Those of us in the USA live and operate in a society that is quite different than that of our grandparents. In their time, many of our cities had just a selection of churches and a synagogue. Today, the city I live in has one Hindu temple, four buildings dedicated to Muslim worship, and hundreds of homes with areas set up for Buddhist worship. It is more and more likely that the people we meet throughout the day have a wildly different background than we do. These cultural and religious differences are obvious; we see hijabs and saris around town, and we interact with people of various accents. How should we respond?
Some people hear the word ‘inclusive’ as a positive word. Others hear ‘inclusive’ as a negative word, as a mark of compromising the gospel. The pertinent question, though, is what or who is being included or excluded?Here’s what we need to realize: the evil one would have us include what we should not include and also have us exclude what we should not exclude. He would have us include ideas foreign to the gospel. He would have us exclude people foreign to us. We must do neither.
In the book of Acts, we get to see how the apostles responded to a world full of diversity. One particularly helpful interaction is the story of Paul and Barnabas in Lystra, found in Acts 14. After a miraculous work of the Spirit through Paul, the confused Zeus-worshippers try to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas. The apostles demonstrate for us how to respond cross-culturally with gospel clarity:
- They are clear about the exclusivity of Christ
We do not find Paul saying things like “You believe in a god who controls physical health? So do we! You believe in a god who controls the weather? So do we! We believe the same things.” Instead, pressed by the urgency of the situation, we see clothes torn in grief and hear them crying out, “Men why are you doing these things?” They then proceed to urge them to “turn from these vain things.” They do not simply try to pretend as if their beliefs are the same and hope later to slide over gradually to the gospel. They do not simply try to hang out with the people without any note of difference. Instead, they are clear from the start, pointing out the contrast to the gospel of Jesus.
2. They are clear about all they have in common with all people
We also do not find Paul and Barnabas distancing themselves from this crowd. Instead, they rush out to address them. As they do, they tell them “we also are men, of like nature with you!” In doing so, they are telling the crowd that they are merely human (not gods) and that these miraculous signs are powered by the true God. At the same time, the apostles are saying more. Their message is framed with the understanding that all people are created by God in his image. They recognize how much they share in common with the crowd as those made in God’s image and those for whom the Father has sent the Son. The apostles recognize that these people have been cared for by God, living in a world made by God, being sustained and fed by him (Acts 14:15-17).
Our experience: a pressure and a temptation
As we live and interact in our increasingly pluralistic society, we are caught between a pressure and a temptation. On one side we feel the pressure to be quiet about the exclusivity of Jesus – to act as if deep down, we all believe the same things. We hear the suggestion that the different religious systems in the world are like different paths up the same mountain. Even for those of us who disagree, there is the pressure to simply interact with those of different world religions as if we were universalists, never bringing up the gospel, always seeking the points of commonality in ideas, never showing the contrast with the gospel, keeping our faith quiet and to ourselves. Even though we say we believe differently, we act as if the “vain things” of other belief systems might actually be paths of salvation; as If the gospel is not actually needed by the world around us.
On the other side is a temptation to allow the person foreign to us to be isolated, to keep those quite different from us at a distance, or at least give no effort to bridge that distance. We hear the different accent, we see the different clothing, we are aware of the different background and we emphasize the differences, rather than remembering that “we also are men of like nature.” We think of foreigners as too foreign, of others as too ‘other’, and we follow the secular world by identifying people with other beliefs by a label. We see them as “those people” and think “I’ve never spoken with someone like that,” rather than thinking “there’s another person to care for.”
If we give in passively to either the pressure on the one side or the temptation on the other, we lose our effectiveness as faithful witnesses of Christ. We either become those without the message of the gospel, or we become those isolated from those who need the gospel.
Don’t act like a universalist! Don’t communicate with words or silence that those without the gospel don’t need Jesus! If you give in to the pressure, that is exactly what you are doing. At the same time, don’t act as if Jesus is not a reconciler. Don’t act as if Jesus expected us to come to him without coming to us. If as a follower of Christ you give in to the temptation, that is exactly what you’re communicating.
Instead, be those who are intentionally victorious on both fronts. Befriend those from different backgrounds. Be the ones who say hello (don’t underestimate the power of greetings), who invite people into our homes, and who show interest in their lives. And as you do so, also be clear and vocal about the great news of the God whom we worship, the news that he has provided his son as the one and only way of salvation. In other words, follow him and include people because he is the exclusive savior for all peoples!