Why Certain People Don’t Belong in Church

As Christians, and more particularly, as Evangelicals, we want to provide a place where all people belong no matter what.

What we have to realize is that this is a promise/marketing message most Evangelical congregations can’t deliver because it contradicts its very identity.  And once again, we unwittingly participate in hypocrisy, or what Brene Brown calls the Disengagement Gap.

When a group bases its identity on a common set of beliefs, the group itself is threatened by anyone that does not hold that common set of beliefs. By definition. If we are defined by our beliefs, then the more people we have in our midst who do not hold to those beliefs, the more our identity is diluted and unclear.

Our desire to be a place where “everyone is welcome” might be enough to let someone in the door without having that set of beliefs but the expectation will always be that you soon adopt those beliefs. After all if the majority of people were like “you,” that is didn’t hold to these core beliefs about God, salvation, the Bible, etc, then in what sense are we even a church?

As such, there is always the chance that if you no longer share those beliefs, or take too long in “confessing” you hold to those beliefs, you are either restricted to a “lesser” form of “belonging” (for instance, not getting to be a member, forever stuck in “attender” status) or you risk being asked to leave altogether, for the health of the whole.

My point is that this isn’t the fault of the congregation for not being “accepting enough” or “loving the outsider enough.” If we did what we promised, based on how most congregations think of “Church,” then the very essence of that church would be compromised.

And if that is true, then congregations are doomed to this hypocrisy unless they (1) change their marketing, (2) change their views on the church, or (3) admit this inconsistency but do it for the sake of the movement. I am not sure I see another way (perhaps someone can help me). My point at this point is not to say that one of these options is more “right” than the other, only that when we don’t choose, we can’t be surprised when the culture finds Christians hypocritical.

If you want to see this in action, talk to someone who has accidentally questioned one of the assumed-but-often-unspoken beliefs in a church, things like:

1. The Bible is inerrant.
2. Gay sex is the worst sin
3. You should give a tithe (10% of your income)
4. The leadership of this church is God-ordained & therefore cannot be questioned

Of course, if you have ever accidentally questioned one of these things, you know what I’m talking about. You might be allowed to stray from these beliefs for a little while, but it puts strain on everyone around you, leading to awkward small groups, uncomfortable conversations with your pastor who found out about your disbelief through your small group leader, absolutely condescending “I’ll pray for you’s” from a family member. Why? Because in your very questions you are threatening the identity of the group. And the strain on the group can only be sustained for so long before it must be removed, either by requiring repentance or removal.

I am, ironically, often criticized for being too critical, for tearing down without building up. So I will vaguely show my hand to conclude: Perhaps Christians need to stop finding so much of their identity in mentally-checked-off beliefs rather than the person of Jesus.

Sure, to identify core beliefs other than the centrality of Christ in life & practice creates movement, alignment, focus, and growth. But it excludes, oppresses, and marginalizes the seekers among us, narrows the mission of God in the world, and creates idols out of doctrine. May we stop trying to control the family of God and allow Christ to do his work of grace in all of us, especially those who already belong.

24 responses to “Why Certain People Don’t Belong in Church

    • You have caught me Andrew. You always ask the one question I hope no one raises while I’m writing my posts. Well done. I really don’t know what to do with “church discipline,” but I do have a few thoughts: I have never been to a church that was actually involved in people’s lives in a healthy enough way to enforce any semblance of church discipline as Paul prescribes. And to be honest, I find our pick-and-choose discipline more harmful than not having any at all, so I’ve tended to put that question on the back burner for now. And secondly, Paul’s context must be taken into account. I am not saying it is not applicable but I do think the demographic and geography of the churches in Paul’s day was different, there weren’t different churches at every corner, and that must be taken into account as we try to faithfully translate what this “discipline” might look like in our day.

      What do you think Andrew? I would love to hear your thoughts, as you can tell, mine are not all that articulate yet.

      • I have to check the Greek, but in English, discipline and disciple are the same root. Might it be that the way the church “does discipline” is by having everyone remember they are role models for each other. The mutuality of “sainthood” doesn’t point to a hierarchical model, but rather one in which we really share each other’s burdens. Really share them, not just “speaking the truth in love” or “I’ll pray for you”, but stepping up to walk the journey every day with each other. That “discipline” will go a long way toward the kind of “all are welcome here” vision that I personally have for any church I will attend/serve.

      • Hi Jared,

        I get the feeling that church discipline doesn’t fit within the predominant western paradigm of anti-authoritarian individual autonomy, so it’s not surprising that it chafes a bit…
        But you bring up some points worth thinking about, namely, that discipline must come out of mutual involvement in eachothers lives, at a deeper level than often happens in western churches. De-fellowshiping must be the extreme end and done out of a desire that it bring the person to repentance – so whatever fellowship comes before that must be real, deep and something that will be missed!

        On the other hand, I also wonder if it isn’t a by-product of the seeker-sensitive movement / paradigm which leads us to put an individual’s feelings above the well-being of the congregation?

        I also wonder how many people are actually consciously submitting themselves to the oversight and discipline of the church when they become members? I remember talking to someone about whether they were thinking of becoming a member of a particular church we’d started attending, and I was taken aback that their initial reason for becoming a member was so that the church would discipline them if they fell into sin! They were allowing the church to hold them accountable.

      • I think you said something key: “they were allowing the church to hold them accountable.” In our culture, I think it has to be something that the individual “allows for,” whether we like that or not. And that allowance will typically only happen in a trusting relationship. Thanks for this though, it will give me more things to think about!

  1. I have a question I’d like to ask. It is off topic from this particular post, but is related to a different one made some time ago. I’ve been meaning to ask for a while, and I can think of no better way to do so than right here, so…

    In your post, I Still Stand as an Evangelical for Gay Marriage, I couldn’t help but notice this paragraph near the end.

    “And while many Christians believe the “Christian” thing to do is to keep Christianity in power, I believe the “Christian” thing to do is empty ourselves of power, to give up our legislating and to take up our cross. I believe Jesus is on the side of those without power and his kingdom is one of equality, where no one is a second-class citizen, whether that be conservative Christian, drug addict, GLBT, atheist, or politician. We all bear God’s image in this story.”

    I have to ask. What is the place for atheists in Jesus’ kingdom? What part of God’s image does an atheist bear? I’m very curious as to how you would answer that question.

    • Great question. I would answer that the atheist bear’s God’s image in her humanness, that part of them Jesus says I should love, even if they hate me, that I should accept even if I am rejected, where God’s grace “covers over a multitude of sins.” When I say “Jesus’ Kingdom” I am not thinking of heaven, by the way. Now I am curious, how would you answer it?

      • Troy, Jared,

        I have liked the quote that Troy mentioned ever since I first read it in Jared’s blog. It is relevant, it is well articulated, and it points the way to the Cross. I just want to add that I found it a little exciting to see that somebody is still pondering it all these months later!


      • I’m not sure how I would answer the question, which is a big part of why I asked. However, I do believe that atheists have an important impact on Christians in that we hold you accountable in ways you cannot yourselves. As you’ve stated numerous times before, Christians have often been on the wrong side of civil rights issues, and would likely have stayed that way for far longer if not for the skeptics of the day. Atheists and agnostics actions often force Christians to break out of the echo chambers they often find themselves in, and there is immense value in doing so.

  2. Why do you always pick on the older generation? (“condescension from Mom and Dad”). Not every person over 30 (or whatever the new break point is these days) is wrong/outdated. Many went through their process and have come to conclusions, just as you are doing now. Not all of us “old people” believe the same things..speaking for myself, I’d say, yes, the Bible is inerrant (though of course people can argue forever about interpretation), homosexuality is one of many sins we now live with in this world, but the other two are not right.
    But yes, not everyone will be able to find a church that will conform to them. I have yet to see a church that can include everyone without losing the essence of worshiping God. In my family, we survive it all by loving each other and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
    But we go to different churches 🙂

    • Lee – I am not trying to be contrary, but when have I ever picked on the “older generation”? I don’t think using “Mom & Dad” as an example counts as “always picking on the older generation.” That’s an honest question, I want to know if I have given that impression in the past.

      There is no sense in which I believe people over 30 are wrong or outdated. In fact, I am moderating a conference this weekend where I will argue the exact opposite, that those who no longer “belong” in certain structures of church do not fit into any stereotypical demographic, they are of all ages and demographics. Almost all of my friends are well over 30 and they are the having the same conversations.

      But thanks for “DADT” reference, funny but true!

  3. This is a really interesting post. I’ve often thought about this in relationship to how we think about multi-culturalism and hospitality in general. I have been in many congregations (and now work for a denominational agency) that bemoan the fact that our churches are so segregated, and always make a big deal about prioritizing anti-racist work. However, when push comes to shove, we don’t realize that there are cultural and belief-related reasons that churches remain segregated.

    For first-generation immigrants, like those who make up the majority of Mennonites in Los Angeles county, where I live, going to church provides them with the one place where they can feel safe, secure and where their culture and faith background is fully understood. Similarly, if “white middle-class congregations” truly want to be hospitable and welcoming, we will need to be willing to have our ways of doing and being church challenged. And, like you say, if we are not willing to do this, and/or we feel like our ability to follow Christ’s call is harmed by doing so, we will need to find other places or spaces to be welcoming other than church. But something about that doesn’t feel quite right either…

  4. MInd if I break down your anti-hypocrisy options? I want to make sure I understand them.

    (1) change their marketing–does that mean succumb to the realization that the church does slowly weed out the “outsiders” per se, and go for a more elitist audience of those who are not that far from conforming to their comfortable rules and doctrine? (This totally defeats the purpose of a church to me, but it would eliminate the element on hypocrisy–even in only in the respect of everyone being welcome in a church.)

    (2) change their views on the church–what would they change their views to? Would that mean congregations should not put a deadline on when someone should accept Christ before ostracizing them? Or would that mean that a new attender would no longer be the lastest project to work on until it is determined a success or failure no longer worth pursuing? What is the point of a church if not to evangelize? When does the church go from loving a person despite all their sins to lovingly confront them in order to strive to be like Christ?

    (3) admit this inconsistency but do it for the sake of the movement. Does this mean to basically be like, “yup, we are hypocrites. Oh well! So is everyone else that is on this planet.”

    • Yes, I think you have unpacked some of my thoughts that are bound up in my use of those phrases. I think your thoughts on (2) are important. I am not sure what that would mean, the possibilities are what I hope to be thinking through in the coming months. If you have any other thoughts, I would be happy to hear them!

    • On #2, I think the church has to look at the motivation and intention of the person. If the motivation is clearly to divide and stir up trouble, talking about the staff behind their backs, etc, then that’s where discipline or removal comes in.

      But if the person is loyal, committed, and faithful to the church, then there needs to be some agreement to disagree. Even if it’s an unbeliever. Look for the fruits of the Spirit as well. And don’t replace them with Law. Adultery is one issue that’s bound to come up though. But is an adulterer exercising faithfulness to God and self-control (two of the fruits of the Spirit)? Paul says to cast them out of the church, right? But this is a different time/culture. The worst thing imaginable to a person in that eastern culture was public shame. For us, it’s nothing. We can go to a different church and pretend such a sin never occurred. So do we remain faithful to the friendship with that person? If so, for how long? What if he/she remarries and this spouse is an atheist and makes fun of your belief in God?

      And even here, aren’t I violating my own opinion on making Law by adhereing to a checklist of “fruits”? Things become complex and sticky real quick, eh?

      Regarding doctrinal conflict: the western culture, and the United State’s extreme individualism, is so opposite to Scripture’s original audience that I think it’s difficult for us to get into the minds of that audience and interpret Scripture properly. And even then, we still have our personal biases that affect our interpretation. I think that the pursuit of truth and proper interpretation is very important, we need to give others the benefit of the doubt often and realize we may be the ignorant ones.

      And this goes for the non-staff of a church too. Shouldn’t I give the staff the benefit of the doubt that they’ve wrestled for some time over proper discipline procedures and such? I can disagree, but I must also respect their wrestling and decisions, true?

      Maybe in the end, it’s about being prepared for situations, thinking through possible events, and creating a loose response or framework on how to investigate and diagnosis anything that might bring about discipline. Part of me is glad I’m not given this responsibility :>

  5. This is an interesting topic for me personally because I’ve been the victim/persecuted/recipient of such behavior.

    My church removed my wife and I from membership because I hold a full preterist eschatological belief. The church has a list of 12 statements that while you don’t have to agree with them, you just can’t disagree with them and be a member (as in, it’s okay to say you’re unsure, but to disagree is bad). This membership requirement was put in place 4 years after we had initially become members. It was determined that my view was a threat to the body and that my wife and I would be removed from membership and all leadership positions that we held. The funny thing is that the list of 12 statements does not declare an eschatological position (simply states that “there will be a visible, imminent, future return of Christ), nor does the staff agree on any position.

    We are still at the church because we believe in the mission of the church, and all of our good friends are there (though most of our friends disagree with the church’s decision).

    While the events surrounding all of that has actually strengthened my wife and I’s relationship, I still find it difficult for the wound to heal.

    The other ironic thing about the membership list of 12 statements is that the pastor himself often says from stage “When I look back at what I believed even 5 years ago, I’m shocked at how much I’ve changed.” He was talking about how the more we study and have a working knowledge of the entire Bible, we’ll notice errors in our theology. He even goes on to use the example of how he used to not be a Calvinist, and now he is.

    It seems like such contradiction.

    I’ve always considered myself as someone who has a very advanced understanding of the Scriptures and thus, I didn’t have a problem debating and teaching my positions. I could do that very well. I would’ve sworn 5 years ago that I was 100% right on many issues of doctrine.

    But the more I’ve studied the eastern culture and the mind-set, specifically the honor/shame system, so many passages in the Bible have come alive and completely obliterated my thoughts on what they were about (I was so confident before!) There’s so much depth to Scripture. It seems the more and more I dig and learn, I only uncover a larger existence of questions and things that don’t make sense. Does that make sense? The closer to God I’ve become, the more obedient I’ve walked, the more mature I’ve become, the less confident I am about many theological doctrines.

    Now, being on the other side, I can see that I was just like the church leaders at the time of our “removal.” I was arrogant and unloving at times. And now, honestly, my tolerance for those that demand that Scripture is explicit about something (homosexuality, baptism, hell, eternal security) is very low. But now I’m growing in mercy and slowly chipping away at “tolerance” and replacing with grace and love.

    The funny thing about the Scriptures is that if you have a position on anything, you’re often going to find ample evidence to back your position up. It doesn’t even take a “twisting” of verse or a passage, but often just a nudging. The Bible is complex, but Jesus spent little time making sure the disciples had correct doctrinal beliefs (at least from what we can tell from what’s recorded). He spent most of his time talking about faith, hope and love. I find that churches are often the reverse of this. While their actions outside of the doors do display faith, hope and love, once inside, those things get forgotten quickly.

    Our tendency is to do what the believers wanted to do in Hebrews 6. Run back to what’s familiar and easy, run back to the Law, run back to a check-list, run back to things that are easily defined. But Jesus has asked us to follow him and display love foremost, and love is something that seems impossible to define. So we tend to stick with what we can define.

    I realize that I may appear overly critical, too, and I’m not trying to say the church isn’t effective and is an abomination to what Jesus’ desire was. I’m just trying to highlight what I feel to be wrong and encourage thoughts and dialogue rather than rash, robotic, defensive actions.

  6. If only the church could orient itself as a group of people who committed to questioning, wrestling and discovering together …

    That would be an identity I could find rest in.

  7. this post and your previous one remind me of a conversation we had in one of my classes about “hospitality” becoming the primary virtue of the american church as contrasted with the church of the first few centuries (this is also prompted by the post above about discipline). some of the people in my class were quite shocked at chapter 16 of the Apostolic Tradtion of Hippolytus of Rome http://www.bombaxo.com/hippolytus.html

    an excerpt:
    “They will inquire concerning the works and occupations of those are who are
    brought forward for instruction. 2 If someone is a pimp who supports prostitutes, he shall cease or shall be rejected. 3 If someone is a sculptor or a painter, let them be taught not to make idols. Either let them cease or let them be rejected. 4 If someone is an actor or does shows in the theater, either he shall cease or he shall be rejected. 5 If someone teaches children (worldly knowledge), it is good that he cease. But if he has no (other) trade, let him be permitted…. The prostitute, the wanton man, the one who castrates himself, or one who does that which may not be mentioned, are to be rejected, for they are impure. 13 A magus shall not even be brought forward for consideration. 14 An enchanter, or astrologer, or diviner, or interpreter of dreams, or a charlatan, or one who makes amulets, either they shall cease or they shall be rejected. ”

    i’m certainly not saying that we should go back to this, but it does point out how important it was in the early church that people behave and believe a certain way. as someone who has questioned all of your 4 points above, i can sympathize with disagreement, which i also think is healthy and necessary. but when does the drive to be as open and hospitable as possible make us stop being the church?

    • Yes, I use this excerpt often in my classes to talk about the changing “Christian ethics” throughout the centuries. I guess my question is the same that we have always had in our relationship as we worked together in our previous church, how do you balance the inward/outward impulses of the Christian Church. How do you balance the exclusivity needed to create a strong identity with the basic inclusivity of the evangelistic call? I have yet to see a church do this “well,” and to be honest, I am not sure if it can be. Perhaps as a Universal Church we find balance.

      What do you think? How are we to be open and yet retain our identity?

      • i’m not sure it’s about creating a strong identity… that feels like the wrong question to me. as you said, you bring it up when talking about ethics… Jesus’ teaching, the whole bible’s teaching, feels to me a lot less about identity as God’s people and more about modeling God’s vision for creation. it’s not about exclusivity and having an identity as it is living the way that fully brings out our bearing of the divine image.

        i think you’re right, it’s probably impossible to do well. it’s too easy to turn it into exclusivity, elitism, judgementalism…

        but i think there might be something in Hippolytus’ repeated line “either they shall cease or be rejected.” there are certain activities and attitudes that are against the ethics of God. the church doesn’t do anyone any favours by not putting some discipleship demands on the lives of those they are evangelizing. and of course, in the early church, if you had to give up your profession, the church would support you physically and financially and if possible find you a new profession. that’s definitely something missing from our country-club-membership churches today (to say nothing of the libertarianism that has infected american christianity as well…).

        one thing i would say is the church has to give up its comfort with the pervasive, christendom power where you become a church member by birth and not by choice. also individualism… one thing i like about orthodox judaism is it /forces/ you to live in the community and rely on the community. yes, the church has to be open to everyone and has to have an undying, irresistable drive to bring Jesus everywhere. but once he’s there, people are supposed to become like him, not stay as they are. ticket-punching evangelism is another thing that needs to go away. it’s not about heaven, it’s about how we live in this world too.

        i dunno, as you probably also remember, i’m much better at theory than praxis. and also, i’m too jewish 🙂

  8. Pingback: Top 3 Things Pastors Say But Don’t Mean | Jared Byas

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