I had a friend in high school anatomy class with whom I would get into these deep conversations about faith, religion, and human nature. It was senior year and at my high school, anatomy was one of those throwaway classes. So, we had this time every day at the back of the class where we would talk about these things. And even though I was a Christian and she was not, we were able to talk in a civil way about what we believed and why we believe it.
One day though she asked me something that shook me.
She said something like, “Christianity is just so exclusive and divisive. You all say that you have the truth and everyone else doesn’t…can’t you see that’s so divisive?”
I paused for a moment. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. She had a point. And because she knew me well enough, she knew this was her opportunity to pile it on, so she kept going. She said, “6 billion people in the world. 2 billion are Christians. Probably a lot less than that actually believe what you say you believe about Jesus. Do you really think that your right and all those people are wrong?
And then she said something that I’ll never forget it: “I take it back, religion iss not just exclusive and divisive. It’s straight up arrogant.”
This may surprise you because I’m a Baptist, Christian pastor, but I actually agree with the first part of what she said – religion does indeed have a tendency to divide people and bring out the worst in them.
And before you start typing up an angry email, keep reading. Here’s why. All major religions typically present two things:
- All major religions tell its followers that they have “the truth.”
- All major religions give a standard for what is acceptable and good behavior.
Naturally, these two things can lead to feelings of superiority over those with different beliefs, and separation occurs. Separation can lead to unfamiliarity, which can lead to suspicion and contempt. Contempt can then lead to violence, oppression, or abuse.
Yes, religion does have a strong tendency to divide
So, as Christians, how do we respond to the accusation that Christianity is exclusive? Consider two common approaches and then how the Gospel turns the problem of exclusivity on its head.
Elevate All Religions as Equal and Matters of Personal Preference?
This approach says that there are many equally valid paths to God and ways to live in the world – it is a matter of personal preference because each religion sees part of spiritual truth, but no religion can see the whole truth.
- Consider the story of the blind men and the elephant.
- Three blind men were walking along, came upon an elephant, and began to describe what the elephant is like. The first blind man grabs ahold of the trunk and says, “Hmm, elephants are long and flexible animals.” The second blind man touches the leg and says, “No that’s not right, elephants are thick and stiff creatures.” The third blind man feels the side and says, “You are both wrong, the elephant is actually huge and flat.”
- And so, they begin to argue about the elephant. However, as they are arguing, we realize that all three blind men are right and wrong at the same time. They all have part of the reality of the elephant, but none of them see the whole picture. The moral of the story is that religions are the same.
- Seems legit. However, here’s how the story logically falls apart.
- The story is told from the point of view of someone who is not blind. The only way that someone could know that none of the blind men saw the entire elephant was that if the storyteller was the one who could see the whole elephant. The only way someone could claim that every religion only sees part of the truth is if they arrogantly assume that they see the whole truth!
- Ironically, this is the very thing the illustration says no one has.
- Keep Religions Private and Matters of Personal Piety?
This approach says that if religions should be kept private so that society can function in peace and harmony. It sounds plausible, but there are significant problems with this approach, too.
Consider what religion really is. Religion is simply a set of answers to the big questions in life like, “Why are we here? What is right and wrong for human beings? What’s wrong with the world and what will fix it?”
No one can operate in the world without some answers to those questions, and those answers are religious in nature. In his book, The Reason for God, Tim Keller gives an interesting illustration for this in the case of divorce laws.
- The idea is that for a secular society like ours, divorce laws can’t be religious, right? We should keep religion private and come together to decide on divorce laws that will really work, right? However, that depends on what a person thinks is the purpose of marriage, which is rooted in deeply held beliefs about human nature and happiness.
- For example, someone in an individualistic, Western society will most likely believe that the need of the individual is more important than the need of the family. Therefore, the purpose of marriage is typically happiness and emotional fulfillment. To hold these views is to make divorce laws lenient and easy.
- But what if you asked someone in a traditional society? Traditional societies believe the family is more important than the individual. Therefore, the purpose of marriage is to create a safe and secure space for the nurturing of children, the extended family, and society as a whole. To hold these views is to make divorce laws difficult and hard.
- Do you see it? If conclusions about things as “secular” as divorce laws are subject to deeply held beliefs about human happiness and fulfillment, it is impossible to keep your deeply held, dare we say religious beliefs, in private.
Christianity: The Most Inclusive Exclusive
Everyone has a set of exclusive beliefs. The issue is simply which set of exclusive beliefs can produce the most humble, inclusive, servant-oriented people in the world?
I would argue that the answer is Christianity because of two unique aspects.
- The Essence of the Gospel.
All other religions say you must perform certain duties for God to bless and save you. That’s not what the Gospel says at all. Consider 1 John 4:10: In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
Christians love each other not so God would love us. Christians love each other because Jesus loved us so well in the Gospel. Understanding that begins to reorient how you view others, especially people who don’t agree with you.
That’s how the Gospel not only saves you, but transforms you. Thomas Chalmers, a Scottish preacher in the 1500s called this the expulsive power of new affections. Isn’t that a great phrase? The expulsive power of new affections. What that means is that in Christianity, you don’t change yourself because the Gospel changes you. The Gospel tells you that you are not saved because you are wise, good, or do what is required. You are saved because Jesus was wise, good, and performed what was required in your place.
We didn’t love God, He loved us. And when you understand that, far from dividing, it makes you an incredibly humble person.
- The Origin of Jesus
Every other religion says that its founder is a human being. However, Christianity says that Jesus is God Himself. Now, could this lead to self-righteousness and arrogance? As in, “Oh, your founder is a human. Mine is God. Yours is a prophet? Mine is God.”
However, if you understand the Gospel, it won’t. In fact, as Christianity began to grow in its first few centuries, it seemed so exclusive. The fact of history however, is that Christianity created the most humble, inclusive, servant-oriented community the world has ever seen.
The Gospel didn’t produce division - far from it - it destroyed division The Greeks and Romans didn’t mix rich and poor, but Christians did. The Jews didn’t mix the races, but Christians did. When two great plagues struck the Roman Empire, while doctors fled to the country and priests left the temples, Rodney Stark in his book The Rise of Christianity tells us that, “Christians claimed to have answers and, most of all, they took appropriate actions by taking care of the sick and dying when no one else would.”
Why would such an exclusive belief that Jesus is God lead to the most inclusive, humble, servant-oriented behavior the world had ever seen? Because if Jesus is in fact God, then He is ultimate reality. What is ultimate reality for Christians? A man on a cross dying for people who don’t love Him. Serving those who oppose Him. Forgiving people who are hurting Him. When Christians embrace that reality, how could they be cruel or mean to anyone?
Everyone has a set of exclusive beliefs. Christianity absolutely has a set of exclusive beliefs but again, the question is which set of exclusive beliefs leads to the most humble, inclusive, servant-oriented behavior? Believe all religions are equal or that religion should be kept private, and it won’t work. But embrace the Gospel and you will be humble and serve people who don’t