Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Inclusive and Exclusive Religion

If churches and other houses of worship are to be meaningful in the 21st century, the question of who is included and who is excluded will be crucial for each community of faith to decide. One can observe various groups struggling with this issue every day in the news. Are women to be fully included? How about gay folk or those of differing religious views? These are tough questions for many groups.

Cal Thomas, in an opinion piece published July 24, argues passionately that exclusion is at the heart of Christianity and that inclusion is an abandonment of the true faith. He states, "Inclusivity has nothing to do with the foundational truths set forth in Scripture. The church, which belongs to no denomination, but to its Founding Father and His Son, is about exclusivity for those who deny the faith. The church is inclusive only for those who are adopted by faith into God's family." Thomas uses this line of thinking to ridicule the participation of gay folk in the Episcopal church and Jimmy Carter's concerns about the role of women in the Southern Baptist church.

This kind of tribal perspective is common in conservative Christianity, which has a long tradition of dividing us all into the sheep and the goats, along with dire threats for those who come out on the wrong side of the line. Indeed, this kind of exclusivist thinking, and the justification of it using religion, is a kind of unconscious mental habit in American culture.

Precisely the same question, namely who will be included and who will be excluded, lies at the center of the current health care debate. If exclusion is considered God's will, as Mr. Thomas and many others apparently believe, then universal health care would represent a major shift away from that kind of thinking. Let us pray that we can make that shift.

If religion is to be meaningful in the 21st century, it will need to move away from exclusion and shift increasingly toward inclusion. Exclusive religion will keep us from uniting in the crucial ways needed to resolve our deepest social problems, which demand global, interfaith and intercultural cooperation. Inclusive, welcoming religion has the potential to inspire many of us to work energetically for the common good.

"Inclusivity" may not be in the Bible, but love of neighbor certainly is. And who is our neighbor? Precisely the one we have difficulty accepting, like the despised Samaritan in the parable, who turns out to be a healer. When we can love and include those who are not like us, then we are truly on the way. Which way do you think religion is moving? Send me your thoughts.


  1. We love your blog, Michael -- the writing, the thinking, the topics.

    RE: the last. We were fortunate to hear Queen Noor once, speaking about how the fundamentalists of all religions are a problem for all people. A recent article of hers on this problem:

    I do find it extremely difficult to abide those who are fundamentalist and exclusive in their thinking (including nonbelievers). A local minister here takes the exclusive, absolutist, fundamentalist cake! His site:
    He writes columns in our paper, one against homosexuals (he's always against something). We also have Cal Thomas. I once wrote our local newspaper asking them how they could pay for his columns they are so divisively judgemental.

    On the other hand, there are people across the spectrum of believers and nonbelievers who include and respect one another. How we bring that inclusivity and respect to the fore is the question, I guess

  2. Pat,
    If Queen Noor has insight into this problem that is another hopeful sign among others. As for what will help bring about more inclusivity, there is no one single answer, but one thing I choose to do is to challenge the misuse of religion to divide people. We can say simply and forthrightly, in a spirit of dialogue, that we disagree. That is one step. Of course we have to live out these inclusive values in our own lives as well.
    Thank you for reading and commenting.

  3. It seems like a "no brainer" and yet.......

  4. Maureen,
    It seems like a no brainer and yet some other part of the brain must somehow be attracted to these very tribal, us and them world views. It would be good for all of us, including Cal Thomas, if we could change course and become more inclusive.

  5. "For God so loved the world" that's pretty inclusive love, "For whosoever shall call upon the Name of The Lord" That's a pretty inclusive invitation; "Christ died for the sins of the world" That's a very inclusive payment; The problem is man excludes himself by rejecting God's free gift. (Prov 16:25) There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death. God is Holy and man is sinful, the ONLY solution for that problem is Faith in the Person and work of The Lord Jesus Christ. If man (any man) rejects that truth, he has excluded himself. Don't blame God for man's arrogance. The choice is yours: Pastor Whyte

  6. Pastor Whyte,
    I agree with you that the Christian message of love is inclusive and universal. I am a supporter of that love message. What attracts me to the inclusive or Universalist interpretation of this message is the affirmation that all will be included in this love, not just some. I think that this way of viewing religion leads to a more hopeful outlook, greater tolerance, and more loving and compassionate approaches to healing the pains of the world. When we think that some are chosen for suffering and some for happiness, then I think we are tempted to accept the suffering of our neighbor as inevitable and ordained by God rather than trying our best to heal the wounds.
    Of course there are scriptural issues to be discussed regarding these different interpretations, but there are good Biblical arguments for Universalism, as for example, Luke 3:6, "All mankind shall see God's deliverance," or I Corinthians 15:22, "As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be brought to life." I would be glad to continue this discussion with you. Thanks for commenting.

  7. Michael--
    Aha! I am happy to finally get to read some of your thoughts. I think this issue about inclusivity and exclusivity is the thing that is constantly tugging at my heart. Why is it so important to church folks, and as you have said, Americans in general, to know that some people are excluded or going to hell? What would be so bad about living in a world where all kinds of people are considered welcome? I for one think that world would be a place where I could learn so much from everyone, and do a lot of laughing, dancing, singing, and enjoying life! I have a distinct memory of visiting a friend at her workplace, a place for people with severe disabilities. It left me feeling so included! If people with all these disabilities were welcome, then surely I could be too! I cherish a concept of God as One who not only tolerates, but delights in people of all shapes and colors, all persuasions and all abilities! And the really amazing thing about God is that God even loves the people who are completely unlovable in the eyes of most of us humans. That is a faith that I do long to share with the world... Thanks for your blog!! Shalom, Joy

  8. Joy,
    Thanks for your thoughts and insights. Some of the most hopeful signs that I see are the incremental steps (sometimes baby steps) toward inclusion in many Christian communities. Catholics have loosened their age old claim of monopoly on salvation. Among Protestants, inclusion of GLBT folks is happening, often painfully, but with a growing momentum. I also find that many Christian friends have really abandoned the old hell theology and are simply grounded in love, which seems to me the great, enduring message of the Christian faith. Interfaith cooperation is gaining in credibility. Of course there are those who hang on to old ways. I think they fear the loss of meaning in their lives.
    The way you describe God is the only way that would make sense to me. I really can not reconcile a loving God with eternal hell. Thanks for your many contributions to our growth.