We live in a moment where Christians are deeply divided, and sometimes rightfully so.
And yet, the Christian table has historically been wide and inclusive space where all are welcome.
How do we navigate these tensions in the church?
Who should be welcome at the Christian table?
Is there ever an instance when someone needs to be excluded for the sake of the community or its marginalized members?
To explore these questions, I decided to sit down with author John Pavlovitz, author of “A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community.” His book addresses hot topics such as gender equality, LGBT inclusion, racial tensions, and global concerns with through the lens of a pastor.
Here we discuss many of these issues and even how to survive the holidays with relatives that you’re not exactly excited to share a drumstick with.
JM: You use the table as a metaphor for Christian ministry. When you look at the American Christian landscape, which groups are often the least welcome at these religious tables?
JP: Obviously the LGBTQ community, people of color, and women are still marginalized in the American Church, but there’s also a growing lack of hospitality when it comes to theological divergence. Most people find their inclusion in faith communities to be highly conditional. As long as they check all the right doctrinal boxes (or at least outwardly profess to) they’re allowed proximity and given welcome, but the moment they begin to express slight (or even fundamental) doubts, they find themselves pushed to the periphery; vilified, silenced, or ghosted from fellowship.
Our local churches are less and less willing to allow people space to wrestle with the questions, or to openly admit the tension between belief and doubt that we all find ourselves in. What a gift we could give people if we cultivated spiritual community that welcomed the theological diversity that really exists when we gather.
JM: White churches and Christians have made efforts to welcome minorities to their tables. Why do these efforts often fall flat?
JP: One of the ways the White Church has fallen woefully short is that it tends to have a subconscious colonizing mindset when it comes to engaging people of color. Whether we’re setting up new satellite campuses in urban neighborhoods, reclaiming dying churches, or creating outreach ministry in our established campuses, we often act as if we can franchise out what we’re doing somewhere else, or that inviting people of color to the thing we’re doing is enough. Often white churches say they want diversity, but they don’t want to make any changes with regard to methodology, or to be renovated by those who show up. We fail any efforts at a truly diverse Church, when we don’t invite those not currently included—to lead, to alter, and to recreate communities so that they reflect those they’re claiming to welcome.
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JM: You wrote a viral post entitled “If I Have Gay Children.” How can Christians who believe same-sex relationships “do not represent God’s best” still welcome LGBT people to the table? Is it possible?
JP: If we use the definition of “not God’s best,” then we can probably come up with a nearly endless list for anyone we know or come into contact with. At some point, the central questions become, “What is my responsibility toward those I cross paths with in this life?” and “What does it mean to perpetuate the character of Jesus in the world?”
We see in the Gospel biographies, Jesus interacting with a disparate collection of people, one hundred percent of whom weren’t “living God’s best”—yet each of those people, from priest to prostitute, from religious elite to common street rabble, from disciple to adversary—left Jesus’ presence with their inherent worth affirmed. They left his presence feeling seen and known and loved. That is our calling. There’s no perfect way to do this, but this is the aspiration: to make people feel they’ve encountered something that resembles Jesus.
JM: Should anyone be welcome at the table unconditionally? I have heard people counter with something like this: “Would you welcome a child molester or rapist without asking them to repent or change first?”
JP: I’m not sure the reality of an outwardly unrepentant child molester seeking spiritual community is practically useful, as life is rarely this clear and our intentions seldom this overt. The heart of the bigger table is that everyone’s intrinsic worth is honored there, so obviously those who actively and presently seek to do damage to others are challenged to abandon such things before coming. That is implicit in the invitation.
The bigger table doesn’t mean tolerating active bigotry or violence against people. It doesn’t mean giving predators proximity, but the opposite. The table is bigger, not because you can say or do any horrible thing you want to there—it’s bigger because each person’s inherent worth is protected there—especially those usually marginalized. Change and repentance are the greatest aspiration.
JM: When it is appropriate to ask someone to leave the table for the good of the community?
JP: I don’t imagine there’s a blanket answer to neatly cover the myriad of possible circumstances local churches face, but again, redemptive spiritual community is one that errs on the side of protecting the marginalized and defending the vulnerable—at least this is the work of Jesus as expressed in Luke 4 and Matthew 25. Without question we need to strive to create churches where people feel safe from threat and harm. However, when we ask what the conditions are for expelling someone from community, I’m not sure we have a great deal of precedence in the Gospels, (perhaps some in the Book of Acts).
We see Jesus with tax collectors, prostitutes, impulsive disciples, hypocritical religious leaders, Roman occupation soldiers. We see him challenging them, pushing them, lifting them—but we don’t see a lot of official severing of ties. I imagine that’s because Jesus knew that fruit in people’s lives is difficult to predict. The Rich Young Ruler may not have sold all his possessions the day he speaks with Jesus—but he may have a few weeks later. The woman caught in adultery may have turned from that activity after meeting Jesus at the well, but she may have returned to it a week later. Asking people to leave fellowship, no matter how and when we do that, always needs to be undergirded with grace and the knowledge that people are never finished.
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JM: Explain the concept of “four legs” in your table framework.
JP: The four legs of the bigger table are decidedly non-doctrinal, for the simple reason that doctrine in this incredibly incendiary political climate, is always going to be a barrier. Our doctrine is now inextricably tethered to politics, and this is going to form a wedge between people (and nothing like the kind Jesus describes in the Gospels, that following him will create).
The idea behind the four legs of the bigger table, is to reduce community down to non-negotiables for those who gather; an agreement on how we will be with one another. I define those as…
Radical hospitality: warm welcome without caveat or condition
Total authenticity: we can be fully honest with who we are and what we do or don’t believe
True diversity: we see the differences as a reflection of the beauty and complexity of God
Agenda-free relationships: meaning we don’t come trying to change, fix, or save anyone—but to simply hear and respect their story, to sit with it without commentary.
If we can offer these to people, the community that arises will be God-honoring.
JM: We’re coming up on the holiday season. During this time, we often have to sit at physical tables with people who drive us mad or hold different views than we do. Any practical suggestions for navigating these spaces?
JP: For those of us seeking to follow Jesus, it’s always going to be about the commandment to love God, ourselves, and others. Implied in the command is the response toward different entities. Sometimes that love is expressed by sitting with people we may not agree with looking at them the way Jesus did the crowds—as harassed and helpless; seeing their pain and their fear and finding mercy. It is in hearing their story. Other times that love will look like opting out; taking yourself out of harmful, toxic, life-draining situations and retreating to a place where you feel at peace.
Jesus often withdrew to the solitary places to pray and rest. This kind of self-care is essential and inherently Biblical. Jesus modeled a healthy rhythm of engaging and withdrawing; with fellowship with people who disagreed with him—and with solitude. The answer for some right now may be pressing in to a relationship, for others, stepping back. There’s no right way to navigate this. You make the wisest decision you can and you trust that God is present in it.