Inclusivity or catholicity?

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Inclusivity or catholicity?

April 20, 2007    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando {0660}

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An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

“Inclusivity” is probably the one word that is employed more than any other in the discussions about the identity and mission of the church today.

For some, inclusivity is simply the expression of the church’s evangelical hospitality to all peoples. The risen Lord does command us to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 22:19), and the apostles never tire of telling us to “extend hospitality to strangers” (Romans 12:13).

Yet for others, “inclusivity” has become something more than an evangelical imperative expressed by a practice of hospitality. It has become an ideology, a reduction of the thickness of the Gospel to the thinness of a slogan. The message of the church becomes “inclusivity” rather than the Gospel itself, or the Gospel itself is reduced to a totalizing demand for inclusivity.

What is required is a better understanding of the identity and mission of the church in light of the Gospel. In the Christian tradition there is a concept that both affirms what is right in the concern for inclusivity and corrects what is mistaken when inclusivity is turned into an ideology. The Christian tradition conceives the true identity and mission of the church as “catholicity,” not inclusivity. In the ecumenical creeds, the word “catholic,” which was first employed by Ignatius of Antioch (d.A.D. 107), is one of the marks of the church of Jesus Christ.

The late historian of Christian thought, Jaroslav Pelikan, defined catholicity as embracing both identity and universality. The church has an identity as a community created by the Gospel. In this sense, the church must be exclusive of the life, beliefs and ways of the world that does not know or obey God. At the same time, the church is compelled toward universality. In this sense, the church does not try to possess the Gospel for its own, but shares it with the whole world and extends its hospitality to all people. As Pelikan wrote, “Neither exclusive nor inclusive alone, but catholic — such was the church that emerged from the missionary activity of the early Christians” (“The Riddle of Roman Catholicism,” Abingdon, 1959).

Inclusivity is a valid concern of the church when it is understood as catholicity. It is a distortion when it is elevated without a concern for identity as a mark of the church to replace catholicity.

It seems to me that there is an intrinsic tension between identity and universality in the catholicity of the church. On the one hand, universality of the church requires it to be a public community that has openness to all. The problem is that the church’s universality causes the church to expose itself to a low level of discipleship by its members. Indeed, in the ancient Catholic Church the orthodox bishops resisted forms of Puritanism and sectarianism because they threatened the universality of the church. (This was St. Augustine’s objection to the Donatists in North Africa in the fifth century.) On the other hand, preserving the identity of the church as the faithful body of Christ requires the church to care for right doctrine (orthodoxy) and right practice (orthopraxy) in its public teaching and pastoral guidance. Therefore, a catholic church has limits to what can be believed and practiced as discipleship.

What directs the catholicity of the church is the Gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Grace includes everyone, and grace transforms everyone. Moreover, grace is not a magical substance, but God’s dynamic relationship with us mediated through the community of human beings called the church. Thus the transforming power of God’s grace cannot occur except through the time and space in which all relationships develop. The church is the community where we are given the time and space to appropriate by faith the grace of God through hearing the Word of God, participating in the sacraments, praying and experiencing community with others. By being catholic, the church welcomes all people and also provides the means of grace by which all of us become and grow as disciple of Jesus Christ.


This article relates to Christian Discipleship.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.

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