Exclusive and Inclusive Faith

Why is it that the choice among churches always seems to be the choice between intelligence on ice and ignorance on fire? (quoted by Brian McLaren in his book “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?”)

Religions are similar in some ways, especially concerning ethics. However, religions also are very different from each other. In fact, even different subgroups within any religion show vast differences. One of the primary ways in which religions differ has to do with the extent to which they are exclusive vs. inclusive.

One easy way to see that there are differences across religions is to examine membership trends. Although various indicators suggest that formal religion is in decline in much of the world, some conservative religions actually are growing, such as Islam and “non-denominational Christianity.” The declines are coming in more liberal religions. Since World War II, for example, membership in the historical “Mainline Protestant” churches (Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian) has significantly diminished in the United States. Similarly, approximately 4 in 10 adults raised Catholic no longer consider themselves “Catholic.”

In the early 1970s, sociologist Dean Kelley tried to explain “Why Conservative Churches are Growing” in his landmark book by the same title. Kelley speculated that conservative religious groups tend to emphasize values such as salvation that are less available in the secular world. These groups tend to be more “strict” or “serious,” as they tend to be characterized by absolutist beliefs that they hold the one truth, conformity to the group, and fanaticism about convincing others of their beliefs. As a result, members are thought to be characterized by a wholehearted commitment to their religious beliefs, great discipline with respect to the tenets of these beliefs, and strong missionary zeal to evangelize to others. These characteristics, in turn, Kelley thought promote greater institutional vitality (for example, greater growth in membership) because they help fulfill the essential function of religion, which he described as “explaining the meaning of life in ultimate terms.”

In contrast, liberal religions possess values that also may be found in secular venues, such as community, knowledge, social justice, and political change. They tend to be characterized by relativistic beliefs that no one has a monopoly on the truth, individual responsibility, and reserve about expressing religious beliefs. Given this, members tend to be more lukewarm with respect to their commitment levels, more appreciative of diverse perspectives, and more interested in dialogue with others holding different beliefs. Although Kelley noted that in many ways these characteristics are desirable, he also noted that they are not as effective in fulfilling the essential purpose of religion concerning the provision of meaning, and therefore result in various forms of institutional weakness (for example, declines in membership).

My research – conducted across the past 20 years or so – is consistent with Kelley’s views. Specifically, in two studies, those who are more religiously committed in an Evangelical Protestant tradition show better mental health. In contrast, those more committed in Mainline Protestant or Catholic traditions actually show worse mental health. (See this post for more on my thoughts about faith and science).

In the Judeo-Christian Bible, it is possible to see a rationale for both an exclusive and inclusive approach to faith. Probably the favorite Biblical passage for exclusive Christians refers to Jesus’s remarks that “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Furthermore, James writes that “you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. . . they are double-minded and unstable in all they do” (James 1:6-7). And, yet, Paul recognizes that complete clarity is impossible in this earthly life when he writes that “we know in part. . . for now we see only a reflection as in a mirror” (1 Corinthians 13:9, 12). Of course, Jesus was remarkably open to relating with people from all walks of life, even when it broke strong social norms and religious traditions.


Courtesy: Alain Abou-Atmeh (Pexels)

In some ways, Gabe Lyons addresses exclusive vs. inclusive faith when he distinguishes between “separatist Christians” and “cultural Christians” in his book “The Next Christians.” Lyons argues that both of these approaches ultimately come up short, however, and he proposes that Christians would best approach faith as “restorers,” with a mission to “infuse the world with beauty, grace, justice, and love,” as they seek to “envision the world as it was meant to be and… work toward that vision.”

Brian McLaren addresses these issues more directly in his book “Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?” McLaren argues that exclusive and inclusive forms of religion exist on a continuum, with exclusive faith characterized as being strong, but hostile, and inclusive faith characterized as being weak, but benign. In the middle are various blends of these extremes. He elaborates:

Christians settle on the [exclusive] side not because they want hostility but because they want a strong faith identity. Christians cluster on the [inclusive] side not because they want weakness but because they don’t want hostility. And Christians in the middle want to manifest not mediocrity, but as much strength and as much tolerance as possible, avoiding the extremes on both sides.

Much of McLaren’s book goes on to discuss the question of how we could actually seek the best of both worlds. Referencing Kelley, he finds his answer:

One can conceive of a high-demand religious movement devoted to justice, freedom, beauty, respect for others, and so on, which could effectively explain to [humankind] without fanaticism, absolutism, intolerance, or judgmental moralism. That is what – ideally – Christianity ought to be.

McLaren reflects on this further by concluding:

As the twenty-first century unfolds, the need for this ideal-but-as-yet-uncommon Christianity becomes more acute. That’s where people like you and me come in. It remains for us to explore and embody the possibility… – the possibility of a Christian faith that combines certain key elements of conservative ‘new-line’ Christianity (strength, commitment, intensity of meaning) with other elements of liberal ‘old-line’ Christianity (ecumenicism, reasonableness, a peaceable attitude). Perhaps such a strong-benevolent faith will never be ‘main line,’ but it can certainly be a lifeline in these conflicted and challenging times.


This blog – “The Quest for a Good Life” – explores intersections between Psychology and Christian spirituality. To follow this blog, please supply your information at the top right of this page, and you will receive notifications of new posts.


2 thoughts on “Exclusive and Inclusive Faith

  1. Pingback: Resources for 1 Corinthians 13:9 - 12

  2. Pingback: “Done” with Religion? | The Quest for a Good Life

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