What Does it Mean to be a Truly Inclusive Church?

Anne Witton
Articles 6 mins
Found in: Church

The heart behind inclusivity

‘Inclusive church’ is a term that is increasingly prevalent in many Christian denominations and congregations around the country, but what does it actually mean and is it something we should be striving for?

Although the term is widely used, it’s helpful to look to the Inclusive Church organisation for a definition:

‘We believe in inclusive church – a church which celebrates and affirms every person and does not discriminate.

We will continue to challenge the church where it continues to discriminate against people on grounds of disability, economic power, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, learning disability, mental health, neurodiversity, or sexuality.

We believe in a Church which welcomes and serves all people in the name of Jesus Christ; which is scripturally faithful; which seeks to proclaim the Gospel afresh for each generation; and which, in the power of the Holy Spirit, allows all people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus Christ.’ 1

There is much to admire about this statement. Surely, we all want our churches to welcome everybody regardless of their background or circumstances? It is a clear biblical command to emulate Jesus in welcoming the stranger, reaching out to the marginalised and bringing justice and love to those who have been mistreated.

There are many churches who take a traditional view on biblical sexuality who could learn much about this generous-hearted desire to welcome everyone. Often people have felt marginalised in conservative churches or felt afraid to express doubt or be open about personal struggles with sexuality and gender. Sadly, some have been met with fear, judgementalism and condemnation. So, on one level, we should all be striving to be more inclusive and loving.

However, ‘inclusive churches’ go further than simply extending an unreserved welcome to everyone and that – as we will see – is problematic.

Inclusive but incoherent

All churches should be able to agree with the Inclusive Church statement above on a plain reading, but it is what is meant by ‘celebrates’ and ‘affirms’ that exposes the difference between ‘inclusive churches’ and churches holding a traditional position on Christian sexual ethics.

For ‘inclusive churches’, affirmation and celebration of LGBT people includes full endorsement of same-sex sexual relationships.

This statement from Inclusive Gathering Birmingham highlights the incoherence that many ‘inclusive churches’ face:

‘That means people of every race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, age and background, HIV status, ability and disability, theological and political conviction are loved, invited, and fully included.’ 2

There is an internal incoherence here: if inclusion of a person means full validation of everything they stand for, then it’s unclear how inclusive churches deal with mutually exclusive beliefs. Embracing the ideology that to disagree with someone is somehow to reject, condemn or exclude them leads to the untenable position that we need to equally embrace incompatible viewpoints.

What does it mean for people of every theological conviction to be fully included?

What does it mean for people of every theological conviction to be fully included? Can I be fully included if some of my deepest faith convictions are in opposition to those of others in the community? How can mutually exclusive beliefs both be fully included? How would a same-sex attracted Christian like me who believes that for me to be in a gay relationship would be sinful be fully included in a church where the ideology that’s promoted flies in the face of that conviction? Doesn’t that just show (to misquote George Orwell) that some people are more included than others?

There is also the question of whether there are any non-negotiables or core doctrines. If someone says that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, is that equally valid? What is the place of loving correction?

Sharing beliefs without judgement and with respect is a really important aspect of a healthy community, but so is correction and mind-changing if the community is to be a learning community. Learning means changing. Pursuing truth means rejecting the untrue and doing this in a loving and gracious way.

We need to separate out the ‘who’ is included (it should be everyone) and the ‘what’ is included. Should every truth claim be held as equally valid? Should every behaviour be equally welcomed?

People and practice

Some who see sexuality as integral to a person’s identity conclude that full inclusion and embrace of gay people must involve affirming same-sex sexual relationships. As one writer puts it, to do otherwise would be ‘welcoming the left-handed so long as they don't use their left hand’.3 There is no distinction between people and practice. It seems LGBT people are unique in being accepted without a challenge to submit all areas, including sexuality, to the Lordship of Christ.

However, even some holding an affirming position on gay sexual relationships have recognised that there need to be boundaries to inclusion:

‘There are some liberal gay, lesbian and bisexual Christians who want me and other Christian pastor-scholar types to offer unequivocal "welcome and affirmation" to whatever sexual relationships they feel like embarking upon’.4

The author uses scare quotes around ‘welcome and affirmation’ to draw a line and exclude certain types of sexual behaviour. It’s clear from this that full inclusion can’t mean full endorsement of every type of behaviour.

Additionally, welcoming every behaviour is actually self-defeating because it serves to make some people feel less included. (For example, if cliquey or gossipy behaviour went unchecked, it would damage the community and serve to keep people away). Are we loving people well and drawing them into the heart of Jesus if we affirm all behaviours? And if we wouldn’t affirm all behaviours, aren’t we just drawing the line in a different place from our more traditional Christian brothers and sisters and undermining our own definition of ‘inclusion’?

So how can we arrive at a more helpful definition and practice of inclusion that extends welcome to all people within a consistent biblical and ideological framework?

Biblical inclusivity

The church should be the place where anyone can come and feel welcome, regardless of background, lifestyle, beliefs, gender, sexuality or anything else. The gospel is for everyone and all are invited to meet Jesus at the cross (Galatians 3:28; John 3:16). Part of that welcome will be encouraging people to express their questions and doubts and wrestle with the teaching they’re hearing. But it’s also important for our churches to be honest about the things that we stand for, that make us distinctive as Christians and shape our community life together.

Here are six things we can do to become truly inclusive churches:

First, churches need to have confidence in the goodness of biblical sexual ethics and clearly teach on and model biblical sexuality (in its broadest sense including marriage, porn, faithfulness, singleness, celibacy etc.) while at the same time welcoming everyone. Only the sexual morality taught by the church for 2000 years equally dignifies single and married people, values virgins, dismantles the cultural pressure to have sex, encourages deep non-sexual intimacy, and reflects the sufficiency and worthiness of Christ as a greater treasure than even one of humankind’s most profound experiences. Space for debate, doubt and personally wrestling with biblical teaching is really important, in the context of a church that clearly teaches and applies God’s word.

Inclusivity is not principally about ensuring everyone enjoys church. It is about ensuring everyone can encounter and be transformed by our holy God.

Second, we need to remember that all people of every background are called to deep discipleship, to die to ourselves, to pick up our crosses and follow Jesus (Mark 8:34). The call to LGBT people is no more demanding than the call to everyone – lay down your own life and desires to live the better life of obedience to Christ. Inclusivity is not principally about ensuring everyone enjoys church. It is about ensuring everyone can encounter and be transformed by our holy God.

Third, we need to follow Jesus’ example of expressing loving truth and truthful love. Jesus was soft on people but hard on sin (because he loves people and hates whatever damages them and their relationships). When Jesus encountered the sexually broken, he demonstrated scandalous love and acceptance of people, without accepting their sin (John 4; 8:1-11). Indeed, rejecting their sin was integral to his love just as removing cancer is integral to promoting a person’s health.

The scholar Robert Gagnon maintains that unquestioningly applauding behaviour that opposes God’s desire is not a loving thing to do. He also argues that ‘No one on either side of the homosexuality debate wants to be inclusive of harmful behavior or widen diversity to include sin.’

Fourth, an inclusive church must be somewhere that includes celibate same-sex attracted Christians. Even ‘inclusive churches’ exclude many LGBT people. They make it harder for celibate gay Christians to faithfully follow Christ as they are told their costly obedience is harmful to them and others, and even that it is homophobic. Ironically, many same-sex attracted Christians feel rejection most acutely from affirming Christians who seem unwilling to validate their stories.

Fifth, we must be consistent in our approach to church leadership, membership, and discipline. Our treatment of people in gay relationships should be the same as people co-habiting, having affairs, dating non-Christians, sinning within marriages, using porn etc. We must also emphasise other sins listed alongside sexual sin and ensure we hold leaders accountable in all areas. True equality and inclusivity mean spurring one another on to Christlikeness, whatever our particular struggles.

Sixth, I’d encourage churches to do the Living Out Church Audit – a practical tool to help your church become more biblically inclusive and be a community where LGBT people can thrive.

Let’s work hard to make sure that our church communities are loving and welcoming places where all people can encounter the transformational love of Christ.

  1. The IC Statement’, Inclusive Church.  Accessed 21 March 2022.
  2. Inclusive Gathering Birmingham. Accessed 21 March 2022.
  3. Andrew Davison, Amazing Love: Theology for Understanding Discipleship, Sexuality and Mission (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2016), p.86.
  4. David Gushee, Changing Our Mind: Definitive 3rd Edition of the Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians with Response to Critics (Read the Spirit Books, 2017), p.104.
  5. Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Abingdon Press, 2010), p.28.