The Gospel of Inclusion Reaching Beyond Religious Fundamentalism to the True Love of God and Self
By Carlton Pearson Atria Copyright © 2008 Carlton Pearson
All right reserved. ISBN: 9781416580430
What Is Inclusion?
We must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools.
-- Martin Luther King Jr.
This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance (and for this we labor and strive), that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.
-- 1 Timothy 4:9-10
Religion is about the business -- and big business it is -- of saving or getting people saved from the wrath of God, which results in banishment to hell. Christianity, the religion I was brought up in and remain an active member of, teaches that Christ came to earth to save it by redeeming its inhabitants and reconciling them back to God the Father.
If in fact God through Christ is the Savior of all people, something that most evangelical Christians purportedly believe, is it not reasonable to assume that He is also the Savior of those who do not believe and of those who have never heard the Good News?
I remember the late 1960s and early 1970s, when school integration and busing were the new educational standards ofthe day. As a young African-American who had attended the same elementary, junior high, and high school my older siblings had, I was not excited about attending a predominantly white, rich school in an area of town where my mother, grandmother, and godmother cleaned houses.
In that particular social setting, my sister and I not only felt unwelcome and excluded, we also felt irrelevant to the cultural environment. It was, for both of us, the most unpleasant educational experience of our young lives. What made it unpleasant was our ignorance and unfamiliarity with this social change in American conscience and education. We were familiar enough with racial integration, but this was a change of neighborhood and social mores.
We felt the alienation and dissociation of two young black students from "the ghetto." We never felt included; we felt isolated and even intimidated by the social and economic norms of that community. Needless to say, we didn't last long. Not so much because the education was lacking or that we were unable to learn, but because we didn't fit in, and the people there didn't know how to fit us in, even though they may have wanted to. I have never forgotten that cold, dark, stoic feeling.
Discovering Our Ignorance
Historian Will Durant said, "Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance." I am a fourth-generation classical Pentecostal preacher and, oddly enough, none of my predecessors in ministry would have considered himself a scholar, a historian, or even a theologian. Most of them could barely read, some not at all.
This was common among many of the great old preachers of the impoverished social and religious Pentecostal culture in which I was raised.
These preachers were often referred to (in our small culture) as "read-on preachers"; those who couldn't read or didn't read well had their chosen texts publicly read during a church service. They would select a person in the congregation who could read a Scriptural passage aloud. The reader would read a few lines of Scripture, and then the preacher would expound on those passages. When he was finished expounding, he would shout, "Read on!" and the chosen reader would continue. This guarded the inconvenient fact of the preacher's illiteracy.
My great-grandfather (Poppa) was a read-on preacher. In fact, Bishop Charles Harrison Mason, the founder of the denomination in which I was reared, had only a second-grade education. This glamorized a lack of education as something that God used to keep His greatest servants humble and usable by Him. Thus Poppa was (and is to this day) a revered man of God among those who were exposed to his ministry.
My mother was known throughout our religious community as one of the great readers. When Poppa, who lived in East Texas, visited us in the San Diego area, he always expected my mother to be his reader. My uncle would remind my mother that Poppa was the preacher and not her, because she would read as if she were preaching the sermon. Her clear voice would ring out across the small storefront churches until you could hear her about as loudly as the preacher -- the only one who had a microphone.
Imagine this environment for a child, with every aspect of life steeped in conservative, evangelical Christian doctrine. In such a setting, terms such as Universalism, Unitarianism, and heresy were rarely heard, let alone understood. We rarely heard ten-dollar words such as hermeneutic, homiletic, or exegesis, and when we did, we tuned them out. The terminology and scholasticism didn't relate to us. We weren't scholars; we weren't interested in theology. We were blissfully ignorant about the sociological implications of what we believed. A simple message of heaven or hell, reward or punishment, was enough to qualify anyone to preach, and practically everyone in my culture (especially men) gave it a try.
The Dominion of Thinking
I became aware of the doctrine of Universalism back when I was a student at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. However, assuming it to be a heretical position and not worthy of serious consideration, I chose not to study it further. I simply ignored it, considering it irrelevant. It was not until people outside of my local assembly heard my sermons, began to accuse me of preaching Universalism, and branded me a heretic that I began to study this doctrine in more depth. You could say that the road to heresy is paved with scholarship.
Dr. Charles Habib Malik, a great philosopher and diplomat born in 1906, understood the dangers of the venomous contempt for intellectual thinking and inquiry that pervaded conservative Christianity even one hundred years ago and continues today. He remarked:
The greatest danger besetting American Evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism. The mind as to its greatest and deepest reaches is not cared for enough. This cannot take place apart from profound immersion for a period of years in the history of thought and spirit. People are in a hurry to get out of the university and start earning money or serving the church or preaching the gospel. They have no idea of the infinite value of spending years of leisure in conversing with the greatest minds and souls of the past and thereby ripening and sharpening and enlarging their powers of thinking. The result is that the arena of creative thinking is abdicated and vacated to the enemy.
A study conducted by the Barna Group found that 40 percent of ministers in America have no formal seminary training. Within the charismatic/Pentecostal community, I have no doubt that the figure is considerably higher. We are taught to feel more than think, guided by Scriptures such as, "For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful" (1 Corinthians 14:14). Such Scriptures suggest that intellect-driven minds might make errors in spiritual truth. In other words, thinking leads to sin, deception, and error.
Bible schools, especially those sponsored by local churches or denominations, were all right. But seminaries were disdained as "cemeteries"; they were considered dead, lifeless mausoleums where young, aspiring preachers would enter with spiritual zeal but depart with their passion for saving souls bled dry by empty study and uninspiring intellectual thought.
Christian Intellectuals: An Endangered Species?
Institutional Christianity seems fearful of inquiry, fearful of freedom, fearful of knowledge -- indeed, fearful of anything except its own repetitious propaganda, which has its origins in a world that none of us any longer inhabit. The church has historically been willing to criticize, marginalize, or even expel its most creative thinkers.
-- John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die
One of the greatest commands of the Bible, the one on which Jesus said both the law and the prophets hinge, is: "Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength, and with all your mind" (Deuteronomy 6:5 and Matthew 22:37). We're pretty good at loving God with our heart, soul, and strength, but loving God with our mind has become a contradiction in terms for many of us. This is a dangerous state to be in. The growth and spread of religion is like the healthy evolution of a species. It cannot rely only on inbreeding from the captive population but must receive an infusion of new blood from new, vital sources -- the huge majority of people who would like to be believers but also refuse to relinquish their questioning intellects. With only unquestioning believers, religion stagnates, as is happening now.
Loving God with "all my mind" has not only helped me see God but experience Him and my own divinity in ways I never imagined. I have become willing to suspend what I thought I knew about God in order to know Him in a way I didn't know was possible. The message of Inclusion is anathema to what I was conditioned to believe about God and Satan, heaven and hell, eternal judgment and eternal life. To some people, my theological position is tantamount to "falling from grace." I consider it falling "into" grace.
One of the earliest criticisms I received was from those who insisted that the early church fathers considered Universalism to be heresy. Up to that time, I had not seriously considered the thoughts, teachings, or theology of the early church fathers. Through much contemplation and study, I came to the conclusion that there was not only overwhelming scriptural support for my teachings on Inclusion, but that there was actually more scriptural support for Inclusion than against it. This, as you can imagine, won me no points for popularity among the evangelical community with which I had been associated.
The Evidence for Inclusion
I began studying more about the church fathers and how they shaped the doctrines and dogmas of early Christianity. I studied profusely, and I learned that I was not the first to preach a Gospel that included all of humankind in the redemptive work of the Cross -- the essence of Inclusion. It took me awhile to research the numerous Scriptures that support the ultimate salvation of all, especially in comparison to the few popular Scriptures that suggest that a tiny elect are saved while the rest of humanity is damned. In my research, I was surprised to learn that the early church fathers were strong proponents of Universalism and that it was the prevailing doctrine of the first five hundred years of Christianity.
In the first five or six centuries of Christianity, there were six theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, and Edessa, or Nisibis) were Universalist; one (Ephesus) accepted conditional immortality; one (Carthage or Rome) taught endless punishment of the wicked. Other theological schools are mentioned as founded by Universalists, but their actual doctrine on this subject is not known.
-- Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge
Augustine (354-430), of African descent and one of the four great Latin/Afro church fathers (Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, and Gregory the Great), admitted, "There are very many in our day, who though not denying the Holy Scriptures, do not believe in endless torments."
Origen, a pupil and successor of Clement of Alexandria, lived from 185 to 254. He founded a school at Caesarea, and is considered by historians to be one of the great theologians and scholars of the Eastern Church. In his book De Principiis, he wrote: "We think, indeed, that the goodness of God, through His Christ, may recall all His creatures to one end, even His enemies being conquered and subdued...for Christ must reign until He has put all enemies under His feet."
No Christian writer condemned Universalism until the year 394. In that year, a quarrel broke out between the followers of Origen and their opponents. The anti-Origens attacked the tenet of the ultimate salvation of the devil, but did not at fi rst object to the final salvation of all men. But by 553, the Fifth General Council of the church in Constantinople offi cially condemned Universalism. Promoting it could result in punishment, even death, for heresy.
Here is what some early church fathers had to say on the subject:
In the end and consummation of the universe, all are to be restored into their original harmonious state, and we all shall be made one body and be united once more into a perfect man, and the prayer of our Savior shall be fulfi lled that all may be one.
-- St. Jerome, 331-420
For it is evident that God will in truth be all in all when there shall be no evil in existence, when every created being is at harmony with itself and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord; when every creature shall have been made one body.
-- Gregory of Nyssa, 335-390
We can set no limits to the agency of the Redeemer: to redeem, to rescue, to discipline in his work, and so will he continue to operate after this life.... All men are his...for either the Lord does not care for all men...or he does care for all. For he is savior; not of some and of others not...and how is He savior and Lord, if not the savior and Lord of all? For all things are arranged with a view to the salvation of the universe by the Lord of the universe both generally and particularly.
-- Clement of Alexandria, c. 150-211
Stronger than all the evils in the soul is the Word, and the healing power that dwells in him, and this healing He applies, according to the will of God, to everyman. The consummation of all things is the destruction of evil...to quote Zephaniah 3:8: "My determination to gather the nations, that I am assembling the kings, to pour upon them mine indignation, even say all my fi erce anger, for all the earth shall be devoured with the fi re of my jealousy. For then will I turn to the people a pure language that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve Him with one consent"...Consider carefully the promise, that all shall call upon the Name of the Lord, and serve him with one consent.
-- Origen, 185-254
The God of Inclusion
Many Christians say, "Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior." I understand what the believer means with that declaration; I have made it all my life. However, in actuality, Scripture never declares that Jesus is the personal Lord and Savior of anyone. It does declare that Jesus is Lord and Savior of the universe, the world, and the whole of humankind. There's no ambiguity except what we inject.
God is not a Christian, even though Christianity accurately declares Christ to be divine. God is the one true and Supreme God, and his love and redemption are not exclusive to Christians. This fact is not simply suggested, it is declared in the Bible in certain terms hundreds of times.
The first and most important Scripture is found in Genesis 22:18 from the King James Version (KJV). God is speaking to Abraham:
In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.
This promise is written repeatedly throughout the Bible. Psalm 9:7-8 from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) says:
...the LORD abides forever; he has established his throne for judgment. He will judge the world in righteousness; he will execute judgment for [not against] the people with equity.
Psalm 22:27-30, paraphrased from the NIV and NKJV, says:
All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will worship before him. For the kingdom is the Lord's, and he rules over the nations. All the proud of the earth will eat and worship, even he who cannot keep his soul alive. Posterity will serve Him.
There is a primary New Testament passage among many. In it the angels reported to have announced the birth of the Christ Child. They spoke the basic premise of the Gospel, Luke 2:14, paraphrased from the KJV and NIV:
Glory to God, peace on earth, and good will toward humankind.
What Does It Mean to Be "Saved"?
Of course, someone knowledgeable in Scripture will respond, "What about 1 Corinthians 9:22?" There, Paul says "he" became all things to all men in order to save some, not all. Doesn't this Scripture clearly indicate exclusion?
But who is the Savior, Jesus or Paul? Does the Apostle, who spent his entire life preaching Jesus Christ as Savior of the world, now assume that he (the Apostle) can actually "save" people? The word save is used in many ways in Scripture. For example, the first New Testament reference is to Jesus saving "His people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). If you take that passage literally, then Jesus came to save only Jews. You'd have to conclude that He is the Messiah only for Israel, not the rest of the world. Even Israel has rejected that concept.
Then in Matthew 8:25, the disciples ask Jesus to save them from the stormy Sea of Galilee. In Matthew 16:25-26, Jesus uses the same word in reference to a person saving his own life or soul: "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?"
Salvation in Jewish consciousness and Scripture is usually a reference to earthly deliverance, not eternal salvation. All of the Old Testament references are to that effect, as are most in the New Testament. In fact, there are only two places in Scripture where Christ is declared to be the "Savior of the world": John 4:42 and 1 John 4:14. However, the concept is implied throughout Scripture and is the generally accepted doctrine of evangelical Christianity worldwide. All religions teach some kind of salvation. That is what religion is about. The word save means to preserve, protect, or make safe from (including spiritual) loss or lack. When we spiritualize or "religionize" salvation, we assume it to mean salvation from hell.
Paul never assumed he would be successful at convincing everyone he approached with his gospel. He had already been rejected by Jewish traditionalists and had no illusions. Paul never saw himself as a savior, only as a messenger of the news of salvation in Christ, and he was successful in saving some people -- bringing them enlightenment, awareness, and the experience of Christ in consciousness.
Are You a Pharisee?
Most people are familiar with the word Pharisee. According to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance, in both Hebrew and Greek it means "separatist." The Pharisees were ethnic and religious separatists who, as a rule, did not congregate with anyone who was unlike themselves. In many ways, modern Evangelical Christianity has become extremely Pharisaic. I call this homo-sectarian, or "same sect" relations.
In that context, being accused of being an Inclusionist is a badge I wear proudly. If we believe that God loves and plans to save all of mankind, then we have no choice but to have the same attitude. However, if we believe that God will ultimately cast most of humankind away (what most Evangelical Christians have been taught), we manifest that same spirit here on earth, acting out our caustic judgmentalism. That is why millions dismiss billions of others who do not share their beliefs as subhuman, condemned to burn in hell for eternity and not worth consideration, justice, or compassion here on earth. This perpetuates the adversarial relationships that plague our world to this day. It becomes easier to consign the "unregenerate masses" to damnation than to understand and embrace them. It makes us feel superior, something never refl ected or projected in the teaching or actions of Christ. In this way, religion becomes a self-esteem cult.
Two New Testament Scriptures are used prominently to support this perception of exclusion and separatism among my Evangelical detractors:
And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?
-- 1 Peter 4:18 (KJV)
...Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
-- Matthew 7:13-14
These passages do not inspire hope. They inspire hypnotic terror. They imply that redemption is limited to a faithful few. The first is another passage where the word saved refers to earthly deliverance rather than to eternal salvation. In 1 Peter 4:17, Peter is attempting to explain to his readers that the terrible persecution being inflicted upon them was a sign that judgment had begun in the "House of God" (the first-century Christian community), and that even the elect were scarcely being saved from the wrath of Nero, the brutal Roman emperor. At this time in history, Christians were being fed to wild animals, sawed in two between planks of wood, and covered in pitch and used as human torches, to name a few ruthless acts of torture. Because most preachers are unaware of the background of Peter's letter, this passage has been interpreted as indicating that even believers would just barely be saved, and some not at all. This interpretation paints a picture of a wrathful God eager to send even his children into hell, and has caused a kind of paranoia in Christians for centuries. This mentality makes it much easier to assume the ultimate damnation of non-Christians, since even the righteous are scarcely saved.
This is one of the most frightening Scriptures in the Bible. After all, if Christians can't be sure of making it to heaven, even with the blood of Jesus washing away their sins, how can we ever expect a world of ungodly souls to have a ghost of a chance? Now that you mention it, who are those righteous few who are going to gain salvation? Even if we're Christians, how do we know which group we're in?
Propagating such anxiety, paranoia, and terror is a powerful method of controlling the masses, which is why such fear is worldwide. If there is a devil, it is religion, not some fi end running around in red long johns carrying a pitchfork and sporting horns, hooves, and a pointed tail.
We Choose What We See
A great many people think they're thinking when they're merely rearranging their prejudices.
-- William James
One of the most diffi cult things to do is to get another person to accept the validity of information that challenges his worldview. The human mind has an amazing faculty for rejecting what it does not wish to see. Many have heard the message of the Gospel and have been taught the glory of accepting it and the peril of rejecting it. However, even many professing Christians remain far from pledging their allegiance to it and molding their lives accordingly. We still accept the parts of the Bible that we like -- the ones that seem to forgive our failings, reinforce our bigotries, or damn those whose views do not match our own. It's the "salad bar" approach to belief.
When I first went public with the Gospel of Inclusion, I received thousands of letters and e-mails -- some supportive, many outraged. Those who protested Inclusion consistently used the same Scriptures to refute my position; they were shocked when I pointed out scores of references they had never noticed before.
A Chinese proverb says, "Habits are cobwebs at first, cables at last." This applies to cultures, religions, and people. All organized religion is a collection of habits: traditions, customs, rules, doctrines, and dogmas handed down as sacred and untouchable. Because religions generally refuse to adapt to the changes in society and culture, they aggressively seek to make society and culture comply with them. Rather than seeking relevance, religious leaders seek to infl uence, decree, or dominate. This has been a consistent pattern for millennia.
The Jesus Caricature
The first question many Christians ask concerning Inclusion is: "What if someone rejects Jesus?" The only people who really rejected Jesus as Messiah were the religious leaders of His day, because He was a threat. Instead most people tend to reject the religion built around Christ, rather than Jesus Himself. I submit that fewer people would reject Jesus were He presented closer to the way in which He presented Himself as He walked among men. What people continue to reject are the distorted, opportunistic caricatures of Jesus or God at the centers of many Christian denominations.
According to the Old Testament, approximately seven hundred years before Christ's birth, the prophet Isaiah warned that Jesus would be rejected by the dominant people of the time: the Jews, who were led both culturally and theologically by the Pharisees. "He was despised and rejected by men..." (Isaiah 53:3). It was the Pharisees who despised and rejected Jesus, not the common Jew or Gentile on the street. The common people loved Him and followed Him by the thousands.
Does Air Have a Denomination?
It is as impossible to reject God or the Christ Principle as it is to reject the air that we breathe. No one has to preach air or proclaim its existence. Yet every living thing requires it. It is everywhere, invisible and essential. If we began packaging air and branding it culturally, religiously, or ethnically, would some people refuse to breathe a brand of air that wasn't theirs? The prospect seems absurd, yet that is precisely what is occurring in today's Balkanized religious landscape.
The unconditional love of God is as spiritually ubiquitous and necessary as air. But spiritual air and religious air are completely different.
Spiritual air is natural, unable to be rejected or denied. Religious air is a construct of men. It is artificial. Even if religion did not exist, spirituality would.
Religious gods can always be rejected, but the God who is Spirit cannot be, even by the atheist. God is Spirit, pneuma in Greek, meaning "air, wind, or breath," and they that worship Him "must worship in spirit and truth" ( John 4:24). In other words, worshipping God in Spirit is not optional; it is natural and autonomic, like breathing. We are not just human beings looking for spiritual experiences; we are spirits having an earthly encounter. We do not require religion to worship and love God any more than we require an instruction manual to help us breathe.
God Is Not a Religion
Religion seeks to substitute for God, even to replace divinity with its doctrines. This is my point in saying that God is not a Christian. God is neither religion nor religious. God is simply Spirit. (We call God Him, but in reality, He is beyond concepts like gender. We say He simply because it is inconvenient to say He/She/It all the time.) The idea that the secular world is adversarial to faith prevents believers from loving the world enough to approach humankind in the same compassionate spirit with which Christ approached it. As long as we see the world as a sin-racked enemy, we will never be able to appeal to people in the right spirit and with a healthy, hospitable attitude.
John 1:11 says, "He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him." It was not the secular world that rejected Jesus, but religious people who despised Him, primarily His Jewish brethren, who were threatened by what He represented. Jesus was a magnet for sinners and those marginalized to the fringes of society. Such people were drawn to Him by His love, as seen in Luke 15:1-7:
Now the tax collectors and "sinners" were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." Then Jesus told them this parable. "Suppose one of you has one hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.' I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent."
Note that Jesus said that the shepherd had to pick up the lost sheep, hoist it onto his shoulders, and carry it home. Many "lost sheep" will not respond simply to our voice or call, regardless of how elegant or doctrinally accurate we sound. Some people are not only lost but also deaf and wounded. Many are injured and crippled, and need to be picked up emotionally and spiritually and carried back to or reidentifi ed with the fold: God's universal family.
Religion Needs Salvation
In Scripture, a reference to "sheep" usually is a reference to Jews. However, in the broadest sense, it is inclusive of the entire world. I believe it is right to present God and the Gospel as inclusive in love, tolerance, acceptance, and forgiveness, and as celebrative of the beauty of all diverse peoples -- including their glorious salvation in Christ.
Christians, as well as those of other faiths, must attract more and attack less. Religion is too unfriendly; the caustic perception of God intimidates others and cripples religion's ability to be a force for worldwide positive change. Religion is the one in need of salvation. It needs to be delivered from what it has become. It is not the positive force of good it should be.
As relating to "Christian theology," the message of Inclusion maintains that Christ's death accomplished its purpose of reconciling all mankind back to God. The death of Christ made it possible for God to accept humanity, something that has already happened. More important, it demonstrated God's unconditional and redemptive love for His own creative handiwork. I like to call this the Christ Principle. Any separation between mankind and God's grace is an illusion, existing only in man's unenlightened, uninformed, unawakened mind.
Copyright © 2006 by Bishop Carlton Pearson
Excerpted from The Gospel of Inclusion by Carlton Pearson Copyright © 2008 by Carlton Pearson. Excerpted by permission.
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