Affirming, inclusive and progressive (God's better way)

Seeing the Church of England continue to implode this week reminded me of a recent article I wrote about how we can be welcoming to all, without affirming sinful behaviours.

Sadly, living in a post Christian society we are challenged to declare our support of, and uphold the personal rights of, everyone and anyone to do life their way.  Saying that you’re an affirming, inclusive and progressive church, heralds your endorsement of society’s values.  This appears to be the path that the Bishops of the Church of England are striving to take.
But there’s a better way to do affirming, inclusive and progressive.  The message being sold needs to swing from the rather limited message of ‘come as you are, stay as you are,’ to the promise of God that when we experience the process of sanctification we are transformed by the Holy Spirit.  Surely that is the essence of a biblically affirming, inclusive and progressive church. One which excludes no one, and where all who attend have time and space to be transformed by God’s love.

Being an affirming church speaks to me of the act of compassion demonstrated by Jesus with the woman with the issue of blood. Regardless of who walks through the door of our church, we know that through Jesus they can find healing and righteousness.  Rather than hiding in the shadows, feeling judged or unworthy; affirming churches should be places where people can, if they choose, mix in with the crowd. The woman with the issue of blood was both unclean and inferior as a woman in a patriarchal society.  By being in the crowd she had already put herself in a place where she was likely to be torn down.  Yet Jesus did not condemn.  Had the crowd noticed her, I am sure there would have been many who would have tried to prevent her from touching the hem of Jesus’ cloak.

Let us never be guilty of preventing someone from reaching out to Jesus.

Controversies raging around inclusion are the hot topic of most western societies.  The discourse on sexuality provokes heated discussion and the church is not exempt.  We have enough Scripture available to us to illustrate that Jesus was certainly effective in ensuring that no one was left out, and that surely should be our goal as the church.  Yet in order to prevent people from feeling excluded, Jesus was not in the habit of renaming sin as something good.  Rather he tackled it directly by addressing the state of the heart. Simply consider the story of the woman caught in adultery.  The words of Jesus from John 8 are familiar to us;
“Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said. And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”
Those words ring out, “go and sin no more”; in other words, address your heart and see where you need to change.  Jesus was showing her love but gently called out her actions as something that needed to be addressed. She was not shunned or worse stoned, but there was a challenge that did not shy away from the reality that her behaviour was not something Jesus would condone. He lovingly, yet clearly corrected her by that one simple statement, go and sin no more.

1 Corinthians 5 reminds us that our judgment should not fall on those outside of the church, and that includes all who come to our churches seeking answers and relationship with God.  Inclusion means loving people where they are at.  It means not excluding them by virtue of a judgmental word, an unfriendly environment or worse still a pointed reference to their lifestyle.  Being inclusive requires us to switch the question around and address our response; “in what ways are we excluding people?”

Let’s consider whether, as those who hold fast to the Bible being the inerrant word of God, we can safely call ourselves progressive? Progressive church is a relatively new term; it paints a picture of a church that has stepped away from the antiquated practices of the past, a church that focuses more on social justice than sound doctrine.  Perhaps it suggests a church that has moved with the times, that recognises how life has changed significantly since the Bible was written and one that has a revisionist view of Scripture. For those of us who hold to the traditional interpretation of Scripture on sexuality, progressive church is not where you are likely to find us on a Sunday morning!

Yet in seeking to be a church that is truly progressive, would it not be more realistic to talk about a progressing church, a church that is constantly evolving and growing?  Jesus told Peter that He would build his church (Matthew 16:18).  This was never meant to be a one off event, the church is being built by Jesus to an ever increasing degree of glory; the church is being perfected for the bridegroom.  The reality is that, yes things in the world have changed significantly since Jesus walked the earth, but God does not change, his ways and teachings remain the same. (Malachi 3:6, Hebrews 13:8).

And in recognising the progression of the church, we appreciate how progressive Jesus was in his day.  There are so many examples in the Bible of how progressive Jesus was for his time. Here’s just five things that stood out to me!

  • Jesus encouraged wealth distribution: he told a rich man to give all he had to the poor (Mark 10:21)
  • Jesus spoke out against earning interest (Luke 6:35)
  • Jesus spent time with prostitutes despite the potential for gossip or slander (Luke 7:38)
  • Jesus treated women as equals, think about how Mary sat at his feet listening as he taught (Luke 10:39)
  • Jesus didn’t tolerate behaviour that traditional religious leaders tolerated, as shown when he overturned the tables in the temple courts (Luke 19:45)

Jesus was radical, and we too can be radical churches.  It’s not hard to love radically, regardless of a person’s sex, gender, identity or orientation; we can love.  Let’s be churches that think and talk about the difficult questions.  Questions such as, “how can we welcome members of the LGBTQ community, how can we support, love and affirm them as important members of our community?”

The only answer to becoming the church Jesus calls us to be is to look to Him as our example.  Yes he called out sin, but he didn’t pursue sin, he was content to speak truth and allow the person to choose their response.  He affirmed people through his love and grace, he never excluded anyone from his ministry and as a progressive he never once called evil good or good evil.
Jesus is the ultimate example of compassion and truth; let us aspire to follow his example as we open our churches to a society more in need of Jesus than ever before.





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