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In Exclusivism,Pluralism,Scott McClare,Worldview

Is Christianity Too Exclusive?

By Scott McClare

“Christianity is too exclusive,” goes a common criticism. Christians claim that, out of all the world’s religions, only it has the truth about salvation: Jesus alone is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).[1] In return, we are sometimes told that God is too forgiving to punish decent people forever merely for the wrong religious opinions. In fact, that claim is downright immoral!

Nonetheless, I risk immorality and affirm: Yes, Christianity is exclusive. It alone holds the key to salvation: faith alone, by grace alone, in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ alone for the forgiveness of sins. I hold this to be true, and I don’t think the criticism holds water.

This claim that Christianity is too exclusive assumes religious pluralism: a worldview in which religious claims are subjective and all belief systems are equally valid. It doesn’t matter what path you sincerely follow, because all paths lead to God. The pluralistic worldview mistakes religious truth claims (“Only Jesus can save you”) for religious preference claims (“I like Jesus’ way best”). However, when Christians say that Christ is the only way to God, we are not saying He is the best option. We are saying that Christ alone can bring someone into a right relationship with God, and competing religious systems cannot.

All religions make exclusive truth claims, so it seems unfair to level this accusation at Christianity in particular. For example, Orthodox Judaism claims that the way to God is through circumcision and obedience to the Torah. Islam similarly offers salvation through good deeds, but by following the commands of the Quran rather than the Torah. Hinduism (often said to be an “inclusive” religion) says that salvation comes by freeing oneself from the cycle of death and reincarnation and becoming one with the Divine. Clearly these are not compatible truth claims. Judaism rejects the pantheism of Hinduism, Hinduism rejects the strict monotheism of Judaism and Islam, Islam rejects Christian belief in the Trinity as the unforgivable sin of shirk (ascribing equal partners to Allah), and so forth.

Exclusivism is part and parcel of any religious system; Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on it. That’s why religious pluralism strikes me as the sort of worldview that could only be thought up by the irreligious. Viewing the Christian faith as a private club with a locked door, the pluralists complain that God isn’t really like that anyway, and go off seeking a God of their own understanding who is more accepting.

On the other hand, the truth is that the Christian faith has a wide-open door that welcomes all comers who assent to its truth claims. That’s not exclusive, it’s inclusive. The New Testament speaks over and over about a God who “shows no partiality.” He doesn’t play favourites.

Christianity teaches that God does not play favourites with ethnic groups. The apostle Peter learned this lesson in a rooftop vision, in which he was invited to eat the meat of unclean animals. When he protested that he had never broken the Jewish dietary laws, he was told, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:15). Soon after, he was taken to the home of Cornelius, a Roman soldier, and when Peter had preached the good news of salvation through Jesus to his household, they became Christians. Peter announced, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35).

This was a hard lesson for Peter: later, he started to associate only with Jewish Christians again. Paul had to reprimand him because his actions treated the non-Jewish Christians as second-class. With Martin Luther King, Jr. Day just past in the U.S., it’s timely to remember that racism has no place in the church, any more than it does in a civilized society.

While many other major world religions seem tied to a specific tribe or culture, Christianity is a truly global faith. It’s true that a century ago, two-thirds of Christians were European, but today the distribution of Christianity is shifting away from the global north into the global south. Although the United States sends out the most missionaries, three countries in the top ten sending countries—Brazil, South Korea, and India—are part of the global south.[2] Only a quarter of Christians now live in Europe, while another quarter dwell in sub-Saharan Africa, an eighth in the Asia-Pacific region, and the rest in the Americas. The majority of people identify themselves as Christian in two-thirds of all the countries of the world.[3] Thanks to 20th-century mass-transit and communication technologies, the Christian faith has welcomed believers from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).

Am I Not a Man and a Brother? abolitionist medallion by Josiah WedgwoodGod does not play favourites with social class. Paul once befriended an escaped slave named Onesimus who had become a Christian. He sent him home, writing to his master, Philemon: “[T]his perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but . . . as a beloved brother” (Philemon 15-16). Some scholars have seen Philemon as instrumental in the abolition of slavery, viewing Paul to be implying that no Christian has the right to possess his brother as a slave.[4] Elsewhere, Paul also writes that slave owners were to treat their slaves kindly because ultimately they both had the same Master, and “there is no partiality with him” (Ephesians 6:9). In Christ, all people are brothers and sisters: free men and slaves have equal standing before God.

William Carey, the English missionary to Calcutta, officiated a wedding in 1803 between two Indian converts from different castes. The ceremony was attended by over 100 Hindus. Later, the English Christians shared a table at the wedding supper with the newlyweds and their friends. In contrast to the strict caste system of Indian society, it was a powerful public testimony to the unity of all Christians in Christ, regardless of their social standing and race.[5]

God does not play favourites with the wealthy. James instructs churches to “show no partiality” to wealthy people (James 2:1). By so honouring the rich, they dishonour the poor. Jesus sometimes had harsh words for rich people, but He did not condemn them without exception—indeed, the Gospel authors honour Joseph of Arimathea, a rich follower who gave his own tomb to Jesus’ disciples to bury Him in after His crucifixion. Rather, He saw riches as an obstacle to faith, teaching that if someone was wealthy in material things but not in faith, his wealth would not help him on Judgment Day (Luke 12:13-21).

God does not play favourites with people who are more religious than others. The first three chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans argue that all people, religious and irreligous alike, suffer from the universal human condition of sinfulness and separation from God. While the pagans might be idolators, the pious are hypocrites. “God shows no partiality” (Rom. 2:11), because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).

Yes, Christianity is exclusive, with respect to its truth claims. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a fact made necessary by the laws of logic. Christians declare that all of humanity has sinned, and although our sins have separated us from God, He desires reconciliation. Jesus Christ, through His atoning death on a Roman cross, paid the penalty His Father required. Forgiveness is promised to everyone who puts faith in His ability to save. Those who trust that exclusive promise will be adopted into an inclusive family, where “[t]here is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

[1] All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).

[2] Christianity in its Global Context, 1970-2020: Society, Religion, and Mission, Center for the Study of Global Christianity, Gordon-Conwell University, June 2013, accessed January 20, 2015, http://wwwgordonconwell.com/netcommunity/CSGCResources/ChristianityinitsGlobalContext.pdf, 76.

[3] G. Jeffrey MacDonald, “Study: Christianity Grows Exponentially in Africa,” USA Today, December 20, 2011, accessed January 20, 2015, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2011-12-20/christianity-growth-africa-europe/52125920/1.

[4] In fact, both sides of the abolition debate in the UK and US appealed to Philemon, the pro-slavery side arguing that Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon as a slave, not a free man. Happily, in the end the abolitionist side won out.

[5] George Smith, The Life of William Carey, D.D.: Shoemaker and Missionary (London: John Murray, 1885), 145-46.