NEW YORK — Michael A. Walrond Jr., one of New York City's most influential pastors who leads the more than 10,000-member First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, is coming under fire online for telling his congregants that the belief that Jesus is the only way to Heaven is "insanity."
Prior to preaching one of his sermons at First Corinthian just over two weeks ago, Walrond asked the congregation to recite their purpose statement, which he said "shape[s] our identity as a congregation."
"We are an ever evolving community of visionaries, dreamers, and doers who have been called by God to live the lives we were created to live; commanded by God to love beyond the limits of our prejudices and commissioned by God to serve," the statement read.
It was while explaining the statement to those who were not familiar with the church's position that he explained his multiple ways to God concept.
"If you are a person who believes in God, these words can apply to you, no matter what your faith background. We get so twisted in this country and in many cultures, to create divides and boundaries and barriers between human beings because of our faith difference," said the pastor, who was named "One of the Lord's Foot Soldiers" by Newsweek magazine. "Think about it. That we use the thing that we think makes us closer to God, the very thing to divide us from one another at times. And that makes no sense and so I'm not one of those people."
"There was a time when you would see people in the pulpit say, 'well, if you don't believe in Jesus you going to Hell. That's insanity in many ways because that is not what Jesus even believes. And so the key is you believe in God. And whatever your path is to God I celebrate that. Personally I celebrate that," he said to a smattering of applause. "Again, we have enough in this world that divides us we need to find those things that bring us together. And if God cannot bring us closer together then something is wrong, not with God but in how we think we know God and understand God."
A 57-second clip of Walrond's statement was posted to Facebook by Kevin O. Davis, minister of music at Friendship Baptist Church in Texas, sparking a massive debate online. More than 32,000 people have viewed the clip and many have condemned Walrond for what they say is an apparent contradiction of Scripture.
Bishop Robert E. Smith, Sr., founder of Total Outreach for Christ Ministries, Inc. and Word of Outreach Christian Center and Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas, said Walrond is both "right and wrong."
"The preacher on this video is both right and wrong: he's right in that all roads do lead to God; but this God is both love and a consuming fire. If you meet Him on the Christ road of His love you live, but any other road, be it religion, philosophy, or a miscalculation of the Person of Christ, the lake of fire is waiting!" Smith said.
The Christian Post reached out to Walrond through his church on Monday but he was unavailable by press time.
Walrond serves as a trustee and adjunct faculty member of Chicago Theological Seminary and chairs The Board of Visitors at Duke University Divinity School.
Ken Stone, academic dean at Chicago Theological Seminary, said "Rev. Walrond's openness to the truth and wisdom found in multiple religious traditions and his celebration of multiple paths to God" is something the institution supports.
"I don't know that we would use exactly the same language to describe it but in terms of the openness to truth and wisdom found in multiple religious traditions, absolutely we would support that," Stone said.
"Institutionally, we do celebrate multiple paths to God and to God's wisdom and truth and that's what I understand also to be Rev. Walrond's position," he said.
He noted that the seminary is open to all students and faculty regardless of faith. There are evangelicals and Muslims studying at the seminary and even students who subscribe to no particular faith at all.
"Part of our scholarship does deal with dogma but the students who come here and the faculty that teach here are not asked to adopt a single religious perspective. They're asked to understand multiple religious perspectives. And on the basis of their engagement with multiple religious perspectives to be able to articulate their own views," Stone said.
"Religious diversity is a hallmark of our school, we're very proud of it, we think that's the future for theological education. And we are very proud to be associated with Rev. Walrond."
Walrond is not the first prominent Christian leader to have expressed the idea that faith in Jesus, the basis of Christianity, isn't the only way to salvation. Shannon Johnson Kershner, who leads the 5,500-member Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, Illinois, expressed similar beliefs last fall.
"God's not a Christian. I mean, we are ... For me, the Christian tradition is the way to understand God and my relationship with the world and other humans and it's for the way for me to move into that relationship but I'm not about to say what God can and cannot do in other ways and with other spiritual experiences," she explained.