Sam Wells, vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, wrote an interesting and significant piece in last week’s Church Times, calling for a change in focus in the way that the call is made for the Church to be ‘more inclusive’. The article was a shortened version of his address to the annual meeting of the organisation Inclusive Church, and the full version can be read on their website. The change he calls for is a shift from looking back to creation principles and arguing for an inclusive understanding of God’s intentions in creation, and instead looking forward to an inclusion vision of eschatology and the new creation. Wells is a very popular write and commentator, though I have previously found some surprising omissions in his thought, so I was intrigued to read what he had to say.
Wells begins by noting the range of current strategies deployed in the call for an ‘inclusive’ church, and wants to set them aside by moving the debate to a new question.
My counsel to those who are glad to bear the epithet ‘inclusive’ is not to shout their answer louder or longer than the opposition, or give examples of the pain and suffering the opposing answer has caused, or suggest that the arc of history bends towards their position, and thereby win the argument; it’s instead to ask a different question.
He notes the problems with questions around ‘where do you come from?’ from practical experience and within the current differences in response to Brexit (drawing on the research of David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere) between ‘Anywheres’ and ‘Somewheres’. This observation shifts the debate from one of location to one of identity:
The great debates of our day aren’t fundamentally about human rights or economic benefits or legitimate migration or coarsening public discourse: they’re about profound identity…
Into this question Wells then brings the shift of identity that we find effected by faith in Jesus in the New Testament. He rightly picks up on Paul’s language in Philippians (a letter written to people living in a Roman colony), where this change of identity is explicitly expressed in terms of citizenship.
In the midst of controversy over the person of Jesus Christ and over what kind of lifestyle was faithful to his legacy, Paul announces a revolution in our notions of identity and belonging. He says, ‘Our citizenship is in heaven.’ (Php 3:20) I want to pause for a moment to recognise how transformational those words really are, for Anywheres and Somewheres alike. Paul literally shifts the centre of the universe, from this existence and our daily reality, to the realm of essence, the things that last forever, the habitation of God and of those whom God has called to share the life of eternity.
Wells is spot on here; this is the fundamental shift we find all over the New Testament. It is expressed in one way in the letter to the Hebrews, in another way in 1 Peter, and of course it is implicit in Jesus’ language about the kingdom of God/heaven in the gospels. It is why Luke is at pains to connect the coming of the kingdom and the growth of The Way with the empire-wide realities of his day, and it finds it sharpest contrast in Jesus’ trial with Pilate in John’s gospel: ‘My kingdom does not come from this world’ (John 18.36). One of the great debates in academic biblical studies in the English-speaking world is the whole question of the gospel and empire—to what extent, implicitly or explicitly, should we see the proclamation of the ‘good news of the kingdom’ as a rival to or displacer of the ‘proclamation of the empire’ (noting that, in Greek, ‘kingdom’ and ’empire’ are in fact the same word, basileia)?
Wells then notes two consequences of understanding this issue of citizenship in heaven, one general and one specific.
The general one is something that will garner wide support, and is language that others have already been using.
So being a Christian transforms our identity. No longer are we trying to assert our assumptions as normal… Now we’re a people pooling our resources for a journey we make together to a place none of us have ever been. There are no experts, because we’re all citizens of a country we’ve never visited and longing for a home we’ve never known. How do we prepare for that journey?
An unanswered question (at least in this piece) is the extent then that he sees ‘identity in Christ’ as obliterating other subordinate identities, including ‘gay’ and ‘straight’; this is a staple of many in the ‘traditionalist’ position, and is why some people refuse to be called ‘gay’ but rather self-describe as ‘have same-sex attractions’. This position is usually firmly rejected on the ‘revisionist’ side. But Wells does draw out some important implications of this, including this intriguing comment about what we might call ‘law keeping’ in relation to traditional Christian disciplines:
It means keeping Sabbath, because Sabbath is a constant experience of not striving to secure our own salvation but resting in the grace that all the real work has already been done by God.
He then specifically addresses his Inclusive Church audience, and asks that they rethink their strategy for seeing change in the Church:
Having made a plea that we transfer our attention from where we’re coming from to where we’re going, I want to suggest that at the same time we transfer our emphasis from the wrongs we’ve suffered to the glory that awaits us.
This means abandoning the theological appeal to creation (perhaps in the form of ‘this is way God made me’), in part because it is not very fruitful, and in part because it can easily lapse into an appeal from pity.
The key theological theme of what we might call the inclusive movement in the church has been the doctrine of creation. The simple message has been to point out that all things are bright and beautiful and God made them every one. It’s an attractive message but it’s a flawed one because there are clearly things God’s made that aren’t bright or beautiful, both in the actions of the created order and the dynamics of human desire. What the inclusive message is really doing is to highlight significant elements that have long been attributed to the fallen creation and reallocate them to the original creation…The strategy works by appealing to reactions on a spectrum from pity via tolerance to justice, all of which are problematic.
What I find interesting here is that Wells has correctly identified a theological issue, and noted that the debate around this issue has not been very fruitful. He is sceptical about whether this creation-focussed approach could ever be fruitful, since ‘The doctrine of creation has been used to justify many deeply perverse things’, and I don’t think I share his scepticism. It is interesting, though, that he does freely talk about ‘fallen creation’, which in my experience is something that those arguing for change are reluctant to recognise. But on one point he and I are in complete agreement:
[I]n pointing to the need to include minority identities, they collude with the false distinction between the divergent and the normal, and with the noblesse oblige argument that the privileged and normal should do the decent thing and allow the divergent and strange a place at the table.
As far as I can see, this applies particularly to the debate about disability, and many current arguments for the inclusion of the disabled are built on an fundamental distinction between the ‘able’ and the ‘disabled’, arising from social pragmatics, which I have argued doesn’t actually exist. Instead, Wells argues, looking forwards and not backwards, to eschatology rather than creation, offers hope not only for an ‘inclusive’ church but also for more productive conversation.
In the flawed creation, it’s never clear how our different shapes and characters and experiences and convictions will ever find peaceable coexistence. In the kingdom, God draws us into resurrection life, in which difference is translated into complementarity, polyphony into symphony, discordance into harmony, discord into concord, and dissonance into resonance…
It’s no use to protest that treatment of certain identities has been unjust, unfair, heartless, cruel and sometimes criminal and worse. This is true, but it has the truth of lament rather than of aspiration. It leads to authorities and those of diverging convictions making grudging acknowledgements, procedural claims and evasive promises. It seldom changes hearts and minds; on the contrary it often wearies and antagonises, as the phrase ‘Are you calling me a bigot?’ illustrates.
I will be fascinated to see whether Wells’ appeal actually wins over those arguing for ‘inclusivity’, not least because he says some fairly brutal things about much of the argument from the ‘inclusive’ side so far deployed. But the real test of his argument is whether he is right about the ‘inclusive’ nature of eschatology, as understood in the New Testament and Christian theology. There are several things worth noting here.
The first is that Jesus’ own preaching and ministry was essentially eschatological—something it is easy for us to forget, since we read the gospels in the context of the way that history unfolded, with the growth of this Jewish renewal Jesus movement into something we now call ‘the church’, and 2,000 years of history in between. But when Jesus announced ‘The time has been fulfilled; the kingdom of God is at hand!’ he was, in OT and Jewish terms, announcing that history was about to come to an end—at least in the minds of most of his hearers. This is about the fulfilment of all God’s promises; it is about the people of God being rescued from the hands of their enemies; it is about the ‘great and terrible day of the Lord’; it involves the Spirit being poured out on all flesh; it is when the ‘one like a son of man’ comes to the throne and receives an everlasting kingdom (Daniel 7); and so on. No wonder many struggled to understand Jesus’ teaching when the world appeared to continue on its course, including Jesus’ own disciples in Acts 1. Eschatology does indeed matter—as Wells says, what is important is where we are going more than where we are coming from. But we should in fact read all of Jesus’ teaching as eschatological.
In particular, Jesus appeals to eschatology when answering a question about marriage and (Levirate) further marriage in Mark 12.25, Matt 22.30 and Luke 20.36. The reality of the eschaton relativises the importance of sex and marriage, and the coming of that future into the present in Jesus’ own ministry means that this new form of relationship, where ‘family’ now refers to spiritual kinship (‘the rest of his brothers’, Rev 12.17) as well as to literal kinship. It is this that allows both Jesus and Paul to be single! Robert Song has argued that the coming of the kingdom allows for a new kind of non-procreative covenant relationship, which is the basis of his acceptance of same-sex sexual relationships. But in fact Jesus and Paul got there before him; the new kind of (literally though not metaphorically) non-procreative covenant relationship is in fact single celibacy finding fellowship in the community of the New Covenant in Jesus’ blood.
(This also raises the interesting question as to whether we should actually read OT law as eschatology. That might sound rather odd, again because we are used to seeing law (Torah) as in the past, not only in relation to our own position chronologically, but also in relation to the New Testament—which is, after all, new. And yet in an important sense the law that God gave Israel was future in orientation—not only in the narrative sense, that it is described as though it is law given for a future occupation of the land of promise (whether you believe that is the case of whether you see this as a literary device). The law points God’s people to a way of life that is both a restoration of God’s intention in creation (hence the connections between the elements of law and the early creation narratives) but also a picture of what humanity’s future might be when all people hear the invitation to know God. That is why Wells is able to point to the Sabbath as a picture of the eschatological rest we now find in Jesus (as Hebrews 3 and 4 points out)—and in principle this could be extended to any aspect of the law. Because we, instead, see law as something in the past, we struggle to make sense of Jesus’ teaching that he fulfils the law, and Paul’s own appeal to the teaching of the law in his ethics of the kingdom.)
This then raises the question as to whether Jesus’ eschatological teaching of the kingdom was ‘inclusive’—or, rather, in what sense was it inclusive? Jesus certainly appeared to redefine the boundaries of who might be included in the kingdom, and this was not merely in social terms (those on the margins of society) but it was also certainly in religious terms—those who appeared to fail the test of religious conformity and ‘holiness’. But, alongside this, we need to note the purpose of Jesus’ boundary-breaking. Just as his proclamation of the kingdom demanded both negative and positive response (‘repent and believe’) so his table-fellowship with ‘sinners’ has the goal of inviting them to repent:
But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered them, “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 5.30–32)
Note that Jesus is here calling ‘sinners’ the ‘spiritual sick’ to whom he comes as physician to bring healing. So Jesus’ association with ‘sinners’ was not simply a question of hanging around with undesirables, or even welcoming them, but being prepared to take the risk of being with them in order to preach the good news of the transforming power of God’s presence in his kingdom. If anything marked him out from the Pharisees, it was his belief that even these ‘sinners’ could change and be transformed. This is typified in the encounter with the woman caught in adultery in John 8. In this encounter, Jesus simultaneously confronts the hypocrisy of the accusers, pronounces forgiveness to the woman, and affirms the possibility of change and transformation: ‘Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more’ (John 8.11).
We need also to note the eschatological context of Paul’s ethical teaching. When dealing with a range of issues of sexual immorality in his correspondence with the Christians in Corinth, a central part of his appeal is to our future destiny in bodily resurrection:
The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. (1 Cor 6.13–14)
The whole of chapters 5 and 6 are replete with references to eschatology and our future destiny—and (as Wells agrees) for Paul this changes the nature of how we understand our identity, which in turn shapes the way we think about how we use our bodies. This future orientation is key, and I think Wells is right that it can change the register of our discussion. Much debate about the language of 1 Cor 6.9 is focused on what it looks back to, and the way that Paul takes up phrases from Leviticus. But perhaps even more significant is the context within Paul’s looking forwards to the new creation. In Jesus, because of his resurrection, this future has now been brought into the present, and it has transformed the identity of the Christians in Corinth: ‘such were some of you. But…’ baptism into the eschatological reality of Jesus has effected a change in your identity, and as a result a change in the way you live.
The same is true in Paul’s contrasting of the way of life ‘in the flesh’, prior to baptism and incorporation into Jesus, with what characterises ‘walking in the Spirit’ and the fruitful life that it brings in Gal 5.16–26. The eschatological gift of the Spirit effects the holiness in Jesus that the law pointed to and outlined, but could not effect because of human sin. Now that our sin has been crucified with Jesus, not only have its consequences been dealt with, but its power has been broken, and the work of the Spirit in us is to form the eschatological holiness that the law anticipated—itself as a foretaste and anticipation of the life of the New Jerusalem.
This, finally, brings us to the picture of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21. It is a picture that constantly mixes elements of what we might normally call ‘inclusion’ with ‘exclusion’, and (as with the whole text of Revelation) this is communicated in a careful sequence of images that sit in tension with one another.
It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates…The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl…On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Rev 21.12, 21, 25–27)
Both commentators and artists struggle to deal with this symbolism. (I could not find a picture online that accurately represented what the text actually says, hence the general picture of pearls above.) The gates are not iron gates with pearls adorning them, as in the popular imagination. Nor are they open entrances which great pearls close off; the very gateways into the city are vast pearls, with the hole in the pearl, in normal use allowing pearls to be threaded together, functioning as an ever-open gateway. These vast pearls come as a gift from God in contrast to the tawdry pearls adorning the great prostitute Babylon, whose treasures have been gained by violence and exploitation—but the contrast in size is so great it is almost comic.
On the one hand, these gates are unexpectedly ‘inclusive’; unlike human cities which are anxious about security and safety, and so close their gates at night, this city of God has no such anxiety, and welcomes all who will accept the free but costly invitation to drink from the river of life and feast at the wedding banquet of the Lamb. The ‘nations’ and the ‘kings of the earth’, whom we thought had been lost in their captivation to the power of the beast, make a surprising appearance in the city.
But on the other hand, these gates are also unexpectedly ‘exclusive’: ‘nothing impure will ever enter the city’. Most artists omit to include the angels that are stationed at each gate—stationed to check the passports of those who enter, whether their names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. As the text then makes clear, to have your name written there involves having made the change from ‘what some of you were’ to the ‘But now you have been washed’ of Pauline theology—’for their good deeds go with them’ (Rev 14.13). And the list of vices that are excluded in Rev 21.8 and Rev 22.15 (excised by the lectionary) have an obvious relation to the vice lists in both Paul’s and Jesus’ teaching.
Given all these observations, it might seem odd that Sam Wells, as a skilled theologian, has missed, bypassed or dismissed all these observations. In fact, he has done this before; in his call for us to ‘rethink hell’, he offers some very odd construals of Jesus’ teaching, of the question of judgement, and of the world as part of fallen creation, which then leads to an odd construal of what Christian living and ministry is about.
I think Wells is right to draw our attention to the importance of eschatology in Christian ethics, and I think he is also right to think that this could make the discussion more productive. But more careful attention to the nature of the New Testament’s own eschatological approach to ethics means that I think he will be disappointed in the outcome.
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