Unless it includes everyone, the church cannot be the church
God calls each and every one of us - so if we put up barriers and exclude certain people whom God is calling, we are not doing God’s work.
By Ruth Wilde, Tutor for the Inclusion of Disabled People at Northern Baptist College
God calls everyone
There is a phrase from Isaiah on the font in Salisbury Cathedral, which took my breath away when I first saw it:
‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine’ – Isaiah 43:1
For me, inclusion is and has always been about calling. God calls each and every one of us. Not only a chosen few, or some more than others. We are all incredibly important to God. That doesn’t mean that community isn’t important or that we are not dependent on one another – it is and we are – but God calls us as individuals too. We are each precious and irreplaceable. We each have a name which only God knows. We are each knit together by God in our mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13). None of us has the right to tell someone else that they are defective or less wonderful than anyone else in the eyes of God.
God calls all people equally. This is why the Baptists and the Quakers (my denomination) both believe so fiercely in a non-hierarchical church; a church where there is autonomy of thought, equality between members, and where everyone is in communion with God and led by God’s Spirit. Some are not considered better than others or more in touch with God.
In theory anyway. Of course, we all fall short of God’s ideal in what we do and how we treat one another. One of my bugbears in the Society of Friends is that sometimes certain Quakers are called ‘weighty Friends’, meaning that their opinion carries extra weight – perhaps because they have been Quakers for a long time, or they have fulfilled important roles locally and nationally. However, in my opinion, this goes entirely against the Quaker testimony to equality. I’m sure you as Baptists can think of many similar examples of when some people are treated or considered better than other people, despite the things we profess to believe in.
Every person is important to God and every person is called by God. This is why if we do not follow the inclusive example of Jesus – welcoming all and centring the most marginalised – we are not truly being the church. God calls everyone without exception. If we put up barriers and exclude certain people whom God is calling, we are not doing God’s work, we are not building the Kingdom of God, and we are not being the church.
Jesus’ inclusive example
The books of the Bible were written at very different times to our own, but nevertheless we can see how they still speak to us and can guide us today – especially the stories of Jesus. There are so many examples in the gospels of Jesus’ radical inclusion, but I will just draw out two powerful examples from the Gospel of John, because that is the gospel which has most often been dismissed as exclusive (some of this is due to the way it has been tragically misused and abused by anti-Semites and Nazis). It is however, at its heart, just as inclusive as the other three, if not more so.
The first example is a story which appears only in John – the Samaritan woman at the well in John chapter 4. Jesus stops at a well in Samaria to speak to a woman who is there all alone. Firstly, he has apparently gone through Samaria, whereas scholars say that it was common at the time for Jews to go all the way round, in order to avoid coming into contact with Samaritans. Jews and Samaritans were a bit like Catholics and Protestants can be and have been at some points in history – very close religiously, but enemies in spite of (and perhaps because of) that fact.
Jesus has no problem going through Samaria himself, and he has walked quickly and gone ahead of his disciples. He therefore meets the woman all alone. The woman is sadly not named by John – perhaps her name has been forgotten, or perhaps this is a case of unconscious (or even conscious) bias against women at the time. Jesus begins to talk to her, despite all the taboos in his culture against speaking to a woman alone, and speaking to a Samaritan.
Not only this, but she is likely an outcast, as she is at the well in the heat of the midday sun, on her own. Usually, women would have gone together in groups, and they would have avoided the hottest part of the day. He is speaking to a Samaritan woman who has probably been rejected by her own community, perhaps because she is forced to live with a man who won’t marry her, after a string of unfortunate past relationships.
I want to make the important point here that the way we sometimes interpret the part about her having had multiple husbands is entirely historically inaccurate and reveals our prejudice – she wouldn’t have been able to initiate any of the divorces and she would have likely been financially dependent on men, meaning that any previous husbands who died or divorced her probably left her destitute. When Jesus points out that she is unmarried and has had a string of husbands, the last thing he would be doing is judging her.
The fact that Jesus breaks all social taboos by even engaging the woman in conversation (the disciples are shocked when they arrive) is not even the most remarkable part of this story though. The two most incredible aspects of this story are:
that he has an in-depth theological conversation with her, in which she more than holds her own (and that said conversation is the longest one of any in the whole gospel), and
by giving her secret knowledge of who he is and telling her to spread the word to her village, he restores her rightful place in the community to which she belongs, and he gives her power and agency within that community, as she is now an important bearer of good news – an apostle, if you will.
This story shows that Jesus cares not only about welcoming or including marginalised people, but about empowering them and centring them too.
The second story I want to highlight is in John 6 – the feeding of the multitude. This story appears in all four gospels (and in one gospel twice!) – which is pretty unusual – but in John it contains some interesting details. It is likely that a large number of the crowd that day were made up of disabled and sick people. The gospel writer says that the people who followed Jesus did so because of ‘signs he was doing for the sick’ (6:2). They gathered on the side of the Sea of Tiberias (also called the Sea of Galilee) which was considered an unclean sea on the edge of a ‘necropolis’, Tiberias. Most Jews would have been headed to the Passover celebrations (‘Passover… was near’ 6:4), and they certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be at Tiberias, so this was likely a crowd of outcasts – people on the edge of society. It seems once more that Jesus wants to be with the most marginalised people, even when there is an important religious feast approaching. Jesus’ expansive love and inclusion inspires others to share and be in community with one another, feeding a great multitude of thousands.
The calling of the church to inclusion
The longer I have worked in the field of inclusion with churches, the more I have realised how essential it is to our faith, to the mission and future of the church, and – most importantly – to the building of God’s kingdom. Firstly, as can be seen above, it is one of the major themes and right at the heart of the gospel – I could have given so many more examples of Jesus’ radical inclusion and work for justice alongside marginalised people, just from John (the wedding at Cana, the woman ‘caught in adultery’, etc), never mind the other gospels.
Secondly, inclusion is the route of true discipleship, as we are called to follow and imitate Jesus, who always worked to include and centre those who were excluded. Thirdly, it is essential to church growth, and therefore the survival and future of the church, as studies from the Methodist church have recently shown. And finally, it is (as I said above) essential to being the church, as we are all called by God and have no right to put up a barrier or stop sign for some people but not others.
My new role at Northern Baptist College may be focussing on disability inclusion, but I am also the National Coordinator of the ecumenical charity Inclusive Church (IC), so I am used to thinking intersectionally about inclusion. As one of the IC trustees, Fiona MacMillan, says, ‘all exclusion is the same exclusion’. It is important that we understand that. I look forward to working more closely with Baptist churches, trainee ministers and tutors on how we heed the call of God to open wide our gate and include everyone.
Image | Salisbury Cathedral font | Andrew Writer | Flickr | Creative Commons
Ruth Wilde is the new Tutor for the Inclusion of Disabled People at Northern Baptist College.
She is also the National Coordinator of Inclusive Church and an Associate Tutor at Woodbrooke Quaker Learning and Research Centre
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