What does “all” mean? When a church says in its Mission Statement, “We welcome and encourage all to join in this mission,” what do they mean by all? Is this a trick question?
Is it in the same category as the famous line, “It depends what the meaning of ‘is’ is?” It depends on who you include when you say all.
Virtually all? Virtually all ancient people called themselves “the people” in their various languages, and called other people some name which meant that they were not people at all. That highlights the unusual character of the name Hebrew, which meant wanderer, fugitive, refugee or even outlaw. When some of our genealogists hunt through their ancestors to find the outlaws and pirates, maybe they are on a religious quest!
Honestly, we do find it difficult to invite everyone and include everyone. Psychologically unstable individuals, with their unpredictable or deviant behaviors, prove troublesome to many. People who appear strange or behave differently take some getting used to. Strongly opinionated people who want the rest of us to accept their positions make trouble for us, especially if we are likewise strongly convinced in the opposite direction.
Inclusiveness is itself a commitment and a demanding one. Those who yearn for unity and unanimity, similarity and sameness, comfort and convenience will prefer a gated, exclusive neighborhood. The unity of a church must be different. Dare I say it—the unity that Jesus prays for is different?
“All” can never give a blanket acceptance of all possible behaviors and lifestyles. The “go and sin no more” directive tells us that change is appropriate for all, just as forgiveness and new opportunity are available to all.
At the same time we cannot require people to change what God has given or accepted as their nature, much as God may direct or improve that nature. There are givens that need not be changed—race and ethnic background, color of skin or hair or eyes, maleness or femaleness or combinations of the two—that are signs of divine delight in variety and complementary qualities. There are also givens that will inevitably change, and what we can do about it is limited—age and physical ability are definitely so. Is sexual orientation one of the givens? All evidence indicates so.
The continuing process of defining what must be accepted in the public realm—the rights of individuals—shapes much of modern history. What must we accept to live together? What may we expect from other people in God’s loving community?
High standards tend to exclude people with no standards, and those with different high standards. The high standard of inclusion excludes the “-isms” of race, sex, and age, just to begin the list.
What do we mean by all? Time will tell. We by our actions will tell in time.