Is Christianity Exclusive or Inclusive?

Image courtesy of Didgeman (Pixabay).

Many are offended by the Catholic claims that Jesus Christ alone is the Way to true life,[1] and that the Catholic Church is the one true Church, founded by Jesus Christ and necessary for salvation. To them, these claims can seem arrogant or bigoted, as if they imply that God and truth are simply absent outside of these boundaries, or that Christians are inherently superior to others. Or they can seem like an impossibility; for how can the God of all limit Himself in this way? How can the Creator and Lover of all that exists be tribal or sectarian?

Well, it is not impossible, but it is a paradox:[2] God is not sectarian, but He has a people; God is not “tribal,” but He has a family. If you think about the Christian claim of exclusivity in the light of the Sacred Scriptures, you’ll find a number of important things, all pointing to the same idea: exclusivity for the purpose of inclusivity.

  1. When God first began to draw together a people for Himself – a family to follow Him – He called Abraham, promised him innumerable descendants, and vowed that through him all the families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3). Later on, through the prophets (See Isaiah 49:6), God reminded His people of this very thing, by promising to incorporate the Gentiles (all other peoples) into the people. Exclusivity for the purpose of inclusivity.
  2. Later, in “the fullness of time,” Jesus’s earthly ministry began with “the lost sheep of Israel,” but extended also to Gentiles (See Matthew 15:21-28). Instructed by the Holy Spirit and the teachings of Christ, the early Christian Church also began with the Jews but then extended beyond Jews to include Gentiles, embarking upon a mission to expand God’s people to include the whole human race through preaching Jesus Christ as Lord (See Acts 10). Again: exclusivity for the purpose of inclusivity.
  3. The name of Jesus is the only name given for the salvation of men (Acts 4:12). Nevertheless, the New Testament repeatedly states and in other ways implies that the coming of Jesus Christ has cosmic and hidden implications. Jesus is recorded as saying, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). The message of the Gospel, before it had reached even a quarter of the globe, according to the Apostle Paul, had already been “preached to every creature under heaven” (Colossians 1:23). It is implied that those who “formerly did not obey,” not taking refuge in the ark (which prefigures baptism and the Church), were given ‘another chance’ by the spirit of Christ when he descended into the realm of the dead (See 1 Peter 3:19-20). Also, we see that those who have a certain expectant faith, though not knowing Christ, will be made perfect through the Church (See Hebrews 11:13-16, 39-40). In other words, it seems that through hidden means God invites all human beings into His one family; He is “the savior of all men, especially of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10). “God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all” (Romans 11:32). Indeed in Christ, God has revealed a mysterious “plan to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10), to “reconcile to himself all things … by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20). Once again: exclusivity for the purpose of inclusivity.

One might ask, why “exclusivity for the sake of inclusivity”? Why not just inclusivity? Because true unity is unity in the truth. You need the exclusivity that draws the right lines between good and evil, that knows the difference between true life and its plausible counterfeits, before inclusivity becomes of value. From the time of the Fall at the beginning of history, until the end of time, from His own power and initiative, God is reconciling the world to Himself in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:19), in ways both visible and hidden. The Old and New Testaments bear witness to this, and it is a work characterized both by the exclusivity of drawing strong lines, and the inclusivity of a universal invitation, a universal gift of grace.

So when I hear something like “Jesus Christ is the only Way,” I don’t automatically think arrogance or bigotry, and I certainly don’t think God is being limited and turned into some kind of sectarian deity. Instead, I think thoughts of praise for the infinite wisdom of God who is bringing to fulfillment His mysterious plan for the unity of the human race, and of all creation, in one family with Himself, its Creator. This family begins now, among those who believe in Christ and follow him in the Catholic Church, but it also has a larger future. Some will come to believe, hope, and love, who did not previously believe, hope, and love; some will become united to the Church, who were not previously united to the Church (see Matthew 20:1-16). The Lord Jesus said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16). We await the time when all of the just of all times and places will sing in unison the praises of God in the eternal Kingdom.

[1] Less people, on the other hand, tend to blame Jesus himself for the claim, even though it was he who claimed it first.

[2] The Christian faith, in fact, has lots of paradoxes.

Author: Mr. Mark J Hornbacher, OP

Mark is the Vice President of Programs and Director of Theology at St. Paul Street Evangelization. He has a MA in Theology and a B.Phil from Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, and a BA in Theology from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI. With Steve Dawson, he is the co-author of Ordinary Christians, Extraordinary Signs: Healing in Evangelization. He is a lay Dominican, and resides in Sterling Heights, MI with his wife Gayle, and their two sons.

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