Inclusivity is perhaps the cardinal virtue of our postmodern society. However, seemingly positive terms like “welcoming” and “inclusive” have become hotly contested in the church.
These words—“welcoming” and “inclusive”—often get placed front and center on churches’ websites or lobbed like grenades on social media. But what do they mean? What does the Bible say about these terms?
Rather than fight for control over these words, perhaps we could try using different language. “Hospitality” and “holiness” do just as well—if not better—at describing the task of the church. Jesus’ interactions with tax collectors, sinners and Pharisees exemplify both ideas.
Jesus at the dinner table
Perhaps the most enduring image of “inclusivity” from the New Testament is Jesus dining with sinners. Even non-Christians who don’t read the Bible seem to be familiar with and to admire these stories.
Luke 5 describes Jesus calling Levi, a tax collector, to follow him. Levi did and held a banquet for Jesus. Many other tax collectors joined the feast. Jesus’ public dining with these tax collectors scandalized the Pharisees. Tax collectors were infamous for embezzlement and for exploiting their fellow Jews in service to the Roman Empire.
The Pharisees regarded tax collectors and other sinners as dangerous. The Pharisees actually had noble goals. They wanted to encourage maximum faithfulness to God’s commands in Scripture. Since sin is a corrupting force, the Pharisees encouraged separation from sinners in order to protect the community’s holiness.
Jesus’ decision to dine with tax collectors and sinners put his own holiness and the holiness of the community at risk. His inclusive and welcoming attitude was subversive and offensive. He enjoyed table fellowship with perpetrators of serious sin, which the Pharisees took to imply Jesus’ approval of the sin.
Doctors, the sick and the healthy
When the Pharisees asked Jesus’ disciples why their leader ate with sinners, Jesus overheard and responded: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32).
How awkward was Jesus’ answer for Levi and his tax collector friends? Jesus labeled them sinners and said he was there to call them to repentance—right in front of their faces.
The Pharisees were partially right! Jesus’ new friends were sinners and needed to repent. Jesus himself frequently warned of the dangers posed by sin and hell (Matthew 5:30; 13:41-42; 18:7-9). Jesus did not approve of the tax collectors’ sins or anybody else’s, and he wasn’t afraid to say so publicly. He knew what’s at stake.
But Jesus didn’t shun or ostracize sinners. He extended them friendship and kindness. Jesus didn’t preach only about repentance and hell. He knew gentleness and compassion are necessary, too. He wasn’t afraid of being corrupted or led astray by bad company. He was and is far more of a threat to others’ sins than others’ sins are to him.
Jesus held himself to the highest standards of holiness and called sinners to repentance. But he did so within a framework that prioritized compassion, kindness and friendship—even for the worst of sinners.
We are called, both individually and corporately, to follow Christ’s example (1 Peter 2:21). But what does that look like, especially in the complicated context of a local church? The Apostle Paul is helpful here.
In Galatians 6:1, Paul states: “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.”
Notice how Paul began by calling them “brethren”—emphasizing their unity and fellowship—and how he called for a “spirit of gentleness.”
Paul calling for the expulsion of an incestuous man from the community in 1 Corinthians 5 represents an extreme case where all other options failed. But even when reminding the Corinthians not to “associate with immoral people,” Paul clarified he was talking about immoral people who claim to be Christian(5:9-13).
Belonging and believing
Galatians 6:1 provides refreshingly straightforward instruction for how Christians can practice hospitality and holiness in relationship with other Christians. But what about non-Christians? How should churches relate to those who have not repented of their sins and put their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?
My college and missions pastor likes to emphasize this idea: People frequently belong before they believe. This means non-Christians frequently come to repentance and faith in Christ because they have found friendship and fellowship with Christians, not before they’ve done so.
This doesn’t mean baptizing non-Christians, giving them the Lord’s Supper and making them official church members. What it does mean is cultivating meaningful friendships with people who are not Christian. It means making non-Christians a part of our communities.
It should go without saying, of course, that these relationships should be genuine; our friendships with non-believers should not be “evangelism projects.” These relationships should push us outside our comfort zones. We should not simply expect people to come to us; we should go to them, even when it isn’t “safe.”
The Great Physician
Remember that Jesus describes sinners as “sick” and in need of a doctor. He’s not absolving them of responsibility for their actions, but he is recognizing there’s more at play.
Consider, for example, loved ones who contract lung cancer after years of smoking. They made a bad decision that led directly to their illness, but if you love them you won’t say, “Serves you right,” and just let them die. No, you’ll do everything you can to find them the best treatment. You’ll stick by their side until the end and make sacrifices to get them help.
The God revealed in Jesus Christ is the Good Doctor, the only one who can provide healing and salvation from sin. This sometimes requires “invasive surgery” or “amputation,” but God gladly will do what it takes to save us from sin and death.
And he does not wait for patients to show up. He seeks them out, he shows them kindness and compassion, and he offers them genuine friendship. We who follow Christ are called to do the same.
Sin may be contagious, but so is the love and righteousness of God.
Joshua Sharp is a Master of Divinity student and graduate assistant in the Office of Ministry Connections at Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas. The views expressed are those solely of the author.