The Exclusive Nature of an Inclusive Faith

One of the oddest events of early American history (while we were still English colonies) was that of Solomon Stoddard. For those who don’t know, Stoddard was a pastor in New England of a Puritan church, the problem is the church was facing decline. The reason is the younger generation just didn’t find Christianity all that interesting (even back then it happened). In order to be relevant and look successful, Stoddard relaxed the rules for church membership, saying that as long as someone said they believed in the most basic tenets of the Christian faith and lived a moral life, they could be considered a member of the church.

Such a relaxation of standards meant that a person did not have to volunteer to help with the church, attend church, etc. One person stood up, Stoddard’s grandson, and said that the church had to require more from church members. The church, not liking Stoddard’s grandson’s views, decided to fire his grandson from the church. That man, Jonathan Edwards, went on to become one of America’s greatest evangelists.

Go back over one thousand years ago from this incident and we see Christians persecuted in ancient Rome. The reason for their persecution isn’t because they’re out engaging multiple faiths and having inter-faith dialogues. In fact, they’re not even being killed for helping the poor (they are ridiculed for such actions, but it is not something the Roman government persecutes them over). Instead, they face persecution because they will not acknowledge Caesar as a god. The Roman Empire – which was a religiously pluralistic empire – didn’t care at all that the Christians viewed Jesus as God. In fact, they didn’t even care that the Christians only believed in one God (the Jews were allowed such a belief). The problem is that the Christians were going into the communities and teaching people that believing in multiple gods was wrong and that there was only one way to Heaven (something the Jews did not do).

There’s one fact in history that modern humans seemingly ignore and it’s that an exclusive faith simply does not exist. Every faith has a limit on how far it will go. A Christian who is inclusive might think he’s inclusive compared to traditional Christianity, be he’s exclusive to a Universalist. The fact is, every religion or religious view will exclude someone, which by their nature makes them an exclusive religion.

Look at the Emergent Conversation, which prides itself on being inclusive. Yet, when people like Michael Wittmer decide to write honest reviews about both the content and tone of Emergent books, they’re lambasted for disagreeing. Even my friends and I have faced criticism from Emergent authors for questioning their beliefs. In looking at the previous link, I can tell you that Josh is one of the more peaceable people I know. Though he and I are friends, we really are polar opposites in temperament. I tend to be boisterous, to speak my mind, and to have little patience for those who disagree in an unreasonable fashion. Josh, however, is very kind and tender-hearted towards everyone (the man works at a homeless shelter). Yet, even though this is the case and even though he was very respectful in both his questioning and objection to Scandrette’s beliefs, he was ridiculed and eventually left ‘excluded’ from the conversation).

The fact is that as long as you hold a position, people will object to that position, which automatically makes those people exclusions to your belief. Would I be welcomed at an Emergent church where people meet to ask questions about the faith? Most likely not, because I wouldn’t be questioning the establishment, I’d be questioning the break-off. I’d be excluded for very good reasons to; by being in opposition (even if just questioning) to the main ideology at the church (and so long as people are involved, there’s always an ideology present) I would become a hinderance and prevent the rest of the group from growing.

Exclusion happens because in some cases exclusion is a good thing. It keeps like-minded people together so that they can grow and advance. It sets boundaries. In terms of relationships, exclusions are necessary, otherwise you head into the area of adultery.

Therein lies the problem for many “inclusive” Christians. They view Christianity as doctrines and ideas and forget that it’s a relationship with a real person. Many might like to claim, “I have no belief, I simply live in a relationship with God,” but if that relationship doesn’t come with beliefs, then it’s not a relationship. If I say I’m in a relationship with my girlfriend, who I describe as blond, blue eyes, tall, and fair-skinned, I can believe all day that this is my girlfriend. But if my girlfriend is short, has brown hair, brown eyes, and has olive skin, then how can I possibly say I’m in a relationship with that girl? Or if one man says that John is a good guy who he’s close to and says that John played soccer for Notre dame, but the reality is that John is a jerk and he played football for Texas and hates both soccer and Notre Dame, we’d have to question how well the man really knows John.

Likewise, the purpose of exclusion in religion is not to have people uphold some sort of abstract beliefs or become members in a social club. Rather, it is a group of people who God has revealed Himself to and unless we hold to those beliefs about God, we cannot properly say we know God. If we say that God is weak, doesn’t know the future, can’t control nature, and can be immoral, then we’re not describing God as a person. We’re not describing Him as He is, so how can we properly say we know Him and furthermore, how can we be with those who do know Him? Thus, exclusion is necessary.

At the same time, exclusion can sometimes (and often times does) go too far. When churches split over their views on predestination, or on music, or other non-issues, the exclusivity has become far too narrow. No where in the Bible do we see such doctrines as essential to belief in Christ.

That which is essential is to know Christ is where our boundary line should be drawn for exclusivity. That which is auxiliary to the faith (or comes with maturity) we should be more inclusive.

The problem is anytime we create a man-made line for exclusivity. For those who try to be inclusive, they increase the parameters of the line, but this ends up creating contradictory views of who Jesus was (on a base level), so how can we say we all worship the same God? On the other end we have those who add to the exclusivity of Christ, saying, “Unless you believe X, Y, and Z you’re not a Christian and can’t worship here!” The problem is, X might be something that comes with maturity, Y might be something that’s open for debate and has been for hundreds of years, and Z might be a complete non-issue.

Instead, the line for exclusivity should be found with Christ and who He is. If we can agree on who Christ is and what His purpose was, then we have a common ground. While this may not mean we can all attend church together (for there are different views on church government), it does mean we can work together toward a common end. By setting a Biblical standard for exclusivity, we then allow ourselves to become more inclusive.