What happens when the Christian faith produces its own culture? Christian movies, songs, celebrities and cell groups with the Church stamp of approval, exclusively for Christian consumption so as to avoid secular culture? Or what happens when the Church holds out any group in particular as a special example of fallenness to avoid or resist, and leaves it at that?
I would argue that in a way it has lost itself. It smacks of elitism; Christianity though is not about finding new ways to cloister ourselves or separate ourselves from the non-Christian world. Jesus never did, and neither should we. On the contrary, his Gospel seems to strike a curious balance of inclusiveness and exclusiveness, openness and elitism: on the one hand the Kingdom of God is open for all, but on the other hand few will enter it through its narrow door; on the one hand God’s people are commanded to know and love the word of God, on the other hand it was those who considered themselves spiritual elites that Jesus criticised most harshly, telling them that prostitutes and tax collectors were reaching the Kingdom before they.
But how? Because you see, inclusiveness as the world defines it involves welcoming everyone in, no matter who they are. But in the name of welcoming everyone and keeping them there must be nothing that could potentially turn people away. Inclusive groups and institutions impose no standards or demands, and allow people to be and do whatever they want.
But elitism stands as a polar opposite. There are demands, standards, things you have to attain or do or be before you can make it in. And once in, the new entrant must mind position above all. Elitist groups or institutions may stand for excellence, but a large part of their existence is also concerned with setting members apart from all others, with closing off those less elite, and retaining that power and position.
The Gospel apparently manages to put together these seeming contradictions. God the Father of Jesus Christ is on one hand unashamed of his supremacy; he is a self-consciously superior God who does not put on false modesty, who rules and commands and protects as someone in full knowledge of his lordship over all. He sets (impossibly) high standards for his people, he demands death where there is sin, he commands obedience. And he expects his people to take after him, to display a spiritual and moral excellence and goodness that shines among the nations.
And yet God is inclusive. Though he sets standards for his people to follow, and commands them to stand apart from all other nations in a way that in a way smacks of elitism, he is also an inclusive God. He is inclusive in creating man and desiring his fellowship (though he himself doesn’t need it); he is inclusive in wanting to reconcile sinful man to himself; he is inclusive in setting Israel as a bridge between himself and all the nations; and above all he is inclusive in giving his righteousness to man, to bridge those impossibly high standards – and that through ultimate self-sacrifice, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus the God-man commands perfection yet dines with sinners, calls tax collectors by name, speaks healing words to adulterers, compassionately lays hands on lepers, stands up for prostitutes.
In the same way that Jesus’ Gospel bridges love and wrath, judgement and grace, it apparently bridges elitism and inclusiveness. Jesus the husband of the Church, and his Father, demand perfect righteousness (though thankfully this is given to all because it is simply humanly impossible to attain!) – in a way, elitism. But this is no elitism that is interested in retaining power or shutting others out. It is an elitism that is inclusive, that freely and self-sacrificially holds itself out to the outsider and the failure, that they too may be part of the heavenly family. And yet this inclusiveness is not a feel-good, anything-goes institution. There are commands, there are demands. Jesus demands his followers give up their lives and forsake all other things to follow him. An inclusiveness with an identity and a perfect God to follow, and an identity that is at the end set still apart from those who don’t know God – an elitist inclusiveness.
(Now I must stress that the exaltedness of the Church owes entirely to the exaltedness of Jesus; if the Church identifies itself as pure, as perfect, it is a perfection and purity that is ours only because it was given by Jesus. The Church is vicariously perfect and pure, and we call the world to those standards not because we have made it ourselves, but because and only because we were given the grace to live it, and the authority to judge and rebuke.)
With that in mind, we return to inclusive elitism, or elitist inclusiveness. It’s a paradox in so many ways (no manmade religion, this), which means it’s a fine line to tread. Too much elitism, and we become a club of snobs, a museum of good people which doesn’t encourage so much as sicken everyone else. Too much inclusiveness though, and we become a club of friends with little in common save for fondness for nice people. We forget where our identities lie, why we were called out from darkness, we forget who our God is, forget why Jesus had in fact to die for us.
It’s a fine line, otherworldly and just slightly crazy. But I think it represents the somewhat paradoxical God we follow: who was born fully God and fully man into our world; who demands but also freely gives perfection; who commands us to lose our lives in order to find them. This tension, I believe, is a defining feature of following Jesus. And this kind of elitist inclusiveness is also, I believe, a defining feature of the Church.
When we get to comfortable in being snobby elitists, or in being all-inclusive, anything-goes clubs, we lose ourselves and forget Jesus. Which is why producing Jesus-approved culture seems so counter-intuitive. We are instead to go out to the world, to engage on its terms, to subvert and redeem, to embrace and love self-sacrificially, all the while knowing where and with whom we stand. That goes for condemning and rebuking too; we were all of us called out from darkness, and all of us still live in sin, Christian and non-Christian. If we were together with the ‘sinners’ while we were still in darkness, are we still not together with them in our hope in Jesus, in our need for Jesus – and the grace he gives to be perfect like him? We are inclusive in our exaltedness, yet exalted in our inclusiveness, just like Jesus.