystery and question of all. The question is quite simply: How are we to live? Do we clutch on to safety and security and avoidance of pain, or do we cast off, as in a boat, to explore the new, the unexpected and the real and trust and hope to find God there.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

13 thoughts on “Inclusive or exclusive – ways of being church

  1. Thanks Stephen. I like the passage in Matthew 16 where one moment, Jesus is congratulating Peter for hearing from God accurately (You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church) and the next minute Peter is being told not to be a mouthpiece for thoughts from a very different source (Get thee behind me, Satan)! To me, this sums up the church – both the very best thing in existence and also the worst thing at the same time, which in turn is a bit like creation – both very good (Genesis 1 -2) and very bad (Genesis 3 – 4) at the same time. Minefield!

  2. Masks

    Every church or fellowship that I ever attended was illusionary in as much as (I believe), they didn’t want to know ‘Me’.
    What was needed was an assurance that I would not ‘rock the boat’. In practise this meant nodding my head to reformed theology and the black and white protestant taskmasters tune.
    Grey is not a colour that fits well into that mindset.
    The most frustrating thing about the exclusive approach, is that there is clearly a threshold beyond which they do not wish to reason?
    If we move into our ‘here and now’ situation, I can give a specific example.
    Through a voluntary group called the ‘Outsider-Project’ I, my wife and my friend Mark, have been campaigning for a ‘Community inspectorate team’ (Made up of Retired Doctors, Nurse’s, and Care Assistants’) to be give the legitimacy to go in and do unannounced inspections in Nursing and Care homes. I have sought help and support from various ‘Churches’ only to find a tidal wave of indifference.

    I would add at this point that the suffering residents /patients in these places of descent and dread are part of Christ’s church!
    What is the point of any church (Inclusive or Exclusive) if (What ought to be) concern and humanity for the disempowered, is not seeing or hearing them?
    Stephen has written about an extremely poignant and urgent question. Chris

  3. There was much talk in the 1960s about “The Suburban Captivity of the Churches”. It is still true. The church is essentially suburban and congregations feel more like private clubs than open accepting communities. A leading evangelical Church in Oxford set up a “Church Plant” in a posh suburb and refused the offer to work in a poverty stricken Council estate. That tells you a lot. Fortunately the option for the poor has broken this down a bit and the considerable support for food banks etc in the churches is helping.We still have to learn to be the community of the unlike-minded, otherwise we are just a ghetto. The ex -Jesuit Charles Davis wrote a very important paper saying that the choice for the Church was between becoming a ghetto or going out into the wilderness. For me the wilderness every time, however uncomfortable!

  4. Interesting points Chris and Robert. The fact that exclusive ‘bible based’ churches are often allergic and indifferent to the problems of the poor and disadvantaged has been underlined by a book I am reading from the States. This is about an organisation that seeks to place Bible Clubs in public or state schools in America. Behind this, so the author claims, is an attempt undermine or even destroy the entire public school system. The organisation takes its inspiration not only from conservative evangelical roots, but also from a strand within it, much influential at present, called dominionism. This believes that America should be ruled by righteous God-fearing folk who would preside over a theocratic but ultra right-wing political system. ‘We don’t need democracy when we know what God wants’, might be the summary belief. One thing that prevents this coming to pass is that many institutions are kept firmly separate from religion by the original constitution of 1789. Were the state system of schools to collapse then Christian people could rise up and, so the fantasy goes, and take over responsibility for educating all the nation’s children. It is scary stuff. The book explains this as a middle class conservative vision because only the richer people would be able to afford the fees that that new (bible believing) schools would charge. Obama’s reforms over healthcare are also seen to be ‘socialist’ medicine because the right wing thinking that attacks it, also cannot see why the state should help the poor at the expense of richer people’s taxes. Thank goodness this particular right wing nonsense has not travelled over to our shores (yet!). I am flying to Washington tomorrow so my next post will be sent from there! It may well pick up on these themes.

  5. Thank you Stephen, and thank you Robert,
    I like the term ‘The wilderness’. It somehow seems to give hope? Also as in the the idea of ‘The cloud of unknowing.’ We also perhaps, perceive somewhat of Paul’s honesty when he wrote; ‘We see through a glass darkly’ and ‘We know in part? I only hope that the wilderness believers find a way of working together, God knows, the need is overwhelming! Chris

    1. hi Chris:

      Isaiah says:
      35The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
      the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
      like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly,
      and rejoice with joy and singing.
      The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
      the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
      They shall see the glory of the Lord,
      the majesty of our God.

      3 Strengthen the weak hands,
      and make firm the feeble knees.
      4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
      ‘Be strong, do not fear!
      Here is your God.
      He will come with vengeance,
      with terrible recompense.
      He will come and save you.’

      5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
      and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
      6 then the lame shall leap like a deer,
      and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
      For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
      and streams in the desert;
      7 the burning sand shall become a pool,
      and the thirsty ground springs of water;
      the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,*
      the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

    1. I sang those words once, as the soloist in a performance of Handel’s Messiah. They get me every time. And Chris, yes, the church gets you with implacable indifference.

  6. How does the saving grace of God extend to someone who is not a Christian? (someone who is outside of Christ and his work of propitiation and redemption on the cross?). How does this square with the verse “there is no other name which we must be saved”.

    1. Try reading Romans 2. People who have the word of God written in their hearts. I don’t believe that God will allow people to be lost for any other reason than that they want to be. If that.

  7. Once again my friend we play scripture ping-pong! I have no doubt that you are passionately sincere. I prefer to see Jesus writing in the sand.



    Acts 4 – 12

    ‘There are those who are last who will be first’

    Luke 13- 29

    ‘He that works righteousness is accepted by him’! Acts 10 -34-35

    I shall not respond to jibes, only reasoned discussion

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