Years ago I learned two principles which I have never forgotten. First, ideas have consequences. I first understood this as I read Richard Weaver's book by the same title. In brief, his motive was an attempted prescription for the perceived decline of western civilization. A second principle, like the first, is that often times actions (and ideas) have unintended consequences. In fact, some label this the law of unintended consequences. At times, in pursuit of one objective, a result is attained that is both unexpected and counter-productive.
These two principles jumped into my mind when I read Joe Phelps' essay, "God too big for one religion," published by the Associated Baptist Press (Phelps is the pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, KY which is affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship).
The essay begins with Phelps' personal story of a grade-school friend, Mindy, who was Jewish. By his description she was a wonderful person. He then relates his personal dilemma because he had been taught that without Jesus, all people, including Mindy, were lost.
This dilemma was rectified, he relates, when "a quiet voice rose in my heart that responded: 'Mindy is my child and I love her as much as I do you. Let me worry about Mindy.'" He then goes on to affirm his own conviction that "exclusivity" is a bad thing. He explains, "when one approaches faith with a presupposition of exclusion it is easy to find passages to justify this position." He goes on to argue that "the heart of God is inclusive and gracious." His conclusion is that "we (practitioners of all faiths) are all on the same team. Our understandings of God may differ, but ultimately, there is one Sacred Center toward which all faiths move when practiced in humility and reverence." He closes by quoting Michael Franti's "God is too big for just one religion."
So, how do you respond to an argument like this?
His "idea" is based on his boyhood feeling, "a quiet voice...in his heart." The idea, simply put, is his belief that all who practice some kind of faith are acceptable to God. How does he know? He had a feeling. Here, his emotion has displaced Scripture as the norm of what is to be believed.
By what he says and does not say, Phelps is arguing that Christianity is one valid religion among many valid religions. Of more critical importance is his refusal to believe that Jesus is the exclusive way to Heaven. If what Phelps believes is what he says, Jesus is optional.
So what are the consequences of his ideas? If people are lost without a Savior, and that is the unequivocal message of the Bible, then he in his "I am OK, you are OK" argument, gives his readers and listeners assurance of a salvation without a Savior. And if a person actually believes that they are "good enough," or that "all religious roads lead to Heaven," then they need not turn to Christ which is in effect what he was communicating concerning his friend, Mindy.
The unintended consequence, in his attempt to make Mindy feel safe, is that he has unintentionally locked her into her lostness. I only wish he had embraced the prayer of Paul, "my heart's desire and prayer to God for them (including Mindy) is that they might be saved" (Rom. 10:1).
Flannery O'Conner, the great American writer, stated, "the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it." For Phelps, it certainly appears that truth for him is optional, if truth is indeed to be measured by Scripture.
Pastor Phelps has the right to believe whatever he wants. He does not have the right to parade it as orthodox Christianity. Neither does it give him the right to give people without Christ an assurance of Heaven. I wish a quiet voice would rise up in his heart and say," this is one you need to reconsider."