Yesterday I had the joy of sharing with the Ask Your Question class at my church home on the topic of “Why Is Christianity So Exclusive?”
Below are my notes from the talk in case you would like to facilitate a similar conversation at your church.
I would also welcome your feedback on any ways in which the talk could be improved.
Why Is Christianity So Exclusive?
Today’s question is, “Why Is Christianity So Exclusive?”
There are a few ways that Christianity can exclude.
Merriam-Webster defines “Exclude” as:
to prevent or restrict the entrance of
to bar from participation, consideration, or inclusion
Christians themselves can be exclusive.
Why don’t we recognize truths in other religions as being true? Why do we exclude them as legitimate or true?
Why aren’t there other paths to salvation? Why would God exclude other paths to him?
Especially, is it fair to say that people who never hear of God has wrong and will go to hell when they had no control over where they were born and what religions they were exposed to in their lives?
TALKBACK. Any other ways that Christianity can be exclusive?
::Get a list of other ways Christianity can be exclusive::
Let’s dive in…
Christians being exclusive
First, I think we are all agreed that Christians themselves should not be exclusive. Nor should anyone else. But if we look at our world, people are by nature exclusive.
How inclusive are Democrats of Trump supporters? How inclusive are Trump supporters of Democrats? How inclusive are ‘moderate independents’ of left-wing liberals or right-wing conservatives?
How inclusive are Muslims in Saudi Arabia of atheists? How inclusive are atheists of evangelical Christians? How inclusive of Buddhists are evangelical Christians? How inclusive of Mormons are Buddhists?
And on it goes. Are the 1% inclusive of the 99%?
Right now, Harvard is facing a major lawsuit for excluding Asian Americans in favor of including more African Americans. Should America have an open-border policy - anyone who wants to be a citizen is granted it on the spot? Or should there be guidelines before an immigrant can become a citizen?
By nature, humans tend to cluster into groups that exclude others - perhaps for good reasons or for bad. Can fraternities exclude women? Can sororities exclude men?
Then some situations are clearer. For instance, in America, Jim Crow laws were on the books or in practical force between 1874 and for a few years, in some places, after 1970. During and after legal segregation ended, scholars have documented an increased wave of residential segregation. During this time, many white Christians did not allow black Christians to worship with them in their churches.
For instance, the church I attended in Memphis, Second Presbyterian, had a kneel-in in 1964, when a multiracial group of college students attempted to attend 2PC to worship with the rest of the congregation. However, they were prevented from entering the church.
Since then, by God’s grace, 2PC has sponsored gatherings to discuss this event, has apologized for the church’s role in promoting segregation, and has taken sustained action to demonstrate racial reconciliation in the city of Memphis and beyond.
As 2PC’s leaders would acknowledge today, when Christians are exclusive in this way, it badly misrepresents the gospel. The gospel is about God’s love for his enemies. So, surely, at a minimum, Christians should at least be able to get along with fellow Christians who have different skin colors or cultures.
On this point, one of the most famous stories in Scripture is the story of the Good Samaritan. Imagine that a Trump supporting, Christian pastor was driving to Nashville when his car broke down and he was robbed. First, a Republican passed by without helping him. Then a leader in the Tea Party passed him by. Finally, an atheist who voted for Hillary drove down the road. He pulled over, helped the man into his car, and took him to a nearby hospital, where he paid his medical bills. Which of these was a neighbor to the Trump supporter?
Go and do likewise.
That’s the kind of crazy stories that Jesus told about how to treat one another.
The first point to make today is that Jesus taught a crazy kind of inclusive love for one another. A love that smashed through social barriers. A love that said - every person is made in God’s image. We love and respect people because when we see them, we remember their Creator - who is our Creator too.We do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
::Any comments or questions?::
There is a second kind of exclusivity we need to consider. Why don’t we recognize truths in other religions as true?
First challenge: name a truth claim that is not exclusive.
On the one hand, there’s a good ground for this charge. If you read through what the Bible has to say about other religions, it is quite negative. There is the true worship of Yahweh - or Jesus - and then there is idolatry.
One of the main metaphors in the Bible that is used for worship is the love between a husband and his wife. God presents himself as a husband who faithfully pursues his wife. But she keeps saying, “There are lots of good men out there, let’s have an open marriage.” And his heart is grieved and his heart breaks. Because the truth is, while there are lots of good men out there, marriage is meant to function as an exclusive relationship between one man and one woman.
Additionally, when it comes to God, there is only one true God who is good, and then there are many false gods that are evil.
To some degree, I think we would all be exclusive about this. For instance, if I said to you, I’ve decided to start worshipping Molech, would you be appreciative of this? “Oh, good on you!” Or would you say, “Wait a second, isn’t he one of the gods that requires child sacrifice? I’m not so sure that’s a good idea.” At some point, we would all hit a limit of what kinds of god are worthy to worship.
I believe Tim Keller has made the point, there are modern gods that require child sacrifice. For instance, the modern god of materialism, upward mobility, and success often requires fathers to sacrifice their children. I wish I could be there for the game, but work. I wish I could be home for dinner, but work. I wish you could be a priority, but work. On the other side of the request from family comes, I can serve you, but only after I serve the god of work. That’s not to say that there aren’t reasons why people have to work and cannot be with family. For instance, I particularly think we need to pay attention to the circumstances of single mothers and single fathers, working minimum wage jobs. But this is more likely a situation of injustice rather than of idolatry.
The reason that God is opposed to idolatry is that idolatry is harmful to us and harmful to others. It is only when we worship the only true God that our lives are restored to wholeness and flourishing. There is no practical way to worship a false god and live life as it was intended.
At the same time, we do sense that there are good things about other religions. For instance, when you think about it, don’t Christians and Muslims and Jews and atheists and agnostics all agree that we should not murder? It is hard to find a person who would say “it is good to kill an innocent person."
C.S. Lewis documented this well in the Appendix to his book The Abolition of Man.
To forestall the inevitable tedium of repeating what should be a well known idea among all literate men, allow me to quote some examples of what philosopher’s call Natural Law, or Objective Morality.
The examples here are not being used to prove the maxims given. It is not being argued, for example, that merely because all literate races of man extol generosity and excoriate adultery that generosity is good and adultery is bad.
The examples are merely offered to establish the phenomenon to be explained, namely, that men of every culture and age agree on the moral principles, even if they disagree on how those principles are to be applied.
If morality were manmade, as positive law is, or as writing systems are, then they were differ as positive law codes differ, or differ as much as cuneiform differs from runes or hieroglyphs or ideographs or alphabets. But what we have here is a collection of statements, some originally written in runes or alphabets or hieroglyphs or ideograms, which all express the same few moral imperatives in different words. That indicates that this part of the moral law of man is not manmade but natural. Hence it is called Natural Law.
He then goes on to show that many cultures agree on a law of general beneficence - not to murder, but to preserve life. A law of special beneficence - we owe particular duties to our nation and family. As well as laws of treating our parents, elders, and children with love. Similarly the law of justice - forbidding adultery, requiring honesty, mandating justice in court, and so on.
It was because of his breadth of studies of many religions, and his appreciation for mythology, that Lewis remained aware of the beauty and glory that existed in many systems of thought.
Here’s how Lewis put it in God In the Dock:
To me, who first approached Christianity from a delighted interest in, and reverence for, the best pagan imagination, who loved Balder before Christ and Plato before St. Augustine, the anthropological argument against Christianity has never been formidable. On the contrary, I could not believe Christianity if I were forced to say that there were a thousand religions in the world of which 999 were pure nonsense in the thousandth (fortunately) true. My conversion, very largely, dependent on recognizing Christianity as the completion, the actualization, the entelechy, of something that had never been wholly absent from the mind of man.
(Entelechy, by the way, means "the realization of potential.”)
That’s a fascinating thought. Lewis is not arguing:
Christianity is 100% correct, all other religions are 100% false.
Interestingly, I believe Lewis also makes the point that this IS the logical, though hard-line, position of the atheist and perhaps the agnostic.
As Sam Harris, a well-known atheist puts it, "We are all “atheists” with respect to Zeus and Thor and the thousands of other dead gods that now lie upon the scrapheap of mythology.” An atheist might see that religions have some survival value, but ultimately, the natural conclusion is that any belief in any supernatural entity is a delusional and false belief.
A Christian, by contrast, can see their beliefs as the completion, the actualization, the entelechy, of something that had never been wholly absent from the mind of man. So I think Lewis is a great guide here. We CAN and SHOULD recognize truths in other religions.
For instance, consider this story from Acts 10. Acts is a historical survey of important events in the early church. It was written by Luke, a traveling companion of the Apostle Paul, probably around AD 60-62. So it is quite close to the events of the life of Jesus and the events it records. In chapter 10 we read:
Acts 10:1 At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, 2 a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. 3 About the ninth hour of the dayhe saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.” 4 And he stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5 And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter. 6 He is lodging with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.” 7 When the angel who spoke to him had departed, he called two of his servants and a devout soldier from among those who attended him, 8 and having related everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.
Here we have a Roman centurion, who worships false gods, praying as best he knows. As one scholar points out, for Luke to present a Roman centurion in a positive light would have challenged their prejudices. Cornelius had sworn allegiance to the divine emperor. His actions may have been oppressive to the people where he was stationed. Is he supposed to be part of our church?? Really???
And yet, God sends an angel to him and tells him where he can find Peter. God is working this situation out to bring this centurion to faith in Jesus.
What happens next? After Cornelius’ servants find Peter, Peter makes the trip and comes to his home. And, amazingly for this time, goes inside. As a scholar puts it, “Devout Jews would not enter into idolaters’ homes lest they unwittingly participate in idolatry; they apparently extended this custom to not entering any Gentile’s home."
Let’s continue reading in Acts:
Acts 10:34 So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), 37 you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43 To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Acts 10:44 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47 “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.
What we see in this story is that Cornelius is seeking God as best he knows how. God responds by sending him an angel with a message. Cornelius obeys that message and ends up with Peter in his home, who declares the good news that Jesus did good, died, rose on the third day, and appeared to many people. And by believing in him, we can experience forgiveness of our sins. As Peter preaches this message, the Holy Spirit comes, and the Gentiles begin to speak in tongues and worship God! Then they baptize these new believers to publicly witness to their new faith in Christ.
::Q&A - Discuss::
What do you think?
Does it make sense to find beauty and truth in other religions?
Does an atheist have a harder time finding the good in mythology than a Christian does in finding the good in what the Bible calls idolatry?
There’s a third kind of exclusivity. Why aren’t there other paths to salvation?
Another kind of exclusivity - why aren’t there other paths to salvation?
For instance, in Acts 4:12, the apostles of Jesus confess before the rulers in Jerusalem, speaking of Jesus, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
As we’ve discussed, one of the main metaphors in Scripture is that God is like a husband pursuing his bride. Yet we run after other lovers, committing adultery. God keeps trying to woo us back to himself. But we insist that our other lovers are greater and better than God.
To quote Lewis again, "There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”
But what about Cornelius? Why can’t there be other paths to salvation? Why does an angel have to come and he needs to hear the message about Jesus? Why aren’t his pagan religious ceremonies sufficient?
This question requires that we investigate at least two more questions:
What does it mean to be saved?
What is required to be saved?
So let’s discuss together.
First - what does it mean to be saved?What do we think it looks like for God to “do right” by us?
To be saved is to be in a relationship with Jesus. We acknowledge TO GOD that we have sinned and GOD acknowledges TO US that we are forgiven. Sow how can God save us if we are not in relationship with him?
Second, what should be required to be saved?
What you CAN’T do
What you OUGHT to do
Any other requirements? 80% success rate? 100% success rate? Completely transparent about your life without shame - no moral failures you want to hide from anyone else.
e.g., Love others // not selfish
Ok. Let’s look at our list.
Who has avoided everything on the “can’t do” list?
Who has consistently accomplished everything on the “can do” list?
Who has kept all of the ‘other’ requirements?
If we lack faith in Jesus, because we don’t know him or don’t accept him, then who could achieve the moral perfection required to be in heaven, a perfect place?
Michael Ramsden’s bookshelf analogy.
RZIM’s International Director, Michael Ramsden, explains this approach to salvation. We think that everyone is on a bookshelf. Some are morally superior - they are at the top. Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr. Some are morally bad - they are at the bottom - Hitler, Stalin. In general, we think that the cut-off for being saved is perhaps one shelf beneath wherever we think we are on the bookshelf.
But God’s approach to salvation is entirely different. He divides the bookshelf right down the middle. The people on one side of the bookshelf are those who humble themselves and confess that Jesus is God. The people on the other side of the bookshelf are those who are proud and are unwilling to acknowledge their need for a Savior. God will accept all kinds of people - the morally great and the morally terrible. But all of them must humble themselves and say, you know, I am in need of God. Apart from that humility, there can be no relationship with God.
To summarize, this question is “Why can’t there be other paths to salvation?” and we’ve seen there are at least two answers:
To be saved is to be in relationship with the true God. Once we understand our terms, there is no way to define “being saved” without saying “being in relationship with Jesus."
Because all other paths to salvation, apart from faith in Jesus, depend on our own good deeds and hard work. But no one can keep these standards. The only way to be saved is to receive it, humbly, as a gift.
Fourth - another kind of exclusivity. What about those who have never heard of God?
So, there’s yet another kind of exclusivity that Christianity can be charged with. What about those who have never heard of God?
For this, we might say, it is lucky that we happened to grow up in a place where there are churches, where we can learn about Jesus. But what about everyone who never hears? That seems terribly unfair.
My first response is to say: if this is your concern, why not join us in the mission? We will help get you, as a missionary, to unreached people groups. Our church supports and sends out missionaries to people who have never heard the gospel before. We are praying that there will be more missionaries like this. Perhaps God is putting this call on your life, perhaps he is tugging at your heart. Perhaps this doubt is also a call to faith and obedience? I would be so delighted and encouraged if members of Ask Your Question went to the mission field so that this objection would have no remaining evidential appeal - so that everyone was reached with the gospel!
In other words, to some degree, this is a practical objection. I have a practical answer: go! Or, at least, start praying for unreached people groups and financially sponsor those who do go to unreached people groups.
A second response comes from a careful look at some passages in the book of Romans. Romans is a book written sometime between 55-57AD by the Apostle Paul. Paul was probably in the city of Corinth at the time, and the letter is written to the church in Rome, which is how it got its name. Part of the reason he wrote the letter to the Romans is to request their support for him to journey to Spain, where he hoped to preach the gospel to those who had never heard it! So this book contains important theology about the subject from a person who was passionate about preaching the gospel and establishing churches among unreached people groups. Paul was not a dispassionate academic but an active, self-sacrificial missionary.
In Romans 2, Paul offers an argument that "all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.” In other words, Paul argues that while people are BASICALLY GOOD — in virtue of being made in the image of their Creator — in a MORAL sense, they are BASICALLY BAD. Everyone is GOOD in an ontological sense - in their being - because everyone bears the image of God. But in moral terms - the tragedy is that we have misused our good gifts for bad purposes.
Here’s how Paul argues, starting in verse 13:
13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
Rom. 2:17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God 18 and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; 19 and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— 21 you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. 24 For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
In other words, both Jews and Gentiles have an awareness of what they ought to do. And, sometimes, both Jews and Gentiles do what is right. They follow their conscience; they keep the law. But also, both Jews and Gentiles do what they know to be wrong. By their own standards, on the day of judgment, God will be righteous and pure in his justice. It is on the basis of what we knew to be right, yet did not do, or wrong, yet we did do, that God can rightly judge us as having fallen short.
So the central problem in Christianity is not, why are some people not saved? The central problem is: how can anyone be saved? If you have a clear view of how humans are morally bad, then you wonder how a holy God could ever accept them.
That is why the gospel is such a unique message. Every other worldview and religion says: the good and the hard-working win. But Christianity alone says: you can’t be good and hardworking enough to please God. Only the humble, who place their faith in Jesus, can be saved.
As long as we hold onto the idea that there are people who deserve something from God, we have not yet completely grasped the uniqueness of the Christian message. We are underestimating how generous - how extravagantly loving and kind - God is. We are overestimating how good and lovely human beings are. Until we come to appreciate how God is holy, perfect, humble, loving, and good - in loving us, his steadfast enemies - and see that we are deeply, profoundly depraved and wicked creatures in need of mercy - we are not yet grasping the Biblical storyline. It is only when you “see” this truth that you can marvel at how wonderful the cross of Jesus is.
The cross is not God doing what he had to do because he owed it to us. The cross is God doing what no one had to do because he is supremely loving.
As Paul explains the beauty of the gospel in Romans chapter 5,
Rom. 5:6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.