Religious Exclusivity Is Inescapable

We live in a time that champions tolerance above virtually every other virtue, but there have been few times in recent memory marked by more fiery divisiveness. How do we explain this seeming contradiction?

Today’s tolerance isn’t genuine tolerance, but is much closer to what the apostle Paul in Romans 1 calls the approval of evil.  Secularists and pagan postmoderns aren’t tolerant of differing viewpoints and practices. But they are selectively tolerant of depravity, and highly intolerant of anybody intolerant of that depravity. This selective tolerance, this intolerance for godliness, marks the culture with which we daily interact, so it would benefit us to investigate it. This intolerance springs from religious exclusivity.

Primitive persecution  

A good place to start is with the earliest Christians. They weren’t especially tolerated by the Roman authorities or by their fellow citizens. They were persecuted and martyred. They weren’t oppressed because they believed in Jesus in their hearts.  The ancient Romans were polytheists, and as their empire expanded, they collected gods like philatelists collect stamps. They couldn’t care less if people trusted Jesus. But to declare that Jesus is Lord, the first creed of the church,[1] and that he alone is Lord, and therefore that Cesar is not the ultimate Lord — was considered seditious. The early Christians weren’t bad Roman citizens. They weren’t revolutionaries, trying to overthrow Roman authority. That was an act of highly politicized Jews in their increasingly maddening apostasy.

For Christians, however, Jesus is Lord, and not just of the human heart, but also in all other areas of life. The power-hungry Caesars couldn’t, of course, abide such a sovereign competitor. And that’s why Christians had to go. They contested all areas of life, public and private.[2] In the words of Al Wolters, “There is something totalitarian about the claims of both Satan and Christ; nothing in all of creation is neutral in the sense that it is untouched by these two great adversaries.”[3]

Soteric exclusivity

It’s the exclusivity of Jesus Christ and our predecessors’ willingness to declare it publicly that got them into trouble. Jesus didn’t tell his disciples that he is a way, a truth, and a life, but the way, the truth, and the life. This didn’t simply mean that one could gain eternal life only in Jesus Christ. It certainly meant that. As Peter declared, there’s salvation in no other name than Jesus Christ’s (Ac. 4:12).

This was an interesting choice of words. In the ancient world, the emperors often used coins as propaganda to further their political agenda. Coins are currency, and lots of people see them. We might say that during the Roman Empire, coins were the political commercials. Caesar Augustus had a coin struck that showed him related to the sun-god and great diadem, ushering in a new order of salvation and world history, and that “salvation is to be found in none other save Augustus, and there is no other name given to men in which they can be saved.”[4] In other words, the primitive gospel situated itself as the counter-imperial gospel. Jesus Christ is the true emperor, and Caesar is not.

This wasn’t fundamentally a political assertion. Jesus recognized Cesar’s subordinate authority in the political realm. But Jesus is King and Lord of all the earth, and he won’t tolerate any competitors. This is why the early Christians suffered such official hostility: not because they believed in Jesus, but because they declared that Jesus is the exclusive Lord of the cosmos. Christianity is soteriologically exclusive.

Epistemic and ethical exclusivity

But the religious exclusivity of Christians also meant epistemic and ethical exclusivity. That is, through Christ alone can we gain knowledge and truth. He is the mediator of creation, and he is the mediator of redemption. To know anything as we should, we must know God’s way in Jesus Christ. This is to say, Jesus isn’t only the exclusive way to heaven. He is the exclusive way to live in this life. This is just another way of saying that we must live according to his norms, his law, in the Bible.

This exclusivity has always put Christians on a collision course with unbelievers, who prize their autonomy. Autonomy means self-law, and it has been the chief problem in the world since the Fall.  What’s different is that recent Western culture has turned this autonomy into a principle. It’s not just that people want to live without God’s Biblical restraints; sinners have always wanted that. They want to forge an entire worldview and pattern for living that way.  You might call them principled rebels. They aren’t simply rebels who enjoy defying God. They must create a rationale for their rebellion. This is precisely what has happened in the postmodern world and with existentialism, Cultural Marxism, and the New Left.  I must add that it’s also true of the secular libertarians. Their motto is free markets and free sex. In the end, this is no better than Marxism and socialism.

Today’s tolerance isn’t genuine tolerance, but is much closer to what the apostle Paul in Romans 1 calls the approval of evil.  Secularists and pagan postmoderns aren’t tolerant of differing viewpoints and practices. But they are selectively tolerant of depravity, and highly intolerant of anybody intolerant of that depravity.

I mention sex, because since the Sexual Revolution of the 60s, it’s the most prominent and graphic public display of radical autonomy, principled rebellion. And the battlefield today isn’t just in culture, but in our churches, over homosexuality and same-sex “marriage” and even in evangelical churches with so-called same-sex “attraction.” This cultural and churchly normalization of homosexuality is just the latest expression of a broader principle of sexual autonomy.  The question is whether I will conform to God’s sexual standards, or invent my own. This is just as true of premarital sex and adultery as it is of homosexuality and bestiality, though the flashpoint today is homosexuality. Because all this sexual rebellion is so pervasive, it stares us right in the face in our churches, not just out in the secular and neo-pagan culture.

The liberalism of evangelicalism

Several years ago Sharon and I were discussing church membership with a pastor we’d known for many years. We’d been attending his church and were on the threshold of joining. Toward the end of the conversation I asked his view on abortion, and he stated plainly that he opposed it. I then asked him his view on homosexuality, and he responded, “I’m rethinking that issue.” This pastor was an undergraduate of a fundamentalist Baptist Bible college and holds his master’s degree from Liberty University. You can only imagine my shock. But this episode in modified form could be repeated hundreds of times. Pastors all over the Western world are softening and capitulating on the issue of homosexuality and so-called same-sex “marriage.” Many of them are doing this not out of any well-thought-out reason, but because their church members implicitly pressure them, or they believe that standing for biblical sexual truth will keep unbelievers away from church. In other words, they’ve been willing to revise and reengineer Christian truth to adjust it to the culture. This is not fundamentally different from the older theological liberalism. In fact, it is today’s version of theological liberalism, and evangelicals have in this way become liberal.

Conservative churches that surrender to the Sexual Revolution aren’t practicing tolerance as a virtue. They’re practicing selective tolerance by tolerating what God forbids and by refusing to tolerate those who stand with God’s word.

In 2003 J. I. Packer and a number of other faithful Anglicans left the Episcopal church over the acceptance of same-sex “marriage.” In a striking article “Why I Walked,” he pinpointed two views of the Bible sparked that controversy:

At issue here is a Grand Canyon-wide difference about the nature of the Bible and the way it conveys God’s message to modern readers. Two positions challenge each other. One is the historic Christian belief that through the prophets, the incarnate Son, the apostles, and the writers of canonical Scripture as a body, God has used human language to tell us definitively and transculturally about his ways, his works, his will, and his worship. Furthermore, this revealed truth is grasped by letting the Bible interpret itself to us from within, in the knowledge that the way into God’s mind is through that of the writers…. I call this the objectivist position. The second view applies to Christianity the Enlightenment’s trust in human reason, along with the fashionable evolutionary assumption that the present is wiser than the past. It concludes that the world has the wisdom, and the church must play intellectual catch-up in each generation in order to survive. From this standpoint, everything in the Bible becomes relative to the church’s evolving insights, which themselves are relative to society’s continuing development (nothing stands still), and the Holy Spirit’s teaching ministry is to help the faithful see where Bible doctrine shows the cultural limitations of the ancient world and needs adjustment in light of latter-day experience (encounters, interactions, perplexities, states of mind and emotion, and so on). Same-sex unions are one example. This view is scarcely 50 years old, though its antecedents go back much further. I call it the subjectivist position.[5]

Not just in the culture, but also in our churches, we encounter today the subjectivist position. When  unbelievers are converted, they often still carry remnants of that position; they don’t lose all their intellectual errors at conversion. Even many long-time Christians, so-called, embrace this error. It’s basically that the Bible must be adjusted to the temper of the times. Truth must shift to conform to Darwinism, naturalism, postmodernism, Cultural Marxism, and neo-paganism. Ethics are progressive. As we move through time, we become more ethically enlightened. Therefore, to oppose same sex “marriage” and same-sex “attraction” is to oppose God’s plan for the world, because his plan is to reveal himself through the consciousness of progressive humanity. They might not state it that coherently, but that’s what many of them believe. This is nothing short of theological liberalism, which is anti-Christianity.

Religious exclusivity inescapable

If we think about it, we discover a delicious irony. Christianity is an obvious example of religious exclusivity. But it’s not the case that secularists and neo-pagans are devoid of religious exclusivity. They’re just as religiously exclusive as orthodox Christians, but they have chosen to exclude different things and people. They’ve turned their hearts away from God, and therefore they exclude Jesus Christ and the authority of his word and his church.  This religious exclusivity is becoming increasingly consistent with its own inner presuppositions. In short, as this form of anti-Christian exclusivity works out its implications in people’s minds and hearts, they realize that it works only if they exclude their main competitor, and that is Christianity, and the people who espouse it.

If you’re a Christian baker, and you refuse to design a cake specifically for same-sex wedding, you might be breaking a recent law of non-discrimination, and you’ll suffer punishing financial sanctions.[6]

If in Canada you distribute flyers opposing homosexuality, you’ll be charged with a hate crime and fined over $7000, and the Canadian courts will uphold the conviction.[7]

In Scotland, “Gordon Larmour, 42, was charged by police after telling the story of Adam and Eve to a 19-year-old who asked him about God’s views on homosexuality.”[8] He was charged and then jailed.

Christians declare, “Jesus is Lord,” and we refuse to bow the knee to any other lord. Christians are committed to valid religious exclusivity. Secularists declare, “We are lord,” and they refuse to bow the knee to any other Lord. Secularists are committed to religious exclusivity. Religious exclusivity, therefore, is an inescapable concept. All religions are exclusive in some way, even (perhaps especially) the predominant secular religion.

The only question is what they exclude, and how.


[1] Oscar Cullmann, The Earliest Christian Confessions (London: Lutterworth Press, 1949), 23.

[2] Larry W. Hurtado, Destroyer of the Gods (Waco, Texas: Baylor, 2016).

[3] Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985, 2005, second edition), 72.

[4] Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars (London: SCM Press 1955), 88.

[5] J.I. Packer, “Why I Walked: Sometimes loving a denomination requires you to fight,” https://www.gafcon.org/sites/gafcon.org/files/resources/files/why_i_walked_by_ji_packer.pdf, accessed January 31, 2020.

[6] Kaitlyn Schallhorn, “Supreme Court decides Colorado gay wedding cake case: A timeline of events,” https://www.foxnews.com/us/supreme-court-decides-colorado-gay-wedding-cake-case-a-timeline-of-events, accessed January 31, 2020.

[7] No author, “Canadian pastor fined and gagged over gay comments,” https://www.christian.org.uk/news/canadian-pastor-fined-and-gagged-over-gay-comments/, accessed January 31, 2020.

[8] Telegraph reporters, “Preacher locked up for hate crime after quoting the Bible to gay teenager,” https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/02/05/preacher-locked-hate-crime-quoting-bible-gay-teenager/, accessed January 29, 2020.

Author: P. Andrew Sandlin

I am founder & president of the Center for Cultural Leadership, core faculty of the H. Evan Runner International Academy for Cultural Leadership and De Yong Distinguished Visiting Professor of Culture and Theology, Edinburg Theological Seminary, and an ordained minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity. I am happily married to Sharon Lynn Sandlin (nee Habedank) and have five adult children and four grandchildren.

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