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2 Jan 2023

It is common today to hear people refer to inclusiveness as a much-needed virtue in our increasingly fragmented world. To begin with, this sounds like a good idea. We need to explore further what we mean by being inclusive.

The word “inclusive” has been used technically by theologians and missiologists in reference to the relationship between the gospel of Christ and non-Christian religions. Exclusivism is the perspective taken by evangelicals on the basis of three non-negotiables: the absolute and unique authority of Jesus, His life, death and resurrection as the decisive hinge of history, and the necessity for repentance and faith in Jesus for salvation.

This view is supported by Scripture as it reveals who Christ is and what He has done for us, and how central He is to the whole story of God’s salvation. Christians reiterate this when in church they declare, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

Inclusivism, in this regard, accepts the first two non-negotiables of exclusivism but not the third. It leaves open the possibility that there may be people from other faiths who might be saved, but the basis for this is still Christ, whether acknowledged consciously or not.

A third position, pluralism, holds that all religions are equal opportunities to find God and salvation, and that no religion has all the truth.

While inclusivism has been used within this theological discussion, it is now used in different senses. So, take the example of a community leader or politician who says that we should be inclusive in our attitudes and actions – what do they mean?

As I write this, Sri Lanka is going through a deep economic and political crisis, with the people occupying the presidential palace and calling for the definite resignation of the president who had fled the country. The protesters have come up with an Action Plan, which includes the adoption of a new constitution. This plan calls for the need “to eradicate racism and racial oppression” and to “strengthen the relevant legal foundations that affirm the equality of religion, language, sexuality, and other cultural identity [sic] as well as democracy and political freedom.”

This is an example of the modern idea of inclusivism. To be inclusive means to stand with people who are different – ethnically, socially, and ideologically. This has been the call for some time among those who want the marginalised accepted and empowered. Race, language, and social status have been in the centre of such calls. But now, sexuality is increasingly given new emphasis, and this is represented by LGBTQ communities.

In fact, when churches in the West identify themselves as “welcoming” and “inclusive”, they usually have in mind LGBTQ people. For example, a church in Nashville introduces itself briefly by saying, “We are intentional in being in community with our LGBTG+ siblings through Pride and other community events.” There is no mention of ethnic or language identities. The church also has rainbow colours in its logo, more prominently displayed than the tiny cross.

That this is becoming a, or in fact the key idea connected with inclusivism is suggested by how organisations and business entities have incorporated it in their public communications and business decisions. The rainbow flag is flown in June every year in US embassies around the world. Government agencies go out of their way to show they support such inclusiveness.

Employers do the same by insisting that their recruitment policies are non-discriminatory – prominently mentioned is that LGBTQ people are welcome to apply – often no mention is made about ethnicity, those with disability, and so on.

Businesses also go out of the way to be inclusive. Oreo, for instance, produced biscuits with cream in rainbow colours. There is no choice given in many cases where such inclusivism actually becomes a new form of exclusivism.

This is also taking place in increasing measure. For instance, the well-known case of a Colorado baker who declined to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Though he suggested that they try a baker who would have no problem doing so, they sued him. He has also been sued for declining to bake a cake to celebrate a transgender woman. He has been sued several times, with his opponents insisting that he must deny his religious beliefs and run his business in an inclusive way.

This has been multiplied in other contexts, such as adoption agencies being required to open their services to same-sex couples, even though these agencies may be faith-based and may have problems doing so on account of religious conviction.

In other words, inclusivism (in this sense) pushed to the extreme has become neo-exclusivism, where those who push it insist that everyone should follow their agenda without exception. Such inclusivism is turning into a new intolerance.

Christians and churches are increasingly feeling marginalised by all this, as they are surrounded by growing hostility and intolerance. Individuals, such as academics might lose their jobs for holding on to a doctrinal exclusivity (though they might also subscribe to a social inclusivity that builds bridges to those who differ).

Churches might also be marginalised for taking a theologically exclusive position (that does not necessarily mean they are closed to welcoming people who are different). In 2021, the British parliamentary opposition leader visited a church in London to acknowledge their positive contribution to encourage Covid vaccination. He publicised his visit, but when it was pointed out to him that the church stood by its view that sex outside a heterosexual marriage was considered sinful in Christian teaching, the politician quickly erased references to his visit and positive comments on the church.

Mike Mitchell, a pastor who wrote on this pointed out that this would be increasingly more common when churches will be side-lined for holding on to biblical teachings. Ironically, facing such marginalisation and hostility, he calls for a new kind of inclusivism where traditional Christian views are also given a legitimate place in the public space.

It is thus important, when someone or some group calls for inclusivism, to check with them what they have in mind. It might be a positive kind of broad social inclusivism (based on sex, ethnicity, physical or mental incapacities, social class, and so on). Or it could be an inclusivism narrowly focused on LGBTQ agendas, that turn out to be neo-exclusivism because of the more aggressive ways in which such inclusivism is pushed.

The church, too, would have to think through the implications, and respond accordingly – with wisdom, biblical faithfulness, and a winsome approach.

Bishop Emeritus Robert Solomon served as Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000-2012. He had served previously as a medical doctor, church pastor, principal of Trinity Theological College and president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. He now has an active itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in Singapore and abroad.