This confronting title is unlikely to be recognised by most readers, because it comes from a 19th century document written in an outdated vocabulary. “Heathen” is an old fashioned term for pagan, polytheistic religion and is almost as politically incorrect a term today as “infidel.” But at the time this document was written, it was a perfectly acceptable descriptor for non-Judaeo-Christian religions. “Idiot” has become an insult, but was originally a fairly neutral (albeit unsympathetic) term for the intellectually handicapped. I raise this, not to make a linguistic judgement on an old document, but to draw out the implications of the full statement in which it appears. Because this anachronism is part of a Statement of Faith which forms the Basis of Fellowship for a twenty-first century denomination.
To be “in fellowship” with the body of Christ, the true “ecclesia of God,” Christadelphians require assent to 30 articles of belief and denunciation of the 35 Doctrines to be Rejected. According to their perspective, a person must be in full doctrinal agreement in order to be baptised, and thus eligible for salvation. To hold a different doctrinal position is to break “fellowship.” The Gospel alone cannot save; baptism and continuing obedience are required, and a knowledge of “The Truth” is necessary to make baptism valid. This knowledge of the truth is not imparted by the Spirit of God working in the seeker, but must be apprehended by an independent, objective application of reason to the Scriptures. This means, of course, that a certain intellectual ability is required in order to be saved.
One of the Doctrines to Be Rejected is #22, “That heathens, idiots, pagans and very young children will be saved.” There are two very different issues in this statement, and it may not be immediately apparent why they are combined. “Heathens” and “pagans” (the terms will be considered synonymous) are those whose religious beliefs and traditions are other than Judeo-Christian. This would include ancient polytheistic religions such as the Graeco-Roman pantheon, Imperial cult and Eastern mystical religions of New Testament times, as well as animistic, polytheistic and folk religions through the ages and down to today. On this point, the Bible is clear. Contra to modern universalist and relativist opinion, there is no salvation apart from Jesus Christ.
This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11–12).
This is not racism. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16). This is inclusive of all non-Jews (Gentiles) for in Christ all are children of God by faith; “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28 ). But apart from Christ, there is no salvation; all have sinned and all are under God’s wrath. Although general revelation testifies to the existence of God, and his eternal power and divine nature, God has not been honoured and human thinking has been futile as they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things,” exchanging the truth for a lie and worshiping created things rather than the Creator (Rom 1:18–25). This is the essence of paganism. The position of pagan Gentiles, according to the Apostle Paul, was separation from Christ, alienation from God’s people Israel, estrangement from God’s covenants of promise and “having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ,” reconciled to God through the cross, with full access in one Spirit to the Father. In Christ, no matter what one’s culture and previous way of life, all people become saints and members of the household of God (Eph 2:11–19). So, pagans remaining in their heathen beliefs and lifestyle are outside the covenant of God, without hope of salvation. However, God is not willing that any would perish (2 Pet 3:9) and desires his Gospel to reach every nation, people and language (Matt 28:19; Rev 5:9; 7:9–10;14:6).
The other group is very different; “idiots” and very young children. The Bible says nothing about specifically excluding these. The issue for Christadelphians is that “working out your salvation” is an intellectual exercise. A comprehensive knowledge of scriptural truth in all its complexity is necessary in order to be baptised and to be saved. “Salvation,” said Robert Roberts, “depends on the assimilation of the mind to the divine ideas, principles and affections, exhibited in the Scriptures. This process commences with a belief of the Gospel, but it is by no means completed thereby; it takes a lifetime for its scope, and untiring diligence for its accomplishment.” Even the basics of the Gospel are pretty weighty, for Christadelphians. To help novices “work it out for themselves” there are numerous introductions to the Bible available, each of which runs to 300 or 400 pages.  That’s a lot to get your head around, especially just to prepare for baptism. No wonder Christadelphians believe that intellectually disabled people or very young children won’t be able to grasp saving truth.
Or do they? A few years ago, I attended the funeral of a young child of Christadelphian parents. The family were earnest, sincere believers who were bringing up their children, to the very best of their ability, “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). The circumstances were tragic and it was an occasion of great sorrow and anguish. Yet it was also an occasion of unspoken hope. Nobody mentioned the “official” position that very young children such as this would not be saved. Instead there was reference to the love and mercy and grace of God, who knows our hearts and suffered the little children to come to him, and who is to be fully trusted even when we do not understand his actions. For we do not grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thess 4:13). The God who knows every sparrow which falls and numbers the hairs of our heads does not delight in letting any of his little ones perish (Matt 18:2–6). The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, but in all things he does what is right and good and he is to be trusted. But for the grieving parents, siblings, relatives and friends at that funeral, to dare to hope that they would see their little one again in the day when all tears will be wiped away, entailed acceptance of a Doctrine to be Rejected. This is serious; strictly speaking that is a rejection of the Basis of Fellowship, the contemporary expression of saving truth. So best to keep quiet about that, and just secretly trust God.
But who are we to dictate the circumstances by which anyone may be saved, to the restriction of God’s free and sovereign acts? The repentant thief on the cross was no child, and although probably uneducated, he was of sound enough mind to recognise Jesus as his King. Although he did not exhaustively prepare for baptism by a careful comparison of true and false doctrine, he was welcomed into Paradise (Luke 23:42–43). The 3000 who heard the apostles’ preaching at Pentecost probably knew their Old Testament Scriptures, but all it took to convict them and ready them for baptism was the additional conviction that Jesus was the promised Messiah (Acts 2:37–38). In reality, it is because Christadelphian beliefs are so at variance with mainstream Christianity, that they require such a detailed knowledge from candidates, in order to be sure their doctrinal understanding conforms.
Jesus drew little children to himself and declared them to be the model for relationship with him. “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me” (Matt 18:3–5). These children, Jesus declared “believe in me,” which is Jesus’ prerequisite for granting eternal life (John 11:26; 12:44; 14:1ff). This is a separate issue from whether children should be baptised, and a discussion of that would be a digression. Suffice it to say that the Protestant arguments for paedobaptism are quite different from the traditional Roman Catholic teaching (that baptism imparts saving grace, without which a child is condemned to “limbo”) and generally relate to inclusion of children in the household of God or covenant community. Whilst baptism is undoubtedly commanded (Matt 28:19) and exemplified in the New Testament, it remains an outward act which, like any “good work,” of itself does not save (Col 2:12). The basis of salvation is grace, through faith in Jesus, and children are certainly capable of demonstrating faith.
To settle the issue of just how much a person needs to “know” or do in order to be saved, let’s consider what Scripture actually says.
And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Acts 2:21)
Then [the jailer] brought [Paul and Silas] out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ (Act 16:30–31)
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved… For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Rom 10:9–13).
Salvation is a sovereign work of God, from beginning to end. “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom 8:30). God saved us, declared Paul, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). The preaching of the word of the cross was the power of God to those being saved, according to Paul, who whilst not belittling the act of baptism, did not make it his own priority in ministry (1 Cor 1:17–18). Peter had barely begun to declare the message by which Cornelius and his household would be saved, let alone baptised them, when God poured out the Holy Spirit on these Gentiles of rudimentary faith (Acts 11:14–17). Those who believe in the name of the Son of God have eternal life (John 1:12–13; 3:16–18; 11:25–26; 20:31; Rom 3:22; Eph 2:8–9; 1 John 5:13).
If a simple, child-like faith in Christ and humble dependency on him, devoid of any works-righteousness, is the basis of salvation, why may not the intellectually handicapped and young children be saved? Conversely, someone who has been given much, of him “much will be required” (Luke 12:48) and those who teach will be judged with greater strictness (James 3:1). When the New Testament does elaborate on what God considers to be the “first principles,” the very basics of the truth, it does not run to over 300 pages. In fact, the various “lists” are not identical, because they are put forward as examples of basic teachings, all of which come under the umbrella of proclaiming Christ crucified and faith in him (1 Cor 1:23; 2:2;15:1-6; Heb 6:1–2).
Far from promoting an intellectual elitism and the power of human reason, the Gospel is intended to humble us, and to foster a complete dependency on Christ and his saving work. Paul reminds us that God doesn’t select out the worldly wise, the powerful or noble, but works with what is weak, and foolish, low and despised, “that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” It’s all about God’s power to save, and his glory, the sufficiency of Christ, “who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness, sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor 1:26–31). Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord, knowing that his strength is exalted in our weakness. “Heathens” who do not take on the name of Christ are not saved, but the foolish and weak by this world’s standards, and the little children who come to Jesus and believe in him, most certainly are.
1. Christadelphian Statement of the Faith and Doctrines to be Rejected http://www.christadelphia.org.basf.htm
2. Robert Roberts, The Bible Companion, Introduction.
3. Rob J Hyndman, ed. The Way of Life: An Introductory Study Guide to Bible Teaching. Beechworth, Vic: Bethel Publications, 2002; 340 pages. Tecwyn Morgan, Understand the Bible: Work it out for Yourself. Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 2006; 472 pages (for use in Third World missions, no less). Duncan Heaster, Bible Basics, 380 pages, or its 100 page summary, Introducing Bible Basics. http://www.biblebasicsonline.com/
4. For a discussion of the various views of baptism, see Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013) chapter 52, 1016–1032.