Is ‘inclusion’ a Christian virtue?

socialexclusionMost people reading the title above will wonder what the debate is about—but in different directions. Some will say ‘of course is it’ and others ‘of course it isn’t’. The latest title in the Grove Ethics series explores this vexed question and is a powerful and important study by Dr Edward Dowler, formerly Vice Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford and currently Vicar of Clay Hill, north London. His introduction highlights this polarisation of views.

One of the most powerful ways in which the New Testament expresses the good news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ is the image of adoption articulated by St Paul at the beginning of the Letter to the Ephesians. To be adopted is surely to be included: enfolded into Christ and thus unfolded into his mission. We thus start our investigation of inclusivity by noting that inclusion in this sense is a positive, indeed a glorious, thing, something God does, not because we deserve it, but ‘according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace.’

Yet, when we move from the specific theological theme of our inclusion into God’s family as his adopted sons and daughters and, indeed, as Paul elsewhere teaches, our inclusion into Christ himself (eg 1 Cor 12.1) towards a more generic idea of inclusivity, things become contentious. For some, such a move seems obvious: inclusivity is a concept that points the way towards a more generous church, one that is ‘welcoming and open to all.’ Any denial of it seems to undermine fundamental Christian values, distort the mission of the church and ultimately misunderstand the graciousness of God because ‘inclusion is the gospel.’

For others, such emphasis on inclusivity as a fundamental value seems like a distortion of the gospel: a warmed-over, sentimental version of secular ideas, which masquerades as Christian theology whilst, at the same time, undermining and corroding it.

In his second chapter, Dowler explores the basic problems in the meaning of the term ‘inclusive’ as it is used in everyday discourse.

Now, of course, in modern parlance, the terms ‘inclusive’ and ‘inclusivity’ are currently used as a sort of shorthand to denote a liberal attitude, which seeks fairness for women, gay people and minority groups. But the open-ended nature of the term inevitably invites a question about how far such inclusivity extends. The inclusivity of groups and individuals does not normally stretch, for example, to an uncritical welcome to religious fundamentalists, paedophiles and members of the extreme right-wing political parties. Thus ‘inclusive’ as it is commonly used today effectively amounts to ‘inclusive of some groups but not others.’

The ironic result is that the language of inclusivity itself comes to be used as a means of defining groups that are in and out. As one writer puts it, ‘Toleration despises bigots, inclusiveness shuts out excluders, and diversity insists that we all line up to support it.’ Once a directory is compiled of those parishes or other organizations who define themselves as ‘inclusive,’ then this automatically implies that those who are not featured on the list do not share this identity. The very term ‘inclusive’ thus comes to be used as an instrument of exclusion, effectively creating ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups.

In the third chapter, Dowler goes on to review the work of James Kalb from the US, who argues that the liberal culture of ‘inclusion’ functions to flatten out and eliminate the significance of traditional institutions like family, religion, and local and particular communities.

If Kalb’s analysis is in any way correct, churches, which by their nature tend to be small-scale institutions, relying to some extent on informal, local arrangements and connections between people, might be threatened by certain aspects of the inclusive agenda. For, as Kalb contends, in an idealized inclusive society that many hope for, ‘The particularities of history, place and human relation must be deprived of significance. Traditional ties, standards, and identities must be destroyed so that populations become aggregates of unconnected individuals who are easy to sort and manage and unlikely to resist rationalized training, marketing, and propaganda.’20 For local churches, seeking to form communities of the baptized in the image of Jesus Christ, with distinctive identities, and bound together by love and friendship, such an approach presages destruction and death.

This makes for highly pertinent reading in a week when the inspection of church Sunday Schools by OFSTED is in the news, as part of the Government’s campaign against extremism.

Dowler goes on to explore the origins of Western ides of the individual, and argues that it originates in Christian understandings of men and women made in the image of God long before such notions were found in the Enlightenment. He then focuses on the crucial question: does the Bible support the idea of inclusivity? He explores this in the NT in dialogue with Richard Burridge’s Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics.

‘If Jesus were alive today, then he would have definitely been inclusive.’ This statement, or something like it, is one that I have frequently heard at church gatherings, expressed in an absolutely categorical way, as if it were entirely beyond question. Setting aside christological quibbles (‘If Jesus were alive today’?), even a cursory look at the gospels reveals such statements to be very simplistic…Many of Jesus’ parables speak not of inclusion but of division and separation, and Jesus, in fact, is not very inclusive when it comes to the wealthy and to those who are not Jews.

Whilst Burridge indicates that he wishes us to regard Jesus as inclusive, the significance of his analysis is that in fact we can do no such thing. The evidence, as he ably demonstrates, is very complex and varied, so that we cannot label Jesus as we encounter him in the gospels as inclusive or indeed as exclusive. To do so is, fairly obviously, to shoehorn him into modern categories into which he refuses to fit. The concept and language of inclusivity and exclusivity thus illuminates almost nothing about Jesus and in truth only really tells us about the preoccupations of those who deploy them. They are reminiscent of Albert Schweitzer’s depiction of New Testament scholars, who peer down a deep well of twenty centuries to see the face of Jesus, but instead are rewarded with a pale reflection of themselves.

Paul, too, resists categorisation by contemporary labels of ‘inclusive’ and ‘exclusive’.

It is an exquisite irony that St Paul, a fearsome bogeyman for bien pensant opinion, who condemns homosexual practices, women who talk in church and slaves who are disobedient to their masters (Rom 1.26–7; 1 Cor 14.34; Eph 6.5) should stand as he does at the centre of the biblical vision of God’s inclusive plan of salvation. However, it was indeed Paul’s witness, in the face of initial opposition from Jesus’s original disciples, that the church should be open to Gentiles as well as Jews that makes him, perhaps ironically, the ultimately inclusive figure (see, for example, Galatians 2 and Acts 15).

Dowler concludes by proposing that the notion of ‘inclusivity’, which flattens out humanity and suppresses proper moral discussion, should be displaced by the virtue of justice, which is capable of differentiating between people and contexts.

How can we find a deeper and more robust language than can be offered by ‘inclusivity’ to understand the difficult questions that confront us in the church and in modern society? I believe that the Bible and the Christian tra- dition provide us with a wealth of resources. One of these, among many, is a deeper engagement with the traditional virtues, in particular the cardinal or ‘hinge’ virtue of justice as this has been described by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, and subsequently by the Christian theologian St Thomas Aquinas. Unlike the other moral virtues of prudence, temperance and fortitude which are mainly to do with self-development, justice has a certain pre-eminence because it is always and inherently neighbour-oriented.

The starting point of justice is not so much the assertion of individual rights as the acknowledgment of the debt that all of us owe to one another. Whilst inclusivity tends to separate people into two groups—the included and the excluded; the oppressor and the oppressed; perpetrators and victims—justice directs us to a far richer picture of the duties and obligations that all of us owe to others, as well as to the things that we are rightly able to expect from them in return.

E179_sm_cover_grandeJustice is, unlike inclusivity, variegated and dynamic in the demands it makes of us. Justice acknowledges that individuals, and the various types of human community, might owe different things to different people and at different times. For example, in my ministry as a parish priest, I owe something different to the child in my congregation than I do to the paedophile in my congregation; something different to couple who are about to get married than to the person who is on the point of death; something different to the head teacher of my church primary school than to my clergy colleagues in the deanery; and so on. The virtuous path lies in determining as best we can what exactly we do owe to each of these different people and trying to act upon this as best we might.

You can order this important booklet Inclusive Gospel? from the Grove website, and you can subscribe to receive news about new titles by email.

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35 thoughts on “Is ‘inclusion’ a Christian virtue?”

  1. Thanks Ian, this looks like an interesting read.

    I think our choice of words is important, and I find it interesting when organisations choose to name themselves things like ‘Inclusive Church’, ‘Accepting Evangelicals’ etc – what does that imply about everyone else? (I blogged about this a couple of years ago too.)

    It’s basically the same problem as the modern notion of ‘tolerance’ and how modern tolerance is actually deeply intolerant (Don Carson wrote a book two or three years ago called ‘The Intolerance of Tolerance’ which I found quite helpful). Modern inclusion is ironically legalistic and non-inclusive. It’s a gross distortion of the gospel at best.

    • Phill

      i don’t see why campaigning so that one group should be allowed to attend worship and/or be allowed to be fully involved in the life of the church is necessarily “intolerant”.

      Personally I think as soon as you start saying who is and who is not welcome at church, you no longer have Gods church – I need to put a caveat on that “as long as everyone is safe”.

      • Pete,

        By labelling themselves as ‘accepting’ and ‘inclusive’, they are pretty clearly saying that they believe everyone outside the group is not. If you see yourself as inclusive/accepting then seeing others as backwards, hateful, and homophobic is not only legitimate but positively encouraged.

        I agree with you that campaigning for LGBT inclusion (as they perceive it) is not *necessarily* intolerant, but the two often go together and it’s encouraged by the attitude of labelling yourself with a good characteristic and therefore implying that everyone else is a negative.

        I’m not sure what you mean about “who is and who is not welcome at church”. No-one is forbidding anyone from coming to church.

        • Phill

          I think that is a bit of a bizarre statement that by a person or organisation labelling themselves as “inclusive” they are saying everyone else is not. I don’t think that is true. At best they are saying that others haven’t declared themselves inclusive.

          I have personal experience that gay people are simply not welcome everywhere. I also know that disabled people, gay people, female victims of domestic abuse etc may face difficulties in attending a “normal” church which is not always apparent to people who haven’t specifically thought about how to make the space/service suitable. This in no way suggests that everyone needs to make their church like this, but some churches feel they have a particular ministry to a particular group.

          Because I had several very nasty encounters at my old church it would now be quite a high priority for me to find a church that explicitly welcomes gay people. Out of maybe 50 churches in my town only 2 do this. This does not mean that the other 48 are homophobes. It means the other 48 have not taken steps to specifically ensure a safe and welcoming environment for gay people. It really is not that different to advertising that your church has Braille hymn books or whatever!

          Just to put this in perspective, Ive been going to church my whole life. In that time Ive only ever been to two services where I knew for sure that I was welcome because they had said so explicitly.

          so some churches/people/organisations call themselves “inclusive”. With respect this simply means something they are saying about themselves, not something they are saying about you.

          Personally I think it is more likely that intolerance goes with people who say they are intolerant, but I agree there is a lot of mislabelling as people often want to appear nicer, or more welcoming, than they actually feel able to be.

          • Hi Pete

            Thanks for your story. I do sympathise because I think sadly there are churches that are not ‘inclusive’.

            However – I still think that labelling a group ‘inclusive’ says a lot about what you think you are in contrast to what you think other churches are. Every church should be ‘inclusive’ (depending on how you define that word, as the book above is talking about). So when a group like Inclusive Church says that what makes a church inclusive or not is dependent on affirming same-sex relationships, then a church who disagrees is automatically not inclusive. Pretty much by definition they’ve just said that church isn’t a proper church (because it’s not inclusive as they define it). So it’s not the case that they think other churches haven’t defined themselves as ‘inclusive’, they actually believe that traditional/conservative churches are not inclusive.

            I think this is backed up by looking at the way some people talk on the comments thread here, or on Changing Attitude, etc.

          • Phill

            I think there needs to be a distinction between what a church teaches and how a church treats people. I would say the latter is inclusivity/exclusivity – although of course there are overlaps.

            I think in theory you could be inclusive of gay people, and even gay partnered people, and still teach that gay relationships are always sinful, but I think it would be very difficult in the current climate to do that. You could for example teach that gay relationships are wrong but put a lot of effort into pastoral care and community growth for celibate gay people and make sure everyone in your church knows what is and is not acceptable behaviour towards them.

            Im not a member of either accepting evangelicals or inclusive church, but I think neither actually demand there members have a particular belief in regard to gay relationships. Certainly inclusive church is more about how people are treated in church than what you teach about them. (However I do recognise, as with most things in the CofE, it is caught up in the endless war between “liberals” and “conservatives” that does nobody any good!) There are churches on the inclusive church register who are opposed to any sort of gay relationship.

            It is of course Church of England teaching that gay people should be fully involved in all areas of church life. (If you actually don’t agree with full involvement of gay people, that’s fine, but it makes me wonder why you are so hurt by other people calling themselves “inclusive”?)

  2. Thank you…

    Lots of words/catchphrases we use are essentially ‘rejecting statements’ and it’s impossible for them to have a meaning without the thing/belief rejected being present. Isn’t that doubly so in the heated atmosphere of today’s big debates?

    Perhaps it’s always been so though I sense a barely disguised and sharper rejection language in the use of ‘inclusive’. Though ‘inclusive’ without limits or boundaries is surely valueless at best thus amoral.

    I don’t see how ‘inclusion’ can be a virtue without some partnering moral view.

  3. Thanks for this Ian – I will definitely be reading this booklet. It’s a question I’ve been asking for a while now, as I feel that the word (and indeed the concept of) inclusion is used so wildly differently by different people and in different places. I think it will be one of those words that ends up with a totally different meaning from where it began. I have a background in working with disabled people and for me the word has great meaning there – it’s about the importance of church (or shops, cafes, whatever) being places that everyone can access – so everything from step-free entry, to large print books, to hearing loops. That’s the first thing the word inclusive always made me think of, and it is still used in that way. However these days it has taken on a different meaning. Sometimes that is around a variety of theological concepts such as women’s ordination etc, but more often than not it’s around homosexuality. I think this is interesting, since it’s a word which is fairly universally acknowledged as a ‘good’ word, something positive which we should all aim for. Culturally, societally, it’s hard to begin to argue that somewhere shouldn’t try to be inclusive. I had an interesting chat about this on the Shared Conversations I was part of. In our diocese we have a ‘Child Friendly Church’ award and a ‘Disabled Friendly Church’ award. Someone pondered whether there was a place for an ‘Inclusive Friendly Church’ award. I made the points I’ve made above – what does that mean? I want our church to be ‘inclusive’ in the sense of extending a welcome to all, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be challenge, or an encouragement to change and grow. I said that I felt the word had changed its meaning, and now was used almost as a password to check out someone’s theology: “Are you ‘inclusive’?” The people in the conversation with me were surprised and I think hadn’t considered what I said, and we had some good chats about it, but it left me pondering the word – so I’m glad to see this helpful addition to the conversation!

    • Kate

      Can I ask what sort of change and/or growth you might expect from someone or might expect someone to be challenged towards. Can you give an example or two?

      • Challenges relating to how we live, I guess – greater holiness, spiritual disciplines, prayer life, how we speak of/act towards one another. The discipleship things that as Christians we hopefully all want to help one another grow in.

        • I think it is one of the principal reasons for going to church is to be changed, but I don’t really know how it relates to inclusivity?

          • Because change that includes repentance means excluding certain attitudes, understandings and convictions from our common life. For example, a church wanting to affirm that Jesus is Lord is going to exclude the view of people who think he was nothing more than a good teacher.

          • Ian

            I hope that you don’t mean that! How can they know if they haven’t heard? I expect you mean excluded from leadership.

            I think the term “inclusivity” relates more to other characteristics rather than belief or behaviour and it means more than just allowing them to attend worship, but actively creating an environment that is welcoming to them.

            The obvious “hot topic” characteristics are gender and sexuality, but I think more serious for the church is actually age – we are seeing a lot of churches where older people feel uncomfortable and a lot of churches with nobody at all under 50.

      • ‘Hijacked’?! Please – this is just how the word is currently being used – as a convenient shorthand. Inclusive Church are quite clear about what they mean by it, as shown by this part of their mission statement:
        ‘church which does not discriminate, on any level, on grounds of economic power, gender, mental health, physical ability, race or sexuality.’
        As they plaster this all over their website, I don’t think they can be accused of being unclear.

        Lots of labels are absurd if taken to an extreme. I don’t see criticism like this about ‘traditionalist’ – but if taken to an extreme presumably we would all be worshipping in aramaic. And you seem happy enough to label others as ‘revisionist’ when that refers to disagreements over one specific area of biblical interpretation rather than everything in Christian doctrine, thought and practice.

        It seems more like a complaint that one side in the sexuality debates has a term with ‘nice’ connotations, and those who don’t like that side therefore don’t like that term.

  4. This sets up a false choice, since inclusivity is justice, because inclusivity only applies to certain kinds of inclusivity: namely, including people regardless of inherent characteristics like race, gender, and sexual orientation. Discriminating on this basis is usually arbitrary, and arbitrariness is the opposite of justice.

    There’s a substantive and compelling reason to exclude, or at least constrain, predators; there’s no substantive reason to discriminate against women just for being female, against LGB people just for not being heterosexual, or against transgender people just for having a disconnect between their anatomy and their gender identity.

    • “inclusivity only applies to certain kinds of inclusivity”
      “inclusivity is justice”

      What you actually mean is that certain kinds or manifestations of inclusivity are just. However, as soon as you limit “inclusivity” to “certain kinds of inclusivity”, you legitimise discriminating about what should be excluded or excluded.

      The second paragraph is not an argument for inclusivity. It’s an argument (actually more of a summary claim for arguments that I assume exist) that your particular discriminations for inclusivity are correct. But given this, you can’t legitimately criticise other people for being fundamentally uninclusive just because they wish to argue for a different discrimination.

      • Of course some discrimination’s justified, Andrew (and I’ve have thought the argument against allowing predators into a congregation unrestricted’s too obvious to need restating: if it is, we can stipulate to that). What’s not justified is discrimination without a rational basis, which nearly all discrimination against inherent characteristics lacks.

        Since not all inclusion’s of a kind, there’s no contradiction, and I can absolutely criticize irrational discrimination.

        • “What’s not justified is discrimination without a rational basis, which nearly all discrimination against inherent characteristics lacks.”

          If you think about it a little, this statement proves way too much.
          – men’s and women’s bathrooms are fitted out differently, and depending on the venue in different quantities. That’s discrimination based on inherent characteristics.
          – my work pays people whose skillets are rarer and are more talented at more difficult tasks more than those whose skillets are more common and who mostly perform less difficult tasks. That’s discrimination based on inherent characteristics.
          – most top sporting teams filter their intake by ability. That’s discrimination based on inherent characteristics.
          – the government doesn’t allow children to sit driving tests, regardless of their aptitude. That’s discrimination based on inherent characteristics.

          What you’re trying to do is argue for a sweeping principle, hide the “obvious” exceptions, and thus beg the question of whether your particular agendas should be exceptions or not.

          Your argument is basically “Inclusion is good (except where it’s not, and ‘not’ should only apply to things where we all agree about the ‘not’)”. And in practice, it’s a claim that it’s unloving (or “irrational”, if you prefer) for anyone to argue for the exclusion of things that you personally wouldn’t exclude.

          To get specific, let’s take 7 examples:
          – “having sex” with a single person of the opposite sex
          – “having sex” with multiple people of the opposite sex (not necessarily simultaneously)
          – “having sex” with a single person of the same sex
          – “having sex” with multiple people of the either sex
          – “having sex” with a minor (same or opposite sex)
          – “having sex” with yourself
          – “having sex” with a non-human creature

          By “having sex” I include acting to bring about sexual arousal, masturbation, intercourse, …

          Now, within each category, there’s inclination (there’s something attractive about it), desire to act, and the act itself. And you or I or someone else could probably describe each act and each level on a scale of good-neutral-disordered-evil. But unless someone is claiming that everything on that list is exactly the same – no discrimination what so-ever – then we are making distinctions. And it’s disingenuous to blanket claim that your particular distinctions are “obvious” and “rational” under some sweeping principle and others’ are not. Anyone who wants to make distinctions within that list needs to put in the hard work to show that their distinctions are right – “obvious” and “irrational” are emotional weasel-words designed to smear those who disagree with you without doing the hard work.

    • But no-one is suggesting excluding people just for their orientation—and that is not the way the language is used by Inclusive Church.

      For them, one is only truly inclusive if one believes in a particular doctrine of marriage which includes same-sex unions. That has little to do with the (quite reasonable) definition of inclusion that you mention.

      • It’s not just same-sex marriage, but teaching that any expression of their sexual orientation is a sin. For the vast majority of LGB people, that’s de facto exclusion.

        • Only if all our relationships must be sexualised. I think it would be fair to say that the requirement of celibacy for heterosexual men and women outside of marriage would also, for most heterosexual people, be a de facto exclusion if statistics are anything to go by.

          • No one’s claiming that all relationships must be sexualized.

            As for equivalence between lifelong celibacy for LGBT people and a requirement for marriage for hetrosexuals, it doesn’t hold up.

            Many churches, including evangelical ones, barely demand it (even John Sentamu was casual about couples who, in his unique turn-of-phrase, want to “test the milk before they buy the cow”). For those straight couples who do become convinced that sex outside marriage is wrong, since most people are monogamous, they can marry without significant deprivation.

            And if they divorce down the line, most protestant churches (including the CoE) allow them to remarry. Even the Catholic Church has “annulments” that’re de facto divorces.

            Above all, a requirement for marriage doesn’t cause hetrosexual people to feel shame about their sexual orientation.

          • I agree James – I also suspect that heterosexual couples do not experience questioning or negative assumptions about their sex (or not-sex) lives that many gay people face.

      • I don’t know for sure as Im not a member, but I don’t think it is true that inclusive church requires its members to agree with same sex marriages. It is more about making feel welcome rather than about specific teaching. I came across a church recently that oppose same sex marriage but are part of inclusive church.

        Im not sure if this is what you meant, but there are churches in the CofE where people are excluded because of their orientation.

  5. not sure i understand this or where the first commandment to love and also the mandate not to judge ft in. also find it hard to applyto my situaton as i go to a large church sml. to be honest find it quite hurtful as i have been excluded and not i believe for reasons of justice.jesus mixed with the samaritans and even included the promiscuouswoman at the well

  6. we also need to be careful we don’t mix up justice with fear and suspicion of for example those with mental health conditions.thisgroup of people are so misunderstood that i know for a fact many people in church won’t even “come out” about having anxiety and dpression and that probably includes ministers too

  7. will get a copy of this publcation by grove books. by the way ian when are you going to try and expain the book of revelation away with numerology again? lol!!!xxx

  8. This looks like an interesting read. But I have to observe that the language of ‘inclusion’ is a response (or a reaction?) to the perceived *exclusion* of certain groups (starting, of course, with the many Anglican churches who turned away Caribbean immigrants when they arrived in the UK, occasioning the rise of black churches). Many gay people, and indeed indeed intelligent and outspoken (or just single) women, still experience subtle or less subtle exclusion in some churches. I would never say ‘Inclusion is the gospel’ any more than I would say ‘Social justice is the gospel’. But surely both should be products, indeed fruits, of the gospel. We talk about the exclusive claims of Christ, but why do we never talk about the inclusive call of Christ? (and it was indeed inclusive, calling those whom other religious figures saw as worthless or outside the sacred community).

  9. I am so confused about this debate but l have experienced the responses of people who generally are appointed leaders in churches.
    There is no confusion over how this impacts it has brought me closer to understanding our humanity and Gods majesty.
    I see a fallen world in which we struggle to determine our or the will of God .
    I wonder if God is for the debating or even for words or acts that confirm our attempts to forfil His purpose.
    Gods word says He will comfort those that mourn.
    I count this a blessing for the minds of people can be suject to loss unknown as God has reconciled .
    Bringing this to earth so to speak l have found to treat others how l would like to be treated is a door open to understanding .
    It becomes less about complicated practice s but more about ground roots.
    How would l like to be treated ?
    l would like God power and love to be known by His authority over my inclinations.
    So l listen to hear and to encourage .
    I am to trust that my Heavenly Father ways are best.l am included and encouraged.


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