“Whoever is not against us is for us.”   Wait, that doesn’t sound right. Maybe it should be, “Whoever is not for us is against us.” Jesus said one of these things, but which one? Actually, he said both.

In one instance, recorded in Mark 9:40 and Luke 9:50, what we might call the inclusive form of the proverb is used. Mark has it as “Whoever is not against us is for us,” and the Luke wording is “Whoever is not against you is for you.” In the other instance, recorded in Matthew 12:30 and Luke 11:23, the saying appears in its exclusive form: “Whoever is not with me is against me.” Was Jesus confused? Did he misquote the proverb by mistake, and if so, which form is correct?

As a matter of fact, both are correct, and Jesus chose his words carefully. Let’s look a little more closely at the two incidents in Jesus’ ministry. It’s interesting that both sayings are triggered by dramatic episodes of casting out demons. In the earlier one, the exorcism was being done by some people who were not among Jesus’ disciples, but they were doing the miracle in Jesus’ name. The disciples were offended by this and thought they should confront the strangers. Jesus responded with the inclusive form of the proverb: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” He was encouraging his followers to be generous in their judgment of others, to give these men the benefit of the doubt.

By contrast, in the second instance Jesus was the one casting demons out of a man. Critics nearby argued about where Jesus’ power and authority came from, some even accusing him of being an agent of Satan. Jesus responded by quoting the proverb in its exclusive form, “Whoever is not for me is against me.” Here the stakes were high, focusing on who Jesus was and what his mission was. There could be no middle ground.

We come from a separatist tradition: the Protestants separated from the Catholics, the “free churches” separated from the state churches, the Baptists separated from mainline Protestants, the Conservative Baptists separated from the American Baptists, and various other groups separated from the Conservative Baptists because they weren’t conservative enough. Our spiritual ancestors were pretty good at the exclusive formula Jesus used: “Whoever is not for us (on every doctrinal detail) is against us.”

The Ecumenical Movement in Christianity has reaffirmed Jesus’ inclusive maxim: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” First, more liberal mainline denominations began coming together: Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed, Congregationalists. Then Catholics, Orthodox and even some Baptist groups entered the circle. Now the word “Interdenominational” is giving way to the word “Interfaith” in the titles of seminars and cooperative social action efforts. Christian ecumenical leaders routinely join with Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i and even openly atheist groups and organizations. These folk operate under the banner “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Is it naive of me to believe that we can embrace both aspects of Jesus’ amazing reversible saying?   When it comes to proclaiming the truth about who Jesus is and what he came to do (which was the issue in the second episode), we should be exclusive, not watering down the gospel in any way for the sake of making people of other faiths more comfortable. In lifting up Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of the world, our posture should be “Whoever is not for him is against him.”

At the same time, we should be inclusive in joining hands with every person of every faith (or non-faith) who stands for the values that Jesus lived for and died for — actively working to improve the lot of the poor, affirming peaceful coexistence among the nations of the world, advocating for equal opportunities for people of every race, culture and gender, improving the communities in which we live together. Our approach should be “Whoever is not against us is for us” when it comes to working toward such goals, which are clearly in harmony with God’s goals.

If Jesus could balance inclusivity and exclusivity in his active ministry, surely he will inspire and enable us to follow his example.

— Pastor George Van Alstine