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Tears in God's Wineskin:  A Theology of Hospitality

Part 3: Hospitality, the Handmaiden of Grace


A Royal Handmaiden of Grace

Is a theology of hospitality important? As Christians we can become weary in our acts of charity and jaded in our habits, yet our actions as the body of the church require a rationale in the long term and a depth of understanding if they are to be efficacious and sustained. The church lives in the midst of what is generally an inhospitable culture, and in our moments of fragility we mirror that hostility, resisting or ignoring the stranger and those different from us. This is particularly expressed where sexual orientation is something other than heterosexual. However, to ignore non-heterosexual people or cast them out because of heteronormative attitude and selective scriptural interpretation, when we are challenged by a prolific biblical imperative to practise hospitality, cannot sit comfortably or realistically with any thinking Christian.

Hospitality is not merely entertainment, nor the assumed domain of women. It is the heart of how we express what it means to be Christian, how we think and what we understand theologically. It is the Handmaiden of Grace, entirely subservient yet unquestionably authoritative and concerned with the nurture and wellbeing of others and their ability to thrive. Hospitality is an issue of faith that does not promote the normative hospitality of secular economics and industry but rather a mind-set different from that of secular greed or expectation of reciprocity. Unfortunately, reflecting our surrounding culture, as Christians we rarely consider hospitality with seriousness, precisely because we tend to disregard personal responsibility and expect some form of reciprocity. However, only through the development of a theology of hospitality can the church fully respond to the call of becoming authentically inclusive and embrace not only those ‘like us’ and thus acceptable but also the ‘other’, who may not securely fit our sociability’s and may stand outside our expectations. The church is long overdue answering Isaiah’s call to receive and embrace the eunuch who loves and worships God (Isa.56:3-8) and it is not difficult to equate eunuchs of antiquity with homosexuals and lesbians today who are Christian or are seeking a relationship with the God who created them in his image and loves them.

Dialogue and debate concerning acceptance or condemnation of homosexuals in the church is unlikely to end any time soon. However, for those who believe in scriptural condemnation, the challenge remains to consider the parallel biblical ‘coming out’ of the eunuch and the eunuch’s place within the realms of hospitality. A journey beginning with religious ostracism from the Temple, transformed through the prophet Isaiah as they are declared acceptable and remembered before God, which is seemingly emphasized by Christ in his simple yet enigmatic teaching, and culminating in their being received into the church through Philip. The man-made eunuch (castrated male) and the natural eunuch, or eunuch of the sun (homosexual), travel from God’s absolute ‘No’ to God’s definitive ‘Yes’ and with this in mind, can the church not find the grace and rationality to receive gay men and lesbians into the church as fully equal with heterosexuals before God even if, for some, the ‘Temple ban’ remains preferred over Isaiah’s and Jesus’ acceptance and Philip’s reception? If the call of hospitality is truly answered by the church, it then becomes possible for everyone to embrace one another in love and worship, straight and gay together, even where biblical disagreement exists, because such action reflects the love and hospitality of Christ and a maturity of faith that overrides the human violence and scapegoating of condemnation and exile.  


Hospitality Versus Inclusivity and Diversity

I have been surprised by the popularity and prevalence of the words ‘inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’ and the speed at which they have entered Western language. They appear to be present in company resolutions, committee meetings and can be the raison d’être behind guiding principles of worship services and church activities. I hear the words in political discussions, on television documentaries and on the streets of London. They are essentially newly coined words, which have filtered into the cultural scene during the last two decades. “Diversity” is an old word now housing the new principal meaning of, “a multiplicity of people” although in older dictionaries it never refers to persons, as it does almost exclusively today. The general definition used to be, “The state of being diverse,” or “a diversity of opinion,” indicating a range of viewpoints on a given topic. [1] “Inclusivity” is simply never found in older dictionaries, although today's meaning is generally “every person without exclusion.” The word “Inclusive” is present in older dictionaries, where it refers not to persons but numbers, as in “The ages of 55 to 59 inclusive.” [2] Language of course changes and evolves over time and these two words reflect this.

What is concerning is today’s prominent use of the terms, particularly at Christian gatherings where acceptance or non-acceptance of homosexually oriented Christians is debated and where an observer might conclude that inclusivity and diversity are actually doctrinally or theologically foundational to our considerations regarding church polity and discipline. The difficulty is that neither word represents biblical concept or Christian doctrine. Biblical text does not teach inclusivity in the form in which it is currently styled and defined, nor is it found in gospel narrative, where we are more likely to find a considerable amount of Christ’s teaching excluding, requiring certain belief and/or actions in order to be included. [3] Aspects of inclusivity irrefutably witnesses to God’s choice for humanity already completed through Jesus Christ but however attractive it may appear as a guiding principle, it is simply not a biblical precept.

Similarly, diversity as defined today, while not in opposition to biblical teaching is not found in biblical text so it is difficult to consider it a defining principle of Christianity. One might even point to Jesus’ stark exclusion of non-Jews in his primary concept of the kingdom being solely for the sheep of Israel as an antithesis of diversity. Comparably, Paul’s declaration regarding unity and that, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. . .” (Gal.3:28), does not concern inclusivity, but being one in Jesus Christ and Christ’s all-embracing grace rather than a multiplicity of people becoming Christian; and those who are not baptized believers are certainly excluded (v.27). Diversity may be applicable in Paul’s letter, but his point is not that people are diverse it is that they are unified in and through Christ. So how should inclusivity and diversity be understood theologically and how should the concepts behind these two words impact our doctrines and principles for church life and worship when neither word is specifically biblical or Christian? A gospel of inclusivity and diversity may be attractive and less demanding than a gospel of the bloody cross and resurrection, salvation, repentance and forgiveness, which together form the foundation stone of the New Testament, but they are not the same. Nonetheless, it is important to contemplate how far the principles of inclusivity and diversity apply to Christian doctrine and theology without embracing them unqualifiedly or throwing them out as being irrelevant to the foundations of Christianity.

This is why ‘hospitality’ is a far more helpful term when considering this issue, since it is an indisputable Christian virtue (Rom.12:13; 1 Tim.3:2; Tit.1:8) that is particularly relevant to those employed in spiritual leadership. It expresses generosity, the provision of space and time for dialogue and reconciliation without discrimination. Émile Benveniste has produced an extensive work on the etymology of the word ‘hospitality’ [4] and concludes that it reveals an inherent tension fundamental to its concept. Hospitality comes from the Latin hospes and is compounded with hostis, meaning guest or host and potis, meaning master. Hostis carries the implication of reciprocity and has a gift-giving sentiment establishing equality, which is why the same word can be used for both host and guest. The Greek xénos, stranger, similarly carries this dual meaning and philoxenia, literally ‘love of the stranger,’ is frequently translated as hospitality, emphasizing the giving aspect of the term. Potis, or head of the house, is the one who makes the rules, as in despótes, from where despot is derived, the one who has power over all others and makes decisions for them. Consequently, since the head of the house is one of importance, where hospitality is offered from him/her there is no reciprocity, hence the word’s tension between reciprocity or equality, and exclusive domination.

Hospitality carries empathy for one who is on a journey and in need of sustenance in order to continue that journey. It is not self-seeking but rather convicted by the importance of journeying, the transformation that may lie ahead for the one travelling and embraces a confidence in the One calling for the journey. The converse of hospitality is seen in the values and understanding of the xenophobic citizens of Sodom, in Genesis 19, who carry their inhospitality towards their angelic visitors to the extreme and suffer the consequences. Inclusivity and diversity, when viewed through the lens of hospitality, become biblically and theologically palatable, providing new paradigms for considering Christian attitude towards gay men and lesbians in worship and church activities and their acceptance in all aspects of life, even same-sex marriage.

James Nelson begins his preface in Embodiment with, “Christian faith ought to take embodiment seriously. . . The embodiment of God in Jesus Christ is, in faith’s perception, God’s decisive and crucial self-disclosure . . . for those who believe in God’s continuing manifestation and presence, the incarnation is not simply past event.” [5] In Christian language Christ in his divinity remains embodied in flesh for us in full humanity, and human sexuality and orientation involve this same language of embodiment, bringing words of love and intimacy into our reality that are called to be and are given permission to be part of God’s diverse and imaginative act of creating humanity, which in essence is the embodiment of hospitality. As discussion continues regarding the acceptance or non-acceptance of non-heterosexual Christians, confusion over sexual morals is evidenced because, as Nelson further points out, while we seem able to ask the essential question of what Christian faith has to say about how we live life as sexual beings, a second essential and companion question is required concerning how our experience as sexual beings affects our understanding of our faith and the living out of that faith. How are we, as embodied sexual human beings, invited to become involved in the reality of God in our corporate and religious lives and how should this affect our practise of hospitality towards those different from us?

Human sexuality is an all-pervasive dimension of human living privately and individually, it interrelates with others and is expressed in our wider lives at church and in society. We have a deep need for our discourse to move on from the limited and somewhat unhealthy view that sexuality = sex = genital sex acts, without elaboration or qualification. Sexuality and its interrelatedness to faith and human living is complex and neither today’s common practise of genitalising everything relating to sexuality nor a narrow sexual ethics is helpful in developing a faith dialogue where grace, holiness, practicality and understanding demand greater balance. Whatever else the Christian church may be, it is a community comprised of sexual beings and while we have given past theological consideration to the church in terms political, economic, sociological and psychological, understanding the church as a sexual community is no less important. “We need to think about the morality of sexuality because sex links us, inexplicably but profoundly, with others,” Kathy Rudy reminds us. [6]

In our diverse and interconnected world, Christians are called to practice hospitality, which is no easy matter, for welcoming the stranger or someone ‘other’ requires the church’s vulnerability. It confronts traditional atonement theories, particularly a punitive understanding of the atonement which is seemingly based on divine violence and thus appears to condone human violence rather than encourage and enable the practice of hospitality. Jesus of Nazareth interacted with and taught a diversity of people, bringing healing to individuals in mind, body, spirit and soul, and even to their relationships.[7] His ministry welcomed people inclusively, without judgment or assumption and ultimately, as both supreme host and guest, he surrendered his body to sufferance and crucifixion in order to conquer sin in all its violence, inhospitality and exclusion and to inaugurate reconciliation and reciprocity based on grace. Unfortunately, biblical text may still be interpreted in ways that are judgemental, demeaning and excluding those with perceived differences, particularly non-heterosexuals, so it is a challenge to reclaim Jesus’ ministry as inclusive through innovative theological reflection on human sexuality and imaginative models of spiritual formation. However, in taking such action, the church may rediscover hospitality as the handmaiden of grace and a new accessibility to the God who welcomes people in all their variety, intending them to have wholeness in all life situations, and bestowing upon them gifts of ministry for the church and community.

Theological questions can also be sexual questions and how we experience ourselves and others sexually affect and form the substance and approach of what we believe. For example, a perception of God and his purposes, scriptural interpretation, revelation, church mission and hierarchy etc. would be substantially affected by a strong belief in the inherent superiority of one nation over others or of one sex over the other. Grappling with and coming to terms with sexual theology is not easy, nor can it provide immutable formulae or eternal truths to equip every Christian to act inclusively of all people in the practice of hospitality. However, it does provide a new paradigm with which to understand the presence and purposes of God in all aspects of physical and spiritual life and the actions we may be being called to take as the body of Christ.    

One of my favourite films, reflecting hospitality as grace in action, is Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast, [8] based on the short story by Danish author Isak Dinesen (pen name of Karen von Blixen-Finecke). Due to the French-German war of 1870-71, Babette is forced to leave her beloved France where she has worked as Master Chef at the prestigious Parisian restaurant, The Café Anglais, and ends up in an insular and reclusive Lutheran sect on the rugged Danish coastline. The landscape complements the realities of the community’s broken relationships and ascetic practises, where any sense of goodness, truthfulness or beauty has been replaced by gossip, intolerance, fraud, theft and sexual infidelity. It is a village where, as the narrator observes, earthly love is, ‘of scant worth and merely empty illusion.’ Nevertheless, Babette is welcomed by Martina and Philippa, the daughters of the sect’s founder, and she takes up position as maid without revealing anything of her past. Her only remaining connection to France is with a Parisian friend who renews a lottery ticket for her each year. Despite the animosity between the village people, together they take Babette in as a desolate refugee and accept her as one of their own. Consequently, she wishes to express her gratitude to them but has no means to do so.

Babette eventually receives a letter from Paris informing her that she has won the lottery of 10,000 francs and suddenly she has the resources to thank the village for their hospitality. In an incredible role reversal, she becomes the gracious host, the handmaiden of hospitality, organising a lavish and sumptuous dinner for the village’s people and, in self-denying love, spends every cent of the 10,000 francs on the meal. Much of the film entails the complex preparation and delicate intricacies of the meal’s production, which throws the village’s ingrained asceticism into disarray and brings complete transformation to the village’s ‘twelve disciples’, [9] each one of whom is an invited guest. Babette demonstrates her love and her skills in giving a dinner that is described by General Löwenhielm as “a kind of love affair that made no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite.” Soon, the true goal of the meal, by the grace with which it has been offered, is achieved: the villagers deal with their grievances, offer one another forgiveness and are reconciled.  

Within the spectrum of Catholicism, Protestantism and Evangelicalism, hospitality as the handmaiden of grace is exactly and significantly like Babette: a desolate refugee, living incognito in a Christian sect, the former glories of master chef left far behind. We have inestimable stores of theorised, hypothesised and practised theology in our churches, which always gives hope for future development, but we also suffer from a cultural repression and captivity that we are unable or unwilling to transcend and this becomes obvious when deliberating over acceptance into the of church gay men and lesbians. In order to place hospitality back in her true and royal role as handmaiden, the church must be able to offer hospitality, but only by unshackling hospitality from the captivity of our culture and acquired, repressive habits will hospitality be able to function effectively as the handmaiden of grace, playing the role of hostess where she can reveal to all people the truth of reconciliation, convince them of the superiority of goodness, draw them towards the unsurpassable beauty of God and enable them to open up to the divine love offered by God in and through Jesus Christ.

Dietrich Bonheoffer states that the deadly enemy of the church is cheap grace: “The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing . . . It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth . . . no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. [It] is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession . . . [It] is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ living and incarnate.” [10] Countering this, he adds, “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field . . . the kingly rule of Christ. . . Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again . . . It is costly because it condemns sin and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son . . . and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.” [11]

The grace of which Bonheoffer speaks is inclusively offered to all in their diversity, but by its very nature, being costly and transforming, it is also exclusive. We cannot have inclusivity in our churches that is real and transforming, without striving to maintain the cost of discipleship and grace. I believe this is the key difference between inclusivity and diversity, which carry the danger of embracing all and everything without question, bowing to the weakest denominator and allowing the development of an ‘anything goes’ mentality, and hospitality as the handmaiden of grace that offers space to ‘be’ while encouraging a balance of holy living and freedom within the parameters and discipline of a Christ-centred, abundant life. Inclusivity and diversity, taken to logical conclusion, allow for behaviour that may harm the faith, the church or self, turning into axioms what are merely selfish declarations or complaints from those who simply speak loudest and ultimately teaching tolerance of what is intolerable. This is the downfall of inclusivity and diversity when they are not focussed through grace and discipleship; and the beauty of hospitality, which freely embraces and welcomes within an integrity bestowed and guided by grace and discipleship.




[1] Oxford English Dictionary, Tenth Edition (Oxford: Oxford Unversity Press, 1999), Diversity: The state of being diverse; a diverse range; variety; a diversity of views.      

[2] Oxford English Dictionary, Tenth Edition (Oxford: Oxford Unversity Press, 1999), Inclusive: Including everything expected or required; including the limits specified: the ages of 55 to 59 inclusive.

[3] For example, in the account of the rich young ruler (Mt.19:16-29; Mk.10:17-30; Lk.18:18-30) the young man is excluded despite his obvious sincerity, because he is unwilling to conform to the benchmark Jesus sets him. Refer also to Jesus’ comments to his disciples of, “Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.” (Mt. 10:6) and “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Mt. 15:24), both of which exclude Gentiles.

[4] Émile Benveniste, Indo-European Language and Society Vol.1, Ch.7, Elizabeth Palmer [trans.], (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), pp.71, 83. Benveniste’s work is not a vocabulary as such but a comprehensive and significant analysis of social behaviours and language across Greek and Roman, Germanic, Romanesque, Iranian and Indian cultures.

[5] James B. Nelson, Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1979), p.8.

[6] Kathy Rudy, Sex and the Church – Gender, Homosexuality and the Transformation of Christian Ethics (Boston MA: Beacon Press Books, 1997), p.111.

[7] The Gospels frequently note how those healed are ‘given back’ to their loved ones (Lk. 7:15; 9:42), to friends (Mk.5:19; Lk.8:32), or publically restored to society (Mt.9:22; 12:22; 21:14; Mk.5:34; 10:52; Lk.8:48; 18:42). .

[8] Just Betzer, Bo Christensen, and Benni Korzan (Prods.); Gabriel Axel (Dir.), Babette’s Feast (Denmark: Nordisk Film, 1987).

[9] One of the twelve guests, General Löwenhielm, is, like Babette, an outsider. Familiar with Parisian cuisine, he is the only one who fully appreciates the intricacies and generous spirit of the meal, but acting as a catalyst he aids the other eleven in their transformation just as he comes to view his own life in an entirely new perspective.

[10] Dietrich Bonheoffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., 1963, reprinted in paperback by Simon Schuster 1995), p.42-44. 

[11] Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p.45.