“Do you really believe ALL are children of God?” That sentence began a letter from an anonymous mother of a gay teenager. She went on to explain that she did not wish to cause any problems but she was concerned about what her pastor was saying from the pulpit.
Her son loved the youth group. He was accepted and included by his peers. The pastor, however, had made statements that clearly indicated that her son was at best an inherently flawed child of God, and at worst not a child of God at all, but an “abomination.”
Since she insisted on remaining anonymous and would not identify the church she attended, I could not directly respond to the troubled mother.
Nevertheless, I carried that letter for months and read it in pastors’ meetings. I reminded pastors that the message being communicated by that pastor was “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Yes, there are some who exclude members of the LBGTQ community as “children of God.” But the circle of exclusion is much wider than sexual orientation. Only those who verbally and publically “accept Jesus as savior” are deemed to be children of God.
I was confronted with the theological underpinning of the exclusion notion in an uncomfortable encounter. It was in the narthex of a large urban congregation as I gathered for the processional for the 11:00 worship service.
The sermon text for the 8:30 service was 1 John 3:1-2: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is who we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”
Suddenly, I was confronted by an irate woman who latched onto the sleeve of my robe, turned me toward her, and stridently asked, “Are you going to preach that sermon in this service?”
“Yes, I,” I responded.
“Then you are going to contribute to people going to hell,” she harshly warned. “Only those who have accepted Jesus as their savior are God’s children.” She then quoted John 1:12, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”
“On what basis do you believe ALL people of God’s children?” the persistent inquirer demanded as the processional hymn began.
“On the basis of God’s creation and redemption of all,” I responded while trying to join the procession now in progress. “Read Genesis 1:26-27 and learn the meaning of ‘prevenient grace,’” were my parting words as I moved toward the altar to again proclaim that we are ALL God’s children NOW!
There are biblical passages that support the notion that not all people are children of God. In fact, the verses immediately following the text for my sermon can be so interpreted: “Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil. . . The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.”(1John 3:8-10)
The question (Are ALL people children of God?) is no idle theological abstraction? The answer determines everything—how we treat others, especially those who are different from us; how the church does evangelism and mission; even how we engage in public policy and political decisions.
As a Wesleyan, I live with the confidence that God’s prevenient (“preventing”) grace is universally present in ALL and that Christ died for ALL. Therefore, ALL have inherent worth and dignity. That includes Muslims and Methodists, Hindus and Hassidic Jews, Baptists and Buddhists, Atheists and Anabaptists, Conservatives and Liberals, Traditionalists and Progressives, Gay and Straight, Friends and Enemies, Illegals and Citizens, Men and Women, EVERYONE!
Yes, I believe we can turn our backs on our identity as beloved sons and daughters of God. I leave it to God, however, to determine the ultimate consequences of such disavowal. My responsibility isn’t to judge. My calling is to bear witness in word and deed that ALL are precious sons and daughters of God, redeemed in Jesus Christ.
All evangelism, therefore, is relational. We meet Christ in the other more than deliver Christ to another. Bearing witness to the gospel begins with treating ALL persons as “thou” rather than as “it”, as a friend rather than evangelistic prospect.
I wish I could have talked personally with the bereaved mother of the gay son. I would have told her that “Yes, I really believe ALL persons are beloved children of God, and your son is a precious child of God.”
And, I would like to have had an opportunity for an extended conversation with the irate worshiper who feared that my message was misleading and complicit with eternal damnation of people who don’t profess Jesus as Lord and Savior. I would like to know why she is upset with the notion that all are children of God. I would treat her with respect and dignity as a beloved child of God while cautioning that to accept Christ is to accept those for whom he died—ALL.
Thank you, Ken, thank you! A message so faithful to the love of God in Christ. A message so critically needed for all of God’s children. God bless you, jim
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Thank you. I didn’t always believe this, but I have come to and I know it makes me a better person to see Christ in each person I connect with and to know they are beloved, even if they don’t yet know it. I’ll be in Newark tomorrow for the Judicial Council and will be praying the UMC treats all God’s children as the beloved and cherished children of God that they are!
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By my calculations, I have been your student since 1986. That may suggest that I am not a very quick study, or it may mean that I am committed to lifelong learning! In any case, thanks for all the ways that continue to enrich my life and enable my growth, including this wonderful blog. I am holding you and Linda and all of your family in my heart. Elaine
Thank you, Elaine! You have been my teacher! I value your friendship. I appreciate your prayers as Linda and I continue our journey.
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Thank you, Bishop Carder, for affirming God’s grace and love available to all. I wish more of our brethren in Tennessee and throughout the South could hear that message as a promise and not a threat.
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Thank you, bishop, for these words. You have been a voice reminding us of the wideness of God’s mercy for many years. I am most grateful for how you call us to embrace (or allow ourselves to be embraced) by the radical reign of God! Grace and peace.
Thank you for your kind words!
Reblogged this on MVUMC YYA Ministries and commented:
You matter. You are a child of God. Trust that. Hold on to that, and don’t let go.
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Thank you for a thoughtful response. I am willing to engage in dialogue with you on this important issue. We have very different understandings of the core of the Christian gospel and what it means to be children of God. It is fundamental to my understanding that we are ALL God’s children by God’s act of creating us, as we are the children of our parents. We can deny that basic identity and fail to live as God’s beloved children, but God never stops loving us as His own. Yes, it matters whether we accept our God-given identity, just as it makes a difference how we respond to the our identity as the children of our parents. Prevenient grace affirms that God’s grace is universally present in ALL and irresistible in none. We can resist divine grace. How we view others makes all the difference int he world as to how we related to them. My faith requires that I approach EVERYONE as a beloved child of God, a valued brother or sister for whom Christ died. I’m sorry that you choose to limit who is God’s child to those who profess Christ. What about my wife whose dementia has erased her memory of who Jesus is? She may have forgotten Jesus, but Jesus hasn’t and will not forget her. One of my motives for sharing the gospel is to diminish the suffering of God, who grieves the loss of one child as a loving parent grieves the absence of a child in the far country of rebellion.
I appreciate and respect your commitment and desire to be faithful in interpreting and living the Christian gospel, I am grateful for my many conversations with Ray and I know something of his deep commitment. Perhaps I am missing something in the response to my reflection but what comes through to me is more anger, rigidity and judgement than mercy and grace toward others. May God’s grace guide and shape us all as beloved children of God.
What a wonderful,loving, and humble response. Hope I can learn to do that.