A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Inclusion and Boundaries, Law and Grace: Where Hospitality Meets Identity

"Boundaries help define what a household, family, church, or community holds precious. However, the modern world is deeply ambivalent about boundaries and community. Although we yearn for home and a place to belong, often we find ourselves more comfortable with empty space where we can 'sing our own songs' and pursue our own plans. Hospitality is fundamentally connected to place to a space bounded by commitments, values, and meanings. Part of the difficulty in recovering hospitality is connected with our uncertainty about community and particular identity."-- Christine Pohl

I often find myself unhappy with the way so many of the contentious issues of our time are framed. I have argued on this blog that I do not like rights language because it simply is not biblical, and such language undermines a decisively Christian position on any matter of importance. I have also suggested that the modern liberal/conservative, left/right continuum is logically incoherent and has made too many Christians more liberal or conservative than Christian; and that such modern liberalism and conservatism are lenses that distort Christianity much more than they illuminate it.

The insightful quote above by Christine Pohl highlights for me another discussion I am not happy with; and it is one that is particularly big in my circle of United Methodism-- the inclusive nature of the church and how that relates to boundaries. Instead of doing the hard work of figuring out how the church is at one and the same time an inclusively hospitable church and a people whose identity by necessity includes boundaries that cannot be crossed and remain Christian, too many people don't seem to have room for both in their world. For some an inclusive church apparently means that functionally there are no boundaries, while for others boundaries means building walls around the community that undermine the truly inclusive nature of Christian hospitality. In this post, I want to start with the latter problem of boundaries without inclusion, and then end with the dilemma of inclusion without boundaries.

I think one way to get at this false dichotomy of inclusion vs. boundaries is to highlight another false dichotomy that is often mentioned in this discussion-- law vs. grace. All too often in current debates in UM circles concerning inclusion vs. boundaries, law and grace are pitted against each other as if they are mutually exclusive. There is certainly no way one can extrapolate such a false dichotomy from the New Testament, but hyper-boundary and hyper-inclusive people manage to commit hermenutical malpractice in using Jesus and Paul to pit one against the other.

God gave the law. It is a gift from God. Indeed, the law is a good gift from God because we need the law. The law provides boundaries, and we human beings need boundaries. Without boundaries we gravitate toward doing what is right in our own eyes. The giving of the law is itself an act of grace.

And let us say it right now-- boundaries exclude, but when boundaries are rightly drawn, such exclusion is necessary for identity. The problem is that we are always tempted to make the law the end in and of itself. We forget that God made the law for us. We were not made for the law. But when the law is the end, that truth gets reversed. We end up serving the law. When that happens, our obedience to the law has the same results as our disobedience. Boundaries are no longer boundaries; they become walls-- they exclude for the wrong reasons. Law absent grace is legalism. Once boundaries become walls, hospitality is sacrificed for fear of losing one's identity.

But the opposite extreme is also a problem-- a rejection of law because of what N.T. Wright calls a too broad and shallow understanding of what it means to be inclusive. If on the one extreme boundaries are made into walls, on the other end boundaries are erased leaving God's people without a clear identity as God's people.

In his book, The Recovery of a Contagious Methodist Movement, George Hunter identifies several problems with the UMC as it now stands, but number one is "our core problem" which "is not one of structure, or even leadership, it is one of identity; we have forgotten who we are."

For a church to say it is diverse does not give it an identity. To say a church is inclusive is not a matter of identification. Those two things are indeed good for church, but they are hardly unifying boundaries that reinforce a group's identity. As Pohl notes in the opening quote, "Boundaries help define what a household, family, church, or community holds precious. Hospitality is fundamentally connected to place to a space bounded by commitments, values, and meanings." If we fail to hang on to those commitments and values and meanings because of our fear that we won't be hospitable, we will end up having no decisive identity which will draw people to embrace our community and share its commitments. Hospitality can provide a great dinner for guests, but it cannot provide a place for people to become family. When grace is misused to erase all boundaries, identity is sacrificed over fear of being inhospitable. Once grace excludes law, identity-- unity-- is lost amid the divisive cacophony of diversity.

Grace and law together remind us that the law is not an end in and of itself nor that grace is a vague kind of passive acceptance of whatever is currently fashionable. Both inclusion and boundaries are required for the church to be God's people in fellowship and in mission to the world. I am the first to confess that it is not always clear where to draw the boundaries and where to erase them, but I do know this: without identity, hospitality has no meaningful purpose; without hospitality identity becomes cultic.


Unknown said...

Thank you, Alan. I'm totally with you on the inaccurate and unhelpful (misleading) characterizations of left/right, liberal/conservative, etc. The law/grace dichotomy is another one. I rue the way we often use the term "grace" to mean "indulgence."

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your comments. Some of our most important theological affirmations are so often subject to much abuse.

Steve Heyduck said...

Thank you for this post. It is helpful in my quest to grasp hospitality. The specific question rattling around in me is that whether one feels welcome or not is up to the outsider, the guest, rather than to the host.