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Tears in God's Wineskin: A Theology of Hospitality

Part 3: Hospitality, the Handmaiden of Grace


Hospitality for an Inclusive Church

 If we practise a theology of hospitality in order to be inclusive of those whose orientation is other than heterosexual, then we are called to recognise, value, love and celebrate those who are on the margins of society, like Jesus who was himself on the edge of society with a ministry reaching out significantly to those considered socially and religiously ‘subclass’ and without worth. This is much more than tolerance which, as a substantive value, is based on a specific perception of goodness and encompasses the good of individual autonomy, leaving little possibility for transcending the good of the individual for the sake of the good of others. [1] As Ian Markham and David Hollenbach both note, tolerance by itself places us into a position of silence and inactivity, where opinions cannot be challenged and what is intolerant cannot be changed. [2] Ultimately, as Luke Bretherton reminds us, “Tolerance involves no equivalent imperative to attend to and actively help those without a place or a voice in society; indeed, a tolerant society can be deeply oppressive for many of its members.” [3]  

If hospitality as the handmaiden of grace calls us to receive and celebrate those whose sexual orientation is homosexual then, at the same time, we are called to challenge those fundamental and ingrained beliefs, doctrines and theologies which characterise as enemies of God those who do not fit the definition of accepted heterosexist norms and which routinely result in homophobic treatment, oppression and exclusion of these same people from churches and other faith communities. Similarly, the recognition of harm caused in the name of God is a necessary step for any church moving towards inclusivity, which can be difficult, requiring humility and courage to take what is a crucial course of action if we are to authentically practise hospitality and include the ‘eunuch and foreigner’ in our midst. Homosexuals rejected by the church are exiled by those Christians who, consciously or unconsciously, have at the centre of their understanding some form of bigotry and while to be oppressive is neither Christ-like nor a tenet of the church, the inability for some to place mercy before sacrifice or who have a contempt for theological development and grace tends to stem from exposure to oppressive theology, biblical literalism and immovable tradition taught by spiritual leaders. No one is born with a providence to be oppressive, ‘phobic,’ or believe they hold the only religious truth. It is something taught wilfully by those committed to a singular opinion of what is right.  

Hospitality calls us to consciously and deliberately welcome all persons, regardless of race, colour ancestry, social status, age, gender or sexual orientation, in celebration of God’s imaginative and diverse creativity and have a purposeful ministry to all people in their diversity. It is a celebration of Christian community as being outside the dominant social culture and normative structures, in the belief that the kingdom of God includes the margins of society and embraces ministry there. Those viewed as subsidiary or second-class respond to a community of transparency and profligate grace that provides a welcoming atmosphere allowing people to feel safe in being who they are. This incorporates the centripetal and centrifugal movement of which Bretherton speaks, a position that enables the church to remain holy, maintaining a faithful and godly discipline when faced with the temptations, idolatries and seductions of the world, but at the same time not turn away from the ‘other’ or deny what they can bring to the Christian Community. [4]  

This in turn enables the church to practise a new way of seeing and being, as Paul relates, “we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Cor. 5:16-18). John Webster points out that, “Human acts of reconciliation are in accordance with the structure of reality which God in Christ creates and to the existence of which the gospel testifies; and therefore they are acts which tend towards the true end of creation that God’s reconciling act establishes once and for all in Christ’s reconciling person and work.” [5] He notes that there is nevertheless a gulf between that which God reconciles and what the church fails to reconcile, what God forgives and what the church does not forgive.

Christ died for the world’s sins, not the world’s sexuality, but for excluding communities homosexuality remains a sin for which Christ was crucified. However, within an inclusive community people are able to celebrate one another in a new and powerful way, accepting humanity’s strengths and weaknesses, and transcending human limitations in order to enable acceptance of one another as through God’s eyes. The Christian community that practises hospitality recognises church as a practical, spiritual and mystical place of faith where psyche and soma meet and where head knowledge and emotional understanding, within Christian discipline, are of equal importance. A church practising hospitality will recognise the need to provide awareness, education and understanding, where a positive re-examination of sexual and relational theology can enable the development of a theology of hospitality and break down negatively held assumptions regarding minority groups. Without this, an authentic celebration of anyone ‘other’ is not a realistic goal for the church, but if taken seriously, the Christian community should be prepared to offer education and training as an aid to understanding and so provide the ability to overcome and avoid oppressive or excluding theological practice.

Accompanying this must be an uncovering of what is hidden, in short, the undoing of shame and internalised homophobia for gay men and lesbians. Phobias and hatred may radiate from society and faith communities, but internalised homophobia is just as damaging because it slowly establishes low self-esteem and self-loathing. An inclusive Christian community does not encourage people to hide or despise who they are and will not promote a ‘don’t ask / don’t tell’ policy. Expecting people to hide what is considered unacceptable in order for them to be loved and accepted, according to the dominant cultural viewpoint or faith outlook, has no place in the practise of hospitality. The Christian community rises up united and healthy when the marginalised are allowed to fully be who they are, celebrating how and what God has created them to be in plain view rather than hidden away or segregated from the dominant culture.

Teaching in order to define and strengthen the essence of a community living within a theology of hospitality is a positive and important element. It helps to clarify, reinforce and highlight the community’s collective theology, giving voice to its emergence and growth and allows questions to be raised and answered, fears to be addressed, misunderstandings and misinformation to be dealt with and communal familiarity to be developed. From this can evolve a recognition that diversity exists on the margins of society, where people may live for a variety of reasons although predominantly because the dominant culture and/or faith communities have forced them into such a position. Gay men and lesbians who are marginalised are not necessarily uneducated, poor or invisible and not all necessarily affirm other non-heterosexuals on society’s margins or share commonalities together within the gay community. This challenges both the marginalised themselves and the church to find and celebrate a new interconnectedness, enabling existing unconscious phobias and mistrust to be dismantled.

The provision of hospitality includes offering our homes, lives, personal space and resources such as food, our skills and our time, and perhaps one of the most important characteristics of authentic hospitality is that it does so without communicating an expected reciprocity from the one being welcomed. We may invite people to our table because they are able to perform exceptionally well socially, have good character and manners, they may be intelligent, attractive and fun, but the person we welcome into our space should not have to have a certain class and style, be a wonderful conversationalist or be the life and soul of the party. If the underlying motivation behind our invitation is merely to socialize in a way that benefits us or we have a subtle desire for personal entertainment or gain, we are expecting from our guest some kind of performance. A hospitality that is Christ-centred accepts people into where we are regardless of their social skills or conversational abilities and whatever they may or may not reciprocate should not affect in any sense the welcome offered.

A hospitable church is not offering a subtle invitation to the non-heterosexual in order for them to eventually adopt a heterosexual way of being, but rather offering an open invitation to be who they are and find their own way in the church. This grants a freedom where there is no line of division to agitate, disturb or frighten and it is the gifting of a place where people are not expected to change but where personal transformation and transcendence can occur. Hospitality that radiates from an inclusive Christian community enables all people to find God and the journey he calls them to rather than find the community’s God and the community’s pathway; it offers freedom to the stranger and the eunuch in the hope that they will cross the threshold, join in and become a friend, rather than remain exiled outside. This requires intentionality to design and maintain a framework that includes everyone in the church, exactly where they are, within the understood bounds of Christian discipline, morality and ethics. Every member needs to share in the tasks and duties that contribute to the welfare of the Christian community and true freedom to do this requires responsibility and accountability without either being an end in itself. Just as we speak of being saved from sin and look to what we may be saved for, so freedom from oppression and exclusivity must flow into freedom to be something greater; to be free may be the reason for getting free, but the reason to be free is to live fully in freedom.

Ultimately, the goal of hospitality for the inclusive church is not so much to imitate or attempt to change mainstream denominations but rather simply to ‘be church,’ loved by the Father, saved by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit. To be church is not the sole possession of any particular denomination, group or institution and no particular Christian organisation speaks for the entire Christian commune. Within organised Christianity systematic wrongs exist due to oppressive theology, unyielding traditions and selective bibliolatry that prevent freedom for all people and, realistically, may perhaps never be fully addressed. As a ministry, however, the practise of hospitality is grounded in restoration and reconciliation that believes God calls the church to Christ’s salvific ministry as part of his commissioning. Therefore the fellowship of all believers can be celebrated without anticipating change in the mainstream church, or having the intention to make it so, but rather trusting that through the power of love and grace, the radically inclusive love and grace of Jesus Christ might be modelled and demonstrated.


Hospitality as Social Justice

 Perhaps the ultimate question for the church is, as Jacques Derrida asks, “Are we heirs to this tradition of hospitality?” [6] In other words, is hospitality part of the Christian tradition that forms and develops us, and is it possible to offer unconditional welcome to the ‘eunuch and stranger’, citizen and refugee alike, including the gay man and lesbian, and stand with them when social justice is at stake? The short answer is yes. Christian tradition over the centuries consistently acknowledges that hospitality is a work of social justice, reflecting how Jesus stood for justice, particularly for the underdog.[7] Examples of Christian action affirming this can be seen in the founding of hospitals and schools, the feeding of the homeless and hungry, the aiding of refugees and a variety of movements and charities dealing with underprivileged people, abused or orphaned children, overseas disasters and other such concerns.

Regarding homosexuality, all major Christian social justice action, religiously, politically and socially, began in the late 1960s with the Metropolitan Community Churches in America, Canada and later in Europe, with other denominations and Christian organisations gradually adding their weight and voice over the following decades. [8] Contemporary theological work on hospitality as social justice stresses its importance within the Christian tradition, as Christine Pohl points out, “Hospitality is not optional for Christians, nor is it limited to those who are specially gifted for it. It is, instead, a necessary practice in the community of faith.” [9]

Social justice may not be a uniquely Christian practice today, but it remains a crucial element of loving God fully, loving neighbour as self and enabling the underprivileged as Christ did. Letty Russell speaks astutely on the need for social justice as a facet of Christian faith and hospitality, “To be a church inside out we cannot ignore issues of social sin and focus on personal morality while reducing spirituality to a search for salvation. We must instead open our lives to God by practicing a wholistic spirituality of connection to God, to our own bodies and to ourselves, and to our neighbors in need, be they next door or on the other side of the world.”[10] Russell draws on feminist and postcolonial thinking to show how, culturally, we colonize and are colonized. Considering the power dynamics of difference, she proposes that hospitality is far more than a mere limited charitable welcome, because in a divided world true hospitality partners difference in order to provide ‘just hospitality,’ that is, hospitality with justice.

In a similar vein, Fuyuki Kurasawa’s work is helpful in grasping social justice as a response to homophobic sentiment and action, from local concerns to global issues. He calls his approach ‘critical substantivism,’ describing this as a double movement that begins ‘from below’ exploring and rationalising those groups and individuals who face human rights struggles, and progresses ‘upward’ to formulate reconstructions of what is ethically and politically required in order to advance the work of global justice. [11] He identifies five practises he believes are fundamental to the development of social justice, which are bearing witness, solidarity, aid, foresight, and forgiveness. Survivors of homophobic violence, for example, bear witness to the event and their actions of giving voice, providing interpretation, eliciting empathy, and advocating remembrance and prevention, in turn enable us to understand the practice of bearing witness concerning other events.

Kurasawa speaks of the ‘constellation’ found within the practices of social justice, which refers to the connections made because of the recognition of an issue through the process of dialogue. He suggests this provides on the one hand dialogue that informs us of the structural or situational violence involved and on the other transforms the dialogue into political action. He similarly notes the usefulness publicity has, since it relies on the capacity of civil associations to, “invent and sustain public spaces at the local, national and transnational levels, which are designed to foster wide-ranging democratic participation and citizen’s involvement in processes of debate about human rights and an alternative globalization.” [12] Kurasawa further asserts that the practice of social justice is transnational, so that even when an issue is focussed on a specific location, the details may be seen as relevant on a national or even international scale. Surprisingly, he does not actually identify hospitality with social justice, but he does recognize that his ‘constellation’ may contain other stars. Certainly his overall approach is an aid to understanding hospitality as a practice of social justice, which enables us to identify more clearly the challenges and risks involved and grasp why hospitality as social justice should be of specific concern to Christian communities.

Hospitality as Practical Welcome

To authentically practise hospitality, our church building and/or homes should be the places from which to offer it, but whatever and wherever the chosen place, it will emanate physical and intentional dimensions that hold meaning and value. These need to bring a sense of being ‘at home’ if it is to be a place where both host and guest have ease of access and understand there is a commitment to well-being. Similarly, it must convey a sense of safety protection from what may be perceived as a threat by those seeking shelter; for the non-heterosexual this might include an assurance that they are not about to have biblical text negatively hurled at them or be proclaimed sick or demon-possessed. Attention also needs to be given to possible risks and difficulties that may arise; can we genuinely provide the necessary boundaries required to maintain a sense of safety for everyone present? Or, in bringing meaning and value to the place do we engage in exclusivity by failing to recognize that our values in fact exclude rather than welcome? [13]

Hospitality begins with the activity of welcoming, which requires the time to provide welcome, allow for orientation, and give full attention. Not all acts of welcoming are selfless and they may carry a sense of domination if used as a means of putting someone in their place through being morally overbearing. This is why hospitality must be linked to love and grace, having a genuine care for the stranger and as such express a form of friendship that recognizes reciprocal goodwill. The Latin roots of hospitality, meaning both host and guest, remind us that the mission of hospitality involves both host and guest, without self-interest, providing common ground and shared interest, at least inasmuch as we are willing to find it in each other. Consequently, friendship is likely to be a natural product of hospitality even though the primary aim of hospitality is not necessarily the creation of personal relationships.

It is authentic welcoming that allows friendship to be cultivated and is also what moves people beyond laws, scriptural argument and the language of rights to a position of love and consideration of the common good. To consider a gay man or lesbian abstractly is very different from speaking directly with the gay man or lesbian, particularly when he or she is someone unavoidably likable or known for some time but who has only recently ‘come out’ as being gay. This public form of friendship might be regarded as Hans-Georg Gadamer’s ‘fusion of horizons’ (horizontverschmelzung), a dialectical concept resulting from the rejection of both objectivism, whereby the objectification of the other is premised on the forgetting of oneself, and absolute knowledge, according to which universal history can be articulated within a single horizon. In rejecting these two alternatives, Gadamer argues that acceptance and understanding become possible because when we can recognize and acknowledge that we do not exist in either a closed horizon, or a horizon that is unique, we can allow ourselves to be informed by the ‘other’ however different they may be from ourselves. [14]

Hospitality may be understood as a universal law, in the way Kant perceives it for example, and thus viewed as a human right. However, in the reality of our finite existence we rarely stand in the universal position and this is why hospitality must be a practice grown from love and cannot be ensured or policed by specific laws. Hate crime as the active expression of homophobia is legislated against, but no amount of legislation can affect the feelings and thought processes of an individual who is homophobic. We need to learn how to identify horizons of understanding in which we function and then learn how to ‘fuse horizons’ with others in such a way that both horizons come together, albeit even with differences intact. Gadamer regards this as a playful activity where we give up control and come together with others in a space not dominated by any one person, yet where everyone has room to play.

The spirit of communication in Christian fellowship is friendship and hospitality, so the ability to listen to and understand the ‘other’ is as important, if not more so, than making a welcome possible because language always dominates the realms of relationship within hospitality. To seek hospitality in a language not our own means that the language imposed is that of the host or the church, which can be an act of oppression simply because the one offering hospitality is effectively demanding that the guest accept and understand the host’s language. Paul Ricouer considers this to be a paradigm, suggesting that translation is the practice of linguistic hospitality which serves as a model for hospitality in general. He asserts that those with a passion for translation recognize that the requirements of translation combine what the translator has personally learned with what is foreign and in need of translation; it is a construction of the comparable. In effect, it becomes an ethical task requiring two masters to be served without betraying one above the other.[15]

Hospitality as a practise of translation becomes obvious whenever a ‘non-English’ English speaker apologises for their language, however good it might be, and then is overheard sharing their mother tongue with another speaker, becoming more confident, faster, animated, joyful, as they construct the comparable together and naturally practise hospitality.

Returning to Kurasawa’s criteria for what counts as a practice of social justice, hospitality not only qualifies, but may be considered crucial as a practice. It is clearly interconnected, inter-subjective and involves a dialogical process and recognition that in actuality may be more fully dialogical than other processes. Further, hospitality fosters the work of reciprocity, a use of publicity and the construction of public spaces which encourage participation and so are realistic alternatives to processes founded on cultural or economic domination. Finally, hospitality is certainly transnational, and while the practice may focus on specific locations, the actions of hospitality transcend national and international borders.

What might the practice of hospitality towards non-heterosexuals mean for the church? Some of our churches may know they live a Christ-centred, balanced life, encouraging positive attitude, taking care with biblical text, treating their gay and lesbian members no differently from anyone else, the church mission statement may even bear witness to a commitment to equality, justice, peace and the common good. However, this may seem at times to be at the edge, rather than at the centre, of what we do together as church, partly because even with the best of intentions concerning human rights, justice and peace, we have not constructively travelled far on our journey of social conscience, explored personal responsibility or considered the possibility of social or political action as a community. Would we move forward if the practice of hospitality was more intentionally before us as we make decisions and construct our places of hospitality? Might we be more openly and imaginatively diverse and so create a place of welcome that practices, learns, theorizes and teaches more fully what hospitality means and perhaps pay more attention to social justice and thus take a more public stand against heteronormativity and for equality? The rewards manifesting from this would be greater unity and a stronger, healthier church enriched by those welcomed and embraced rather than condemned and exiled.



The call of Hospitality is substantially present in both Old and New Testaments and for the church it is a biblical summary of the Christ event and an imperative to outwardly express that event in every day communal living. As a social practise hospitality shapes and directs relations within the church and between the church and surrounding community, welcoming and caring for strangers and those viewed as ‘other.’ This relates directly to Isaiah’s foreigner and eunuch, once banned from God’s Temple, now welcomed if they love him and keep the Sabbath and strongly implies that for gay men and lesbians, as the modern equivalent of eunuchs, a welcome from the church is more biblically appropriate than attempts to justify condemnation and exile based on narrowly understood scripture and heteronormativity. Hospitality is not the same as inclusivity, diversity or tolerance which ultimately produce a gospel without Christ and acceptance without discipline or holiness. Hospitality preserves Christ as the standard and condition of evaluation where social response, biblical text and theological understanding are concerned and enables the church to necessarily engage in communication with non-heterosexual brothers and sisters.  

The good news of Jesus Christ is God’s narrative for human living and not humanity’s own story. As such it is not the church’s privilege to use the scriptures as a tool or weapon against any particular people. Rather than assume an attitude of authority and supremacy, the church is called to assume an attitude that has been crucified and is willing to learn to embrace others in a way that does not limit the love of God. This is the heart of hospitality as the handmaiden of grace, in a position of royal servitude where power and control are balanced with sacrificial love and humility. This is hospitality expressed through grace that is all embracing, enabling both heterosexual and homosexual Christians to journey with God and with one another as lives transform, faith matures and what is inhospitable is completely renovated.

If we are heirs to a tradition of hospitality, we are certainly called to live out that tradition envisioning a more open and hospitable future for our heterosexual and homosexual members together. Developing and reflecting on a theology of hospitality and its ideas and ideals guides us in seeing what is possible, even in the context of what at times seems impossible. In I Was a Stranger, Arthur Sutherland constructs a theological rationale for hospitality, explaining, “In the light of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and return, Christian hospitality is the intentional, responsible and caring act of welcoming or visiting, in either public or private places, those who are strangers, enemies or distressed, without regard for reciprocation”. [16] He argues that hospitality is the practice by which the church stands or falls, a conviction reflecting the Christian’s journey in following Jesus, he who saw the stranger, the hungry and the prisoner, and whose seeing led to compassionate action. In this regard, hospitality as the handmaiden of grace teaches us about the mind of God and the mission of Christian community as God calls us into being, where no one is exiled or condemned but enabled to follow Christ and live a fully expressed and holy life submitted to him, where transcendence and maturity of faith are possible and all human facets made by a creative and imaginative God are incorporated, including sexual orientation, whether heterosexual or homosexual.



[1] The concept of tolerance as a contrast to hospitality is elaborated well by Bernard Williams in his work, Tolerating the Intolerable, in Susan Mendus [ed.], The Politics of Toleration: Tolerance and Intolerance in Modern Life (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), p.73.

[2] Ian Markham, Plurality and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p.188; David Hollenbach, The Good and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p.70.

[3] Luke Bretherton, Hospitality as Holiness: Christian Witness Amid Moral Diversity (Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2006), p.148.

[4] Bretherton, Hospitality as Holiness, p.137.

[5] John Webster, The Ethics of Reconciliation, in The Theology of Reconciliation, Colin E. Gunton [ed.] (London: T and T Clark, 2003), p.117.

[6] Jacques Derrida, Of Hospitality: Cultural Memory in the Present (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), p. 155.

[7] See for example, Jesus saving the woman about to be stoned for adultery (Jn.8:1-11); his healing of the blind man and arguing that sin did not cause his blindness (Jn.9:2-3) or his interaction with the Roman Centurion (Mt.8:5-13; Lk.7:1-10) and Syro-Phoenician woman (Mt.15:21-28).

[8] For a history of the early activities of Metropolitan Community Churches (1960s-1980s), see Perry’s works, Don’t Be Afraid Anymore: The Story of Reverend Troy Perry and the Metropolitan Community Churches, and The Lord is My Shepherd and He Knows I’m Gay. For later social justice involvement (1990s-2000s) see Perry’s work, Ten Spiritual Truths for Successful Living for Gays and Lesbians - and Everyone Else! (Augusta, GA: Morris Publishing, 2003)

[9] Pohl, Making Room, p.31

[10] Letty M. Russell, J. Shannon Clarkson and Kate M. Ott [eds.] Just Hospitality: God’s Welcome in a World of Difference (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p.15.

[11] Fuyuki Kurasawa, The Work of Global Justice: Human Rights as Practices (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) p.10.

[12] Kurasawa, The Work of Global Justice: Human Rights as Practices, p.18.

[13] It has been painfully related to me by gay and lesbian Christians seeking churches that it is not uncommon for a church to publically declare itself ‘inclusive’ to all, but will, once certain levels of trust and fellowship have been established, tell their new ‘guest’ assuredly that while it is acceptable for them to be gay, they must live celibately because homosexual behaviour is sinful.

[14] How this works is that person A and person B exchange ideas and opinions over the course of a conversation, and since people come from different places and have different opinions and backgrounds, they carry a prejudice and bias that provide various intrinsic values and meanings for the conversation. By receiving the information from person A, a fusion of person B’s vision limitations take place and consequently broadens person B’s range of horizon, so the totality of everything that can be realized or thought about by person B at any particular time and in a specific culture widens and enriches. Gadamer argues that people have a ‘historically effected consciousness’ (wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein) and that they are embedded in the particular history and culture that shaped them. Consequently, interpreting a text involves a ‘fusion of horizons’ where the scholar finds a way to express the text’s history and content with their own background. See Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: Continuum, 1997), p.302.

[15] Paul Ricoeur, On Translation, Eileen Brennan [Trans.] (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), pp21-23.

[16] Athur Sutherland, I was a Stranger: A Christian Theology of Hospitality (Abingdon Press, 2006), p.13.