Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Sin of Inclusiveness

The World Council of Churches is so inclusive that it has to tread softly with regard to the ordination of women and same-sex relationships.

The National Council of Churches is so inclusive that it cannot be inclusive enough. It refuses membership to the Metropolitan Community Church (a refuge for gay people) because the Orthodox Church threatens to leave if they do.

In every main-line denomination in this country homosexuality is debated hotly, and in some the ordination of women is divisive.

Progressive American Baptists want to embrace gay-friendly congregations. Conservative Baptists want to exclude them from fellowship. Progressives pitch the battle on Baptist principles of soul liberty, autonomy of local churches, and the like while conservatives say it is a matter of obeying Scripture, which condemns homosexual conduct.

Inclusion and diversity were highly praised at the school where I taught. But we did not have an biblical inerrantist on the faculty, and I would have opposed hiring one. I liked to make this point. I delighted even more in needling the enthusiasts of inclusiveness and diversity in this bastion of freedom who wanted rules forbidding sexist language and certain moral positions in chapel worship. The point is that even those who love inclusiveness the most have their own rules of exclusion if things get bad enough.

In recent days we have been rightly aghast at the Baptist pastor in North Caroline who wanted to expel members who voted for John Kerry last November. But let us be honest. As much as we may value diversity, pluralism, inclusivity, and tolerance, we all draw a line at some point or ought to. If five people as a group presented themselves for membership in your church making it clear they would be loud and persistent in teaching that God hates blacks, gays, and liberal judges, would you vote to take them in? I wouldn't.

Diversity, inclusiveness, tolerance, pluralism are good things, but they are limited not complete, relative not absolute. Unity of belief and practice in a group is not only valuable but at some level is essential to community morale and effective functioning. Passionate, intense devotion to something important cannot easily coexist with its opposite. It is hard to be tolerant of what is deeply abhorrent to us when something vital is at stake. Breadth of inclusion stands in tension with depth of commitment to a single truth about things. At some point embracing variety in an atmosphere of unqualified tolerance ceases to be a virtue. Too much diversity compromises clarity of witness. Trumpets of uncertain sound prepare no one for battle (I Cor. 14:8).

We generally avoid a stark confrontation on divisive issues by a process based on destiny (the groups we are born into) and choice (the groups we choose). We usually end up with people who more or less share our point of view on doctrine, morals, style of worship, and so on. We can afford inclusiveness and diversity within limits in our habitual environments, especially if there are gains associated with membership in the larger community that outweigh the disadvantages of conflict on some particular points. Obviously, this is what keeps the National and World Councils of Churches together, despite the painful controversies that threaten their unity. Individual denominations can embrace threatening differences and survive for the same reason.

Sometimes, however, a crisis arises that forces us to decide whether the price of inclusiveness is worth tolerating doctrines and practices abhorrent to us. There are no easy solutions or infallible guidelines, only tentative ad hoc adjustments as circumstances merit. Purity of principle is a futile quest. We have to muddle through as best we can. A pragmatic approach seeking the broadest inclusiveness compatible with tolerable diversity under given conditions will serve us best.

Inclusiveness is gained at the expense of diversity on specific points of doctrines and morals. The more inclusive and diverse a group is, the more general must be the principle of union in order to allow for disagreements on subsidiary matters. Sometimes disputes on particulars within the framework of unity become acute and threaten to take precedence over what unites the community at some higher level. An indefinite number of compromises and accommodations can preserve the unity of the whole in the midst of painful diversity.

But we cannot rule out the possibility that the time might come when we need to get out or to throw the offending rascals out if we have the power. And, of course, this is where the agony of decision begins with pain following. In many churches on the gay issue and in some on the ordination of women that is exactly where we are right now.

No comments: