Welcome requires walls

Sounds paradoxical, doesn’t it? We think we know that to welcome is the very opposite of having a wall up. We’re wrong.

Ivan Illich taught that the welcome of hospitality requires a threshold. By definition, we need to move over a threshold in order to be welcomed. If there is no threshold to move over, I can’t welcome you.

To put it another way, if someone isn’t in some sense an outsider, I can’t welcome them into my space. Why not? Because if they’re already an insider there’s nothing to welcome them into.

We live in cultures that don’t like this from two angles. Either, we loath the idea of walls—groups that are not accessible to everyone without a process of entry—from the angle of inequality, imagining that the only way to get true equity is to tear down the walls.

Or, we are so radically individualistic that we’re instinctively allergic to the idea of welcoming someone into something private enough to have walls. From this angle we either bridle at the idea of walls because we can only imagine welcoming people in the broad public square, or because we cannot imagine welcoming someone into our lives.

I don’t think either of these thrusts is at the surface, these operate at the level of the stories that we live by, the ‘Social Imaginary’ that describes the space we live in, but that’s why the phrase “welcome requires walls” sounds paradoxical to us.


I think this is an important concept for Christians to get hold of if we think, as I do, that hospitality is the solution to many of our societal problems. If hospitality should define both the church and the ‘city,’ and is a broad principle that flows to us from the Cross and is encountered at the Lord’s Supper, then we need to understand that tearing down the walls doesn’t help us.

To take the most literal example, if you come into my home then I’m going to do my best to make you welcome. We will eat together and I will endeavour to treat you like you belong. Nevertheless, it isn’t your home, because if it was then I wouldn’t need to welcome you. You must cross the threshold into my world.

My world comes with my rules, even if we’re talking about as mundane things as which items you can stack in the dishwasher after we’ve eaten, or where the teaspoons live. If I’m a good host then I may well try to make you welcome by shifting some of my rules in your direction: perhaps I won’t serve something that I’ve discovered you don’t like to avoid making the threshold too difficult to cross.

You are still crossing into my world. This is always the case when we eat with someone, we enter their world. That’s as it’s meant to be—not least because we learn how to behave at a table by the grand hospitality of God in the Lord’s Supper. We enter his world as we come to eat, which has his rules. We’re invited, we’re welcome, our transgressions are forgiven, but we don’t pretend for one minute that this is our table.


This is important as a principle for the church. It has a host of implications for wider society too, which are important to consider—it was those that Illich was getting it—but I’m a firm believer that we reform the City by reforming the Church. Change happens from the inside out, it flows from Eden to the World, from the Holy of Holies to Israel: therefore, it flows from the Church to the culture.

“That clearly isn’t the case!” you declare. Well, sure, but it’s supposed to be. Which means that my primary concern is not the wider social implications for these islands or wherever you live, but for the Church. If we get it right there, it will flow outwards as an expression of our worship. This is how the church is meant to impact society: you want to help the poor in your community? Brilliant, you should (Galatians 2), the best first step is to make sure that it’s true that there are “no poor among you,” (Deuteronomy 15).

So, what does it mean that the Church needs to have walls in order to welcome? These are a few scattered thoughts.

The Table

The most obvious example would be whether you practice what’s come to be called ‘closed’ or ‘open’ communion. The logic of closed communion—that you are only admitted to the Table in Baptism, because you have to be born in order to eat—follows I think.

I’m in a church that practices open communion, but even there the importance of fencing the table—making clear that those among you who are not professing Christ should not partake—should be in our minds. We should also stress the need to eat and drink in a ‘worthy manner’ (1 Corinthians 11) so that you don’t, y’know, die. I was fascinated to read in the first century text The Didache that if a Christian isn’t reconciled with another Christian they shouldn’t even attend the meeting where they eat the Supper and celebrate their shared reconciliation in Christ.

We don’t do that. Can you imagine? Maybe we should consider it, the welcome we receive at the Table relies on there being walls. We require faith to partake.


Churches having formal memberships doesn’t feel very first century, but the need to be very sure who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ makes sense. My church practices informal membership, which has some benefits, but the big weakness is that it’s much less obvious what you are being welcomed into or at what point you are part of it.

C. S. Lewis, in perhaps his most famous essay The Inner Ring, aptly describes the way that humans will create closed circles that it’s difficult to join. If these aren’t formal and deliberate in our churches we will form them anyway, there’s always an inner ring.

The best way to stop these being cliques or informal rules that you can’t see, is to make them formal rules that you can see. Get really clear on the walls, and then welcome people over the threshold.

Church Discipline

It is difficult to enact church discipline without a clear threshold: you can’t say to the church ‘this person is no longer one of us’ (Matthew 18) if there’s not a threshold to move them over. Of course, most of us find the idea very strange and have never seen it done well. Yet, it’s a required part of the Jesus community—it’s easy to join us, but unrepentant sin will mean you can’t stay a visible part of us, for the sake of Jesus’ name.

Personally, I find it most compelling that the threshold we close is admission to the Lord’s Supper, rather than the doors of the church entirely.

Honestly, we live in a moment that finds the idea of pointing out people’s sin extremely distasteful. We would prefer that there were no walls so that we could just allow Jesus to sort it all out on judgement day. That’s not the Church’s calling, we are not to compromise by taking the walls down, but we are to welcome everyone to come over the threshold.

Welcome requires walls

It seems counterintuitive, but hospitality requires an expression of difference. We need to know that you aren’t ‘inside’ the community if you aren’t. We hate that, we see expressions of difference as inequality, but they aren’t. What happens next is where your inequality could start—but it isn’t unequal for me to not allow someone into my home to eat with me. At the same time, the Bible requires that we welcome strangers (Hebrews 13), both things are true.

We need difference—the difference between the Church and world is what we usually call holiness—and then we need to behave like Christians and radically welcome people within the bounds of our homes and churches, without having to knock down all the walls, expecting that the encounters around the table will change all of us.

Welcome requires crossing a threshold, which always changes us.

Photo by Ronald Cuyan on Unsplash

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