In recent years, churches seeking to adapt to a rapidly changing culture and expansive view on sexual ethics have sought novel ways to engage the LGBTQIA community. Some churches are still adhering to an orthodox sexual ethic while finding ways of embracing gay individuals and couples. One such way is through membership framed in “missional hospitality”. The reasoning for such churches to engage in missional evangelism is relevance, engagement and relationship. Such hospitality fosters relationship and is based in inclusion with a “long view” on discipleship. And since, historically, church relationships are embodied in membership, biblical hospitality would, “make a place at the table”, for those whose otherwise would not be there. Here, membership is primarily about relationship, evangelism and eventually discipleship. Pulling from another relational reality for an example, it is a little bit like missionary dating. We are not “equally yoked” yet but my love will make the difference. For both, relationship allows for inclusion and demonstrations of Christian love while not embracing an unbiblical worldview. The laudable goal is discipleship and transformation. If it works, we can stand, declare, love and make disciples all in the same breath.
Hospitality is a profoundly Christian category found throughout the Scriptures. Deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition (birthed out of Genesis 18), it is one of the marks of a true Christian community (Matt 25:31-46; Romans 12:13; 1 Peter 4:8-9; Titus 1:8). Hospitality was such a mark of Jesus that he was called a friend of sinners for his hospitality (Matt 11:19). Christian hospitality according to the, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, “Identifies Jesus with the ‘least of these’ and links hospitality towards human beings with love for Jesus”. Christian hospitality is loving the stranger and those we know with the same love we have for Christ. It is love in action. We show hospitality with a meal, an open home, financial help or an listening ear. Hospitality is a tangible means to love our brothers and sisters in Christ and to love the other. Authors like Rosaria Butterfield have encouraged the church that it is through hospitality—the authentic opening of home and relationship—that non-Christians can encounter the living Christ. I know from my own journey, I am a Christian today in large part because of open homes and unmerited friendships. I found Jesus there.
Hospitality is a biblical command for the Christian church to follow and is the means of evangelism in a disconnected age. As an evangelist and someone who is more prone to say yes to relationship, I have been considering whether missional hospitality gives the church a framework for membership as it is understood in the reformed tradition?
As I have considered this question what I have found is that membership is a totally different biblical category than hospitality. While membership is an earthen but valuable sign of salvation that has specific demands on those who are members, hospitality is best thought of as the work of love the believer has towards other believers and outsiders alike. Hospitality might reveal the living Christ but it cannot take away the demands that “Jesus as Lord” puts on his disciples.For the sake of the gospel, we cannot confuse the two.
According to article 28 of the Belgic confession, membership is defined by:
- Worshiping regularly in the local congregation
- Submitting to and being disciples under biblical authority through local leadership
When we think about giving membership, the goal isn’t to be hospitable to one another but to endorse with a visible sign the spiritual reality of salvation. The high goal of membership is a member’s assurance and a church’s confidence that a local church’s elders sees the fruits of salvation in a particular person.
This is the goal of the Belgic Confessions’ obligations on a member of a local church. And in each obligation we clearly see that hospitality can help someone come under the yoke of Christ but it cannot replace the decision each person can make.
According to the Belgic Confession, there must be salvation. This isn’t just reciting some words and believing the right things, but it is the hidden reality of the heart that has decided that Jesus is Lord. He is the master in all areas of life and though one might have a long way to go to maturity, he or she has as the aim Christlikeness. Salvation is Christ’s work but in the biblical record and reformed tradition, it is coupled with a public profession. Obvious sins that are entrenched are explored graciously and if there is agreement that it is sin, and there is a holy energy to get free, a person is gladly welcomed into the community of redeemed and being redeemed sinners. But unrepentant sin that is entrenched has always been a sign that salvation has not taken root. Here, hospitality is extended but membership withheld. A gay couple who is civically married is entrenched in cultural sin. Active homosexual activity is a sin of grave concern. Both are matters of first importance. They are issues of salvation. The question for a church accepting a gay couple into membership is does this couple agree about this biblical conclusion and will the church along with the couple go on the journey of discipleship so that obedience might be worked into their lives? If not, the profession is hollow and the church is encouraging disobedience with its silence.
Second, according The the Belgic Confession, membership is a commitment to gather regularly together. This has more to do with discipleship than attendance. It is the commitment of a member to publicly practice the disciplines of the church to become more like Christ in every area of life. Interestingly, in every church that has engaged the practice of missional hospitality that I have engaged, sexual ethics are of little or or concern as an issue of discipleship. For a church to be faithful, it must be clear on its sexual ethics as asserted in the Bible. It must call the whole church to fidelity no matter the cost. Doesn’t “missional hospitality” that gives membership away and reduces the importance of sexual ethics secretly malform its members, same-sex attracted and heterosexual alike? The goal of membership is radical discipleship. I am not sure how lowering the bar of Christian living helps in this most important endeavor.
Third, the Belgic Confession says there must be ever growing obedience. In the words of the Belgic Confession, members must “bend their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ.” An orthodox view of sexuality sees ongoing, unrepentant, sexual sin as something that can disqualify you from eternal life and Christ’s kingdom (1 Cor 6:9-11). A married gay couple following Christ brings complications and costs that will be severe. Is the cost of discipleship being laid out and is church and member alike ready for this journey of the cross? Or is the church declaring, “peace, peace, when there is no peace.” If so, in an attempt to be hospitable, such a church becomes an enemy of the cross.
Fourth, the Belgic Confession calls members to serve the church and the community with the grace and hope of the gospel through the gifts given by the Spirit. Here, in a church who opens membership because of missional hospitality, utter confusion reigns. Where sin has been minimized, hospitality and discipleship confused, and the aim of membership not clear, how can a church be a force for gospel good? Sure, it will be able to be kind and do some social good, but its primary mission of making disciples who become like Jesus is totally lost.
Being fed by Jesus or healed by him does not save those who receive such kindness. Christian hospitality can bring a recipient to the door of salvation but each person must decide to follow Christ. We walk into salvation by becoming disciples. Of course salvation is a free gift of grace but it is grace into eternal life now.
Anything that is alive has certain attributes and as long as it receives the attention and nutrients it needs and nothing harmful intervenes, the life will naturally grow into a mature life—a seed becomes a bloomed plant, an egg becomes a hen, etc… This is the way God has designed life. It is also the biblical vision for the Christian life. A man or woman who is born from above (John 3:3) begins as an “infant in Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:1). This new life will grow and mature through the process of discipleship until a Christian lives his or her life as Christ lived his (1 John 2:6). This is the natural development of the Christian. Such growth into maturity is not for the super-Christian. It ought to be as natural as a flower seed growing into a fully bloomed plant. When membership is reduced and discipleship side-stepped in the name of hospitality, people will not grow. Salvation itself is at stake.
Anyone who loves Jesus wants to reach the community around them. Hospitality is a great way to do this but we also must not sugarcoat what becoming a Christian means. It means putting to death (Col 3) everything that stands in the way of Jesus being Lord of our lives. This includes liars, thieves, sorcerers, adulterers, envy and yes homosexual sex. Let’s be hospitable but let’s not lose the gospel in the process.