One of the ways error can creep into the church is when people attempt to simplify the Christian faith by picking up one truth—a real truth that makes up part of the Christian faith—and then holding tightly to it while letting go of other important truths. Over time, that one truth, separated now from the rest of orthodoxy, gets called into action and becomes a weapon against Christianity’s other truths.
One truth, divorced from all the others, becomes the unassailable foundation for a new creed, and then a new religion gets constructed upon it.
Gospel of Inclusion?
For example, someone could take the inclusive truth of Christianity—the bold claim that Jesus is for everyone, that no sinner is beyond the reach of God’s grace, and that we are to go out into all the world and proclaim the gospel to everybody, regardless of race, nationality, creed, or ethnicity—and in a culture that sees inclusion as always good and exclusion as always bad, and in a culture that demands we simplify the faith to its practical essence, this one truth becomes the foundational truth that can be separated from all the others.
This truth that describes Jesus’s shocking inclusivity—an inclusiveness that angered the Pharisees who opposed Jesus for dining with all the wrong kinds of people—gets separated from other important Christian truths, such as the fierce exclusivity of orthodox Christianity. What exclusivity, you ask?
- The apostles claimed that there is only one name under heaven and on earth by which people can be saved.
- Jesus himself said he is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to Father except through him.
The shocking nature of Jesus’s inclusive call is matched by a radical exclusivity in his teaching.
- Unless you build your house on the rock of his teaching, you are a foolish builder doomed for destruction.
- Unless you bear good fruit, you will be like a tree cut down and thrown into the fire.
- Unless you find the narrow path, you will walk the broad road to destruction.
We don’t find Jesus offering multiple paths of inclusive ways to live. There’s the road to life and the road to judgment.
Inclusion and Exclusion in Ancient Rome
The early Christians faced the wrath of Rome because they held together both the inclusive call and the exclusive claim of Jesus. Caesar could (for the most part, with some notable exceptions) tolerate the Jews and their exclusive claim about the one true God, because he thought of them as merely a tribal, ethnic religion that didn’t pose a threat to the empire. As Larry Hurtado writes in Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World:
“In the eyes of ancient pagans, the Jews’ refusal to worship any deity but their own, though often deemed bizarre and objectionable, was basically regarded as one, rather distinctive, example of national peculiarities . . .”
Caesar also would have been fine with Christians who were totally inclusive, had they said that Jesus is just another deity to be added to the pantheon alongside all the others (and, besides, all these religious practices, if sincere, are leading to the same place). The Gnostic Christians weren’t much of a threat to Roman power. As long as they had continued to reverence the gods, the early Christians would have been accepted.
What put Christianity in the crosshairs of Caesar and the Roman authorities was this explosive combination of inclusivity and exclusivity—this little group of people who insisted on the exclusive claim that Jesus is the only way, not the idols of Rome, and also issued an inclusive call to everyone, regardless of ethnicity, to repent and believe and become part of a new worldwide family. That was the jolt of electricity that shocked the Roman Empire, the earthquake that eventually brought down the ancient Roman religions.
It wasn’t exclusivity on its own, or inclusivity on its own, but the creative combination of both that is the thrill of orthodoxy.
Don’t Narrow the Truth to Inclusion Alone
Error leads to an unfortunate simplifying of the faith and a diminishing of Christianity’s explosive power.
Today, the temptation for some is to say that inclusion is at the heart of Christianity, and yes, they are right to see this truth in the New Testament. But when they wield that one truth against all the others, when they champion the call to inclusivity and fail to declare the corresponding counter-cultural claim of exclusivity, they are laying down the foundation of what will eventually become the unassailable plank of another religion altogether.
The gospel of inclusion alone is far too narrow, and heresy is always more narrow than orthodoxy. Orthodoxy calls us to hold paradoxical truths (like the inclusive call and the exclusive claim, or the divinity and humanity of Jesus) in our minds at the same time. Jesus is doubly offensive—to religious people for his inclusivity and to the world for his exclusivity. Orthodoxy celebrates him for both, and this is the combination that makes him so compelling. Let’s not settle for a narrower gospel than the one we have received.