The Rev. Peter Faass
Soteriology is the study of religious doctrines of salvation. Generally, salvation is saving of the soul from sin and its consequences. In today’s reading from Acts, Peter, speaking of Jesus, states that “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved."
This and similar statements in scripture, have led many Christians to believe that only those who believe in Jesus will be saved, and those who do not believe in him are condemned to some version of eternal damnation. Within Christianity, there are many different doctrines about salvation and most are rooted in human precepts. Ask a Roman Catholic and you get one version of salvation. Ask a Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon or an Evangelical, and you get something quite different. Ask an Episcopalian, a Presbyterian or a Lutheran, and you will get three more understandings of that it means to be saved.
Because of narrow – dare I say, myopic – interpretations of scripture, combined with our selfish human needs to exert control and dominance, salvation theories abound. We have seen centuries of distrust, hatred, prejudice, exclusion and even violence committed by various Christians against one another because of that.
When a nation adopts one particular expression of Christianity as its official “state religion,” look out. Historically, believers who do not belong to that state religion will be marginalized, suffer persecution, and even die. Salvation only comes to those who are adherents of the right, or “true” faith. Everyone else gets persecuted and a grisly ticket to the grave. We only need to look at the history of our own Anglican faith to see this. A lot of Catholic and Protestant blood were spilled in religious struggle during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I.
Maltreatment of people who supposedly believe wrongly and are therefore beyond salvation pertains to other religions as well. In many nations where Islam is the official religion, Christians and Jews are marginalized, persecuted and even threatened with death. In the Middle East, in both Israel and the surrounding Arab nations of Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, Christianity as an indigenous religion is in danger of extinction because it has been so marginalized and persecuted by the greater cultures. It is estimated that in another generation, the only Christians living in Israel/Palestine will be those maintaining holy sites.
I believe most of us struggle with this kind of exclusivist idea of salvation, whether it’s Christian or otherwise. We in Northeast Ohio live in a multi-religious, multi-cultural melting pot. We encounter people from across the Christian religious spectrum and of other faiths every day. In the eastern suburbs of Cleveland, we live amidst one of the largest concentrations of Jewish people in the country. We have growing populations of Buddhists, Hindus and people from other faiths. And then there are the Nones, those people who profess no identifiable religious affiliation. Who among us doesn’t have Jewish, Catholic, Mormon or atheist colleagues, neighbors, friends or family members? A few of us may not. Who doesn’t like, admire, or love these folks who form a part of the fabric of our lives?
Which of us believes that these family, friends and neighbors from other denominations or faiths or no faith, and who don’t believe our particular doctrines about Jesus, are not saved and are going to burn in hell?
Thank goodness! Sadly though, many do.
One of the roots of these exclusivist Christian ways to salvation is found in the mistranslation of a passage in today’s Gospel. Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So, there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
In the late fourth century when St. Jerome translated the Bible from Greek into Latin (a tome known as the Vulgate Bible), he changed the word flock (as in “one flock”) to fold. His Bible read there will be one fold and one shepherd. This mistranslation became the scriptural warrant the Roman Catholic Church embraces. The Roman Catholic Church believes that since there is only one fold, there is only one Church (the Catholic Church), and there is no salvation beyond it.
Christians of all flavors have been using this one fold, one shepherd plumb line for centuries to determine their guideline for salvation. Of course, their particular expression of the faith is the one and only true fold. And if you’re not in that fold, you’re not saved. The problems with this are that:
- It’s not based on accurate scriptural interpretation.
- It’s not congruent with the overarching message of Jesus in the Gospel, which trends toward a universal salvation for those who, as the text says today, hear his voice.
- The one-fold doctrines of salvation that have accrued to various faith systems are usually of human and not divine origin.
When Jesus tell us, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So, there will be one flock, one shepherd,” it undermines all those exclusivist soteriologies. That statement is unambiguous in its radical inclusivity. It resoundingly says to those who adhere to exclusive soteriologies, No!
Uniformity isn’t promised in this passage – unity is. The distinction goes beyond words, depending on a wide and important truth. It is not unity of fold which is regarded as being necessary for salvation, but unity of flock. There will be many folds in many nations and ages throughout the world.
For all Christians, there will be one true Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep, and all these differing folds shall, through living in unity with Him, make one vast flock. That is the route to salvation.
Let me push the envelope here: I think this goes beyond just Christianity and the Church. The vast flock will embrace all people who hear Jesus’ voice in all the various iterations that God has made that voice known in human life and cultures. The voice of the Christian Church won’t exclusively lead to salvation, much of which is rooted in human doctrines and precepts. Rather, it is rooted in hearing Jesus’ voice through the Gospel and beyond.
This means those who will be saved are people who hear and heed his words.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:6-9)
Those who will find salvation are those who hear and heed his voice when he says, ‘Truly I tell you, whenever you [took care and loved] one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, who were (hungry, thirsty, naked, in prison, sick, lonely) you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)
Those who will find true salvation hear and heed his voice when Jesus tells us, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34) By hearing and heeding these words, the world can be one flock and find God’s peace.
There was a Christian missionary in Canada who was working amongst the indigenous Indian peoples in Saskatchewan. I have updated the nouns to be inclusive.
When the missionary was telling the native peoples about the love of God, an elderly chief said to him, “When you spoke of the Great Spirit just now, did I hear you call God “Our Mother - Father?” Yes, said the missionary. “This is very new and sweet to me,” said the chief. “We never thought of the Great Spirit as mother-father. We do know the Spirit as thunder, lightning, rain and various creatures of the forest, but never as mother-father, as a parent. This new understanding is very comforting to us, because if God is our mother-father and if God is your mother-father, then our people are all sisters and brothers.”
My sisters and brothers, this is salvation.