How Can We Demonstrate Jesus’ Heart for Inclusion?

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Ask Mission Central: Question Nineteen

“How can church leaders demonstrate Jesus’ heart for inclusion in their leadership?”
Kenai, AK



In 2002, country singer Randy Travis released “Three Wooden Crosses,” which became a chart-topping hit. It tells the story of four people who get in a bus crash: “A farmer and a teacher, a hooker and a preacher.” It looks back on what each person left behind, praising the teacher’s influence on her students and the farmer’s legacy for his family. But (spoiler alert) in a twist ending, it turns out that the prostitute survived. The preacher, in his dying breath, handed her his Bible, and she turned to a life of faith afterward.

Although I was moved by the song when I first heard it, this thought also occurred to me: Jesus would have told the story differently. In the song, three out of four people fit into a mold of social and vocational respectability. They are presented as virtuous, hard-working people, while the prostitute, just by being one, obviously is in need of life change. And, true to his office, the preacher catalyzes that change in no less iconic a way than handing over “his blood-stained Bible” as he dies. The message of the story seems to be: Teachers teach; that’s good. Farmers farm; that’s good. Preachers preach; that’s good. What prostitutes do isn’t good, so we can thank God for the preachers who help them turn their lives around.

In other words, the social categories that the song invokes are comforting to everyday, respectable people. The implied listener of the song is someone who would identify more with the teacher or the farmer or the preacher than with the prostitute. There’s an implied “us” in the song, and an implied “them.” We can celebrate when one of “them” becomes one of “us,” but the basic barrier between the two groups remains. 

But if Jesus were to write a song about a preacher and a prostitute, he would draw the lines in different places. To the religious leaders of his day, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31 NIV). It’s not that Jesus doesn’t make social distinctions; it’s that the way he makes those distinctions disrupts our normal understanding of things. He doesn’t draw a line between respectable people and outcasts, but he still places a priority on repentance of sin. To explain his approach, he once said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32 NIV). When Jesus tells the story, the respectable people aren’t automatically “in.”

This counterintuitive approach to inclusion teaches us about who Jesus was and what he came to do—and what that means for us. If Christian leaders want to demonstrate Jesus’ heart for inclusion, they first need to let Jesus include them in the circle of people that he defines. That will have the natural effect of them including others in the same way.

Us vs. Them

The backdrop of Jesus’ ministry is the world of first century Judaism. It was a diverse religious movement, with multiple factions and approaches to worshiping the God of Israel. But among Jesus’ primary religious opponents were the Pharisees, whose focus included making careful distinctions about who was “in” and who was “out” of the people of God. These distinctions often turned on the observance of minute religious rituals, requirements, and prohibitions. This is why we find the Pharisees upbraiding Jesus’ disciples for picking heads of grain on a Saturday: “When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, ‘Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath’” (Matthew 12:2 NIV).

Although picking heads of grain may not strike us as having great intrinsic moral significance, it had powerful symbolic significance as a marker of who was “in.” It defined “us” against “them.” This is an almost unavoidable habit of any social group, and perhaps especially of religious social groups. John Ortberg describes how smoking held a similar symbolic significance in the church of his childhood: “No one at the church would have said that smoking a single Camel was a [serious] sin . . .  . But for us, cigarette-smoking became an identity marker. It was one of the ways we were able to tell the sheep from the goats.” Take a moment and think about your own faith community: What are the markers of who is “in”?

For each marker that comes to mind, you’ve identified a group of people who are excluded from your community, the “them” for that marker of “us.” I can think of the following markers that have sometimes played an informal but powerful role in the communities of faith that have shaped me:





“Sunday best”

Anything else



Anything else



Democrat (this one can be just the reverse in many communities!)


White — or “fluent” in white culture and not going to rock the boat

Everyone else

Family structure


Anything else

Socioeconomic status

Educated, middle class

Both the extremely wealthy and the working class

The reason these markers carry such power is that they reassure us about who we are. They give us a way to know that we’re “in,” that we’ll be accepted, that we can breathe easy in a given community. But Jesus operates differently.

Who Jesus Includes

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is not what you would expect, even from a moral reformer. If I’d been in his place, I would have probably said something about how picking heads of grain isn’t what Moses had in mind when he wrote about resting on the Sabbath. But Jesus, seeing that this is really a debate about who gets included, shifts the terms of the conflict. He brings up a vignette from the story of David when he broke a similar prohibition, and appeals to the example of priests who have to do what’s normally forbidden for others:

“[David] entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. . . . For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Matthew 12:4-6, 8 NIV

Jesus’ line of argument is this: David had to break a rule. But he was God’s anointed. The priests have to work on the Sabbath in the temple. But they’re priests. My disciples just plucked some heads of grain. But I’m Lord.

It’s like that moment in a movie when a big shot walks into a club, and the bouncers are about to stop some other people from coming in, but the big shot shouts over his shoulder, “Don’t worry; they’re with me.” The disciples are with Jesus. They are included.

In a later passage, Peter is concerned about a difficult teaching of Jesus, seems to be meditating on what he’s given up to become a disciple, and blurts out, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” (Matthew 19:27 NIV). Jesus’ response mirrors his logic from the earlier dispute with the Pharisees: “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28 NIV). Referring to God’s people as “the twelve tribes of Israel” was a symbolic way of describing the group of people who are in God’s covenant. Jesus tells his disciples, you may sometimes feel like outcasts now, but you’ll be the ones who are entrusted with the judgment of the “in” group!

What we see in these passages is Jesus’ disruptive inclusion of a specific group of people. This inclusion challenges any other set of markers that would distinguish “us” against “them.” For Jesus, there is one criterion: Are you with me? Are you my disciple? Anyone who says yes to Jesus’ call to follow him is fully included, with no other markers required.


Why Jesus’ Inclusion Makes Moral Sense

Jesus’ criterion for inclusion looks like it could be morally problematic at first. Think about if anyone other than Jesus used it as their litmus test. Personal loyalty to a specific leader as the sole boundary marker for being part of a community? That sounds like the domain of cults and dictatorships, not of genuine spirituality.

But when you see how this approach functions in the ministry of Jesus, its moral virtue becomes clear. It allows Jesus to cross the social barriers that had excluded so many people and extend his invitation to them. For instance:

True to form, Jesus even includes Pharisees like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea when they come to the point of becoming his disciples. We know about their stories because the same disciples that the Pharisees so bitterly opposed preserved these Pharisees’ testimonies of faith.

Jesus’ approach also makes moral sense because becoming Jesus’ disciple entails moral transformation. Unlike the religious community markers that the Pharisees obsessed over, or that appear in my table of contemporary Christian tendencies, Jesus’ “marker” of discipleship deals with the real matters of the heart. He is concerned not with whether someone eats certain foods or dresses a certain way, but with whether they learn how to lay down their lives for others like he does. At one point, he summarizes what he calls “the more important matters of the law” as “justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23 NIV)—virtues that people of all backgrounds and superficial differences can practice, if they are willing to learn how from Jesus.


Seeing the Unseen

If we think of ourselves as Christian leaders, we must first become followers. We must let Jesus include us on the only terms which he uses to include anyone: “Come, follow me.” If we, for any reason, think that we have arrived or secured a place for ourselves apart from answering that call, we are mistaken. Our own sin should be enough to remind us that we need a savior just as much as the next person does! No level of respectability and no set of social markers can rescue us from sin; only Jesus can do that.

As we let Jesus do his work in us, of deepening the pull of “justice, mercy and faithfulness” in our own lives, we will receive the grace we need to include others who have also answered his call. This still leaves us with a difficult challenge: Resisting the tempting security of using some less demanding set of superficial markers to define who is “in” and who is “out.”

Most of us will be able to identify a set of markers that already function in this way in our community. Our task then, is to identify these markers honestly, and then set about dismantling their influence as best we can. Does everyone in your church dress a certain way? Consider inviting a friend who dresses differently, and also going a little more casual yourself (or a little more “whatever” is outside the norm, which is still part of your real wardrobe). Is one political viewpoint prominent in your community? Consider leading a session on how the Bible influences our politics—and how it doesn’t lead in a straight line to either major political party.

The markers that safeguard a superficial sense of inclusion are often unstated. The people they exclude are often unseen. So the task of the Christian leader is to see the unseen, exposing through gentle but prophetic witness the markers that hold sway over the community, and actively inviting in those who don’t fit the mold that those markers define.

The twin task of this dismantling work is to foster, celebrate, and safeguard what really matters: the change of life and heart that only Jesus can bring. Imagine what it would be like to live in a community where authentic transformation of people’s internal life and lived character was the normal course of business. That dream is far beyond what any of us can plan or strategize and is certainly not something we can control into being. But it is something, because of Jesus, that we can pray for and participate in and welcome as God brings it in our midst. So, this, too, is a task of seeing the unseen: Of asking for God to bring his kingdom where we do not see it yet, and of discerning what’s going on in the community by the development of people’s hidden character, rather than by any other distinction. That’s how we demonstrate Jesus’ heart for inclusion in our ministry.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash

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