Skip to main content
entering church

How to be a biblically affirming church

As I pondered the brief for this article, a wry smile came over my face as I reflected on the title. Simply by removing one word, this article would be widely celebrated in today’s woke culture. 

I wondered how celebrated it would actually be when the reader saw the addition of that all-important word, ‘biblically’. Living in a post Christian society we are challenged to declare our support of, and uphold the personal rights of, everyone and anyone to do life their way. Saying that you’re an affirming, inclusive and progressive church heralds your endorsement of society’s values. Could this create a stumbling block, a potentially crushing blow to those who hold to traditional biblical teaching? You, like me, may feel that through the omission of that one important word, the emphasis is significantly different; in fact, the vision becomes diametrically opposed. 

The sense of inclusion swings from ‘come as you are, stay as you are,’ to ‘come as you are and find a spacious place to be transformed by the Holy Spirit’. And that for me is the essence of a biblically affirming, inclusive and progressive church. One which excludes no one, and where all who attend have time and space to be transformed by God’s love. 

Jesus' love affirmed them in a society where they were ostracised. 

In considering how we can be churches who fit this picture of being biblically rooted in our outlook, we will consider each of these attributes in light of what Jesus desired for his church and how his life demonstrates that well. Paul reminds us in Ephesians 5:25 -27 that Jesus loved the Church and sought to make her holy. The love of Jesus is so apparent in the way he interacted with people who were to become His church, and not in a way that we might expect. Jesus was a lot more woke than your average Christian today. By saying Jesus was woke, I am saying that he was alert to injustice and discrimination in his society, something that we, as Christians, could aspire towards today. 

One of His many virtues was His love of the outcast. Jesus loved and affirmed people who society had shunned. The leper, tax collector, prostitute, the unclean woman and the demon possessed were all shown compassion and love by Jesus when he met them. His love affirmed them in a society where they were ostracised.

Let’s consider how Jesus demonstrates his commitment to being affirming, inclusive and progressive and model our commitment on His lived experiences.

To be an affirming church

A short trawl of dictionary entries helps us to define affirmation as something that is stated publicly or emphatically; it declares one’s support for something, or describes providing emotional support or encouragement to another.

One such example of affirmation was the woman with the issue of blood. This woman stepped out in faith, reached out and touched His cloak (Mark 5:21–43). Whilst she was immediately healed, what happened next was what makes this encounter all the more applicable to our lives. Jesus called her out from the place she had withdrawn in shame, He called her into the sight of others because He wanted to affirm her. He understood that her condition would be widely known of, that she was looked upon as someone cursed of God, so He seized the opportunity to ensure that her new status as “daughter” was known. She was no longer to be mocked or shunned. 

She was accepted and affirmed publicly, so that there could be no doubt of her status. Jesus clearly demonstrated that this woman was no longer to be judged as unclean.

Being an affirming church speaks to me of this act of compassion. Regardless of who walks through the door of our church, we know that through Jesus they can find healing and righteousness. Rather than hiding in the shadows, feeling judged or unworthy, affirming churches should be places where people can, if they choose, mix in with the crowd. The woman with the issue of blood was both unclean and inferior as a woman in a patriarchal society. By being in the crowd, she had already put herself in a place where she was likely to be torn down. Yet Jesus did not condemn. Had the crowd noticed her, I am sure there would have been many who would have tried to prevent her from touching the hem of Jesus’ cloak. Let us never be guilty of preventing someone from reaching out to Jesus.

To be an inclusive church

By definition inclusion is the opposite of exclusion; being inclusive means that we have a desire that no one should be left out. More recently it has been associated with ensuring that people have equal access to opportunities and resources, particularly those who are marginalised in some way or who belong to a minority group.

Controversies raging around inclusion are the hot topic of most western societies. The discourse on sexuality provokes heated discussion and the church is not exempt. In looking at the life of Jesus would you say he was inclusive, or perhaps you’d reflect that he was simply against exclusion? Being inclusive and being against exclusion are different and we need to consider this. For example, Jesus may not have been inclusive (in the modern sense of the word) of LGBTQ, but He wouldn’t have excluded them. We have enough Scripture available to us to illustrate that, whatever the answer, Jesus was certainly effective in ensuring that no one was left out, and that surely should be our goal as the church.

Whilst Jesus was inclusive, this was not at the expense of his teaching. He did not embrace sin as something good, as is happening in many churches today. Rather, He tackled it directly by addressing the state of the heart. Simply consider the story of the woman caught in adultery. The words of Jesus from John 8 are familiar to us:

“Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”  “No, Lord,” she said. And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.” 

Those words ring out, “Go and sin no more”. In other words, address your heart and see where you need to change. Jesus showed her love, but gently called out her actions as something that needed to be addressed. She was not shunned or worse stoned, but there was a challenge.. Jesus did not shy away from the reality that her behaviour could not be condoned. He lovingly, yet clearly, corrected her by that one simple statement - “Go and sin no more.”

1 Corinthians 5 reminds us that our judgment should not fall on those outside the church, and that includes all who come to our churches seeking answers and relationship with God. Inclusion means loving people where they are at. It means not excluding them because of the result of a judgmental word, an unfriendly environment or worse still a pointed reference to their lifestyle. I know one lady, who as a seeker, went to a number of churches with her wife. Most of the churches demonstrated an outward form of welcome, yet after 3 or 4 weeks in each church the pastor preached pointedly on homosexuality. 

Understandably this caused pain and rejection; they felt judged and unwelcome. Effectively they were excluded from those churches because of the treatment they received, despite the veneer of welcome. The pastor’s mistake was to prioritise challenging sin over welcome, and seemingly to enforce change rather than build relationship. Creating an environment which fosters change is the work of the Holy Spirit. Being inclusive requires us to switch the question around: “In what ways are we excluding people?” 

To be a progressive church

In the context of church, progressive often refers to becoming advocates of social reform and is synonymous with advancement. Hence being a progressive church is associated with moving forwards, perhaps stepping out of archaic teaching or thinking and approaching long held, traditional beliefs in a different way. 

Let’s consider whether, as those who hold fast to the Bible being the inerrant word of God, we can safely call ourselves progressive? Progressive church is a relatively new term; it paints a picture of a church that has stepped away from the antiquated practices of the past, a church that focuses more on social justice than sound doctrine. Perhaps it suggests a church that has moved with the times, that recognises how life has changed significantly since the Bible was written and one that has a revisionist view of Scripture. 

For those of us who hold to the traditional interpretation of Scripture on sexuality, progressive church is not where you are likely to find us on a Sunday morning!

Yet in seeking to be a church that is truly progressive, would it not be more realistic to talk about a progressing church, a church that is constantly evolving and growing? Jesus told Peter that he would build His church (Matthew 16:18). This was never meant to be a one-off event. The church is being built by Jesus to an ever-increasing degree of glory; the church is being perfected for the bridegroom. The reality is that, yes things in the world have changed significantly since Jesus walked the earth, but God does not change. His ways and teachings remain the same. (Malachi 3:6, Hebrews 13:8). 

And in recognising the progression of the church, we appreciate how progressive Jesus was in His day. There are so many examples in the Bible of how progressive Jesus was for His time. 

Here’s just four things that stand out to me:

  1. Jesus encouraged wealth distribution: he told a rich man to give all he had to the poor (Mark 10:21)
  2. Jesus spent time with prostitutes, despite the potential for gossip or slander (Luke 7:38)
  3. Jesus treated women as equals. Think about how Mary sat at his feet listening as He taught (Luke 10:39)
  4. Jesus didn’t endorse behaviour that traditional religious leaders tolerated, as shown when He overturned the tables in the temple courts (Luke 19:45)

Jesus was radical, and we too can be radical churches. It’s not hard to love radically, regardless of a person’s sex, gender, identity or orientation; we can love. Let’s be churches that think and talk about the difficult questions. Questions such as, “How can we welcome members of the LGBTQ community?” ”How can we support, love and affirm them as important members of our community?”

The only answer to becoming the church Jesus calls us to be is to look to Him as our example. Yes He drew attention to sin, but He didn’t pursue sin. He was content to speak truth and allow the person to choose their response. He affirmed people through His love and grace. He never excluded anyone from His ministry and, as a progressive, He never once called evil good or good evil. 

Jesus is the ultimate example of compassion and truth. Let us aspire to follow His example as we open our churches to a society more in need of Jesus than ever before.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2022 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.

Download the Winter 2022 edition of Ascend