Beyond “Open and Affirming”

   welcome mat       Last week at its national meeting, the gathered Assembly of our denomination (the Christian Church [Disciples of Christ]) took an historic step forward. The Assembly voted to adopt a resolution calling for us to “affirm the faith, baptism and spiritual gifts of all Christians regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and that neither is grounds for exclusion from fellowship or service within the church.” Even taking into consideration important caveats about congregational autonomy and non-binding authority, this was a major step for a denomination known for not taking stands on anything.

It was interesting to note that nowhere in the resolution were the words “open and affirming” used. That term has become synonymous with churches that openly welcome gays and lesbians into the life of their church. According to my research (translation: looking it up on Wikipedia), that phrase has been used in church circles since 1985, include in some of the churches in my denomination.

So why did this resolution not call us to be “open and affirming?” After all, that was the spirit of the resolution, and the words fit the ethos of many of our congregations. Most Disciples churches I know offer an open table (all believers are welcome to take communion) and affirm the variety gifts of the congregation. In other words, many of our churches are already open and affirming, if not “Open and Affirming.”

I have a theory. The term “Open and Affirming,” while originally meant to promote inclusion, has become exclusionary. As it has made its journey from 1985 until now, “Open and Affirming” has picked up some cultural baggage. It no longer is simply the antithesis to being “Closed and Condemning.” Now, I believe, “Open and Affirming” has become the buzzword for the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church, the slogan that gives the movement an identity. To say a church is “open and affirming” gives a person some immediate context for understanding a core value of that church.

But I believe the evolution of the term has had some unintended consequences. It now is sometimes perceived as being exclusionary. In other words, if you’re not for us, then you’re against us. It communicates that those who are opposed to the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church aren’t welcome. I know many of my pastor friends will argue this is not what the terms means, and I agree completely. What I’m saying is the perception of the term’s meaning has evolved (devolved?) into this.

This conclusion is not without support. I’ve talked to folks, some in my own church, who opposed the resolution and the idea of being “open and affirming,” stating that if their church ever went that direction, they wouldn’t feel welcomed. Of course, I could say, “Well, that’s your fault, not ours! Of course you’ll still be welcomed.” Which is often the same thing we say to gays and lesbians who won’t come to our church because they’re afraid they won’t feel welcomed. This is quite a sticky wicket. To quote Brian McClaren, “How do you oppose division without dividing from dividers? How do you oppose exclusion without excluding excluders?”[1]

I think it’s time to move beyond “open and affirming.” If that term has become a barrier to people feeling welcomed in our church, then maybe we need to find another way to say what we mean. I have a suggestion, one that came to me during the very same assembly where we passed the resolution. It was a phrase that resonated through that gathering, both from the main stage and in the Twittersphere. It was a phrase often used in support of the resolution but just as easily stated to raise a concern about the unintended message that passage of the resolution might send to those in opposition.

The phrase is “All Means All.” If we’re going to say all are welcome, then we have to mean all. “All” includes gays and lesbians, single and divorced people, adopted kids, hard-of-hearing elderly folks, and everybody else I could name. All means all. But “all” also means we welcome the racist, the felon, the homophobe, the manipulator, the guy who thinks women don’t belong in the pulpit, and even seminary graduates. “All” means the distracted businessman who would rather be on the golf course and the harried mom who uses the bulletin to make a grocery list during the sermon. “All” means the teenagers who make fart jokes during communion and the one person who always seems to nod off at some point in the sermon. We welcome the abused and her abuser. We welcome the hater and the hated. All means all.

To me, this is a far more challenging prospect, because no one is excluded, even unintentionally. This sends the message that everyone has a place here, everyone can claim that the church is “my church,” and doesn’t belong just to those who are in line with a certain theology or worldview. That means we pastors have to make sure that there is indeed space at the table, in the Board meeting, and in the Sunday School class for these opposing viewpoints. Our job is not only to help them co-exist, but to facilitate their dialogue, with the hope that somewhere in the conversation these competing ideologies transform into two people trying to work out their faith in fear and trembling who discover in each other commonalities that soften the differences. Oh yeah, and we have to make room for the Spirit, who is really the One with the work to do.

I’m not saying “Open and Affirming” (the term, not the idea) should go away, but I do hope, in the wake of my denomination’s statement, that we seek ways of living and being that call us to be open and affirming to everyone, both those who’ve been locked out of the church and those who’ve wielded the keys that no longer work. All means all.

[1] McLaren, Brian. Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Muhammad Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World. Jericho Books; somewhere in Chapter 2.




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6 responses to “Beyond “Open and Affirming”

  1. Really good thoughts, Kory. When I started my church 10 years ago, I made the decision that we would not be designated as “Open and Affirming” because most people I know had to make a journey toward acceptance for the LGBT community, and it felt wrong to say “unless you’ve already made that journey and you’re completely comfortable around gay people, you aren’t welcome here.” That felt like switching one kind of exclusion for another.

    But after I preached for nine years on the inclusive love of Jesus, I preached a sermon in which I said, “Many churches have signs out front that say “You (or All) are Welcome Here.” But for non-churched people, they think that means, “If you are already a Christian and conform to our way of thinking, you are welcome here” – which they interpret as white, Republican, and anti-homosexuality. So I proposed a series of signs out in the front yard of the church:
    Republican or Democrat – You are welcome here
    Vegetarian or Meat-lover – You are welcome here
    KU or MU Fan (We’re in Kansas City) – You are welcome here
    Gay or Straight – You are welcome here
    Pierced or tattooed – You are welcome here

    The church unanimously voted for the signs, and not one person left the church over them. In the sixth months the signs have been out front – we’re now on our second set of them because the first set wasn’t sturdy enough – our visitor traffic is higher than it’s ever been in our history. And virtually everyone who comes said it’s because of the signs. We also put those words on the home page of our website. FYI – We have openly gay people serving in church leadership and we will probably never become an Open and Affirming church.

    One last thought to the long-winded post – I wondered if churches who welcome children to the Table – unbaptized people – have an easier time welcoming all to the Table. We have welcomed all – baptized and not – to the Table since we started. Sara Miles’ “Eat This Bread” and John Wesley’s means of grace helped me make that decision!

    • Exactly, Laura! I’m trying to get to a phrase that is as close to inclusive as the love of God is. Rather than speak to one specific group, I want to let everyone know they are welcome. Your signs are a perfect way of doing that!

  2. Johnny Wray

    Kory — thank you for a most thought provoking reflection. some of the best stuff i’ve read since the assembly and the passage of the resolution. i grew up in a church that had on it’s sign board the words “everyone welcome” and then when I was about 11 or 12 years old i began to realize the church didn’t mean “everyone”! here we are 50 years later and at least the church has had the integrity to take those words off! needless to say it is very hard for me to worship there.

    i was moved when Glen used the phrase “all means all” and it reminded me of that great line from Will Campbell – “if you love one, you’ve got to love them all.” my fear is that what happened to the phrase “open and affirming: may happen to “all means all.” once you take a phrase like that and put in on a t-shirt or a bumper sticker or maybe even a church sign board, something seems to happen to the fierce and far-reaching grace of it. i heard there is a UCC church that adopted as its logo something like “we’re a church for everyone who wants a church for everyone” – which, of course, doesn’t mean everyone!

    Bro. Will also defines Christianity as “we’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.” as long as the bastards are pretty much like us – the sort of moderate, in the middle, socially and culturally appropriate – i think we Disciples are (or will grow to become) pretty open and affirming and welcoming of gay, straight, Democrat, Republican, black, white, liberal, conservative, etc. etc. but what about all those other bastards that God also loves? are we willing to include the child molesters and skinheads, the unrepentant racists and irretrievable drug addicts, the Ariel Castros and George Zimmermans, the Monsanto and Wal-Mart executives, the Ann Coulters and Rush Limbaughs, the Robert Mugabes and Bashir Assads – (my own exclusianary prejudices are already slipping in!)

    the writer of Ephesians does speak of that day when all creation will be brought into the unity of God and then all will truly mean all. in the meanwhile, may God’s spirit keep prodding and pulling us toward that All.

    thanks for such a great piece and thanks for your ministry at Crestwood. it is an encouragement to many. carry on, –jw

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Johnny! There’s an inherent tension to this whole thing – trying to welcome everyone, even those who don’t want to welcome everyone. There are good folks at Crestwood who opposed the resolution, and I’m trying to make sure there’s room at the table for them. If they choose not to break bread with us, that’s their choice, but we have to make sure there’s room. I agree that turning a phrase into a slogan can eventually zap it of its “fierce and far-reaching grace” (GREAT line!). But something is needed that moves us beyond the polarity of “open and affirming.” Maybe we should put on our church signs “We welcome all bastards, even you!” Blessings to you, my friend. Kory

  3. David

    Hi Kory,

    Thanks for this thoughtful engagement of a difficult topic. Very interesting stuff. I have a mixed response. On the one hand, I love the impulse toward radical inclusion and the acknowledgement of the power of words. On the other hand, I wonder about the indefinite meaning of “All.” In some of the churches I have been around, “We welcome everybody” has sometimes been a convenient way to avoid facing the difficulties of defining and wrestling with the particulars of difference. As with so many mottoes in the church, the proof is in how the walk corresponds to the talk. I think you get that.


    • I really appreciate your comment, David. “All Means All” is more of a goal to strive for than a destination to arrive at (sorry for the preposition). I think of it like “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” You make a great point that seeking inclusion can also be an excuse for not exploring differences. That’s a tough line to walk, but one that is important for churches to engage.

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