There can be no great love without exclusivity. – Carol Grace
In the previous article, we explored how an experiential approach to baptism—one that emphasizes its romantic and metamorphic roots—is necessary for the secular man’s discipleship journey. The one-dimensional approach that often suffices for those who are brought up in church must then be built upon so that a meaningful, three-dimensional vision of scripture’s rebirth narrative can occupy a significant place in the seeker’s journey. However, the conversation on baptism is not yet over. In the Adventist context, we must also navigate the extra layer of church membership. This piece of the puzzle, troublingly enough, adds a dimension of complexity that cannot be disregarded or ignored. While I don’t have all the answers, in this present article I will share where my thoughts are in the present season keeping in mind that, as with all other conceptualizations—it remains open to evolution and development.
When it comes to the conversation on church membership and baptism, I find it helpful to dissect its inherent multivariate complexity into three subcategories and then bring it all back together in the end. Keep in mind that this is not a conversation I have with seekers but rather with myself and the teams that I work with. Those three subcategories I refer to as the gospel’s inherent inclusivity, faith’s pragmatic exclusivity, and the necessity of institution. From there, I attempt to bring the three subcategories together into a working policy from which I can operate effectively in my local context. Therefore, bear in mind that these present thoughts may need to be adapted for your immediate context.
The Gospels Inherent Inclusivity
One of the fundamental aspects of the gospel is that it is inclusive. This simply means the gospel is for everybody. No one is denied its beauty or promise. As a church, we must—if we wish to conduct ourselves in a way that reflects the gospels value structure—manifest a culture and structure that facilitates, celebrates, and nurtures inclusivity for all regardless of race, social status, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation or other human-centric walls of division. Anything short of this is an affront to the gospel.
Perhaps this is the greatest tragedy of many local Adventist churches. They are seldom inherently inclusive. Of course, you will be hard-pressed to find a church that admits its message is not for all people but only a certain class (though they do exist out there). Nevertheless, if you observe the structure and evangelistic culture of a local church you will find that the model itself is exclusive even though its members pay lip service to inclusivity. In this sense, I have come to conclude that most of our churches are “passively exclusive” rather than “actively” so.
But what do I mean by this? An illustration is the best way for me to convey my intended meaning. Imagine a church that proclaims to its city, “Come as you are! All are welcome!” Now imagine that this same church has one entrance at the front. The entrance, however, is only 5 feet high. This means that anyone who is 5 feet and under can get in quite comfortably. Anyone taller has to contort themselves to get in. Imagine now that the entrance is also narrow rather than wide. This means that thinner people won’t have much of a problem while heavier people will struggle to squeeze through – some perhaps unsuccessfully. Now if you take a person who is six feet tall and a wide frame (like a body-builder) this person will have double the trouble getting in.
But let’s imagine a bit further. Let’s suppose the body-builder gets inside. Once there, he discovers that all the internal entrances are also 5 feet high, all the corridors are narrow and even the chairs themselves are designed for people who are short and thin. This means that even if a tall, wide person managed to squeeze through the front entrance, the experience inside the building would be perpetually uncomfortable. No matter where they go, it’s a constant struggle just to fit in.
But let’s imagine one step further. Our body-builder friend wants so badly to know God and be a part of his church that he unnecessarily sucks up the discomfort and sticks around long enough to accept Jesus and prepare for baptism. But the baptismal font itself is not designed for someone as tall, and wide as he is. The tank is thin and the water is shallow. As the body-builder observes the baptisms taking place he sees how a certain class of people slide gleefully in, indeed effortlessly, as if the entire scenario is designed just for them. But he is always uncomfortable, always in pain, always struggling as if the entire scenario is designed – not necessarily against him – but certainly without him in mind. Shortly after his baptism, our tall, wide friend can no longer endure the unspoken angst of being a member at this church. He slowly slips away. Then, members of the church try to reel him back in with platitudes like, “You are not here for the chairs or corridors, you are here for God.” When the body-builder refuses to return, the church then excuses itself with yet more platitudes, “The way is narrow,” the elders say, “Some people don’t want to change themselves, they just want the church to change for them,” the deacons say, “If people don’t like it here they can leave,” the members say, and so on and so forth.
The next week, the church prepares for an evangelistic campaign. It sends advertisements out, goes door-knocking, publishes Facebook ads – the whole package. And in all their advertisements the message is the same – “Come as you are! Everyone welcome!” The church and its members mean it. Everyone is welcome, as far as their hearts are concerned. But what they have failed to discern is that they are structured to only truly welcome a certain kind of person. In other words, they are ideologically inclusive but structurally exclusive. This is what I mean by a church that passively excludes people. In our illustration, no one actively opposes the tall and wide, but the very model of the church itself creates an unspoken atmosphere where anyone who cannot comfortably fit through the front entrance will never truly be included even in an environment where everyone is friendly and accepting.
This illustration captures how many of our local Adventist churches operate. Everyone is welcome, everyone is accepted—come as you are! But we are not designed to facilitate everyone, are we? We are not structured to truly nurture everyone. Our evangelistic models, our discipleship pathways, our methodologies, language, and cultures are all geared toward receiving and nurturing a certain kind of person – often middle class, educated people who don’t have too many vices. They fit the entrance – that is, the sociological box we have created. We might have to shave off a few rough edges, but by and large, they are already kind of like us so we can assimilate them, no problem. And fitting in is never too uncomfortable for them. But have a drug addict, an ex-con, or a gangster attend your church and no matter how nice you are to them, they will always struggle to truly fit in. Have a pagan, an LGBTIQ+ youth, or a postmodern show up at your doorstep, and from the moment they walk in they will sense that this whole thing isn’t geared toward nurturing and journeying with them. They will never really belong.
This is essentially the greatest tragedy in Adventism. That our suit-and-tie, 3-hymn sandwich, Euro-centric, emotionally reserved, informationally driven, program orbiting, sheltered youth and tone-death gatherings shape a kind of church structure that will be comfortable for the moderately traditional, emotionally serene, status-quo embracing, black-and-white-thinking kind of person whose political and religious ideas are already in the same vicinity as the church’s ethos. They can fit through the tight, narrow sociological entrance and find their rhythm within the church fairly quickly. But the progressive, expressive, creative, skeptical, inquisitive, anti-establishment, contra-tradition, non-religious, open-minded kind of person—that is, the kind that most secular people today are—will never really belong in your church no matter how hard they try.
Because most of our churches operate off a model that attracts people that are already kind of like us, we then baptize such people and further ingrain a cultural ethos that excludes the non-conformist all the while claiming we accept everyone. It is a passive exclusion at best, a structure that works well with older demographics, migrant cultures, and modernist/pre-modern seekers. It seldom, if ever, works with younger, westernized, post to meta-modern sojourners.
But the gospel is inherently inclusive – that is, it belongs to everyone. There is a reason why the gospel never attaches itself to a particular culture. Christianity is not American, European, or expressed in the virtues and mannerisms of high-culture. Its worship is not contained within the Anglo musical traditions, its dress is not manifested in Western fad or fashion, its story is not nested within any one language, generation, or style. It is free and enmeshes itself in the dances of the Native American, its beauty celebrated in the echoes of the indigenous didgeridoo, its power manifested in the lives of all who embrace it, regardless of whether they look, talk, or walk in ways that would disturb the finer sensibilities of a lecturer at Oxford. It is seen in the swag of the gospel rapper as well as the finesse of the Christian violinist. To repeat once more—it is free, free to travel as it pleases, save whom it will, redeem in whatever color it wishes too. All are welcome. All are embraced. All are molded into the image of Jesus—an image that is seen in the diversity of culture and all the colors and sounds its multitudes bring.
But our local churches don’t reflect this. As a result, only one kind of person is generally able to enter through the door. Everyone else must either contort themselves in unnecessary ways or be forced to give up even though our sign continues to declare, “Come as you are!”. For you see, it makes no sense to tell the culture “come as you are” if your structure simultaneously declares, “so that we may make you as we are.” For the church was never called to make traditional Americans or Europeans of men. It was called to make disciples, not merely of a certain class, but of “every nation, tribe, tongue, and people.”
Faith’s Pragmatic Exclusivity
Now some folk love the inclusive part of the conversation and wish it would stop there. However, there is an exclusive element of faith. It is not the kind of exclusivity manifested in many of our churches, but it is there and must be explored. If we wish to design churches that are safe and meaningful spaces of spiritual journeying for humanity, this comes with an automatic boundary – a boundary which, like it or not, excludes some from the communal gathering.
Historically, this exclusion has been driven by carnal priorities such as “our good name”. This is where the stories of churches refusing to minister to local prostitutes or addicts emerge. People in the pews don’t want “those kinds of people” sitting next to them. This is anti-gospel, of course. However, there is a strong sense of exclusion inherent to faith that we must be willing to contend with.
The religious narcissists, for example, often exclude themselves from missional churches because their egocentric thirst for power and control cannot be satisfied in relationally intimate environments. So, there is a sense in which, the healthier and more inclusive your church is, the more passively exclusive it is toward those who are proud, coercive, and strict when it comes to matters of faith. This is, of course, something to be celebrated not lamented. To the same degree, missional churches that focus on relational intimacy develop spaces of accountability and mutual concern. The man who wishes to cheat on his wife repeatedly and refuses to admit his fault will find the intimacy of this community “invasive”. In a typical church, he can put up a front, be regarded as a “man of God” all the while being unfaithful to his wife. But missional spaces where people are intentional about loving on his wife instead of worshiping him for his brilliant theological ideas are uncomfortable for him because he cannot maintain his facade. Therefore, the missional church both passively and actively excludes the unrepentant agitator.
This is one of the reasons why, as much as institution can be irritating when it oversteps its boundaries, it is also extremely useful. When a church is undergirded by an institution there are policies, networks, and structures in place to maintain accountability and order. Some folk don’t like this. They act as though they are all for freedom but in truth, what they want is the freedom to rule the church with no one to hold them accountable and call out their errors. They want to be free to preach conspiracy theories, challenge authority, and place themselves upon a throne of spiritual lordship with zero repercussions. For such a class, the structured church is an affront because it excludes them, and rightfully so.
Finally, the church must exclude the unsafe perpetrator. In other words, the church must have healthy boundaries by which certain people – while loved and cared for – are excluded from certain gatherings. Those with a history of sexual assault and pedophilia are among the most obvious cases. Such people can certainly repent and be transformed by the grace of God, but unique spaces must be created to disciple them without putting them in the path of temptations or others in the vicinity of danger. Therefore, a redemptive exclusion must be managed in such cases. We must think also of those who have a history of spiritual abuse and division and likewise those who have a history of conning unsuspecting people – often the elderly. In each of these cases, the objective of the church is to protect the vulnerable, disabled, gullible, and weak from the potential predatory advances of spiritual, sexual and physical abusers as well as those who would take advantage of them economically and emotionally. This commitment to safe spaces necessitates boundaries and boundaries inherently create exclusion. However, the astute reader will discern that in this natural exclusion there is a counter-inclusion. That is, this exclusion serves to bolster the meaning and value of true inclusion. It is driven by love and thus, it perpetuates love. Perhaps few have said it as cleverly as the late actress Carol Grace when she noted, “There can be no great love without exclusivity.”
Finally, the church’s message will always carry with it a degree of exclusivity as well. To the white supremacist who is committed to his nationalistic ideologies, the gospel and the three angels’ messages are an affront. Such a person must not be pacified for the sake of baptism. They must either renounce their unjust worldview or part ways with the church altogether. Such an attitude is reflected in the ministry of Ellen White who, when speaking of those who supported the institution of slavery, demanded they be removed from Adventist church membership. Such a one, Ellen declared, cannot fellowship with us. In this sense, there is a clear vision of exclusion by way of worldview. Thus, if our churches are faithful to God’s kingdom vision for humanity, we must do so with the realization that such a vision will offend and exclude many of our neighbors.
In short, there are ways in which the church is both inclusive and exclusive. But the line of division is not what we have made it to be—it is not race, culture, or class but rather character and safety concerns that exclude some from the communal gathering. In other words, anytime we vote to include some we will by default exclude others. There is no way around it. Therefore, let us act as Jesus did—let us include those he included and, by default, exclude those he excluded. Let us welcome the misfits and rejects so that, by default, we will exclude those who would seek to take advantage of others – those whose impulse for domination and control is their religion.
The above two elements now need to be brought into contact with the fact that Adventism is not simply a narrative but an institution as well. In the next article, I will navigate the tricky waters of institutionalism as it relates to secular culture and how we, as a church, can engineer a culture and structure that speaks value and meaning to the unchurched guests that we will encounter.
 Carol Grace. A common saying attributed to the actress.