People outside the church have always thought we are mistaken about Jesus and His claims. But their newest objections to Christianity have taken a harsher turn. These criticisms are not just vaguely intellectual. They get highly emotional. People believe our exclusive message is not only incorrect but also immoral. This is a massive shift from head to heart.
Long-time Christian strategist Tom Gilson explains what is going on. He picks apart the arguments of Kirby Godsey, a former Baptist university president who has launched a full-on assault on Christian exclusivism.1
Gilson writes, “Godsey doesn’t tell us we should reject exclusivism because it is false. Instead he says we should reject it because it’s bad, and those who believe it are bad. Exclusivism, he tells us, is arrogant, born out of psychological weakness, ‘abrasive and hostile,’ authoritarian and so on.”2
In their book American Grace, authors Robert Putnam and David Campbell call this the “Aunt Susan Principle.” The gist is that Aunt Susan was really nice and loved me and did not believe in Jesus, but she lived a good life and believed in God and if you say she is in hell you are being very mean and cruel.
This new objection means that we cannot open our mouths without coming as unloving. After studying all of our focus group responses, our facilitator summed up what people considered the extreme wrongs committed by many Christians:
They want to dominate any conversation involving religion.
They are totally focused on convincing you that their beliefs are right and yours are wrong.
They are close-minded to any alternatives.
They criticize and condemn any religion but theirs.
They refuse to listen to what you have to say regarding your beliefs, decisions, and rationales.
They get in your face, get loud and pushy—and can’t accept agreeing to disagree.
They won’t give up until they convert you or you turn your back on them and walk away.
Not long ago, people just thought Christians were stupid. Now they think we are mean or even immoral.
This new objection requires a new response. Gilson says, “No longer is it sufficient just to defend the truth that Jesus is the only way to God. We must also demonstrate that believing that doesn’t make one a bad person.”3
A generation ago we could get away with lining up Christian intellectuals to present evidence for the truth. Today we must prove our own love, care, and authenticity and connect it to God’s endless affection for us. Our responses cannot simply be intellectually coherent. They must also be emotionally compelling.
The couple on my couch wanted to hash out their marriage troubles. Unsure what was going on, I prayed for them and asked how I could help.
The wife loved her husband. On the job he was a hard worker, and at home a loving husband, but she admitted she found him stifling. She wanted to stick together and thought they could work out their differences. She was likeable and reasonable. The husband said he was embarrassed they needed to meet with me and wished his wife would just change her mind and see things his way. He was obviously hurt. He bristled.
For almost an hour this couple took turns speaking in vague generalities. Finally, I asked pointedly, “What do you think the problem is?” She said, “He’s very demanding, jealous, and controlling.” He said, “I don’t like my wife having intimate relationships with other men.”
I didn’t see that response coming!
There was a moment of awkward silence as I gathered my thoughts. Then the husband explained, “I don’t think it’s right for a married woman to sleep with other men. She wants an open marriage. I don’t. I think our marriage should be exclusive.”
The wife jumped in to accuse her husband of being “old-fashioned” and “narrow-minded.” She would be happier, and their marriage would last longer, if she had her husband plus other relationships. She enjoyed many men and did not want to limit her experience to one mate. The husband just wanted his wife.
Do you agree with the husband or the wife?
Despite all of our erratic cultural boundaries regarding sexuality, the polls consistently show that most Americans think adultery is wrong. Being against your husband or wife having sex outside marriage is one of the few moral boundaries most people still agree on. If your spouse sleeps with somebody else, you want to cry foul.
The exclusivism of the Christian faith is more than a theoretical abstraction. It gets to the core of how we relate to God. The Bible repeatedly says that God loves His people like a husband loves His wife. We might consider His exclusive demands intolerant, bigoted, and close-minded, but they actually reflect His relentless pursuit of a loving, unique, and devoted relationship. When the God of the Bible sees people chasing other gods, He feels like a husband who walks in on his wife with another man. When they dabble in other religions and spiritualties, God calls it adultery.4
- Kirby Godsey, Is God a Christian? Creating a Community of Conversation (Mercer University Press, 2011).
- Tom Gilson, “The Morality of Christian Exclusivism (Part One),” First Things (June 10, 2011), http://frstthings.com/blogs/evangel/2011/06/the-morality-of-christian-exclusivism-part-one/.