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Evangelism and interfaith relations

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Archives / 2002 / December

 

 

Evangelism and interfaith relations

Bert B. Beach
Bert B. Beach, Ph.D., is former director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

 

Being an authentic Christian implies being able to love. Being an authentic Adventist demands that and being an evangelist at the same time. While it is popular in Christian churches today to lift up the Great Commandment of love, there is an increasing tendency to overlook the Great Commission to "go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15). The last recorded words of Jesus call for His fol lowers to be witnesses "to the uttermost parts of the earth" (Acts 1:8). Many of these "utter most parts" are dominated by such world religions as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and, to a lesser extent, Judaism. Therein lies the potential for friction, if not confrontation.

The world is the Adventist parish

Early Adventists developed a world vision of "the work." Over a few short years they moved from the stifling "closed door" concept to the broader view of their "field" being the United States, and, finally, on to the exciting vision of a world church going to the ends of the earth.

The Christian church is, of course, called to be a world movement. This was confirmed for all time at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) where it was made clear that the church is not to be a Jewish subset, but a world church with a universal gospel, not a local or ethnic sect.

John Wesley was correct when he said, "The world is my parish." This concept, how ever, was not appreciated by the ecclesiastical establishment of his day. Even today, there are various religious forces that promote, some with legal support, established, canonical territory. Thus there are nationalistic and cultural traditions that inhibit world evangelism. The Seventh-day Adventist answer to such limitations has been, and still is, to maintain the mantra that "the field is the world," "the harvest is the end of the world" (Matt. 13:38, 39), and there is urgency to go "from everywhere to everywhere."

While the writings of Ellen G. White are clear regarding the necessity to fulfill the task of world evangelization, she offers very little guidance as to how to meet the non-Christian religions. Mrs. White makes practically no reference to Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Sikhism, or Taoism. She makes one statement about Muslims and their denial of the divinity of Christ, and urges Christians to be zealous in teaching "the preexistence of the only Savior of the world."1 However, Mrs. White does enunciate an overriding principle: "Christ recognized no distinction of nationality or rank or creed.... Christ came to break down every wall of partition: He came to show that His gift of mercy and love is as unconfined as the air, the light, or the showers of rain that refresh the earth."2

Dealing with Judaism—some suggestions

The one non-Christian religion Ellen G. White actually deals with is Judaism. She says that many Jews are to be won to Christ. Perhaps she was referring to latent anti-Semitism when she wrote that Adventists "should not despise the Jews"3 and that "there is to be no erecting of barriers. . . . Our work is to be given as freely to the Jews as to the Gentiles."4

Mrs. White also presents two principles in dealing with the Jews that could very well have some general application to other world religions:

1. The approach should not be to destroy the "Jewish economy," but to develop it with the truth. In other words, we are to work on the plan of progression, rather than discontinuance.5 Of course, this is clearer in the case of Judaism than it is in the case of other religions. Nevertheless, can we not suggest that our task is not to "destroy," but to "develop"?6

2. Jews are to be used as an effective force to labor for Jews.7 The principle is to use those best acquainted by personal experience with the religion concerned. This can be a most effective bridging contact.

There is, however, one demur. Converts, at times, because of the trauma associated with change and conversion, can be a little unbalanced or extreme, and this can mitigate against their effectiveness in working with others from their former community.

When working with Jewish people, Ellen White underlines the importance of "linking" the Old and the New Testaments.8 Seventh-day Adventists should be in a better position to do this than most other Christians. The Sabbath, unclean foods, the Day of Atonement, the cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary, and Christ's high-priestly ministry are all links in the chain connecting the Old and New Testaments. However, we need to be aware that many rabbis will resent this approach as having a dangerous pseudo-Jewish nature.

With other world religions, there are, no doubt, some general principles that apply across the board, and there are some specific attitudes and approaches that are more especially applicable to particular religions. To consider just a few:

Islam

For example, in dealing with Muslims, it is vital to emphasize the oneness and unity of God, as clearly affirmed by Moses and Isaiah. We must remember that much about the nature of God has not been revealed to us. Muslims respond affirmatively to the oneness, immutability, and mercy of God.

Further, as with many Jews, Adventist dietary practices are a plus, especially since Muslims have a strong abhorrence for consuming any swine flesh. A strong plus is the Adventist position against the consumption of alcoholic beverages. That is why the anti-alcohol approach, e.g., through the International Commission for the Prevention of Alcoholism and Drug Dependency (ICPA), has opened doors to Muslims in our communities.

Buddhism

Buddhism places great emphasis on the inner experience of enlightenment. Does this not have some relationship to what Christians call conversion? Of course, there are important differences, but there is also a commonality. In Mahayana Buddhism there also appears to be a more open attitude and some concept of salvation by faith and grace, on which a relationship can be built and developed.

Taoism and Confucianism

Taoism emphasizes order, nature, simplicity of life, and the avoidance of self-seeking. It is, in essence, a system of ethics affirming order. Here is a useful opening for Adventists with their emphases on obedience to God's law; respect for God's creation; simple lifestyle; and self-denial in Christ, the Man of sacrifice.

Confucianism, in addition to Taoism, is a significant system of ethics influencing hundreds of mil lions of Chinese, even though it appears to be collapsing under the weight of a growing Western culture. In these world religions, the emphasis is upon duty and proper relationships between people. The Golden Rule ("don't do unto others what you don't want them to do to you") is emphasized, giving opportunity to present the Golden Rule in its more positive Christian wording. Respect and responsibility are certainly also Christian values.

Absence of contacts

Perhaps one of the weak points in interfaith relations is the absence of contacts between Adventist leaders and leaders of other religions. Contacts with such religious leaders and the intelligentsia of other world religions have been minimal. The tendency to withdraw into one's own religious cocoon and neglect leader ship contacts with representatives of other religious bodies is seen as a mark of sectarianism.

We need to actively oppose this perception of Adventism by stepping out of isolation. Doing so certainly does not mean that we will embrace outlooks hostile to true Christianity or Adventism.

Principles of interfaith relations

Some general principles of inter faith relations apply across the board for Seventh-day Adventists wanting to understand other religions and meet their members.

High ethical standards. When meeting persons of other faiths, only the highest ethical standards are accept able. We need to be truthful, transparent, and fair.

We should never knowingly make false statements regarding the teach ings or official practices of other religious bodies. We should be sure that we actually understand those we are approaching, and we need to follow Peter's suggestion that in giving an account of our faith, we do so with humility, respect, and honesty (1 Peter 3:15, 16).

Knowledge of culture. Religion, culture, and history are often closely intertwined. It is difficult for people of another religious persuasion and culture to take us seriously, if they find us to be both illiterate and naive regarding what has for centuries made their civilization what it is.

Standing for morality. Immorality is rampant around the world, and not least in Western societies. Religious fundamentalists and extremists with in the world religions see the West, led by the United States, as promoting forms of gross and satanic immorality. In approaching those belonging to other religions, Adventists must be seen as standing tall for the highest expressions of communal morality and personal ethics.

Morality includes both honesty and obedience, and also respect for human dignity and life. Adventists should let those they are trying to reach see that they "are conscientious."9 While Adventists are in the work of leading others to Jesus Christ and the faith of the Bible, any solicitation and subsequent conversion should never be influenced by the allurement of material inducements, gifts, cajolery, or any siren song, which would make "conversion" a sham.

Pro-family stance. In many third world countries, the family plays a dominant and all-pervasive role. Adventists need to be seen in the world for what they are as pro-family, especially when anti-family forces (particularly in some Western cultures) are seen to be chipping away at the family, and even undermining the whole concept of the family unit.

Context and adaptability. Adapt ability is a valuable quality for interfaith contacts. In 1 Corinthians 9:19- 22, Paul expounds on the value of adaptability when seeking to win people for Christ from all classes of people, without violating any Christian principle: to the slave, he became like a slave; to the Jew, he was a Jew; to the Gentile, he became like a Gentile. Always conscious of his duty to God, he sums up his strategy: "I have become everything in turn to men of every sort, so that in one way or another I may save some" (verse 22, NEB).

This is not practicing deception, but it is critical to what today we call the contextualization of the gospel, and the approach of the person presenting it. The gospel must remain pure, but the way in which it is presented in a given context can, and, indeed, must change.

There is no point in shocking others by nonconformity to their customs in regard to dress, food, terminology, and even external aspects of religious services. In evangelistic outreach, personal or organized, it is helpful to conform to certain customs and even perhaps prejudices, if basic principles and conscience are not in danger of being violated.

Establishing credibility. When approaching non-Christians (or Christians of another denomination, for that matter), it is wise to first refer to a "point of doctrine on which you can agree."10 It is counterproductive to introduce early on "objectionable features of the Seventh-day Adventist faith."11

The issue is not one of "hiding" the truth, but how best to reach other faiths. It is destructive to produce the whole message immediately and burst in on other religions like the proverbial bull in a china shop.

A pedagogically sound approach is to proceed slowly and in stages. First, we need to establish credibility and sincerity and "dwell on the necessity of practical godliness" and "give them evidence that you are a Christian desiring peace, and that you love their souls."12 This will take some time, but you will gain their confidence.

Flexible approach. In dealing with other ways of thinking, Adventists should not use only one fixed approach, but be ready to vary and alter the manner of coming closer to the followers of another religion. We should align our approach to the actual circumstances to be dealt with.13

The danger of syncretism

While considering interfaith dialogue, we need to be aware of the issue of syncretism that is, an attempt to unite or reconcile diverse or opposite doctrines or beliefs. Many people believe that all religions are legitimate paths to truth and salvation. They would say that Christianity may be "better," but only to a degree, and therefore it behooves individuals and churches to find ways to synthesize and harmonize Christian doctrines and lifestyle with the belief systems of other religions.

This is standard postmodern thinking. Frederick the Great's dictum nicely summarizes this view: "Everyone is saved in his own way." This was the worldview of the Greco-Roman world in New Testament times. In contrast, the apostle Peter made it unmistakably clear: "For in all the world no other name has been given to men but this, and it is by this name that we must be saved!" (Acts 4:12, Phillips). Indeed, the Seventh-day Adventist global message must, in the final analysis, always be, that in no one else but Jesus Christ can salvation be found.

Let us be aware that in today's syncretistic climate, the syncretistic approach to religion and interfaith relations is definitely more dangerous than a head-on collision with atheism, because the former appears to offer an attractive global dimension of faith and human relations.

Can non-Christians be saved?

We often hear it said that no one who has not heard and responded to the name of Christ can be saved. Furthermore, we are told that the mil lions who die every year and "go to Christless graves" will suffer the pangs of hellfire throughout eternity!

As Seventh-day Adventists, we strongly disagree with such views. Our motivation for missionary evangelism is not that without hearing and accepting the specific Christian biblical message, non-Christians can not be saved, but it is because Christ commands us to be His witnesses proclaiming the good news of salvation, leading people here and now to a better and fuller life, calling people to greater light, challenging them to respond positively to the stirrings of their conscience.

Christ: The light that lighteth every person

In reaching out to non-Seventh-day Adventists, the following three truths need to be remembered:

1. Not all Seventh-day Adventists will be saved.

2. Not all Christians or only Christians belonging to a church will be saved.

3. The important Pauline principle, "For God has no favorites . . . when gentiles who do not possess the law carry out its precepts by the light of nature, then, although they have no law, they are their own law, for they display the effect of the law inscribed in their heart. Their con science is called as witness" (Rom. 2:13-15, NEB).

What Paul is saying to the Romans is that Gentiles may have no knowledge of Christ or of biblical principles as such, but through their conscience and experience, they demonstrate the operation, in their thoughts and actions, of the law of God, the presence of which is endorsed by their own struggles of conscience. God will judge "the secrets of the human hearts," and any salvation will come from and by Jesus Christ, who died for every human being.

In John's Gospel, we find that Christ is "the true light" that comes into the world and illumines the existence of every person for both salvation and judgment, even though men and women may not know or fully comprehend Him (John 1:5, 9).

There is truth in every religion, for the true light of Christ is at work everywhere. However, salvation comes only from Christ, and the salvific value of religion, if at all, is only in proportion to the extent it points and leads its followers in the direction of divine truth, and that truth is, at its heart, Jesus Christ Himself.

From everywhere to everyone

We have a great task to accomplish. Ellen White talks about classes of people who need to be the object of special work at the time of the end. Maybe some of these special classes are the millions who belong to non- Christian persuasions. Today this challenge has an additional context that was not there in Ellen White's time: globalization.

In this context, we can and must go from "everywhere to everyone." To buoy us up in our global mission, we have two divine promises: The ever lasting gospel will be preached in all the world, and then the end will come as the whole world is lightened with God's glory.

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1 Ellen G White, The Home Missionary, September, 1892.

2 White , Testimonies for the Church (Nampa, Idaho' Pacific Press Pub. Assn , 1948), 9:190,

3 White, Manuscript 87, 1907

4 Feb. 3, 1908.

5 Letters?,1907.

6 See White, Evangelism (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1970), 554

7 GC Session, May 24, 1905

8 White, The Acts of the Apostles (Nampa, Idaho Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 381

9 White, Gospel Workers (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub Assn., 1948), 120

10 Ibid., 120.

11 White, Evangelism, 246.

12 White, Gospel Workers, 120

13 Ibid., 118, 119.

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