When Paul painted a picture of a body of Christ in which hand and foot, eye and ear, were equally valued and welcomed (1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12:4-8), he set forth a radical call for inclusion.
It was no mean feat to bring Jew and Greek, men and women, slave and free together in one equal community, in an otherwise staunchly divided social environment.
Peter’s vision and time with Cornelius (Acts 10) give us a flavor of quite what a change this was. This early church community was to be forged on the shared foundation of Divine love and welcome.
It faced the ultimate challenge of learning to love those who were profoundly different to themselves, as they too would wish to be loved. What was relevant then to Corinth and Rome, is just as relevant to us now.
Paul’s insight was extraordinary. He recognized some would worry there was no place for them, while others would find reasons to exclude.
In that kind of environment everyone feels vulnerable. He proclaimed those perceived as less honorable, or somehow inferior, should be treated with “greater honor.”
Jesus’ ministry exemplified exactly this, reaching those otherwise ignored, excluded, condemned or placed beyond the reach of religious community, resonating with the prophesied diverse new covenant community (Revelation 7:9), the “great multitude.”
Loving those who were entirely different to themselves set the early church apart. I wonder if we would describe the church today in these terms?
Diversity built strength and resilience in the face of real adversity. This made the church a challenge and at times a threat to the political and social powers of the time.
I spent time last summer reflecting on Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons and Desmond Tutu’s life.
I’m a white woman and very aware of the connotations that I carry into conversations with faith siblings of other cultural heritages, just by virtue of the color of my skin.
I can’t change my ethnic heritage, but I can take responsibility for the impact my heritage has on others. I can and do say sorry.
King’s and Tutu’s exceptional leadership echoed Paul’s inspired vision, “unarmed love is the most powerful force in all the world,” to quote King in his book, “A Gift of Love.”
King’s was a costly and tear-stained love, offered despite the threat of punishment, torture, exclusion and death threats from people who looked a lot like me.
Just as we saw faith leaders often respond with fear and condemnation to Christ’s inclusive ministry, King and Tutu endured similar mistreatment.
This extraordinary love found something to value in the “other,” even when that “other” meant to cause harm.
We have a unique opportunity as the body of Christ to provide a place of welcome, a place of care and nurture, a place that resonates a precious Divine love to those who have never known love.
We have the potential to be beacons of hope, to those who have lost all capacity for hope.
In order to do that, we’re going to need to understand what welcome and inclusion mean.
We’ll have to proactively address public perceptions that church is a place where exclusion runs rife, where some are welcome and some are not.
It grieves me that in crucial debates about racial justice, gender equality and now sexual orientation and gender, we seem to have lost some of the learning from the early church.
We have focused on a few isolated verses in Paul’s writings particularly, to work out “who’s in” and to what extent they are welcome to flourish. We accept some and reject others.
Is that really what we were called to be? It’s increasingly what we’re known for.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two will appear tomorrow. A version of this article first appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of Baptists Together magazine – a publication of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It is used with permission.
Andrea King has worked in children’s services for almost twenty years, starting in the voluntary sector, working for central government and providing leadership in Local Authorities, Police and Health, most recently as Assistant Director for Safeguarding and Prevention. She is the Safeguarding Officer for Southern Counties Baptist Association in the U.K., a member of Windsor Baptist Church and is reading Theology at Regent’s Park, Oxford.