Saturday, March 16, 2019

Musings on the Evolution of Christian Exclusivism to Universalism

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

In the Gospel accounts the teachings of Jesus on love over law were summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves--including our neighbors of other races and religions.  Then came Paul, who interpreted the crucifixion and resurrection as God’s blood sacrifice to atone for original sin; and ironically, church doctrine has since subordinated the moral teachings of Jesus to belief in that atonement doctrine.

Not to sell Paul short, in the same letter to the Romans that included reference to the atonement doctrine (Romans 3:25-31) Paul also declared that love of neighbor fulfilled the law (Romans 13:8-10).  This gave the fledgling church a choice between mystical beliefs and moral standards as its doctrine, and the church chose the former over the latter. That’s because the moral teachings of Jesus were never popular, and the church needed to be popular to succeed.

In the 4th century Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire and had church leaders produce a mystical creed bereft of the moral teachings of Jesus.  In the 16th century Reformation Luther’s doctrine of sola fide affirmed the priority of exclusivist beliefs over moral works as the only means of salvation.  It wasn’t until the 18th century that the advances in knowledge and reason of the Enlightenment challenged ancient priorities in religion and politics.

The Enlightenment’s challenge to the status quo also produced religious fundamentalism that saw progress and modernity as a threat to traditional religion and reached its apogee in the 20th century.  It was followed by Ayn Rand’s secular objectivism that promoted self-centered values to sanctify greed and discredited the altruism taught by Jesus. Fundamentalism and Rand’s objectivism led to the rise of 21st century evangelicalism and the prosperity gospel.

But not before the civil rights revolution led by MLK in the 1960s.  White Christians joined blacks in MLK’s peaceful civil disobedience protests of the immoral separate but equal Jim Crow laws in the South culminating with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The movement reasserted the primacy of God’s rule of love over law, but it also stimulated the racism that motivated the Moral Majority and evangelicalism that elected Donald Trump and his radical right Republican minions.

Last month the same Methodist Church that supported MLK’s civil rights movement to end racial discrimination voted to continue discriminating against homosexuals.  America has come full cycle from Thomas Jefferson describing the teachings of Jesus as “the most sublime moral code ever designed by man” to a post-Christian nation that has lost its moral compass.  

Even so, the altruistic teachings of Jesus remain the universal and timeless word of God.  When stripped of the encumbrances of exclusivist church doctrines and interpreted to apply to our time and place, the teachings of Jesus can restore political legitimacy in America.  Our challenge is to save Jesus from a church that ignores the moral stewardship of democracy in order to remain popular in a materialistic and hedonistic culture polarized by partisan politics.

Jesus was the last in a long line of Jewish prophets who questioned the politics and religion in their ancient time and place and spoke God’s truth to man’s power.  In a world of increasing religious diversity the universal teachings of Jesus are needed to make the moral stewardship of democracy a priority of Christian discipleship.
Jesus was a Jewish universalist whose greatest commandment has survived the moral irrelevance of exclusivist church doctrines and rituals.  In a world of increasing religious diversity progressive believers must end the era of exclusivist religions.  As architects of their religious destiny they must shape a universal religion of God’s love that has no exclusivist boundaries.


David Brooks, Arthur C. Brooks and the Dalai Lama have all described the love of others, including those we would rather ignore--and even our enemies--as the only way to break the current cycle of hate and polarized politics with a politics of reconciliation.  See David Brooks, An agenda for moderates: the policy implications of love your neighbor at
And the Dalai Lama and Arthur C. Brooks, All of us can break the cycle of hate, at         

Robin R. Meyers has noted that the mystical and exclusivist doctrines of the Christian religion emphasize belief in a divine Christ but ignore the moral teachings of Jesus.  The title of his book says it all: Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus, Harper One, 2009.

Related Commentary:

On the greatest commandment and love over law:
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(1/18/15): Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(3/31/18): Altruism: The Missing Ingredient in American Christianity and Democracy
(2/23/19): Musings on Loving Your Enemy, Including the Enemy Within

On Christian Exclusivism and Universalism:
(2/8/15): Promoting Religion Through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness?
(6/17/17): Religious Exclusivity: Does It Matter?
(8/12/17): The Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism  
(9/29/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Resurrection of Christian Universalism
(10/6/18): Musings on Moral Universalism in Religion and Politics
On mysticism and morality in Christianity:
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(1/28/17): Saving America from the Church
(3/11/17): Accountability and the Stewardship of Democracy
(3/18/17): Moral Ambiguity in Religion and Politics
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
(10/28/17): The Moral Decline of Religion and the Seven Woes of Jesus
(12/2/17): How Religious Standards of Legitimacy Shape Politics, for Good or Bad
(12/23/17): If Democracy Survives the Trump Era, Can the Church Survive Democracy?
(1/20/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Morality and Religion in Politics
(1/27/18): Musings on Conflicting Concepts of Christian Morality in Politics
(2/24/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Religion, Freedom and Legitimacy
(3/24/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christian Morality as a Standard of Legitimacy
(3/31/18): Altruism: The Missing Ingredient in American Christianity and Democracy
(4/7/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Need for a Moral Reformation
(4/28/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Virtues and Vices of Christian Morality
(5/26/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Mysticism and Morality in Religion and Politics
(7/14/18): Musings on Why Christians Should Put Moral Standards Over Mystical Beliefs

On fundamentalism:
(5/3/15): A Fundamental Problem with Religion
(8/2/15): Freedom and Fundamentalism
(5/21/16): Religious Fundamentalism and a Politics of Reconciliation

On truth:
(8/30/15): What Is Truth?
(7/29/17): Speaking God’s Truth to Man’s Power

On Thomas Jefferson and the teachings of Jesus:
(3/17/18): Jefferson’s Jesus and Moral Standards in Religion and Politics

On discipleship and the stewardship of democracy:
(12/17/16): Discipleship in a Democracy: A Test of Faith, Legitimacy and Politics
(3/11/17): Accountability and the Stewardship of Democracy
(1/19/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Discomfort of Discipleship

On the Protestant Reformation:
(9/30/17): The 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation: What Does It Mean Today?
(10/7/17): A 21st Century Reformation to Restore Reason to American Civil Religion

On the Enlightenment and the transformation of religion and politics:
(5/12/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christianity and Making America Great Again
(9/1/18): Musings on the American Civil Religion and Christianity at a Crossroads
(1/26/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Evolution of the Gospel(s)

On the relationship of Jesus and the church to American culture:
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(3/2/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on a Post-Christian America
(3/9/19): Musings on the Degradation of Democracy in a Post-Christian America

On the prosperity gospel:
(6/15/18): The Prosperity Gospel: Where Culture Trumps Religion in Legitimacy and Politics

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