The Bible, the Church and hospitality | The Salvation Army

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The Bible, the Church and hospitality

Posted August 24, 2015

Part of a series of occasional articles from The Salvation Army’s Moral and Social Issues Council.

To say that offering hospitality is a fundamental part of Christian discipleship is to state the obvious. What is not always so obvious is exactly what we mean when we talk about offering hospitality. Recent War Cry articles have made a helpful contribution to our understanding of the width and depth of this subject and I do not wish to cover the same ground. However, I would like to say a few things about hospitality as it relates to Christian ethics and morality.

The church is the body of Christ and the epicentre of his mission to redeem creation. The quality, depth and maturity of, among other things, the hospitality offered by the church is what can make or break that mission. This is important to remember when thinking about Christian morality and ethics for at least two reasons:

  1. There are few things more potentially divisive than ethical and moral issues; and
  2. If the church withdraws hospitality from someone it effectively shuts that person out of the opportunity for an encounter with Jesus in the way God intends; i.e. within a community of faith.

The church is also the means through which the Word of God is taught and guidance on Christian faith and practice is given. In offering that guidance (which includes guidance on ethical and moral issues) the church draws on the teaching of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16,17), the direction of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:29; 9:10-19; 13:1-3; 16:6-8), and the consensus of the Christian community (Acts 15:1-29; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22). This guidance is the church’s responsibility and it works hard to get it right. This is because God’s mission is not a light matter and also because much of the church’s guidance touches on difficult and sensitive areas and that can impact heavily on people who are also the intended recipients of the church’s hospitality.

The church therefore formulates positions on ethical and moral issues, making its best effort to understand the leading of scripture and the Holy Spirit. It is to hold those positions with humility and sensitivity.

The church also recognises that new understandings may lead to a change in its position, while still seeking to remain faithful to the intentions of scripture and of the Holy Spirit. Examples of changes in positions from church history include shifting beliefs around slavery being unacceptable, and the role of women as leaders and preachers within the church. If the church is not open to the possibility of gaining new understandings that may result in a change of position on some issues, the risk is that it will stop communicating Christ and start communicating its own preferences, prejudices and causes. At that point, the church stops being a community of faith and becomes instead a community of the religiously like-minded.

Three issues currently on the agenda for The Salvation Army’s Moral and Social Issues Council (MASIC) in the New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga Territory are abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide, and same-sex relationships. It is, once again, stating the obvious to say that these areas are difficult, sensitive and that the impact of words and actions can be heavy. A lot of helpful material has been produced in relation to these issues, but this material has also provided fertile ground for inhospitable and entrenched positions on all sides of the discussion—some of these discussions offer far more heat than light. Let me take the issue of same-sex relationships as an example.

People both inside and outside The Salvation Army hold a wide range of views on this issue, from same-sex relationships being sinful and always wrong, to committed, monogamous, same-sex relationships being fully consistent with obedient Christian discipleship. The Salvation Army, as an international movement, has held the view that same-sex attraction is not a sin, but acting on this attraction in any same-sex relationship is. The Army came to this position in good faith and continues to seek out the best understandings of the intentions of scripture and the Holy Spirit in this area.

But whatever position The Salvation Army holds, its members are called to show hospitality to gay and lesbian people. The Salvation Army maintains a commitment to providing services to everyone without discrimination or judgment. Many committed officers, soldiers, staff and volunteers, regardless of their personal views, have sought to sensitively care for all kinds of people. This includes gay and lesbian people, who have been given support in their time of need.

However, it needs to be acknowledged that this has not always translated into gay and lesbian people experiencing hospitality within Salvation Army communities of faith. Why has it been so difficult for the church to offer hospitality to those who are not heterosexual? In part, it may be because our culture tends to equate welcome and inclusion with approval. Accordingly, it tends to be assumed that if I offer hospitality to someone in a homosexual relationship, I am signalling that I approve.

But to believe that offering hospitality requires approval is a false assumption and communities of faith should not allow themselves to be tripped up by this. The church must be counter-cultural in this regard: simply offering hospitality with no strings attached, and leaving whatever needs to be accomplished in people’s lives to the Holy Spirit. In this way, the Holy Spirit is not only able to be heard by gay and lesbian people, he may also be heard more clearly by heterosexual people as well

How can we be counter-cultural in this area? Divisional Commander Lieut-Colonel Ian Hutson has collated some ideas from gay and lesbian people within The Salvation Army as to how Salvation Army communities of faith might offer hospitality:

  • Offer a safe, non-threatening and friendly environment where people can be free to express themselves without fear of reprisal or rejection.
  • Don’t make your relationship conditional: ‘You are welcome here only so long as you are celibate’ or ‘… only if you don’t bring your partner’.
  • Remember that your job is to love people—no matter what. Don’t assume you need to ‘fix’ anyone.
  • Avoid using sayings like ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’. When this is said, the gay or lesbian person will often only hear the word ‘hate’. This can suggest that the church is not a safe place for them and that they are not welcome.
  • Acknowledge that we can learn from each other and that everyone has something to offer a community of faith.
  • Teach that God loves us and Jesus gave his life for us. Don’t focus on the few texts that refer to homosexual behaviour, they’ve heard them before. Be aware that these texts have also been interpreted in various ways.
  • Be realistic. Acknowledge that people may struggle with the fact that someone is homosexual, but also acknowledge that we are all on a journey and God is helping all of us deal with all sorts of things in our lives.
  • Let people walk their own journey—sometimes that might not be where we want them to go, but we are not walking their road. God works in his own time, not ours. Never discount God’s workmanship when you think someone
  • may be walking in the wilderness.
  • Celebrate the fact that people are interested in finding out more about Christ. It’s hard enough to even walk into a church, so ensure people living examples of Christ when they get there.

In the act of offering hospitality, no one needs to feel they are compromising their personal beliefs or their understanding of Christian discipleship. We are simply asked to bring the hospitality of Jesus Christ to the creation he loves and seeks to redeem.

Captain Ross Wardle is chair of The Salvation Army’s Moral and Social Issues (Ethics) Council.

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by Ross Wardle (c) 'War Cry' magazine 22 August 2015, pp10-11
You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.