NASHVILLE—One of the biggest challenges that Christians face today is reconciling the seemingly exclusive claims of Jesus with the postmodern cultural value of inclusivity.
Whether you are at a Starbucks or a law firm, a university campus or a preschool, inclusivity is what everyone seems to be striving for. It’s written in value statements. It’s expressed in public memos (sometimes after an employee Twitter gaff). And perhaps most importantly, it’s simply assumed to be an inherent good by most people in society.
Some churches have joined the movement, pushing for a more inclusive Christianity that is open to all. One church website put it this way: “Everybody’s in, baby…If you have breath, then you belong.”
In one sense, I hope that every church can embrace this kind of relational openness and inclusivity to outsiders, especially towards people in the LGBTQ and Muslim communities who have unofficially been excluded from evangelical churches.
However, many churches that embrace this language of inclusivity are not only advocating for relational inclusivity but also doctrinal inclusivity. This is where we, as Christians, must jump off the inclusivity train.
When we look at the life of Jesus, we see a model of intentional relational inclusivity and of radical doctrinal exclusivity.
For example, in John 4, Jesus scandalized his disciples when he engaged a Samaritan woman in conversation. Samaritans were the ultimate outsiders (even enemies) in Jewish society. Just in case later readers might miss this, John writes parenthetically, “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9). Not only was this woman a Samaritan, but she was a serial adulteress who had had five husbands and, as a result, was an outcast even in her own village.
These realities did not deter Jesus from welcoming this woman into conversation and inviting her to become a “true worshipper” of God (John 4:23).
However, Jesus’ remarkable relational inclusivity (which surprised both the woman and the disciples) was accompanied by clear doctrinal exclusivity. First, Jesus intentionally raises the issue of the woman’s sexual promiscuity by asking her about her husband(s). Her sex life mattered to Jesus not because it inherently disqualified her from a relationship with God, but because it had become a counterfeit god in her life—making it impossible for her to know and worship the true God.
While many proponents of “inclusive” Christianity want to take sex and sexuality off the table in conversations about faith and repentance, Jesus does the exact opposite and puts it front and center—not because sexual sin is more problematic than other kinds of sin but because sexual idolatry blinds us from the true object of worship.
After this, the woman asked Jesus a loaded question about worship: Does it matter where I worship? Jews worshipped at the Temple in Jerusalem, but Samaritans worshipped on Mt. Gerizim (John 4:20). Again, here the doctrinally inclusive Christian might have responded, “It doesn’t matter where, how, or who you worship as long as you are sincerely worshipping somewhere, somehow, and something.” But that is not how Jesus answered.
The disciples might have expected that Jesus would reorient this woman’s worship toward Jerusalem and the temple, but that’s not what he did either. Instead, he reoriented her worship to himself. Jesus told her that the Messiah, the one that both the Jews and the Samaritans had been waiting for to show them the way to the Father, had come. And he told her, “I who speak to you am He” (John 4:26).
Jesus’ radical doctrinal exclusivity is echoed in a sermon of Peter’s in Acts 4 where he says, “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you… And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (John 4:11–12).
Not only was this message preached to Jews and Samaritans, but Paul preached a similar message to Greeks in Corinth, saying, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man [Jesus] whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).
The call to discipleship is a call for everyone—Jew or Samaritan, man or woman, black or white, American or Iranian, rich or poor, gay or straight, conservative or liberal, religious or secular—to abandon all other gods and to worship the one true God revealed in the person of Jesus.