05/28/2013 04:01 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2013

How Much Can the Christian Church Embrace?

Getty Images

Within the space of a few hours, my friend revealed to me that he sleeps with multiple partners and uses drugs. For a recovering fundamentalist like me, this was a lot to swallow.

As he elaborated, though, my initial knee-jerk discomfort gave way to ambivalence. He lives in a deeply committed, long-term relationship, and his life partner approves of the arrangement. He takes pains to use drugs in moderation, in safe environments, partly as a window to alternative states of consciousness. He is not, according to the standard of the day, hurting anyone.

I wondered if I was looking at a different way of being Christian -- not in my friend, who practices another faith tradition entirely, but in my own reaction.

Time after time, I find myself challenged by the same question: How big is your embrace?

Many years ago, as I was faced with the coming out of a church leader, a search of the Christian Scriptures led me to scrap the traditional condemnation of homosexuality and fully embrace those who are gay. Over time, I have left behind the exclusivism of some Christian churches to embrace the beauty and wisdom of other faith traditions. Now this. With every challenge to embrace more, another traditional taboo comes into question.

I don't think it's just me.

For years, the Church itself has been challenged in this direction. It has learned (in many quarters) to embrace women in leadership. It is learning (in many quarters) to embrace people of diverse sexual and gender orientations. Many of us are welcoming different ways to understand our faith. In the process, we have left behind or reinterpreted ideas that we once thought sacrosanct: "Women are to be silent in the churches"; "whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the only begotten Son of God."

What if, instead of embracing a bit more at a time, questioning one taboo at a time, we change our mind about taboos entirely?

This would be a Christian faith of radical acceptance. An embrace that is infinite. A welcome to all people -- who they are and where they're at (with the one condition that they do not present an urgent danger to others).

Yet even this is a starting point. Because with the embrace of who they are comes the invitation (from God and, by extension, from all of us) to become who they can be. This becoming would be defined, not by traditional taboos, but by the divine tug toward the vision in God's heart of one's best self.

And this is enough, because the Spirit has an unnerving habit of pushing our boundaries while fueling our ability to cross them. When we remain wide open and present to God, we often find ourselves in completely unexpected places -- sometimes difficult places -- with more wisdom and more compassion. For instance, those of us who are fond of saying we should "love" everyone get nudged into realizing that "everyone" includes murderers and jihadists. Those of us who pursue spiritual practices with gusto may find them nudging us to rearrange our lives: to, say, abandon success and ambition for a low-paying vocation that makes a bigger difference in the world.

As we follow these nudges, whatever the specifics, we reflect God more perfectly. We live out the values close to God's heart, without a taboo or a "thou shalt not" enforcing the growth.

Of course, our hearing is vastly imperfect, so the stories and lessons of our faith would still inform this becoming. They are a rich repository of insight into union with God, living well, loving others. They become guides on our journey rather than absolutes to be applied from without. Similarly, the community of faith could walk in solidarity with us, helping us to shape our thinking and discern our direction as we move deeper into God.

Curiously, there is something for many to love -- and loathe -- in this vision. Progressives could sign on to the idea of radical welcome and inclusion (which, to many conservatives, can sound like "anything goes"). Evangelicals could resonate with the radical trust in God that this requires (which, to some progressives, carries a whiff of submission and oppression). Many who cherish the contribution of Church authority and see in the taboos a healthy setting of limits may find this idea repugnant.

How big is God's embrace? Maybe it's time to find out, not by obliterating taboos but by starting over in a place of radical acceptance -- a place where the cornerstone of truth is God's wasteful, extravagant, wild, all-embracing love.