On the heels of attending and following a number of Annual Conferences of the United Methodist Church, and reading reports from the recent Reformation Project Training Conference in Atlanta, I am more convinced than ever that all must mean all.
“When anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation; the old has passed away, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). This has been my favorite Bible verse since I became a Christian in 1963. I now see it creating the context for a generous orthodoxy and an inclusive faith.
When we professes faith in Jesus Christ, that new name–Christian– becomes our core identity. Gender, ethnicity, race, and orientation are now secondary and seen in the light of our new creation.
To use any secondary label to define a Christian is spurious to the Gospel and dishonoring to what the grace of God can do in the life of anyone (cf. 2 Cor 5:18). We no longer view a person relative to any other status, condition, or orientation. We view and relate to them on the basis of their profession of faith in Christ, or prior to such a profession, as persons of sacred worth made in the image of God.
With that core identity in hand, anyone who is in Christ is eligible to receive the full range of the Church’s ministries, including its sacraments, ceremonies, and offices. This availability is not a carte blanche participation, but rather a full inclusion based on vows and commitments we are willing to make in relation to our commitment to follow Christ.
But when we are in Christ, and willing to make our vows, we must not be prohibited from any means of grace or ministry opportunity that the Church provides to nurture its inner life or express its witness to the world. When we are in Christ, we are members of the Church, with access to all it provides.
From the earliest days of Christianity, when people from all over the world were incorporated into the faith (e.g. Acts 2:7-11, Acts 10:34, and Galatians 3:28), the Church has said all means all–a conviction resting on passages like John 3:16. This inclusion was based on the person’s profession of faith, not the judgment of that profession by others. The “whosoever” passages further show the foundation and trajectory of inclusivity.
Genuineness and sincerity were fruits of a living faith, not pre-requisite conditions for faith. The reason for this was simple: Just as a profession of faith lay in the heart of the person, so too the verification of that that profession lay in the heart of the person.. To move the assessment of authenticity to an outside group opened the door to error (e.g. misreading another’s heart) and to the possible addition of conditions for acceptance that were foreign to the Gospel. And it allowed pride to arise and reign in those who judged others (cf. Mt 7:3, Romans 2:1).
Instead, the early Church left the new birth of faith and its verification in the life of the believer, created and sustained by the Holy Spirit. The role of the Church was not that of judge and jury, but rather the provider of community and the means of grace to receive any who profess faith in Christ, and then nurture them in that faith.
From this we learn that it is a mistake to create any barrier to full participation in the Church to anyone who professes faith in Christ. All must mean all.