Among theological liberals desperate to “fix” Christianity lest it die in obscurity and obsolescence (say, how is membership in liberal “churches” doing again?) one of the key goals is to make Christianity more inclusive. Why are American congregations so white? Why are they so suburban and conventional? Why are they so strict about which beliefs are true? Why don’t they match America’s glorious rainbow of diversity? If the love of Christ is for all, then surely all should be included in the tent. If they are not, then the tent must be made bigger to accommodate them.
Orthodox Christians often get taken in by this sentiment. After all, unlike theologically liberal heretics, we still believe in Hell. We still believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation. We believe that people outside our tent are dying eternally. Accordingly, though we of course deplore many of the liberals’ methods, we appreciate their desire & motivation, and so we take up their mission of inclusivity, but try to find different means of accomplishing it. This is truly unfortunate; for the problem is not primarily in the inclusivists‘ means but in their mission itself. Making any institution broadly inclusive will always destroy that institution—this is no less true for our congregations and denominations than it is for anything else. Inclusion always destroys.
But wait! Did Christ not tell us that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son? Did Paul not tell us that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus? Does this not make inclusivity the Church’s mission? Yes, Yes, and No. This is a subtle distinction, but it is an important one. What the Bible teaches us in such verses is not an instruction that the Church must be inclusive—it is a proclamation that the Church’s message already is inclusive. This cannot be our mission, for Christ has already accomplished it among us.
The Church has been given two proclamations—the Law and the Gospel. These two messages are inherently universal. The bad news is that there is a moral law that applies to everyone, and yet no one has kept it consistently; everyone is liable to judgment. The good news is that Christ has taken on that liability in our place; everyone’s sins are atoned for in Christ. Because these two proclamations apply to the whole world, the Church delivers them to the whole world no matter their race, creed, sex, or preferred sins. Our message is already universal, and cannot be made more so. We proclaim to everyone; our target is the entire human race.
The same cannot be said for inclusion. The target of efforts to include is never the masses who are dying—it is always the Church herself. When the inclusivists see people outside the Church, they feel sorry for them. Their zeal, however, is not up to the hard work of evangelizing them. Besides, there’s no way everyone would be evangelized. There would always be those who reject the message, always those with many and various reasons to stay outside, always some who never even had a chance to hear. And so, instead of taking up the mission of proclamation that Christ has actually given to the church, the inclusivists take up a newer and better one: change the Church until no one stands outside of her for any reason.
Now, every legitimate complaint about the Church excluding some group or another is ultimately a failure in proclamation—we either do not proclaim the message we have been given or we do not proclaim it enough. But to try and correct the Church beyond this is to attempt a change she cannot survive, for it is inevitably a change to her very nature. Even our own message refers to itself as a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the gentiles. Whatever periodic reasons anyone has for avoiding the Church (too judgmental, too boring, too unwelcoming, etc), none can compare to the ones inherent in our message: the scandal of exclusivity, the humiliation that we cannot improve ourselves enough to become acceptable before God and must rely solely on Christ, the disgrace that God actually lowered Himself enough to become a man. To change the Church enough to eliminate these scandals is to change it into something other than the Church. As G.K. Chesterton put it in Orthodoxy, “Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end.”
I came across a great (which is to say terrible) example of this dynamic in practice the other day over at Steadfast Lutherans. The piece concerns Mark Sandlin, a pastor in the PCUSA. This summer, he kicked off a series on his blog called “The Collar is Too Tight: Heresies from a Southern Minister.” His occasion for writing is that, “Most institutionalized Churches define who is and who isn’t a Christian far too narrowly. There is an increasingly long list of tenets to which a person must dogmatically adhere in order to be in the club.” He then sets out to shorten that list by announcing a series of “I am a Christian, but I don’t believe in ________, therefore no other Christian needs to either.”
He begins with a doozy: denying that Jesus is God. Why doesn’t he believe this? As is customary for theological liberals, Sandlin claims that Jesus never said that he was God in the Gospels except for the places where he does say that he’s God, but those don’t count because everyone knows those parts are just made up. The Gospel of John is right out because it conspicuously mentions Jesus’ Godhood way too often in comparison to the synoptic Gospels, so it looks like a later addition to Sandlin. Likewise, he ignores all those places in the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus forgives sins, accepts worship, scolds those who object to people worshiping him, and generally goes around doing things only Yahweh is allowed to do because they’re just not obvious enough.
The bit about worship is particularly damning for Sandlin, as in the next part of his series he emphasizes Jesus’ extreme belief in monotheism (because he’s a Jew, you know) as a way of dismissing the doctrine of the Trinity (a red herring, since the Trinity is a monotheistic doctrine.) So after Matthew describes Jesus as rebuking Satan on the basis of his monotheism (It is written you shall worship the Lord your God and serve Him only) and then goes on to describe Jesus as accepting worship several times, you would think the implication would be clear to someone like Sandlin who so clearly recognizes Christ’s monotheism. Nope: “You have to ask yourself: Something that important, don’t you think he might have mentioned it?” Perhaps, but I guess “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” totally doesn’t count. Neither does it count when, after affirming to Caiaphas that he is the Son of God, Jesus tells him “But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” If Jesus’ words fail to speak adequately for themselves, the High Priests reaction should clear up any ambiguity. Sandlin’s is a deeply dishonest way of reading Scripture, but then it’s theological liberalism, so I had no need to say it twice.
But as is generally the case with inclusivists, Sandlin is quick to point out that whether or not we deny God is not really the point. He writes, “I’m not trying to say I am right and others are wrong. I am saying Christianity should big enough for a variety of thought. I am saying God can handle our questions.” Here too, of course, he speaks out of both sides of his mouth. His entire case for Christ not being God is that such a fact would have been so very important that the synoptic Gospels would have made it even more explicit than it already is, and yet he simultaneously treats it as so very unimportant that it does not even matter whether a Christian believes it or not. Likewise, the conflict is not really about God being able to handle our questions, but whether theological liberals are able to handle God’s answers. And though he claims to be a Christ follower and that “as a Christ follower, frequently referred to as Christian, I have this need to actually follow Christ,” he clearly does not need to follow Christ when Jesus repeatedly warns against false teachers instead of embracing them. He does not need to follow Christ when he calls the way to life narrow and the way to destruction broad.
Shamefully dishonest or not, however, this thought brings us to the crux of the matter. Saying that the core beliefs of the Christian faith are irrelevant to it puts one outside of that faith just as surely as denying them. Saying that Jesus is not God and saying that it doesn’t even matter whether Jesus is God are both inherently contradictory to a religion that worships Jesus as God. It would be absurd of me to claim that I’m a Muslim because the fact that I believe in the Trinity instead of Allah and deny that Muhammad was a prophet isn’t really that important to Muslims. Why? Because I have no business speaking for a religion that is so very different than my own. It is no less absurd for Sandlin to claim to be a Christian, for he has no business speaking for my religion which is so very different than his own. There are therefore only two options: As long as my religion is Christianity, then theological liberals like Sandlin cannot speak for it. If, on the other hand, they deny that my religion is Christianity, then they are clearly on board with excluding people based on “an increasingly long list of tenets to which a person must dogmatically adhere,” and all that is left, then, is to show who has the right list. Either way, the argument commits suicide.
Unfortunately, it is all too common for orthodox Christians to think of inclusivists like Sandlin as merely confused and fuzzy-minded rather than as heretics. We think that their zeal to welcome people into Christ’s Church and save their souls merely clouds their judgment. The rub is that we cannot meaningfully describe people like Sandlin as wanting to welcome people into Christ’s Church, when he himself stands outside of Christ’s Church and only welcomes people to stand alongside himself. That he extends such a welcome to those inside is an assault on the Church, not a misguided effort on her behalf. Orthodox Christians are way too wishy-washy about acknowledging theological liberalism as a heresy that amputates individuals, congregations, and denominations from the Body. History and inertia have provided the liberal denominations with orthodox Christian individuals and congregations in their midst. However, these increasingly rare aberrations do not mean we have to consider such denominations to be Christian any more than we have to consider the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Muslims to be Christian.