This new MB Herald column provides responses to questions that readers may have about CCMBC and its work collaborating with provincial MB conferences in areas of spiritual health and theology, leadership development, mission, and organizational health in order to achieve the overall mission: “To cultivate a community and culture of healthy disciple-making churches and ministries, faithfully joining Jesus in his mission.” If you would like to contribute a question, please send it to Questions@mbchurches.ca . (Please note that we will not be using your name in the MB Herald in order to respect those who prefer anonymity. There may not be space to respond to every question—and sometimes we might not really have the ability or authority to respond to some questions [for example, those that relate more directly to one of our provincial MB conferences or to a local church leadership]. We apologize in advance if we are unable to publish a response to your specific question.)
I have a few lesbian co-workers who are married or about to get married. I don’t feel I can invite them to church, since they would not be able to participate fully in our congregation should they ever be interested in joining. Many same sex couples have children. I struggle with the thought that in our MB churches, these individuals would have to dissolve their family units to be part of our church family. I don’t think it’s right to say that these families can join and remain in their family units so long as they commit to remain celibate – we wouldn’t put that burden and stress on a heterosexual couple. Whether their same-sex sexual attraction is God-sanctioned or not, it is still very real and would set couples up for failure and shame if they had to remain celibate while still living together. What are your thoughts on how to include same sex families in church fellowship?
Thanks, E., for this challenging question. My response here is only a small part of what could be said. You have not mentioned whether your coworkers identify as followers of Jesus or whether they are part of a church community already. I will answer your question as if they do not claim this—while knowing that I might be wrong. (Sorry if that is the case. If your coworkers do identify as followers of Jesus and are looking for a warm and supportive church community to encourage them in their present marital and familial life, then I may respond somewhat differently in light of that new information.)
I sense two parts to your question: First, you express significant hesitation about what your invitation to church could mean for your co-workers if they came to the point of wanting to join your church. (I will assume that you mean they become Christ followers and then want to join your church—again sorry if my assumptions are incorrect.) I certainly can empathize with your hesitations but here are a few thoughts that come to mind based on the New Testament:
- No perceived obstacles about the implications of a positive response to Jesus should stop us from inviting people to Jesus and the Kingdom community (the church—local and universal). Jesus does not tell his followers to be selective in their making of disciples. All peoples, all nations, all individuals are to be invited (cf. Matthew 28:19). Jesus expects us to live out what I would call a “universal invitation.”
- Significant personal life and relational disruption should be an expected part of what it means to respond to Jesus and become a disciple of Jesus. Simon and Peter had to leave their “nets”—their vocations and economic security—to follow Jesus. James and John had to leave their boat and their father (their family connection) to follow Jesus. Zacchaeus, the wealthy Jewish tax collector in Luke 19, responded to Jesus by dramatically changing the normal patterns in his economic life. The woman caught in adultery was told by Jesus to “leave your life of sin” (John 8:11). The rich young ruler, on the other hand, was unwilling to accept this level of personal life disruption and went away “deeply dismayed” and “grieving” because he “owned much property” (Mark 10:22 NASB). Becoming a follower of Jesus is a big deal—and disruption should be expected.
- Jesus and the now and not-yet Kingdom are of such value that personal disruption, sacrifice, or even the loss of one’s own life pale in comparison (cf. Philippians 1:21). Jesus’ disciples left their families, their occupations, their wealth, and all that was familiar—because of the treasure of the Kingdom (Luke 12:33). The Kingdom is a treasure or a one-of-a-kind pearl worth selling everything for (cf. Matthew 13:44-46)—if we do not believe that it is actually worth all of this disruption, then we shouldn’t be having this conversation at all. Our task is to invite all people to this incomparable Kingdom life with Jesus, rather than stay quiet because we worry that the cost will be too high for them.
- We can’t know exactly what Jesus will call each person to in terms of personal life disruptions and the timing of those disruptions—especially when a person is in a complex marital/familial situation where there are significant commitments and responsibilities involved. Not everyone will have to “sell everything and follow me.” Not everyone will have to “leave their boat and their father.” We must trust that Jesus will do good in the lives of your friends if one or more of them responds to Jesus’ call. We have a God who can take very challenging situations and point them in the direction of life and beauty and freedom. In addition, the Holy Spirit promises your local church wisdom as they are called to walk with new believers on their discipleship journey (cf. Matthew 16:19).
The second part of your question is about how to include same sex families in church fellowship. I’m not sure exactly what you are meaning by the word “include” but here are my reflections about how we should be using the word.
Based on what I think is New Testament teaching and modeling, the local church should show hospitality and compassion to all people as part of our call to “love our neighbours”—but offer family inclusion to all those who respond to the invitation to become baptized disciples of Jesus, and who embrace and desire to live out the mission and theological/ethical commitments of that local church. If this is the kind of “inclusion” you are asking about, then if one of your co-workers presently in a same sex family relationship becomes a disciple of Jesus and wants to walk the path of discipleship within your church, your church should absolutely celebrate what God has done in the life of that person. Then your church should ensure that they are included, given a true sense of belonging, offered community as they discern together what faithful discipleship could look like, and invited to participate as a full member of the family. Invite, celebrate, pray for, and walk the discipleship journey together would be the short answer about inclusion of any new believer.
But I hear people using the word “include” (or “inclusive”) to mean something else entirely—unconditional inclusion of all people as a social justice action in response to harm and marginalization. The inclusion motto is “You Belong Here!” Unconditional inclusion of all people regardless of their self-chosen identities, life choices, and so on has become one of the pillars of what I would call “secular religion” (and it certainly is a religion with beliefs that cannot be questioned and threats of severe sanctions on those who live in conflict with the beliefs). Secular religion seems to believe that humans through political actions and policies can create the “Kingdom” where everyone lives in peace, love, and justice—and unconditional inclusion is a key component of this “gospel.” Many Christians and churches are racing to adopt this unconditional inclusion part of secular religion and slapping a Jesus fish symbol on it. (Some would even claim that this unconditional inclusion is at the heart of Anabaptism and “peace,” citing Palmer Becker’s third Anabaptist essential of “reconciliation.”)
But Jesus’ path to reconciliation and the Kingdom was not by means of unconditional inclusion but by means of hospitality and an unconditional invitation to forgiveness, worship, and discipleship within the new community. Jesus threw out a wide invitation—eating with a surprising collection of people (e.g., tax collectors, “sinners,” Pharisees) and offering bread and fish to the multitudes. But only those who responded to Jesus’ “follow me” invitation ever became “included” in his community. By eating with all these people, Jesus’ life modeled universal invitation not universal inclusion. Only the Lord’s Supper represented family inclusion. (Judas at the last supper is not an argument for universal inclusion but a warning that even a close family member can “kiss Jesus and walk away.”)
The rich young ruler might be a posterchild for Jesus’ universal invitation preceding the “welcome-to-the-family” inclusion. Jesus invited him (I trust with love and hospitality) but there was a significant high bar for family inclusion, so the man “went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property” (Matt 19:22). Jesus did not follow the “belonging comes first” idea, and Jesus did not run after him when the man turned away from Jesus’ invitation. (See John 6:24-70 for more of Jesus’ model of invitation before family inclusion.)
Wide unconditional inclusion (which is really only possible if one embraces some version of universalism) may have the appearance of being loving to those who walk in our doors and to those pressuring us toward this posture—but it is not fundamentally truthful about God or about Jesus’ own model lived out while he was on earth. Unconditional inclusion is also not faithful to the model of the Early Church. Paul’s letters to each local church assume that the hearers are converted disciples of Jesus (e.g., Rom 7:4; 1 Cor 5:11).
An alternative argument in favour of unconditional inclusion/family belonging is that the church must practice this as the best missiological strategy with the hope that this belonging and inclusion will eventually lead to believing and faith (and presumably behaving at some point). The motto here could be—“belonging comes first.” The idea is that by having few or no family inclusion limits, people will be so taken by the unconditional grace of the community that they will eventually be drawn to faith, the embrace of the local church’s mission, and our theological/ethical commitments. The jury is still out whether this strategy will lead to people converting to Jesus, pursuing Kingdom discipleship, and eventually embracing our missional and theological/ethical convictions. The other possible outcome is that the full church inclusion and participation of individuals who are not yet disciples of Jesus and/or not interested in embracing the theological/ethical convictions of that family will eventually undermine both the mission and the theological/ethical convictions of that church. I would suggest that the latter is more likely.
I do hope that all of our MB churches are places where every person—especially those marginalized in our communities—experiences gracious hospitality and a universal invitation to Jesus, the Kingdom, and the Kingdom community (the church). Then, my prayer is that every person who responds to that amazing invitation and desires to embrace the mission and the convictions of that church—will be included fully in the family as that person walks through whatever life disruptions that discipleship to Jesus will inevitably bring.
Thanks again for your great question. My prayers are with you as you reflect on what Jesus is calling you to as you show Jesus’ love to your co-workers.
Ken Esau (National Faith & Life Director)