‘Inclusive’ has become a form of doublespeak in Christian circles. The word is employed (powerfully and successfully) to make LGBT ideas sound attractive and appealing, and to make traditional Christian views on gender and sexuality sound repressive and deeply unchristian. But what does it actually mean to be ‘inclusive’?
All communities with shared values – all communities, that is – are necessarily inclusive of those who share those values, and exclusive of those who do not. If you don’t share the values of a community, then you will always find yourself excluded, at least to the extent that you feel you don’t quite belong. In that sense there is no such thing as an ‘inclusive’ community, or an ‘exclusive’ community: all communities are both inclusive and exclusive.
So one way of describing a Christian church would be to say that it is a community of people who have a shared commitment to worshipping and following Jesus. If you are not a worshipper and follower of Jesus, then however welcoming a church might be, you will always feel that you don’t quite fit in. This is good and right and healthy. If I went to visit a mosque, for example, I hope they would make me welcome, but I wouldn’t expect to feel fully included.
In other words, it is meaningless to describe a community as ‘inclusive’ in an absolute sense. A community is never simply inclusive, but it is always inclusive of something. A church is never simply inclusive, but it is (or should be) inclusive of all who worship and follow Jesus. So the question to ask when someone says we should be ‘inclusive’ is: What should we be inclusive of?
However, there are three senses in which one community can genuinely be more inclusive than another.
First, a community can be more inclusive by including more people. So a church that panders to the spirit of the age and does nothing to offend anybody could be described as ‘inclusive’ in this sense. A government-supporting church in a totalitarian state might find it includes more people than a church that opposes the government, for example. Being ‘inclusive’ in this sense is not necessarily a good thing.
Second, a community can be more inclusive simply by doing what it says on the tin. If a church claims to be inclusive of all who worship and follow Jesus, but if that church makes no effort to make it possible for people with certain disabilities to be involved, then that church is not doing what it says on the tin. It is not being inclusive of Christians who have certain disabilities.
Third, a community can be more inclusive by showing genuine kindness to those who do not share its values. What happens when you walk into a gathering of a community that is not inclusive of people like you – a particular political meeting, for example? When they find out that you don’t share their values, are they still friendly to you? Do they show you basic hospitality? Do they treat you as a real human being? Do they see any hope that you might be won over to their point of view? Or do they make you feel that, by not sharing their values, you are somehow beyond the pale?
‘Inclusive’ has become something of a code word. There is disagreement among Christians as to whether a certain very specific activity is sinful or not, and describing a church as ‘inclusive’ conveys a particular answer to that question. This is not to say that these ‘inclusive’ churches are simply permissive places where anything goes. They would typically disapprove of human trafficking, for example. A slave trader is unlikely to receive a warm affirming embrace in this kind of ‘inclusive’ church. In other words, these ‘inclusive’ churches are inclusive of certain things, but not inclusive of other things. They are not ‘inclusive’ in any absolute sense.
But what about the ways in which a community could be genuinely inclusive? Are these ‘inclusive’ churches genuinely inclusive?
First, do ‘inclusive’ churches include more people than ‘non-inclusive’ churches? In the UK today, probably the majority of the population would agree with the ‘inclusive’ answer to this specific ethical question. So, in this specific cultural context at least, there is some reason to describe such a church as ‘inclusive’. It is more closely aligned with the spirit of the age, and therefore it (potentially) includes more people. But Jesus hasn’t always been popular with the majority, so there is no particular virtue in being inclusive in a purely numerical sense.
Second, do ‘inclusive’ churches do what it says on the tin? I suspect they are pretty good at making sure no one is unintentionally excluded – on the grounds of disability, for example. But by claiming simply to be ‘inclusive’, they avoid the question of what they are seeking to be inclusive of. If they are seeking to be inclusive of all who worship and follow Jesus, then what does that actually mean? What does it mean for sexual ethics to be a follower of Jesus?
Third, do ‘inclusive’ churches show genuine kindness to people who do not share their values? The proof of the pudding is in the eating. If a slave trader went to an ‘inclusive’ church, how would that person be treated?
All churches – ‘inclusive’ or not – need to think carefully about how to show hospitality to people who do not share their values. Will such people be told, essentially, that ‘people like you’ don’t belong here? Or will they be lovingly introduced to a Saviour who is so wonderful and life-giving that it’s worth a complete transformation of life and attitudes in order to follow him?
Churches like that could justifiably be described as ‘inclusive’. (‘Welcoming’ would be clearer.)
But – please – can we stop using ‘inclusive’ as a form of doublespeak?