Inclusion, exclusion, and the gospel

by Barry Newton

On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate of the Berlin Wall and challenged the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to seek freedom and peace. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

In November, 1989, East German officials allowed the Berlin wall to fall amid great celebration.

It was the right thing to do. If either West Germany or East Germany had later determined the barrier’s removal a mistake, travel policy would have changed, and the wall would have sprung up again.

At other times, massive barriers are necessary and good. Serving God, Nehemiah lead the residents of Jerusalem to rebuild their walls. Walls can provide protection and necessary demarcation.

Not all walls, however, whether they need to be torn down or raised up, are so physical. Postmodernism waves the flag of tolerance as the supreme value; many seem to clamor for all walls to be broken down, in order to produce a melting pot of inclusion, in which no idea or identity can lay claim to ultimate truth.

In his letter to the Galatian Christians, Paul’s application of the gospel to their situation revealed that the gospel is neither enslaved to the principle of inclusion nor exclusion. The gospel reveals the topography of spiritual reality, the surface of which Christ’s death has bulldozed many barriers to rubble. But it has also erected other lines of demarcation.

In their social and religious environment, Jewish Christians were tempted to withhold table fellowship from Christian Gentiles. Paul emphasized that “In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God … There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female — for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26,28 NET).

Using himself as an example, Paul denounced those Jewish Christians who would revert to their old practices. Rebuilding those dividing walls would demonstrate that he would have been working against God — he who claimed Christ razed them to the ground (2:18). He had no reason, however, to rebuild those decimated barriers because, as someone crucified with Christ, his life was sustained by Christ, not the architectural source for those barriers, namely, the Law (2:19-20). The clear implication is this: as Christians they should not rebuild those walls either.

While such a message appeases the inclusive sensibilities of postmodernism, Paul’s prior and following lines demonstrate that the gospel transcends enslavement to this principle. What drives the good news of how the crucified Christ transforms a Christian’s life is not the mere desire to be inclusive, but rather what is indeed so.

Christ died for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age (1:4). This truth creates a distinction between people. Some people are rescued while others remain lost.

Furthermore, by identifying as sons of God those who have trusted in Christ, and identifying that faith response with baptism into Christ to be clothed with him (3:26-27), Paul drew an identifiable line separating those whom Christ has rescued from those outside.

While some attitudes and philosophies might be driven by either the desire to be inclusive or by a fear-promoting exclusion, the gospel is free from both. The good news about Jesus reveals how God is at work to create unity through Christ. Unfortunately, those who have not yet responded to him are currently excluded.

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Barry Newton

Married to his wonderful wife Sofia and a former missionary in Brazil, Barry enjoys trying to express old truths in fresh ways. They are the parents of two young men.

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