A Different Kind of Exclusivity

The book of Romans was written right after Jews returned to the church in Rome after being banished for five years by Emperor Claudius (Acts 18). Prior to their banishment, Jews had basically been in charge of the church because they had been the first Christians, and Gentiles had been added later. But after they left, Gentiles took charge.

Now the Jews are returning to a church very different than the one they left because of cultural, stylistic, and political differences between Jews and Gentiles. The church added Gentile music with Gentile instruments; they’re serving Gentile food at the potlucks. Some of the teenagers are even wearing Harry Potter T-shirts to church.

Okay, I might have taken that a little too far. But you get the point: The culture that used to be in charge wasn’t in charge anymore. That exacerbates racial and cultural tensions.

And in the midst of this racial strife, Paul offers the church some practical counsel:

Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.

– Romans 3:29–30 CSB

In other words, Paul is asking, why do you think of yourselves in different categories?

There is only one kind of person: sinner (Romans 3:23). All people—Jew and Gentile, old and young, rich and poor, male and female, black, white, and brown—all have sinned, and all fall short of the glory of God.

There is only one way of salvation: “The righteousness of God is through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe, since there is no distinction” (Romans 3:22).

And, there is only one God who justifies both the circumcised (religious) and uncircumcised (irreligious) through the same means: faith (Romans 3:30).

The gospel, Paul says, creates a new, inclusive humanity that overcomes the divisions created by the pride that comes from distinguishing ourselves from others.

I have often shared this message with non-Christians and been met with skepticism. “Wait a minute,” they say. “This sounds nice enough, but you’ve just said that there’s only one God and only one way of salvation. That doesn’t sound inclusive. That sounds like the definition of exclusive.”

But there’s just something about religious claims that makes them exclusive. All of them.

Yes, even the “tolerant” ones.

For example, it’s popular in our society to say, “It doesn’t matter what religion you believe in. All of the good people go to heaven.” That might sound inclusive.

But here’s the problem: If you say that, you’ve excluded an entire group of people—the “bad” ones. And chances are, you get to define what is bad. Suddenly your inclusivity becomes very narrow.

Our default position is to imagine heaven with all the people we like and without any of the people we don’t like. I can’t think of a better definition of exclusivity.

You might say, “No, no. I’m not religious at all. I don’t exclude anyone for any reason.” But you still have your standard as to what constitutes a “good” person.

Religious or irreligious, conservative or liberal, we all have a list. Some people are on it, and others aren’t.

Don’t believe me? Then try driving through Chapel Hill, North Carolina—a place that prides itself on tolerance—in a truck with oversized tires, one NRA sticker on the back windshield, and another sticker telling people you think global warming is a hoax (which is why you refuse to recycle). I’ll bet you’ll experience something like “non-acceptance.”

Your definition of what is good and bad is just as exclusive in Chapel Hill as any other fundamentalist community in the world.

All religious and moral viewpoints end up being exclusive. Everyone has a line for who is in and who is out.

Tim Keller says, “All religions are exclusive, but Christianity is the most inclusive exclusivity there is.”

Christianity is inclusive exclusivity. It teaches that the only way we can be justified in God’s sight is by having Christ’s righteousness imputed to us. We’re not accepted because of our moral record, our education, our marital status, our race, or our political viewpoint. God gives salvation as a gift to all who will repent and receive it in humility and faith.

The gospel says, “Whosoever will may come.” Regardless of the mistakes in your past, your problems in the present, or your lack of potential for the future—you come to Jesus, and Jesus saves—whosoever!