Six years ago I made what felt at the time like a strong statement about inclusivity. I railed against the splintered, inward-focused nature of the institutional Christian church, and about the irony of that fact given that the people in that ossified, bickering church profess to follow one of history’s most radically inclusive figures, Jesus Christ.
In that statement I was focused mostly on behaviors – by the things done and left undone by the average churchgoer, and also by the institutional church. I put the onus on each of us as individuals to own the nature of Christian inclusivity and to take proactive steps to ensure it.
But recent events have got me thinking that inclusivity – with all its trappings of open doors, welcoming congregations and affirming practices – still may not be enough.
Let me give you an example. At my church we practice an open communion. We believe the Lord’s Table constitutes an invitation that comes from none other than God, and that it’s not our job to come between the Table and anyone (and I truly mean anyone) who may feel that invitation.
But in the same church that doesn’t bat an eye when I say that during the communion prayer, I also have congregants who instinctively refer to God as Father and to God’s realm as a kingdom – and who no doubt would shift uncomfortably in their seats if I challenged them to pause and really imagine God as Mother rather than Father. Not that I’m saying their worldview is abnormal; most Christians have this construct embedded quite deeply in their spiritual formation.
So I don’t go there, at least not directly – partly because I see God as beyond gender. Like, way beyond. So beyond that it’s almost laughable to me that anyone would argue for a second about whether God is masculine or feminine. Because if there’s anything the bible literalist and the liberation theologian can agree on about God, it’s that the nature of God’s being is mind-blowingly beyond our maximum comprehension.
What that means for me is that I use God’s name as the pronoun for God. God does God’s work in our lives. No one but God can know Godself the way God does. That sort of thing. Once you get the hang of it, the alternative feels jarring.
And for some people it’s not just jarring, it’s a trigger. Consider, for instance, the person whose father sexually abused her. Even if you add the word “heavenly” in front of “father” in referring to God, that doesn’t take away the lightning-strike of reactions that happen within her every time she hears God referred to as paternal.
Speaking of paternal, there’s another word that needs to come into this conversation, and that’s patriarchy. Because when we talk about the historical pronouns for God, we’re talking about so much more than a mere grammatical habit here. The accepted practice of referring to God in the masculine isn’t just the chance result of a binary coin toss two centuries ago; nor is it really the result of some foundational theological insight into the true nature of God.
Rather, our casting of God’s image in the mold of a benevolent space-daddy is a direct, centuries-old hangover from a different time when power was masculine and our relationship to God needed to be portrayed in terms of patriarchal dominance and submission so the church could enforce our obedience.
Yes, we’ve inherited a narrative about Jesus where God is referred to in the masculine. But we also know it’s part of a greater narrative that was subject to heavy editing – we just don’t always know the degree to which that editing was applied to which parts of the narrative. And even if Jesus did refer to God in the masculine, I submit for your consideration that the theological message from Jesus in this instance was more about us feeling God as a loving parent than seeing God strictly as a father figure. The parable of the prodigal proves that. Jesus was, after all, incredibly feminist for his time; it was just another aspect of his radical ministry.
Which makes for a fun conversation at a Saturday morning staff meeting, where I’m dealing the full spectrum of belief: From those on one end who grew up bathed in King James-flavored biblical literalism and patriarchy, all the way to someone on the other end who came our way via a detour through Unitarian Universalism and has been assumed on at least one occasion to be more Buddhist than Christian.
They all fit under the tent, but it means we’ve got some work to do if we’re going to go beyond being inclusive to practicing true inclusion:
- Inclusivity says “come as you are”. Inclusion means we’re going to meet you where you are.
- Inclusivity says “our doors are open”. Inclusion means our minds are too.
- Inclusivity says “we welcome you”. Inclusion means we make you feel as if our house is your house – that in fact, it’s been yours all along.
- Inclusivity says “we affirm you”. Inclusion means we recognize that we’re not here to save your soul, we’re here to protect it.
See the difference? Inclusivity has become a decoration, and it was a great first step. But it’s a dated notion. Inclusion, on the other hand, is an act, a series of actions, a constellation of activities, where we meet the stranger more than halfway across the table.
If it feels uncomfortable, that’s your human side talking. But when it becomes so ingrained in you that you can’t go back, I dare say you’re actually enjoying a direct relationship with God. Because to God these things are second nature. It’s how you draw the whole world to you. It’s how you live the example set forth by Jesus.
So what I’ve told my staff is, we’re all on our individual journeys. You can refer to God however you like in your private life – in your mind, in your prayers, in your living room. But in church, be inclusive. Be radically welcoming. Make inclusion a verb.
I’ve told them that if they need an example, they can listen to how my husband sings a hymn – or better yet, how he recites the Lord’s Prayer. In his version of it, God goes from being “Our Father” to “Our Creator”, and God’s kingdom becomes a realm. See how easy that is?
And in the process, our understanding of God grows. Our understanding of how God views the souls in our midst grows. And God is able to do God’s best work while we politely get out of our own way.
Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church, Rev. Paul M. Turner grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He was called to Atlanta in 1994 to pastor All Saints MCC. Five years later he founded Gentle Spirit Christian Church. He lives in Decatur with his husband Bill, who he met in 1982 while living and working in Ohio and legally married in 2015.