Radical Inclusivity Within the Church: A Story from the Margins
Today Reformed Margins is happy to feature this guest post by Larry Lin.
Larry was born and raised in San Jose, California, and he has a civil engineering degree from Cornell University and a Master of Divinity from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. After briefly working in college ministry, Larry joined the staff team at The Village Church in Baltimore in 2013, and he now serves there as an assistant pastor. Larry is also a husband to Van-Kim, and he enjoys playing basketball, songwriting, and talking about politics and culture. See his blog to read his latest musings.
In Luke 14:15-24, Jesus tells a story of a man who threw a great banquet. When the man learned that those who were invited would not come, he told his servant, “Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.” And once this was done, the man said, “Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.”
This story has always meant a lot to me personally because I often felt like an outsider during much of my younger years. Growing up, I wanted nothing more than to be included. I was one of a few Asian kids at a mostly white school, and I remember spending a lot of my early recesses just watching classmates play basketball, silently hoping that one of them would notice me and invite me to play with them.
But in middle school, I started to understand, internalize, and savor the gospel, and one of the things that drew me in was God’s radical inclusivity. There was a God who went to great lengths to bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame, to bring the people of the highways and hedges, to bring in outsiders just like me. Although I was an exile, an outcast, and a reject to the rest of the world, God had chosen me to be his friend and his son.
I recall experiencing this in a tangible way. In my home church, when I started going to youth group, I was in seventh grade, and I was in the presence of older, cooler high schoolers for the first time. At first, I’d see them hanging out together, and I would look on from the outside, wishing I could be included. It was almost like elementary school recess all over again. But on one occasion, as I was walking around the church aimlessly, this high schooler who I barely knew saw me, and he called me by name and invited me over to sit with his group of friends. And it meant the world to me, because somebody in the in-crowd knew who I was, and he wanted to bring me in. The excluded was included.
Fast forward several years, and I was a student at Cornell University. It was here that I first heard the term “Reformed.” And the more I learned about it, the more captivated I was by it. Reformed theology provided a holistic, structured paradigm that enabled me to put the Bible together. I saw how the whole Bible was about Jesus, and I saw how intricately the sovereign God was in his redemptive plan. And it made me relish in the joy of salvation. And the more I learned, the more astonished I was by the fact that I had never known about this stuff before.
Up until this point in my life, my dad was probably the most influential spiritual mentor I had. He had been a Christian for about twenty years, and he read the Bible more than anybody else I knew. When I started to get into Reformed theology, I would often share what I was learning, and I would ask him about it. I was surprised to find out that he didn’t know what Reformed theology was. He didn’t know who John Piper or Tim Keller were. He had never heard of The Gospel Coalition or Sovereign Grace or anything like that.
During one of these conversations, he asked what exactly Reformed theology was, possibly to see if it was a cult. I tried my best to explain what it was—that it was about God’s sovereignty, Scripture’s authority, grace’s irresistibility, etc.—and he responded, “That just sounds like regular Christianity.” What?! Regular Christianity? No! It was something different—it’s Reformed theology. I tried to get him to see that what I was learning was different, but he pushed back. He didn’t understand why there was a need to categorize this as a separate “theology”, and he definitely didn’t see a need for a Reformed “movement” or a Reformed “camp.” To him, it just seemed like these people were using new vocabulary to age-old concepts.
Over the next several years, I found myself moving to Baltimore, getting married, going to seminary, and becoming a pastor. During those times, those conversations with my dad always stuck with me, as I’ve found myself interacting in all sorts of ways with many different “movements” or “camps” in Christianity. And while belonging to a specific movement or camp is not wrong (in fact, it can often be beneficial and instructive), I have seen over and over a tendency within these camps to create a two-tiered Christianity.
“They are the Arminian Christians,” some say, “But we are the Reformed Christians.” “They are the water-baptized Christians, but we are the Spirit-baptized Christians.” “They are the emotionally burnt-out Christians, but we are the emotionally healthy Christians.” “They are the large-cumbersome-church Christians, but we are the simple-church Christians.” “They are the suburban Christians, but we are the inner-city Christians.” And on and on.
And sometimes, people place so much emphasis on these distinctions that I am afraid they are building a system of highways and hedges even within the kingdom of God.
I believe that the radical inclusivity of the gospel implies not only breaking down the barriers to reach those on the outside, but also breaking down the barriers to reach those on the inside. The harsh realities of the pre-Civil-Rights era taught a principle that is understood by all today—that mere citizenship does not guarantee equality. The issues of segregation and discrimination must also be addressed. And in the kingdom of God, I believe that it is the same. It is not enough to merely invite people to become kingdom citizens. We must also address the issues of segregation and discrimination within the kingdom as well. I do not think that the great banquet of God is one in which people of different camps sit at their own isolated tables, never conversing with one another or partnering with one another.
Are some of those differences important? Absolutely! I do not think that we should grow soft or malleable in our convictions. What I am proposing is to complement those convictions with a heart of humility, generosity, and encouragement, “and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). If our heart beats for those outside of our church, should it not also beat for those on the inside?
If God wants to fill his house through this gospel of radical inclusivity, then we are bound to rub shoulders with people in the kingdom with whom we will have disagreements. During those times, let’s love them with a radical hospitality, remembering that the God who brought them in is the same God who brought us in.
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