Recently I was at a barbecue where I talked with a woman who had many questions about Christianity. Like many of us, there were things she did not understand or agree with. As we were talking, the topic of Christianity’s arrogance came up. How can Christians claim that their religion is the only true one? This seems like the height of presumption considering the many religions in existence. Who is the Christian to say that he or she is right and everyone else is wrong? As a follower of Jesus, this really got me thinking. I’m used to looking at and discussing if Christianity is reliable and worthy of acceptance, but I don’t often ask myself if Christianity is arrogant.
Do I believe Christianity is arrogant? The short answer is no. But to explain why I say this, we need to look at four distinctions.
Distinction #1: Arrogance vs. Conviction
I live in a culture that acknowledges the individual’s right to decide which religion they will follow, if any. We strongly oppose anyone imposing their religious beliefs upon us and telling us what to believe or not believe. Because of this, I think we’ve often mistaken conviction for arrogance. The Merriman-Webster Dictionary defines Arrogance as:
“An attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or in presumptuous claims or assumptions.”
While there are sadly many Christians who act this way when they communicate what they believe, the Christian faith is not based upon presumptuous claims or assumptions. Rather, it’s based upon the conviction that Christianity is true. What do I mean by conviction? Again, Merriman-Webster’s definition is helpful:
“A strong persuasion or belief; the state of being convinced.”
The heart of conviction is not arrogance but humility. When you’re persuaded that someone or something has the right answers, you want to live and act in a way that is consistent with your belief. For example, growing up we had a wood stove in our house. My parents warned me many times during the winter months that if I touched the stove while it was in use I would burn myself. They were not making a presumptuous claim by telling me this. Rather, they were communicating their strong belief for my protection, a belief I quickly became convinced of when I disregarded their message and burnt my hand. In a similar way, Christianity rests upon the strong belief that the message of Jesus Christ as proclaimed in the Bible is true. It is this conviction about the Christian message, not arrogance, which motivates the Christian’s beliefs.
Distinction #2: The Messenger vs. the Message
While Christianity rests upon conviction and not arrogance, it is sadly true that Christians can, and many do, communicate their message in an arrogant way. This is where it is important to distinguish between the messenger and the message. Just because I communicate something in an arrogant way does not mean I am wrong. Similarly, communicating in a humble way does not make me right. We need to carefully check the message’s reliability for itself. Is the message of Christianity consistent in what it affirms rationally, emotionally, and existentially? It’s also helpful to see that the Bible itself commands that the message of Christ be communicated with humility. Arrogance is not an option. 1 Peter 3:15 says,
“But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” (emphasis mine)
Here we see conviction wed to gentleness and respect. Not even a hint of arrogance should surface.
Distinction #3: Truth Claim vs. Opinion
At this point you might be thinking, “OK, I get that someone can come across in a way that is contrary to what they’re trying to communicate. But I still think the message of Christianity is arrogant when it says it’s the only true religion.” To this response I think it’s important to distinguish between a truth claim and an opinion. If Christianity and the other world religions are merely a matter of personal preference and opinion, than yes, Christianity’s claim to exclusivity is arrogant. BUT, if the message of Christianity is true then it is not arrogant, because something that is true cannot be presumptuous. If Christianity is true its claims are no more arrogant than saying that 2+2=4.
Distinction #4: Truth Claim vs. Truth Claim
This brings me to my last distinction in evaluating this question of Christianity’s demeanor, that of truth claims vs. truth claims. Christianity is not the only religion that makes exclusive claims. In fact, every major religion claims exclusivity. For example, Christianity believes Jesus is both fully God and Human, while Islam believes Jesus was a prophet but not God. Judaism believes the promised Messiah has not yet come, while Christianity believes the promised Messiah has come. Atheism believes there is no God – Christianity believes there is a God. Many more examples could be given to show that all belief systems are exclusive. They cannot all be correct. Even the belief that there is no one true religion is a truth claim that is exclusive. To say there are many ways is to deny that there is only one way, which is exclusive. So on this basis; if Christianity is arrogant, it is not alone in its presumptuous claims. All belief systems make statements that they believe are true, containing beliefs that are exclusive.
Bringing it All Together
After looking at these four distinctions, I believe Christianity itself is not arrogant. Rather, it is the belief that the message of Jesus Christ as told in the Bible is reliable and worthy of acknowledgment and trust. Though this belief has often been communicated in an arrogant way, it in and of itself is not arrogant. Like every religion, it rests upon truth claims that need evaluation. One then has the choice to either accept or reject the message.