What Is Gatekeeping and Why Do Christians Do It?

What is gatekeeping? A way to keep outsiders out. Sometimes that's necessary, but what happens when Christians do it for legalistic reasons?

Updated Mar 15, 2023
What Is Gatekeeping and Why Do Christians Do It?

“Christians are so exclusive.” You may have heard this phrase before. And it is near-impossible to have a religion without some form of gatekeeping. Even the more inclusive religions require parameters and tenants. Atheism itself has its own versions of gatekeeping, after all. For starters, you can’t believe in a God.

But what happens when gatekeeping happens within the fold? We mean beyond elder positions (see below where we will address the Titus passage). What if married Christians block single Christians from ministry roles? Or what if certain Christians who hold back from temptation are still not allowed to serve in the church?

Believe it or not, a lot of gatekeeping happens within the church walls, preventing a great deal of evangelism. In today’s article, we’ll explore the differences between Christian and secular gatekeeping, why gatekeeping happens, and when Christian gatekeeping can become sinful.

What Is Gatekeeping in the World?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, one definition of gatekeeping can be “a person or system that decides whether someone or something will be allowed to reach a particular place or person.”

Understandably, people should meet the criteria to gain entry into an environment (i.e., job interviews). However, people can use gatekeeping for discriminatory reasons. It doesn’t take much to look at the history of gatekeeping in our nation’s history (African-Americans being considered one-third of a person until the Civil Rights era, women restricted from voting until the Women’s Suffrage Movement, etc.). While we have made countless strides to break through gatekeeping, it still happens in many areas where it should, even in the church.

What Is Gatekeeping in the Bible?

Now that we’ve defined gatekeeping, we probably should see how it plays a role in the Bible.

We should first state that it’s important to know our core beliefs. We should keep some boundaries with people who call themselves Christians and stray from those beliefs—such as Mormons or other Christian-ish cults.

With that said, what does Scripture say about gatekeeping true believers?

First, we see ancient Israel had literal gatekeepers for military reasons. See 1 Chronicles 9 describe people who watched city gates to protect Israel from enemies. The ancient world was a constant battlefield where nation fought against nation. Sometimes when gates fell, God called people to rebuild them (hence why Nehemiah built gates and walls around Israel).

Israel was used to keeping firm gates closed against other nations. But when Jesus enters the scene, he’s a gate-tearing-down kind of person. He seeks to provide salvation to all nations, to all peoples.

Enter Acts 10, where Peter receives a vision to rise and eat non-kosher foods. Essentially, he’s told, “Hey, there’s no more gatekeeping between people groups. You need to let the Gentiles into God’s kingdom.” Peter takes a while to learn this lesson and receives a stern talking-to from Paul.

Galatians 3 also makes this clear. That there’s neither slave nor free. Jew nor Gentile. Male nor female. We all make up the body of Christ, and no single body matters more than the other.

The New Testament does talk about gatekeeping for certain church positions. We receive explicit guidelines for elders in Titus 1. However, we shouldn’t make this an excuse for gatekeeping where God doesn’t want us to. In our next section, Trey will dive into ways that Christians gatekeep.

How Do Christians Gatekeep?

Christians generally say to visitors and unbelievers that we welcome everyone of every background, which is true in many churches and denominations. However, we must acknowledge that we fall short in many areas. This is especially true when it comes to leadership and social circles.

Gatekeeping in Married and Single Christians

One of the difficulties Hope and I have seen in our college and post-college years is the treatment of single Christians compared to married Christians. Married Christians–especially those with multiple kids–tend to view unmarried people as naive, inexperienced, or immature. Because singles are not married, they may be told that they cannot speak about marriage in any way simply because they are not married. Gatekeeping can especially damage Christians who choose to remain celibate, with other Christians viewing them as selfish for not wanting to bring new life into the world.

Gatekeeping in Church Leadership

Understandably, certain roles require a level of experience and spiritual gifts, and humility (i.e., pastor, deacon, and elder). However, churches can add extrabiblical regulations and fall into gatekeeping.

For example, imagine an unmarried man applying for an associate pastor position. He has a solid Biblical education and background. He has job experience far beyond requirements. He is a man after God’s own heart. But since he’s not married, the church deems him unfit to lead.

Another example can be someone disqualified from teaching in the church or leading worship because they have endured a divorce. They may have much to offer. Their divorce may have been more gray than black and white (or they may clearly have been wronged), but the church sees them as unworthy.

Gatekeeping in Christian Education

Beyond church politics, let’s look at Christian colleges. If a woman pursues an education over marriage and isn’t engaged by a certain age or grade level, she can be seen as unworthy, too old, or even too intimidating.

Gatekeeping in Denominations

Some Christians claim if you are not part of their “one true church,” you are outside of salvation, even if you acknowledge that Christ is Lord. Or if you don’t have certain spiritual gifts, then the Holy Spirit must not be in you. Or, if you don’t believe in a specific brand of eschatology, you are viewed as naive and heretical.

There are many other areas where Christians gatekeep. Christians who work in secular industries and find ways to share their faith in those contexts are treated as “not real witnesses” compared to Christians who volunteer in rough cities or have traveled overseas. Christians with narrow political views view anyone who doesn’t vote for the same party as a traitor to the faith. Many examples here are from experiences Hope and I have personally dealt with or observed elsewhere.

And now, Hope will dive deeper into gatekeeping and sinful behavior.

When Does Gatekeeping Become Sinful?

Christians should gatekeep regarding specific things mentioned in the Bible (see above). However, Christians shouldn’t gatekeep over their own extrabiblical stands. We can see how it plagued the early church—often between the Jewish people and Gentiles (see Acts 6 for example).

We also know that gatekeeping misses the fact that God has imbued us with different traits, spiritual gifts, and ways of seeing the world. In doing this, God allows us to minister and evangelize in unique ways.

Unfortunately, our human side can take over. We like hierarchies. We like thinking of ourselves as superior to others. And if we’re not careful, it can seep into the fold.

Here are three ways we know that Christian gatekeeping (except the abovementioned exceptions) is sinful.

1. It goes against the body model

God calls us to be one body with many parts. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you.” How often do we see this happening in the church?

Even if we don’t understand other body parts doesn’t mean we can’t allow them to function. If we cut off a body part, we limit our ability to operate as a healthy church. And we limit the number of people we can reach for Christ.

2. It goes against Jesus’ mission.

Jesus ministered first to the Jews, and the early church ministered to the Gentiles. God wants every tribe, tongue, and nation to come to know him. If we gatekeep because we don’t understand a certain worship style or gifting of the Spirit, we’re technically being spiritually racist. There’s no room for that mindset in the kingdom of God: a kingdom far bigger and more diverse than we can imagine.

3. It goes against the creeds.

There’s something unique found in the creeds implemented by the early church. As the Apostle’s Creed puts it, we are one “holy Catholic church.” Catholic, here, means universal. Many local churches, but one body of Christ.

I think about the many ages of Christianity. The mystics, the desert fathers, and the philosophers (Aquinas and Augustine) had many different roles. They each saw unique aspects of God’s character and ministered accordingly, not trying to be like each other.

If we gatekeep, we go against Christianity’s foundation and the documents that make us one body in Christ.

We cannot allow small-mindedness to deter 2,000 years of history and a greater mission at hand. To be the hands and feet of Jesus.

How Can Christians Stop Gatekeeping?

As Hope previously touched on, let’s look at Scripture and modern Christians today on how to stop gatekeeping.

Jesus Christ and the Pharisees

Time and time again, Jesus debated and argued with the Pharisees on multiple issues. Some of the most personal ones were their gatekeeping of other Jewish people and Gentiles–i.e., tax collectors, drunkards, prostitutes, the disabled, and the sick. Jesus proved them wrong in words and actions, as he performed the duties they should have been doing from the beginning. He loved, cared for, ministered, and nourished the people who were hungry for spiritual food and deliverance.

St. Paul and Jewish Christians

As seen throughout the Epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul rebuked Jewish Christians for imposing Old Testament laws (like circumcision) onto new Gentile believers. He even tells them that they believe a false Gospel and that anyone who preaches a false Gospel should be accursed and anathema (1:6-10). Christians today may say that making such decisions and rebukes is un-Christlike and mean-spirited. On the contrary, St. Paul and Christ himself say otherwise.

Modern Christians Today

C.S. Lewis is my (Trey’s) primary example. In his book The Secret Place: The Spiritual Formation of C.S. Lewis, Lyle W. Dorsett covers how much Lewis communed with other Christians. C.S. Lewis was an Anglican Christian. Rather than writing and communing with those of the Church of England, he spread out to others in his writings–Anglican Catholics, Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, and many more. While he recognized differences in beliefs and had hard stakes on some, he was open to other Christians and actively prayed for them.

Another example is Peter L. Steinke. In Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, he covers the importance of overcoming anxieties when comforts outweigh spiritual growth. In his section on emotional fusion, he says, “Congregations are uniquely vulnerable to emotional fusion. Being idealistic groups, congregations work to maintain high spirits. When premium value is placed on harmony, acceptance, and belonging, people resist information that might disturb their peace. No one wants to speak the truth. If people are emotionally linked, they may not have sufficient space to change one another… more togetherness can distort people’s ability to discern and judge.”

While certain church positions must require a level of criteria, we should also be wise and observant to gatekeeping around us, even within ourselves. The more we can recognize that, the more we can help others see it.

Photo Credit: Getty Images/Paul Bradbury

Hope Bolinger is an acquisitions editor at End Game Press, book editor for hire, and the author of almost 30 books. More than 1500 of her works have been featured in various publications. Check out her books at hopebolinger.com for clean books in most genres, great for adults and kids. Check out her editing profile at Reedsy.com to find out about hiring her for your next book project.

Trey Soto holds a B.A. in Communication Studies from Biola University and an M.A. in Communication Management from the University of Denver. He is a photographer, a writer, and a podcast host at T.V. Trey Podcast. You can see more of his work on his Wix portfolio.


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