Tracking Toward Inclusivity

For all the conferences, meetings, councils and pronouncements held, conducted, met and proclaimed over the centuries out of the people who call themselves “Christians”, perhaps none was more fraught with peril, more fragile, more foundational to the identity of this “peculiar people” than the one recorded in the 15th Chapter of the Book of Acts.

The Conflict: Circumcision. Some were teaching the Jesus-believers they had to be circumcised – the Jewish and Gentile believers alike – in order to be saved. They were absolutely correct. Genesis 17 is unequivocal in this God-ordained, God-proclaimed command – not only for the descendants of Abraham, but also for foreigners he had acquired who were “not of your blood.” This was not a suggestion; it was the divine command. It was, to use the Biblical terminology, a “must” in terms of maintaining the covenant between God and Abraham and his descendants. For not circumcising his son, Moses almost lost his life! Thanks to the quick thinking of his wife, Zipporah, who took “a piece of flint” and did the job herself, Moses was spared. (See Exodus 4.)

Called to testify, Paul and Barnabas make their way to Jerusalem, and the debate was on. Something amazing happened – Paul made the case that it was not circumcision, but the presence of the Holy Spirit that signified full inclusion in God’s covenant. And more amazing is the fact that the decision of the council was not “all or nothing”. Circumcision wasn’t prohibited; it just wasn’t required. A letter was sent from the council to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia, and many translations (including KJ, NRSV, AS, NIV) suggest deep humility as the backdrop. The letter was not issued as “command,” but in the less certain tone of “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us …” The letter includes as “essentials” that followers of Jesus refrain from food sacrificed to idols and from fornication.

We know from earlier chapters in Acts that dietary laws were eased for the nascent Christian Community. (See Acts 10.) The trajectory of the Scriptures from the Christian vantage point is always toward greater and greater inclusion.

Fast forward to the Special Session of General Conference that just concluded for the United Methodist Church in St. Louis. Like that first council in Jerusalem, this conference had a single agenda item: Ordination and marriage as it relates to the LGBTQ members of the church. Unlike that first council, and with every opportunity to accommodate a “both / and” resolution, the conference instead voted for an “either / or” church. No latitude was offered to the congregations and clergy whose ministry is not only to and with their LGBTQ members, but whose LGBTQ members are called to licensed and ordained ministry. The conference intensified and hardened a posture of exclusion with regard to leadership and marriage within the church. Either you do it this way, or you leave.

For all the scripture that was quoted, the letter of the law was far more important than the Spirit. And one cannot deny the Spirit’s presence in, on and among LGBTQ Christians who have demonstrated over and again not only their love for Christ, but their passion for and call to ministry within our church.

I suggest that this is not a moment for progressive defiance; rather it is an opportunity for a “seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us” persistence. For all who see the gospel as radically inclusive over the entire gamut of Christian experience for all persons, from the welcoming waters of baptism to the consecrated Episcopal hands-on-head set-apartness of the ordained, from the right to equal opportunity for employment to the blessed bonds of marriage, this is the moment to walk together across the bridge (to take a lesson from MLK).  Hand-in-hand and arm-in-arm, we must bear witness by gently but forcibly putting our shoulders to the task of dismantling the wall of “either/or”.

Given the early church’s capacity to be a community for both Jew and Gentile alike in spite of all the Biblical rhetoric that would seem to render that an impossible reality, it seems to me that we can be a church for gay and straight alike, gender specific and non-binary together. I do believe the Spirit is tracking toward greater inclusivity, and it should be the church’s goal to get on that track as well.

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