Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Beware of Exclusivism

A recent week on the church calendar was designated as "Brotherhood and Sisterhood Week". The primary intent of this designation was to place emphasis on finding ways to include rather than exclude. It is embarrassingly clear in any study of church history that religion is and has been a source of divisiveness and exclusivism. That is ironic. Organized Christianity is no exception in this plague on peace.

The tendency to exclude others from our version of Christianity started early, even before Jesus passed off the earthly scene. You might have thought that it would have taken a generation or two before this selfish idea began to show itself, but here it was before Christianity was out of the starting gate. The Disciple, John, said to Jesus, "Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us". (Mark 9:38)

Perhaps we should not be too surprised since the lives ofJohn and the other disciples had been marinated in exclusivism. They belonged to a religion and a culture the main identity of which was that they were exclusively "God's chosen people". The concept of "chosen-ness" can refer to fulfilling a divine purpose, but the concept also carries an inherent danger. The idea can degenerate from "chosen" to "different" to "better than", which is exactly what happened in this situation with John.

It is obvious that John never thought about that slippery slope down to "better than", but Jesus did. Jesus simply said, "Do not forbid him," then added to this simple command a profound lesson on the psychology of inclusiveness. "for no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us". (Mark 9:39-40)

Students of the Gospel may recall an occasion upon which Jesus said just the opposite. "Whoever is not with me is against me." (Matthew 12:30; Luke 11:23) Two things may be said about these two conflicting statements which may be helpful to those for whom it is an intellectual obstacle. Jesus frequently used paradox as a means of stating truth. This was usually an occasion in which the opposing statements were in juxtaposition. (For example, "...whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it" (Mark 8:35). While the two statements I discuss here are not given in one account, they are paradoxical and follow Jesus' style of teaching. . The second thing that can be said about these reverse statements is that the settings in which they were given are clearly different. In Mark the strange exorcist is using Jesus' name and insinuating himself into the movement. He is identifying with the Jesus people without being invited and without giving previous notice. Jesus is saying that this man is not against him simply because he is a stranger. This is in contrast to the other occasion, stated in Matthew and Luke, where his is speaking of people (the religious establishment) who are actively undermining him to the extent that they accuse him of getting his power from "Beelzebub, the prince of demons".

When seen in its larger context, there is some humor, even irony, in the fact that the disciples are trying to prevent an alien exorcist from doing what they have just failed to do (Mark 9:18). The apostolic defensiveness suggests an element of embarrassment that an "untrained and unauthorized stranger" has accomplished what they have failed to accomplish. I understand the feeling. I have had people from my own constituency converted and healed in unorthodox religious gatherings when nothing I could do was able to reach them. My rejoicing with them has almost always been tinged with a bit of embarrassment. I have had to face up to the obvious fact that the power of God is not confined by the guidelines of practice in my denomination. To put a finer point on this observation, I must confess that I have sometimes been quite surprised and a little professionally embarrassed when my successor in a local church has been able to effectively reach people I had not been able to reach in my ministry there. It happens! Get used to it. Learn to celebrate it.

It is clear that Jesus' admonition "do not forbid" must be taken as a warning not only against exclusiveness, but also against an over emphasis on apostolic authority, or in contemporary terms, denominational approval and ordination. It is all too easy to develop misplaced loyalties in which the organization becomes the intense object of our loyalty rather than the gospel the church was created to serve. The power of God is always breaking through the boundaries built by religions focused on the institution at the expense of Jesus' message of love. The great reformers (such as Luther and Wesley) whose works have enriched and enabled the promulgation of the Christian Faith, lived and labored on the edge of heresy; in fact they were considered heretics by the denominational establishments from which they came. They were "forbidden" by the institution but they went on their way, not counting the cost.

It was never intended that we build walls and close the circle in our practice of the Christian Faith. Those who do the work of Jesus belong to him even if they do not belong to us. That basic fact has sometimes been obscured by overly extensive rules and regulations in denominational administration in which there tends to become a dividing wall where there is implied, if not actually stated, a "them" and an "us".

In the book "Craddock Stories" (Graves and Ward, Chalice Press, 2001, Pgs 141-142) there is a telling story about one of Dr. Craddock's old friends who was for 30 years a missionary to China, the last 3 years of which he was under house arrest. The Communists agreed to release him if he would leave. He agreed and wired the Missionary Society for money for passage home. When the money came he went to a coastal city in India to take a ship home. While waiting for his ship he heard that there were many exiled Jews sleeping in the countryside. They had been denied entrance into every country in world except India, and they had gone inland and were sleeping in barn lofts. It was Christmas time and the old missionary, Oswald Goulter, went around to those barns proclaiming to the Jews, "It is Christmas! Merry Christmas". They said "We are Jews. We don't observe Christmas." The old missionary said, "I know, but what would you like for Christmas?". They insisted they were Jews and did not keep Christmas. "I know," said Rev. Goulter, "but what would you like if someone gave you something for Christmas?" Finally they said, "Well, we would like some good German pastries." Rev. Goulter went into the city and found a shop that baked fresh German-style pastries. He spent his "ticket money" for pastries, which he took back out to the exiled Jews and said, "Merry Christmas!" Then he wired the Missionary Society and said, "I need a ticket home."

When that story was being told, a young seminarian on the front row was absolutely incensed. He said to Dr. Goulter, "Why did you do that? They don't believe in Jesus!" And the old missionary said, "Yes, but I do. I do!" Can you hear that?

Perhaps we should think twice before we draw lines that our Jewish Leader, Jesus, did not draw.