The argument between supporters of exclusivity and inclusivity in the church is made more complicated by two passages in the Gospels that seem to say something diametrically opposite to one another. Does the Bible paint a picture of a church clearly identifying believers on the one side and unbelievers on the other? St Mark’s gospel appears to be on the side of the inclusive cause when Jesus in chapter 9. 40 states that whoever is not against him is for him. This is said in the context of a query by the disciples over a man said to be casting out devils in Jesus’ name but who is not part of the group. The exclusive case is given strength by the passage in Matthew and Luke (12.30 & 11.23) where Jesus says: ‘whoever is not with me is against me’. How often have I heard that passage being used in an abusive, even threatening, way against people who do not agree with the speaker who claims to be speaking the mind of Christ. The passage is used to marginalise all non-Christian religions, non-religious philosophies of life, New Age ideas and indeed anyone who is not a Christian within the speaker’s definition. Indeed it is one of the passages most often used to defend a Christian against perceived attacks from others. John’s gospel is also mined for quotations that seem to support the exclusivist case.
The issue that we need to face first of all in noticing these two apparently contradictory passages is that they seem to reflect a difference of opinion within the New Testament church itself. I do not have the reference books to go deep into the question but my commentary notes that Matthew and Luke, in using this identical saying, here draw on a common source known to scholars as ‘Q’. This abbreviation is taken from the German for source ‘Quelle’. Mark did not have access to this particular document which is mainly a source for a tradition of Jesus’ words and teaching. The ‘exclusive’ passage ascribed to Jesus is thus a ‘Q’ passage while Mark drew from elsewhere for his material. We may speculate that there was, at the time of the early church, a difference of opinion over the question of whether the church was to be open or very strict about its membership. Each side appealed to the words of Christ for support and we are heirs to both traditions. The texts suggest that the Marcan traditions favoured the inclusive understanding of the church while the traditions associated with ‘Q’ went with the idea that the church needed to preserve fairly strict boundaries with the outside world.
The question then arises as to how we are resolve this divergence of opinion within the Biblical text itself. Which understanding in this question of inclusivity and exclusivity was Jesus likely to have had? The well tried answer to such a question is to look wider than just these single passages to discover Jesus’ attitudes. My readers will suspect that I am very suspicious of any argument that appears to be resolved on the authority of a single passage. I personally find the inclusive case to be supported strongly by other evidence in the gospel records. Jesus welcomed and ate with all kinds of people who were very definitely not ‘with us’. Eating with tax-gatherers and sinners was clearly not in the spirit of Old Testament purity laws as there were many rules concerned with ritual contamination. Impurity could come from many sources, some involving people with ‘unclean’ occupations and others particularly involving the contamination of shed blood. A readiness to subvert these purity laws is also to be found in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The hero of the story, the Samaritan, was not hesitant to get involved with the contaminating blood and gore of the wounded traveller. Compassion played second place for the priest and Levite who passed by on the other side to avoid becoming impure. Jesus freely disobeyed other rules set out in the Jewish law, speaking to a woman, allowing his disciples on the Sabbath to roll ears of corn as they crossed a wheat field and healing a sick man on the Sabbath. The acceptance of the attentions of the woman from the street who anointed Jesus, was also outside an exclusivist stance. For me the picture of Jesus as the one who reached out bravely and courageously across barriers and man-made boundaries is summed up in the curious saying about him in Luke 7. Jesus is accused of being ‘a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners’. Since most commentators agree that such an accusation would not be recorded unless it was an actual historical memory, this taunt is likely to have been made. The point is that Jesus, by being such a friend of these groups, was breaking the laws that would have kept him as a respectable law-abiding Jew.
It is clear that the evidence points to the tradition of Jesus reaching out over barriers of class and taboo during his life-time and this is very strong. Such a reading of Jesus’ life suggests that he was unlikely to have wanted strong barriers between his group and those outside to exist. But it is likely that the Jewish faction among the early Christians may well have wanted to re-erect the barriers that Jesus spent so much time trying to dismantle.
This examination of two apparently contradictory passages in the Synoptic gospels is a good illustration of at least two things. First it reflects that the gospels were put together by editors who were themselves caught up in debates and discussions about how the church was to be organised. There was for them more than one tradition of interpretation of what Jesus had said and taught. Secondly we approach the truth of what Jesus may have meant, not by the examination of a single passage, but by looking more widely at signs of coherence in the emphases of Jesus’ overall message. Such coherence does in fact exist and much of the historical evidence for the nature of Jesus’ ministry will show us the fact that while he followed many of the Jewish traditions, he also adopted a critical stance towards it.
I hope that this discussion of these two passages in the gospels has helped some of my readers to recognise that there are issues beneath the text as we have it which cannot be easily resolved by simple text-quoting. The exclusive text of Matthew and Luke needs to be balanced with that appearing in Mark. Whether we like it or not, important issues about who is or is not a Christian are not sorted by text quoting outside the context of a thorough understanding of the whole. It also, needs, dare I say, some access to the work of critical scholars who have been working on this and other problems for the past 200 years. The work of biblical scholarship cannot be wished away to flatter the opinions of conservative Christians who use texts to support their particular agendas.