Christian people have a long history of exclusion, a sad commentary considering that we claim to follow a man who was noted for his practice of inclusion. A brief review of this depressing tradition will shed some light on what happened in St. Louis this week.
Jesus welcomed the sinners whom the religious establishment of his day turned away: lepers, tax collectors, women, foreigners, demon-possessed, and other categories of socially marginalized people. Mostly this practice of inclusion involved food—Jesus had table fellowship with so many “unclean” people that it became a source of gossip, criticism, and condemnation. “Why does Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners?” they asked.
The followers of Jesus struggled with this. It took a vivid dream featuring food to convince the number one disciple—Simon Peter—to welcome everybody. And it took a conference in Jerusalem to establish “rules” to govern how those first Jewish believers opened their assemblies and meals to non-Jewish believers.
But through the centuries the preference for exclusion poked its ugly head through the gospel rainbow and spread its cloud of judgment over much of the banquet where Jesus was hosting a meal for all saints and sinners.
It began even before the end of the first century. Paul the energetic and influential apostle warned his converts not to share a meal with other believers who were behaving in ways that offended their sense of morality. See First Corinthians chapter five or read any article about “the ban.”
Before long, Christian authorities were excluding people who refused to sign off on a new statement of faith, or gave too much importance to the Holy Spirit, or were baptized by somebody who had refused martyrdom during a period of persecution.
During Reformation years when virtually everyone in Christianized Europe had been baptized, people were excommunicated from one or more Christian gatherings for a host of reasons, such as being Catholic, or being Lutheran, or being Baptist. Scholars were excluded for translating the Bible into the language of the people or asserting the earth moved around the sun.
Exclusion of some sort, of some people was the universal practice of the Church. When they could not agree on scripture, sacrament, or salvation, this was one thing Christians everywhere knew how to do.
At one point, ministers were excluded because they preached to the people in open fields rather than in buildings called sanctuaries; and still later, they were pushed out because they spoke in tongues and laid hands on people to heal them of diseases and cast out demons.
I once was pastor of a church where, decades earlier, deacons spent every meeting identifying people who needed exclusion for such things as playing cards, drinking beer, and simply staying home. It was, at the time, the largest church in the state!
My own denomination (Southern Baptists) went through a terrible time because some leaders were determined to exclude people who ordained women, affirmed evolution, or extended the mercy of God too far in any direction. These rules of exclusion came easy for a people created by the practice of excluding others simply because the color of their skin was too dark.
From the very beginning, gender, orientation, and sex have been at the center of exclusionary policies. Jesus himself was excluded from the circle of the righteous in part because he was seen too often with people who were on the wrong side of these circles.
So, we should not be surprised that this past week a group of Christians—in this case, United Methodists—gathered to determine, once again, who is included and who is excluded.
Exclusion is the one grand tradition of Christians: practiced always, everywhere, and by everyone in some form or fashion. And too often it takes the form of excluding even other Christians from receiving the bread and wine of communion. A few weeks ago, I was warmly received before and after worship in a Russian Orthodox Church; but when it became time to partake of the elements, I stayed in my seat because I knew my Baptist version of Christian faith was not acceptable to these otherwise hospitable believers.
All of this exclusion is practiced in the name of the One who received everyone, especially those who came at dinner time!