Perhaps the most intense and difficult part about growing up is learning how to fit in, when to try, and when it does not matter. I suppose, we probably never really outgrow those questions but perhaps, as we mature, it matters less than it did in school where, for some children, it becomes literally a matter of life and death. When I was in school we there were cliques, exclusive social groups. I belonged to an anti-clique. We made fun of the kids who we thought did not accept us. Of course, we did not have to worry about being harassed on social media.
The temptation to want to be popular is a challenge for the church too. In my first pastorate I received (surface) mail regularly from church-growth groups who offered tips and programs (typically for a fee) to help our church grow. There was some practical wisdom in some of the advice. I recall being struck by the observation that if your church feels crowded, new comers might not feel welcome. That may not be true for all cultures but on the plains that made some sense. Those folks do not like to be crowded. Other suggestions, however, struck me as being essentially man-pleasing and ear-tickling.
I am tempted to write about striking a balance between being exclusive and inclusive but that is trite. Our Lord Jesus, however, does illustrate how to relate the two truths. He said “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to Father except through me” (John 14:6). He also said, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture” (John 10:9; ESV). Jesus was an exclusivist regarding salvation. He was not a universalist.
That is a hard truth for the Modern world. The Modern creed is universalist: the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man. Orthodox Christians feel this tension constantly. We know that the most offensive thing we can say to a Modern, Enlightened person is that Jesus, God the Son, is the only Savior and that anyone who does not turn to him in true faith and repentance cannot be saved. We know the implications of this truth.
Christian exclusivity did not always trouble the church. The first two lines of the Athanasian Creed say, “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.” In the Belgic Confession (1561) the Reformed Churches confess that the doctrine of the Trinity distinguishes us from the heretics who deny the faith and from non-Christian Jews, and from the Muslims.
When it comes to essential Christian truth, the substance of the faith as summarized in the ecumenical creeds and Reformed confessions, it is Christ, ultimately, who is the stumbling block and the rock of offense (Rom 9:33; 1 Peter 2:8). What excludes is not race, ethnicity, nationality, or sex (male or female). What excludes is not taste or preference. What excludes is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” In this sense, either the church is exclusive or it is no church. It may be a fine social gathering but it is no church. This is why the Reformed Churches, in the Belgic Confession, confess that there are three marks of the true church: the pure preaching of the Gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments (the gospel made visible), and the use of church discipline.
When it comes to ethnic, racial, or national differences or when it comes to the differences between the two sexes, we are inclusive. Peoples from all tongues, tribes, and nations are seriously (Canons of Dort), sincerely, and earnestly called to come to Christ, to be gathered as the hen gathers her chicks (Matt 23:17). In Christ, as Paul says, there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, Scythian or Barbarian (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11).
In this way the church is the antithesis of the world, which is inclusive when it should be exclusive and exclusive when it should be inclusive. The world demands that we incorporate Jesus into their pagan pantheon, whether it be Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Gnostic, or even comic book heroes—which are a modern-day pagan pantheon. The last thing they will hear is that Jesus is the only way, that he alone died for sinners, that he alone accomplished righteousness, and that those who have not will not turn condemn themselves.
So, the “broadening church” (to borrow Loefferts Loetscher’s term), the mainline church, fuzzes the boundaries to make the church more inclusive than Jesus. It mocks the very idea that there are “fundamentals” of the faith. “Only rubes still insist on a blood atonement and a bodily resurrection of Christ!” In adopting this view they become oddly exclusive. They will not have those who still believe the Westminster Confession or who still believe the Athanasian Creed. They will not have Jesus as he is revealed to us in Scripture. They must have another, friendlier, more modern, more Enlightened Jesus. Of course, as Machen showed us in 1923, such folk have another spirit. Modernity is one thing, Christianity is another.
The broad evangelical church is not far behind the mainline. As the antithesis between the culture and Christianity becomes clearer, they, like the mainline churches, seek ways to blur the boundaries by pointing to shared (high) cultural pursuits (e.g., the fine arts). If they could only hear how much they sound like Harry Emerson Fosdick or Pearl S. Buck than like Athanasius or Luther.
Being excluded by the culture is painful. We should expect to grieve and to feel a sense of loss (we used to be an important part of the culture in Christendom, which extended culturally long after Christendom formally ended) but Jesus was quite clear. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37; ESV). As he said, we must be prepared to let the dead bury the dead (Matt 8:22).
The New Testament spends much time on the question of who is “in” and who is “out.” The Judaizers wanted to insist that Gentile converts become Jews in order to become Christians. At the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) the church rejected such teaching. The Apostle Paul went to war against it in Galatians, Colossians, and Romans. There is a marker separating the ins from the outs: Christ but he left us the gospels and the teaching of the Apostles and he affirmed the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures as well. Jesus’ religion was no truncated thing, a bare thing with a few vague affirmations but neither was it what Christians have too often sought to make it, namely, the heresy of the Judaizers, where class or man-made rules trumps Christ and his gospel.