The Church’s Obsession with Exclusivity

By Stephen Marshall-Ward


The third indictment in our requiem is, “Where the church has created divisions and barriers through isolation, God creates communities and completeness through inclusion and compassion.”

I have so much to say about this indictment. What I have written in this indictment is very personal.

I grew up in a segment of the church that had exclusion and isolation down to a science.  Part of their distinctive was to be exclusive.  To be “better than”.  They based this on the scripture that says we are to be called out and to be separate:  “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you.”  (2 Corinthians 6:17)  

At Bob Jones University  (you might find this hard to believe, but it’s true) there were discussions amongst the students and faculty about “degrees of separation.”  If I knew you and I found out that you had associated with or had any level of friendship with someone who was behaving in a way that I thought was inappropriate then I needed to separate from you even though you hadn’t done anything wrong yourself.  You associated with someone who did something wrong.  Because of your association with them and my association with you, I could be excluded from the community.  As a result, I needed to make the decision to separate from you before your associations can negatively influence me.  There were even people who bragged that they had reached such a high “level of separation” in that they had separated from people by eight, nine, or even ten “degrees of separation”!  At the time, all I could think was how exhausting this all must be.  The ultimate result was massive amounts of exclusivity and a community living in “perfected” isolation.  

Bob Jones University is primarily an Independent-Baptist institution, though originally Methodist (founded by Bob Jones, Sr. – a Methodist minister), while most of its student body comes from Baptist and/or Bible Baptist circles.  We were not allowed to associate with or be part of the Southern Baptist movement in any way (they were far too “liberal”).  There was a large Southern Baptist Church directly across the street from the main entrance of Bob Jones University.  Along with all other Southern Baptist churches and institutions, it was “off-limits” for all BJU students.  If you were caught going there for any reason, you could be kicked out of Bob Jones University.  

Exclusion and isolation was a science.  It was a culture that was built to “protect” everyone from any thinking that was different from what we had espoused to be (whether by personal choice or communal force).  

This personal experience is an extreme example of what the church has done for centuries.  Through the Crusades, the Test Acts, and so many other examples throughout history, the Church has systematically excluded in an effort to control the masses and maintain the “purity” of the institution.   Many modern day churches and church-related institutions continue to put people out.  When marriage equality was ruled by the highest court in the country as an approved institution, I witnessed some evangelical churches in the Seattle area requiring their staff and employees to sign a statement affirming their personal belief that homosexual marriage is a sin and that they would uphold that belief or they would be asked to leave that community.   

Exclusion and separation for the sake of dogma seem to hold a significant place in the history and current structure of the Church.  Yet the Church continues to struggle with the fact that exclusivity and separation can also be considered quite counter-Christian.  

God creates communities and completeness through inclusion and compassion.

Throughout Christianity today, “inclusion” has become a hot buzzword.  There is a great deal of discussion about what this means.  All one has to do is google “exclusion by the Church” or inversely “inclusion by the Church” and thousands of articles will instantly arrive on your computer.  I came across a very interesting article by Rev. Jeff Hood that provides valuable insight into this very question, possibly returning “inclusion” to its highest level: invoking the actions of Jesus as exemplary.

My understanding is that within God’s family, within Christianity, and as followers of Jesus there is room for many ways of thinking.  This should be a part of the distinctives that make us Christian.  Thinking, questioning, growing, developing, and understanding each other is what makes the fabric of our diversity so valuable to the whole.  Inclusion and diversity do not have to be liabilities.  They can make us better.

Speaking of liability, I give one more example:  When I was working at a Methodist Church for quite some time, they decided to go through a discernment process around the “issue” of homosexuality, and whether or not homosexuals would be allowed to be fully engaged in the life of that particular congregation.  Near the beginning of this process, I came out.  The pastor and church leadership supported me as we continued through what became a three-year discernment process.  The end result was that, while they agreed to include openly gay people in the life of the church, “gays” could only be in leadership roles up to – but not including – ordination.  To them, that was a huge progressive step forward toward inclusion.   I appreciated the progress and what it took for them to get there.  But as a person who is gay, I wanted them to understood what they were really saying to me, and people like me.  I perceived it as something like this:  “We fully accept you as a second-class citizen within our faith community.  Isn’t that great!?”  While I could remain as their Director of Music and Arts Ministries, I was given no rights to follow God if God might be calling me to the highest levels of leadership in that faith community.  What I heard them saying to me was, “You are welcome, but you have to sit in the second row.”  Fortunately, that particular congregation has progressed further and is now one of the few fully Reconciling Methodist congregations in western Washington state.  While I felt very much like a liability while there, they have done the hard work to realize what inclusion means for them.

Exclusion and isolation is built on the premise that somehow we have to, as God’s children, cast judgment on others in order to control all  behaviors within our community.  I would argue that the role of the Church is to create communities (and one large community) of compassion, understanding, and inclusion so that we can all travel this journey together.  

It’s about a spiritual journey, it’s not about a list of beliefs or a certain way of behaving.  It’s about embracing each other’s spiritual journeys.  It’s about a faith strong enough to give space for open dialogue, a compassionate desire to understand, and living into a gracious way of loving.  

A growing number of faith communities are beginning to understand what this means.  When they say they welcome all, they truly do welcome all.  Unfortunately those faith communities continue to be the exception.  I hope many more faith communities will continue to grow into what it means to become truly inclusive, engaging,  and compassionate.