*See my addendum below regarding JD’s Pulpit and Pen article that was a response to me*
I recently got into an extended Twitter squabble on the topic of interfaith dialogues and whether or not Christians can engage in them with unbelievers. I noticed a lot of horrible use of Scripture employed against the idea of interfaith dialogues. It was so bad, I felt compelled to address at least one key passage raised in our exchanges. I also wanted to offer up some other thoughts on the matter.
Now, before we begin, I believe the bulk of my readers who circle around in the BTWN orbits on social media know to what I refer. My point with this post is not to drag out the inane controversy that has been smoldering for the better part of the last half of 2017. Nor is my intention to defend Team White against the cockamamie allegations of Howse and his JV squad. Anyone who follows me on social media knows my opinion on those matters. What I want to do here is focus upon the concept of interfaith dialogues. The overall question at hand, Does Scripture itself forbid Christians from doing them?
What exactly is an interfaith dialogue? Let’s begin by considering the basic Wikipedia definition that states,
Interfaith dialogue refers to cooperative, constructive, and positive interaction between people of different religious traditions (i.e., “faiths”) and/or spiritual or humanistic beliefs, at both the individual and institutional levels. It is distinct from syncretism or alternative religion, in that dialogue often involves promoting understanding between different religions or beliefs to increase acceptance of others, rather than to synthesize new beliefs.
The definition has two parts that are helpful for my purposes here. First, the idea of interfaith dialogue (IFD) is constructive cooperation and positive interaction between people of different religious traditions. Obviously, that is a rather broad concept. I take that to mean various parties lay aside their religious differences for practical cooperative purposes, even though their religious differences may be wildly contradictory.
The idea of cooperative purposes can loosely be understood as cooperating with individuals of different faiths in the area of generic service. Things that would be non-spiritual and non-religious. For example neighborhood watch programs, sharing in preparations to help each other during times of emergency, or seeking the common welfare of the overall community. Participating in general commerce can also be implied, understood as cooperating with each other in trading basic goods and other economic services.
The second portion of the definition adds important clarification. That being, IFDs are not meant to synthesize contradictory beliefs into some hybrid system everyone can agree upon. (Think, “Chrislam”). Rather, the dialogues seek to understand where those of different religious convictions are coming from so as to promote acceptance between opposing groups. (BTW, I understand the word acceptance is a loaded term, but I will get to that in a moment).
Hopefully, at this point, most people reading will acknowledge that standard definition. Perhaps there will be some quibbles regarding finer points, but overall, IFDs are meant to find positive interaction between people of differing faiths so as to have a better understanding of them. Keep in mind, the definition does not hint at any compromise of religious conviction on the part of individuals from either position.
Misconceptions about IFDs
Now, I would think Bible-believing, God-fearing Christians would desire pursuing amiable cooperation with their neighbors of different faiths. What would be sort of a vanilla co-belligerence. In fact, the Scriptures would implore Christians to live in peace with unbelievers, Proverbs 16:7, 1 Timothy 2:1,2. Living in Southern California certainly affords the opportunity to practice such cooperation. I have had Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Catholic, Mormon, and Greek Orthodox neighbors and associates. All of us getting along with each other, despite our religious differences, has been good for establishing the harmony of our relationships.
Additionally, my close proximity and daily interaction with those various acquaintances moves me to explore what it is they believe. My hope is to have opportunities for asking questions, challenging their convictions, and bringing the Gospel to them. The more I am basically informed as to their beliefs, the more productive our conversations are for the sake of Christ. The problem with many Christians is the idea of acceptance of other beliefs. Acceptance, as I noted previously, is a loaded term. What exactly is meant by acceptance? This is where I believe it is important to recognize two categories of IFDs, good IFDs and bad IFDs.
Many of my Twitter detractors claim there is no such distinction. In their mind, ALL IFDs are bad. There are no good ones at all because Christians have no choice but to compromise Scripture and biblical doctrine in order to participate in one. That objection is strained and unrealistic as far as I’m concerned. I can demonstrate good IFDs from bad IFDs quite easily.
The bad IFDs are seen in any garden variety ecumenical schmooze-fest. A recent example is Purpose Driven Rick Warren seeking common ground with Roman Catholics in the Orange County diocese. His IFDs with them are not employing general cooperation highlighted in the first portion of my working definition above. Rather, he is cheerfully compromising biblical truth. He has attended Catholic services, spoken at their churches, and is overly friendly with the Roman Catholics to a fault. He is extremely accommodating to their false Gospel, encouraging even his congregation to be friendly with Catholics, putting aside any theological differences.
The good IFDs, on the other hand, would involve missionaries in India learning what Hindus believe so they can have better conversations with their neighbors who live around them. The same could be said about Christians living in predominately Mormon Utah. In fact, any thoughtful Christians who live nearby to religious unbelievers would seek out some basic knowledge of their faith so as to discuss particulars with them.
Is it necessary to learn about what people of different faiths know in order to preach the Gospel? No, I wouldn’t say that at all. But is it wise? Certainly, it can only be helpful during the course of long term relationship to know what a person believes. That does not mean uncritical acceptance of their faith or the compromise of Christian convictions. It is for the purpose of developing anchor points for meaningful conversations that could lead to an effective presentation of the Gospel.
What Does the Bible Say About IFDs?
While there isn’t any direct teaching for or against IFDs in Scripture, I believe we can glean some insights from various passages. For instance, we know from the NT record that Paul had a working knowledge of Greek religious culture. He was intimately acquainted with how Greek philosophy and religious belief shaped gentile thinking.
In Acts 17:17, we see Paul reasoning with the Jews in Athens. None of the conversations are recorded for us, but I believe we can guess it was related to the idolatry that filled the city (vs.16). Furthermore, he was familiar enough with Athenian philosophy that when he was called before local authorities, he challenged their idolatry by referencing two of their philosophical writers, (vs.28).
Coming to the letter of 1 Corinthians, Paul knew much about the pagan temple culture of Corinth. He confidently rebuked the so-called “strong” Christians for sinfully flaunting their liberty by continuing their temple practices while claiming to be Christians (1 Corinthians 8-10). The letter to the Colossians further reveals that Paul was educated regarding the Gnostic heresies troubling the Christians there.
From the OT, we could also consider Jeremiah, who was left in Jerusalem as a mediator of sorts between those Jews who remained in Israel and their Babylonian occupiers. Also Daniel and his friends who were forced into a religious school and trained as Chaldean soothsayers.
Though they may not be entirely similar to our modern idea of IFDs, in all of those cases, some degree of IFD had to take place in those circumstances. That is especially true for Paul as his missionary journeys took him outside Israel and into the gentile areas of the Roman empire.
What About 2 Corinthians 6:14-16 and 2 John 10-11?
Critics cite two passages they insist prohibit Christians from engaging in IFDs, 2 Corinthians 6:14-16 and 2 John 10-11.
Beginning with 2 John, the apostle’s words really have nothing to do with hosting IFDs in our churches. Rather, the warning is against local churches providing a base of operation for deceivers who intentionally teach falsely about Christ. Specifically, the deceivers are fake ministers going out and teaching that Jesus did not come in the flesh. John is rebuking churches actively aiding and assisting false ministers in proclaiming a false Gospel, not forbidding Christians from talking with unbelievers in an IFD.
My detractors also frequently reference 2 Corinthians 6:14-16. However, Paul is also not forbidding IFDs in that passage. What he speaks against is genuine compromise with false religion that impacts the Christian faith. More that likely, Paul has in mind situations along the lines of the bad IFDs I noted above. Christians involved in pagan temple ceremonies and other idolatrous practices in Corinth. Those utilizing IFDs as means of furthering their relationships with unbelievers for the sake of the Gospel are not compromising theological convictions.
Three Key Take Aways
First, there is no definitive word from Scripture forbidding the use of IFDs by Christians. Those absolutely insisting Scripture forbids IFDs will be hard pressed to demonstrate a clear prohibition.
Second, Discerning Christians should carefully distinguish between IFDs that are bad and good. Bad IFDs ultimately lead to ecumenical compromise that forfeits Christian orthodoxy. Good IFDs seek to have a better understanding of people from different belief systems. A thoughtful believer can utilize them effectively if handled correctly.
Third, while I respect those Christians who may be uncomfortable with IFDs of any sort, I do believe they must grant liberty to those brethren who use them to their advantage for engaging unbelievers with the Gospel. Those opposed to IFDs of any sort should restrain themselves from anathematizing other faithful, uncompromising Christians who use them for building relationships with unbelievers from other faiths.
While I certainly don’t expect all my readers to agree with my sentiments, my hope is that they will at least extend charity to Christians who disagree with them regarding IFDs.
Folks I know have been asking what I think of JD’s article posted over at Pulpit and Pen that took issue with my thoughts here.
First, Some have suggested it was a “hit piece” against me. Honestly, I didn’t take his article in that way at all. I have been blogging since 2005. I have received tons of angry, vitriolic criticism to my articles. JD’s response hardly fell into the category of vitriolic criticisms. Regardless of what feelings others may have about JD, I don’t find it the least bit necessary to disavow him in some public fashion, particularly concerning his article.
Second, my main thesis was to show how Scripture does not forbid IFDs. Especially the kind in which a Christian can engage a practitioner of another religion in a church building. JD is of a contrary opinion, and that is fine. I am absolutely content with him holding it. I still declare him mistaken, and his article did nothing to refute my claim.
For instance, he responds to my comments on Acts 17 by writing,
First, this is presumptive. There is no way of knowing how the Prophets and Apostles became aware of the false religions around them, but one could rightly surmise that it came from living in the culture where these religions were already prominent.
The fact that my commentary is “presumptive” demonstrates that Scripture is not definitive. There certainly isn’t a clear word on how Paul, or any of the apostles, were aware of false teaching around them. It could be that they were familiar with it because they, especially Paul, were raised in that culture. But, so what? My point with citing Paul in Acts 17 is that he was reasoning with the people in Athens, vs.17, and he certainly had to be discussing their religious faith, which I consider to be an IFD.
Third, regarding the two specific passages I addressed. First, JD writes about my take on 2 John, “While Fred is correct that the Text doesn’t explicitly address IFD, as we commonly understand it, it does address it implicitly.” “Implicitly” means one has to read IFDs into the passage, which again means it is inconclusive and is not prohibiting them. Even JD’s personal application of this passage proves my claim. He writes, “Because of my interpretation of this passage, I will visit with Mormon elders on my porch, but will not invite them into my home.” It’s his “interpretation” that brings him to that conclusion. Great. My family have only once hosted two missionaries for dinner during which we shared the Gospel with them. But like JD, I typically don’t invite them into my home, either. Yet because this passage doesn’t explicitly forbid IFDs, I grant liberty to Christians who wish to invite Mormons to their home for dinner in order to evangelize them. To do so does not violate John’s words.
Lastly, in response to 2 Corinthians 6:14-16, JD is entitled to think I handled the passage poorly, but I don’t really see that he has proven his charge. My take on the passage mirrors my pastor, John MacArthur, when he taught through 2 Corinthians. See HERE. The thrust of Paul’s words is addressing those believers who foolishly sync pagan culture with Christianity. Think seeker-friendly churches that put on Vegas style entertainment programs every Sunday to lure people into church. Or evangelical Bible-believing Christians stupidly engaging in ministry with liberals who reject the authority of Scripture. Also those who link up with pseudo-Christian faiths with a heretical soteriology. Evangelicals and Catholics Together, for instance.
Like I stated in my main article, I completely get where folks like JD are coming from. I am personally not a fan of IFDs and probably wouldn’t do them at my church if I were a pastor. However, I do not think a clear-cut case can be made from Scripture that Christians are to NEVER engage in them and dissenters need to extend liberty to those who may use them to their advantage.
And I still like Jordan, even if I think he’s wrong.