Wednesday, July 15, 2015

How Can Christians Exclude People?

The way you read the title of this post is all about tone. Some will read it and hear a tone of exasperated wonder. Others will read it and hear a tone of desperate longing. Still others will read it and hear a tone of competent instruction.

Excluding People is the Point

For that last group, the title of this post evokes the idea of setting boundaries, determining who is in and who is out. While there are many, many Christian groups who want to find the best ways to define their membership -- and who's not in -- the impetus to exclude is far from being a Christian-only thing.

Exclusion Culture

To be sure there are positive benefits to exclusion. When we know who is out of the group, we also know who's in. 

In my church tradition I can go nearly anywhere in the world and bank on my inclusion to gain me acceptance. The relationships I've formed within the tradition allow me to play the game we affectionately call: "Do You Know?" We keep swapping names until we settle on someone that we both know and then we're suddenly much more comfortable. 

But the same could be said for a member of the Freemasons or a labor union or a national sorority or even for fans of the same sports team. In many ways our society is built around affiliations with groups (which must also exclude those not in the group). 

Anyone who has lived in Hawaii knows the word kama Ľaina. It literally means "child of the land" but it has come to refer to anyone who lives on the islands. Most restaurants and tourist attractions have special discounts for kama'aina. The ones who are inside the group get special treatment while those excluded are charged a higher rate. 

We exclude others to help define ourselves. If we know who is not one of us, then we can know who we are. It feels more comfortable to know who we are and who we aren't because then we get to offload a lot of mental tasks. We don't have to think about evaluating the trustworthiness of each person, we can trust the evaluation of the organization. If we're both in the same fraternity, the secret handshake vouches for us. The reverse is also true, it allows us to avoid wasting time on people that may not be worth the effort. If they aren't in the group already, then we can know that we don't want to have anything to do with them. 

We also do this in formalized ways. If a lawyer hasn't passed the state bar exam, we won't hire them. If a teacher doesn't have credentials, we won't let them teach. If a realtor doesn't have a license they can't sell a house. 

Christian Infighting

For a thousand years the Christian church presented a united front to the world. That's not to say that there weren't many variations within Christianity during that time, but all of those differences were considered to be under the auspices of the one Church. But about a thousand years ago was the Great Schism when, because of reasons, the Eastern Orthodox Church split off from the Roman Catholic Church. 

After that it only took another half millennium for the Protestants to break off from the Catholics in the West. Once that happened, divisions between Christian groups dominoed to the point where, by some estimates, there are over 33,000 denominations today. 

Nearly all of the denominations started when there was a major disagreement. The Great Schism was, in many ways, about who had authority over the Church. So too was the Protestant Reformation. But it gets all the way down to the point where some of the splits occurred over arguments about church buildings or paid staff or whether it was appropriate to use grape juice in communion.

For whatever reason, all of those debates became intractable. The participants refused to concede and so started a different denomination instead of working through the conflict. That dynamic, with its benefits and problems, is at the heart of American Christianity. We fight each other and when we can't agree, we often exclude those we consider to be wrong. 

Excluding People is Wrong

Those people who read the title of this post and question why Christians would ever want to exclude people tend to focus on the love and acceptance of Jesus. For those inside the church who feel this way, any type of rule or standard that allows some to be members while excluding others is dismissed. For those outside the church, the bible is often dismissed for its exclusive claims (like Jesus saying, "No one can come to the Father except through me" John 14:6).

Jesus for Everyone

Those traditions that place no limits on who can or cannot be considered a Christian place a high value on inclusion. They place great stock in verses such as 2 Peter 3:9, "[God] does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance." And dismiss verses like John 14:6. The most extreme form of this position is Universalism, which claims that in the end everyone will go to heaven.

No One Needs Jesus

On the other end of this spectrum are the people who reject Christianity altogether because of its exclusive claims. They reason that if God was really good he wouldn't create a system that unfairly punishes people who have never heard of him or Jesus. So since the bible claims both that God is good and that Jesus is the only way to God, then it cannot be true.

Inclusive Exclusivity

The final response to the title of this post, "How Can Christians Exclude People?" is one of both wonder and exasperation. The wonder is at how it's possible for groups to place rules around a free gift. The exasperation is at how misunderstandings can push so many people away from God. How can be something be both inclusive and exclusive at the same time? Let's just say that Jesus has never been afraid of a good paradox.

I'm going to sketch out some of my personal ideas on dealing with this conundrum. Take them as that, my personal ideas. Critique them as that. But also consider them, because they might be helpful.


 God really does want to include everyone. He wants every person who has ever lived or will live to be "saved." Well, then we need to define what it means to be saved. Most Christians consider themselves to be saved because they were baptized into the church and that gives them access to heaven when they die.

Instead of focusing on what happens after we die, I like to focus on why we're alive to begin with. In an earlier post I suggested that humanity exists as image-bearers of God to love and be loved by God and each other. When Jesus taught his followers to pray (Matt. 6:9-13), he tied the idea of God's kingdom to God's will being done (on earth as it is in heaven). We were made to love and be loved, the whole Law and the Prophets are summed up in the commands to love and be loved. So heaven, where God's will is done, is a place of loving and being love. God's kingdom, where God's will is done, is a place of loving and being loved.

[Warning: I'm about to say some things that might make you feel uncomfortable. If you disagree, tell me. Challenge me. Help me grow. If I'm wrong, I want to know it.]

It isn't necessary to have read the bible to be saved.

The bible itself says so. Abraham had never read a line from the bible. Neither had Noah or Enoch or Joseph. Even by the most traditional estimates, the Israelites were God's chosen people for over 400 years before a word of what we consider scripture was penned.

Paul also wrote to the Romans that God is evident in nature itself (Rom. 1:18-23 -- note that this is also one of the big-six passages about homosexuality in the bible). According to Paul, those who don't love God from the evidence in creation are just as culpable as those who don't love God based on the writings of scripture.

If it's not necessary to have read the bible, or to have heard of Jesus, to be saved. Then what is necessary? What keeps this from being a universalist position?


Love is both our purpose and our constant challenge. Believe it or not, it's difficult to love some people -- or most people. People are annoying and mean and rude. They can hurt each other, deride each other, abuse each other, and kill each other. They can do all sorts of awful things that are the furthest from loving. 

But people, all around the world, can also be beautifully loving and self-sacrificial. Muslims show love to Christians. Christians show love to the LGBT community. Buddhists and Hindus, atheists and agnostics, Catholics and Jehovah's Witnesses, all of them have the potential to love and be loved. Regardless of if they've read the bible or not. 

To put it in theological terms, God's kingdom is not subsumed within Christianity; Christianity is a part (though not the whole) of God's kingdom. God is not constrained to work only within Christianity. 

The exclusivity of the bible is not that one must be a part of Christianity, but that one must be a part of God's kingdom. Though it might seem redundant, if one is a part of God's kingdom now (i.e. those that do his will on earth), then one will also be a part of God's kingdom in the future (i.e. those that do his will in heaven). 

In my, personal opinion,* following Jesus isn't about belonging to a club with the right name on the door so I can know who's in and who's out. Nor is it about following a set of arbitrary rules of behavior that should induce feelings of shame when broken. Nor is it about doing enough good things to outweigh the bad things and so earn a divine reward. 

No, it's much more difficult than that. To follow Jesus I must truly love myself as one created in the divine image, and as worthy of love and belonging. I must truly love others as image-bearers who are also worthy of love and belonging. And I must love God with not only my thoughts, but my actions, and my emotions. That's the life that Jesus lived, that's the life he commanded others to live, and that is the way in which Jesus is the only path to the Father, because he showed humanity what it means to love God and love each other.** 

Hope for Everyone

I get why Christians (and nearly everyone else) want to be exclusive. It's easier. If I don't have to figure out how to love the person who's different from me, it's easier. If I don't have to wrestle with loving those I find reprehensible, it's easier. If I don't have to struggle with loving someone who think's I'm wrong, it's easier. If I don't have to fight to love someone that I think is wrong, it's easier. 

But love isn't meant to be easy. It's not meant to be without struggle or cost. We were meant to learn and grow together. We were meant to wrestle and fight to know and be known, to love and be loved. We were made to look like God. We were made to give and receive love. 

Christians, can we give up trying to decide who's right and who's wrong? Can we stop trying to do God's job of determining who is worthy of getting into heaven? Can we stop drawing lines in the sand that Jesus never drew? We have enough work to do learning to love and be loved. Why don't we let God handle the judging and we'll work on the loving. 

How has exclusivity hurt you in your life? 

How has exclusivity helped you in your life? 

How can we both include everyone and still hold Jesus' exclusive claims to be true? 

*Which doesn't reflect the opinion of my denomination, my congregation, my co-author, or anyone else.  
** I do think that the bible and Christianity paint the best and clearest picture of what it looks like to love and be loved by the creator. Since the root of nearly every other religion is the concept of right-deeds earning an afterlife reward, practitioners of those faiths would need to reject that basic premise and engage in loving God and loving each other. But, then again, most Christians need to reject that basic premise themselves, since it has infiltrated much of Christian thinking too. 

1 comment:

  1. Excellent. Disturbing. We are in an awkward position in terms of the interpretive frameworks for "Heaven and Hell" passages in scripture. They definitely reflect a true and real phenomenon in our lives, yet many of us who study the literary and historical contexts that make scripture intelligible find them to say more about life in a time of war, death, and persecution than about the afterlife. Jesus' talk of "kingdom" for instance (and probably the book of Revelation), was supposed to be what was about to happen, and much of his description of "last times" seems to be about the wars in the hundred or so years after his death (concerning some of which we know little beyond that they happened). Paul talks about the "ends of the age" as if we are living in a time when the front end of one "age" and the back end of the previous age overlap (one of which he calls the "heavenlies" or "the Heavenly Realms"), not the destruction of the world. That does not mean that there is no Heaven or Hell, only that we are not given a clear framework for understanding them. Without a fuller understanding of these things, I find it difficult to figure out how and under what circumstances the "image of God" can go to Hell, therefore, I think we need to leave those judgments to God. We should also do our best to live according to what we do know.