Early in my ministry, I lived in Miami. Whenever any friends or family came to visit, the first thing most of them wanted to do was go down to South Beach. So we would load up the car, drive them across the bridge and walk them up and down the busy sidewalks, packed with overpriced restaurants, overflowing bars and tourists as far as the eye could see.
There comes a point on the strip, however, where the crowds begin to thin. The hotels become more exclusive. The beaches have no trespassing signs. The clubs have bouncers at the door. The restaurants are by reservation only.
The message is clear. Not everyone is welcome. Only certain people are allowed.
The Christian Church today struggles with the concept of exclusivity. The Bible itself seems to speak in contradictory terms. On the whole, the message of the Bible is extraordinarily inclusive. Jesus died for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). God wants all people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). He loves everyone the same (Galatians 3:28).
It doesn’t matter what gender you are, what color your skin is or what language you speak. It doesn’t matter how much money you make or how big your house is. It doesn’t even matter your sexual preference, your life choices or the mistakes of your past. God loves everybody. He welcomes all people with open arms.
For many modern Christians, that means the Church should open its arms to everyone, regardless of what they believe or do. Many think the Christian Church should embrace the LGBT and transgender movements. We should accept as equally valid non-Christian religions like Islam and Hinduism.
God loves them too. He welcomes everyone. So should we.
But then, on closer examination, the Bible also says that God hates sin and punishes it with eternal damnation in hell. The Bible calls the sin of homosexuality an abomination. It calls heterosexual sex outside of marriage a damnable sin. It calls a lot of things sin. The Bible clearly states that faith in Jesus is the only way to heaven (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). Whoever does not believe in him will be condemned to the horrors of hell (Mark 16:16).
Christianity in many ways is an exclusive religion. It says that sin separates you from God. It teaches that no other god or religion can save you.
So which is it? Is Christianity exclusive or inclusive? The answer to this seeming paradox is found in the cross. God hates sin and excludes all sinners from heaven, but loves all people and therefore sent his Son Jesus to suffer their punishment in their place. Because of Jesus, God forgives all sins. He welcomes all sinners – including you and me.
But only those who believe in him – only those who believe in Jesus – receive that forgiveness and heaven. God wants all people to be saved. He wants all people to recognize their sins and trust in him for salvation. If you reject him, though, you reject the forgiveness he won for you.
Jesus welcomed sinners. He dined with prostitutes and corrupt tax collectors. Yet he also confronted their sinful behavior and called them to repent.
As Christians, we should welcome everyone as Jesus did. So often we give the impression that the Christian church is exclusive – that certain people are not welcome. May God help us to warmly welcome everyone into our churches with open arms, no matter what they look like, sound like or how they dress.
But that doesn’t mean we should embrace their sins. That doesn’t mean accepting every belief or opinion as equally valid.
So which is it? Is Christianity inclusive or exclusive?
In the end, it’s both. It’s exclusively inclusive.