Much is made in evangelical circles about the need for an intelligent and argued defense of the faith against it's "cultural despisers." Apologetics is a hot topic, with parachurch organizations, radio broadcasts, and even seminary degrees devoted to the task of engaging the faiths of the world with the truths of Christ.
I have nothing at all against such ministries. Certainly, the best of Christian scholarship should be devoted to addressing the questions of the world and answering them with biblical clarity and theological coherency. And, in an age where it is often claimed that "all roads lead to the same place," it is necessary to delineate the distinctiveness of Christian faith.
Even while tremendous effort is being expended in an effort to convince both the world and the church that the Way of Christ is the only true Way, very often I hear pastors and evangelical leaders decry the creeping pluralism in the pews. The truth is, many American Christians are increasingly uncomfortable claiming that Christian faith has an exclusive claim on Truth. I would venture to guess that, if they were honest, most American evangelicals, even ones who affirm the existence of a literal burning hell, would confess that they hesitate to draw the lines between them as Christians and the "good" Hindu, Buddhist, or Jew. They don't want to make a guess as to who's "in" and who's "out." It just doesn't feel right.
Why is this the case? Book after book, program after program, course after course, has been written and experienced, educating the Christian masses about the superiority of Christianity over the faiths of the world. And yet, in their heart of hearts, many Christian still wonder: Is Jesus really the only Way? Is the Way of Christ truly eternal life? Are Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and many others really missing out on something? Is there any real way to tell the difference between us?
Recently, I have been engrossed in Dallas Willard's latest book, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus' Essential Teaching on Discipleship. In chapter 7, "Spiritual Formation in Christ: A Perspective on What It Is and How It Might Be Done," Willard offers a brief perspective on the matter of "proper Christian exclusiveness," that I believe is truly insightful. His point is that if Christians were truly focused upon attaining obedience to Christ's teachings through a transformed heart and personality, then the matter of Christian exclusiveness would be largely taken care of. Here's the rest of the quote:
"The real issue relating to exclusiveness is whether the Christian actually has a relationship with God, a presence of God, that non-Christians do not have. Apart from Christian spiritual formation as described here, I believe there is little value in claiming exclusiveness for the Christian way...
"The realization of this may be what is reflected in the current mass abandonment of the exclusiveness of Christianity that is going on among Western Christians now, especially in its academic centers. Why should one insist on the exclusiveness of Christianity if all it is is one more cultural form? But let the reality of Christian spiritual formation come to its fullness, and exclusiveness will take care of itself. If the witch and warlock, the Buddhist and the Muslim, can truly walk in a holiness and power equal to that of Jesus Christ and his devoted followers, there is nothing more to say. But Christ himself, and not Christianity as a form of human culture, is the standard by which 'we' as well as 'they' are to be measured."
To put it another way, Willard is asserting that it is largely due to the lack of Christian spiritual transformation in Western churches that has led many Christians to reconsider the exclusive truth claims of Christianity. Because we have not taught our disciples to "obey everything [Jesus has] commanded," (Matt 28:20a) we have no tangible, existential evidence that the truths of Christ make for transformed, eternal kinds of lives. Because it appears that Jesus Christ and his followers do not walk in holiness and power exceeding that of the witch, warlock, Buddhist, and Muslim, both Christians and non-Christians have justifiable reasons to doubt the exclusiveness of Christian truth.
Of course, our motivation for seeking genuine formation in Christ's likeness should not be the desire to demonstrate superiority over the faiths of the world. If we truly believe that apprenticeship to Jesus leads to an eternal kind of life now, an engagement with the power of God, and a character that increasingly evidences the virtues of love, joy, and peace, then why not devote our entire lives to attaining it? And, why not devote the energies of our churches to teaching others to do the same?
Willard goes on to say: "Are we seriously and realistically about the business of Christian spiritual formation as measured by unqualified love of Jesus Christ, and as specified by our 'job description,' in the Great Commission? How does our work, what we really do, actually relate to the charge he has left us? How much of what goes on in ourselves, our local assemblies, our denominations, and our schools, is dictated only by 'futile ways inherited from [our] ancestors' (1 Peter 1:18)?...This question is surely put to each of us individually, as well as to all our institutions and programs, by the one who said, 'Why do you call me, Lord, Lord, and do not do what I tell you?' (Luke 6:46)."
As I have referenced earlier, Jesus' language in the Great Commission makes it clear that his aim in the church, his job description for God's people, is that they bring disciples to the point of obedience to "everything I have commanded you." And yet, I know of no current denomination or local congregation that has a concrete, practical plan and/or practice for teaching people to obey "everything" Jesus has "commanded."
I think Willard is correct when he concludes that if we continue in this way, gradually drifting from the mark set by Christ's Commission, we will "increasingly find it harder to differentiate ourselves in life from those who are non- or even anti-Christian." God help us reclaim our responsibility to make apprentices to Jesus whose lives reflect the eternal life that Christ offers to the whole world.