If you hang around certain circles of the church long enough, it’s hard to miss the central role the idea of “inclusion” plays in their daily life and theology. Everyone, it is said, is included in the community, a maxim usually contrasted with more judgmental versions of Christianity. This takes a number of forms, depending on the setting, ranging from the selection of leaders to the practice of open communion (the forgoing of baptism as a necessary prerequisite to receive). God accepts everyone, and perhaps the worst thing one can be today is exclusive, a label that harkens back to elitist, sectarian cults. Yet something appears to have been lost amid the shift in theology and rhetoric – and not necessarily for the better.

The theology of inclusion places the ever-expanding borders of the church as the heartbeat of its message. The love of God has no bounds to its scope and the corresponding expression of human love likewise embraces people from all walks of life, especially the marginalized “other”. Jesus embodied such love through his ministry to those believed to be outside of the covenant. Paul, driven by a belief in the equality of all persons, extended the bounds of the church through the inclusion of the Gentiles. The church, then, is to continue the mission of God by likewise welcoming all people into the inclusive love of God embodied by the community itself; the practice of evangelism is reframed as the practice of hospitality. The more diverse the church becomes (usually defined along the lines of race, economic status, and gender), the more vibrant its communal life and the stronger its witness grows.

There is an admirable self-perpetuating logic to this Gospel of inclusion. Through the encounter with the now-included other, the horizon of one’s understanding broadens to enable the repentance of one’s previous narrow bigotry. Accordingly, God is to be found through this encounter with the neighbor and one becomes more inclusive through the practice of inclusion and subsequent encounter with the outsider. This undoubtedly mirrors much of daily life experience. The encounter of a foreign entity creates the possibility for new understanding, similar to how learning a new subject reevaluates previous understandings or, negatively, how it’s difficult to have sympathy for someone or something one doesn’t know much about. As Mark Twain once said: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness”.

With deep roots in 1960’s political ideology, a (mis)reading of Paul Tillich, the New Perspective on Paul, and Historical Jesus studies, the doctrine of inclusion is not a novel idea. What is relatively novel, however, is the recent ubiquity of this new gospel and its rival claim to be the gospel in distinction to the outdated ideas of judgment and forgiveness. Indeed, missing from the equation of inclusion seems to be any form of personal evaluation or judgment. Grace is given without distinction of persons, but there is no mismatch between the recipients of grace and what is given.

If you peel back the layers of familiar rhetoric, what lies beneath the gospel of inclusion is the conviction that everyone, in fact, deserves the grace of God by virtue of their being human (created in the image of God). Having cast aside outdated notions of sin and judgment, the inclusion that God offers turns out to be more of a personal realization of something which has always been true. God has no enemies and no one is ungodly.

By contrast, the gospel of forgiveness should be inclusive, albeit for different reasons. If the grace of God in Christ is given to all, this grace is given to all people precisely because it is given to ungodly sinners deserving of death (Rom. 4:5). Under the gospel of forgiveness, there are no longer any human givens or evaluations of worth, like gender, ethnicity, or economic status (Gal. 3:28), because God deals with humanity according to the more fundamental realities of sin and death. Here, there is not a mutual acceptance of difference within the cornucopia of the community, but a recognition of a sameness before God which, in turn, unites strangers to one another as fellow servants.

The gospel of inclusion may sound like good news, inasmuch as it bypasses moral judgments altogether. Indeed, it is preferable to the gleefully repressive exclusion one all too often encounters in legalistic/fundamentalist/dogmatic circles. Yet loosed of its moorings to notions of sin and grace, the preaching of inclusion can become a new Law of personal practice and communal ethos. Jesus’ boundary-crossing ministry is reduced to an example for us to follow. God is inclusive of all people, and we must be as well… or else. This practice becomes the means of grace as we encounter God through our encounter with the marginalized other. Do these things (be inclusive), and you will live.

Moreover, the preaching of inclusion seems to take the stratifications of society as a given; it essentially depends upon the world’s oppressive social order for its continued vitality and existential traction. In this way, inclusion qua inclusion may paradoxically strengthen the social order through the mutual acceptance of difference. The gospel of forgiveness, on the other hand, subverts the present social order by undercutting worldly evaluative criteria entirely. All are sinners in the hands of a gracious God, a thesis that provocatively has no relation to whether one is rich, poor, powerful, or oppressed.

But perhaps more damningly, the difference in practice between inclusion and forgiveness can be a devastating one for personal relationships as the line between wrongdoing and interpersonal difference becomes erased altogether. Stripped of the possibility of evaluative criteria (or judgment) of the rightness or wrongness of actions, the interpersonal practice of inclusion becomes a matter of tolerance and understanding of the other. This might sound attractive to those living under constant judgment, but the net result is still unsatisfactory. Sometimes the weight of one’s guilt cannot be explained away. Sometimes the injuries done to others are overwhelming and their grip cannot be loosened by the well-meaning hug of communal acceptance. To be accepted by another without a recognition of wrongdoing leaves one in the insecure place of wondering whether they’re really known at all. The transgressor in the grip of a guilty conscience does not simply need to be accepted; they need to be forgiven.

To view this from the standpoint of the victim, if misdeeds are not manifestations of sin that can be forgiven, they instead become expressions of the other that must be better understood and accepted (“that’s just who I am”). The transgressor is not guilty of wrongdoing so much as misunderstanding. Rather than absolved, they must be sympathized with by way of pseudo-psychology: they had a rough childhood, or they’re really stressed right now, or are lacking emotional intelligence, etc.

The act of forgiving someone else, meanwhile, acknowledges the injustice of the situation and diffuses its power over both the victim and sinner. Tolerating or accepting such a thing eventually leads to apathetic indifference, passive-aggressive rage, or victim-blaming by the transgressor (“it’s not my problem you can’t accept me”).

To be clear, while inclusion and forgiveness should go hand-in-hand, they are all-too-often presented in contemporary theology as mutually, er, exclusive alternatives by both sides of the proverbial aisle. More legalistic theologies of forgiveness fail to mine the radicality of its message, i.e., the preaching of God’s unconditional forgiveness necessarily entails a recalibration of worldly values and distinctions. Conversely, self-proclaimed inclusive churches seek to weed out notions of judgment at the expense of the gospel itself, while introducing dangerous, unforeseen implications for the practice of love.

The gospel is a dangerous concept when taken seriously, but far too often the riskiness of grace is mitigated to render it null and void altogether.