Not too long ago, I suggested that perhaps the Emerging Church moniker was perhaps not the best expression in talking about the changes that are occuring in the church world. Using a phrase offered by Wes Roberts, I suggested that perhaps the better (or more accurate) image for many of us would be “The Embracing Church.” The image of having a place in the embrace of God, welcoming all as they are to experience the radical love and grace of the creator (and therefore, to be agents of that embrace) runs as an uspoken theme through many of the writings and blog posts on the emerging world.
I am working with several folks on a Critical Concerns Course for the Nashville Emergent Convention which is loosely working with that theme to examine how we function as agents of the embrace. For too long (as Volf suggests in his book Exclusion and Embrace) the church has defined itself through exclusion. The focus is far too often on who is not in the club, rather than who is invited in. It is a Pharisaical view of Christianity which suggests that faith is defined by uniform thought and practice (Brian McLaren’s introduction to his new book, “A Generous Orthodoxy” speaks to this issue).
It’s an issue that is present for both so-called conservatives and liberals. For conservatives, the tribe of my youth, it shows up in legalism, the systems and “principles” which define both orthodoxy and orthopraxy. For liberals, the tribe that I am closer to now, exclusion rears its ugle head in reaction to supposed conservative abuses, which leads folks to verbally embrace inclusion, but within the limits of our political and theological beliefs. In both cases, in spite of arguments to the contrary, both extremes place limits on who is invited to the table, and who isn’t.
It is frankly, easy to see why this tendency exists, based on the Biblical witness. Throughout much of the history of what became Christendom, the religious impulse was based on exclusion. After all, our Jewish forebears were “the chosen,” offered an exclusive revelation of God. The entire system of faith was built on who was in and who was out, the clean and unclean, Jew and Gentile.
Of course, that understanding was turned on it’s head with the coming of Jesus into the world. Jesus welcomed all sorts of folks into the revelation of God — be they Samaritans, women, the poor and marginalized, or the ethically challenged. The good news that Jesus brought (and was then articulated by the missionary Paul) was that kingdom was open to all. Jesus came and demonstrated the embrace of God, the loving welcome and inclusion of all to the table.
I am hoping, if I can keep my head together, to use this space for the next few weeks as a place to flesh out what it means to be persons charged with carrying out the mission of welcome to the world. More specifically, I am wanting to explore this at a personal level, asking how our hearts are reformed to live into the kingdom reality of inclusion. The reality is that we carry all sorts of seeds of exclusion, be they racism, sexism, classism, or homophobia. Part of our being transformed in the image of Christ is to begin the process of recovery from these dark places in our souls. Theological reflection without corresponding transformation and practice is an exercise in futility. My hope is that we might be able to explore together the practical ways of embrace that characterize what it means to be a follower of Christ.
I am sure that some will read this and immediately decide that I am arguing for a form of universal salvation in which there are no boundaries. That is not the case. Certainly, Jesus’ example showed that boundaries of participation in the kingdom were present. More often than not, however, those who seem excluded from Jesus world were those who were unwilling to be inclusive in their understanding of faith — be they the theological exclusivism of the Pharisees, or the socio-economic exclusion of the Rich, Young Ruler. Yes, boundaries do exist. But the invitation is open to all. The issue for us is that we have extended the boundaries to the invitation to participation in the kingdom.
Finally, this is a work in progress for me. I offer no suggestion that I have arrived and that I am offering a model for being that I have embraced. There are all sorts of ways that I contribute to the problem of exclusion. For my desire of being a person of embrace, the boundaries that I place around me are huge. This is a process of transformation for me, a hope that by reflecting on these issues I may be led to a new place.
I hope you will join me on the way.