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    Witnessing in a Multi-Faith World

    Society tells us there are many paths to God. How do we respect other religions without compromising the gospel message? July 22, 2011
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    Born and raised on the island of Newfoundland, I completed my officer training in St. John's and had my first two appointments in small Newfoundland communities. Wherever I went as a Salvation Army officer, I encountered Christians—either devout Christians or people who were affiliated with a Christian denomination. So, when I sang the national anthem and asked God to “keep our land glorious and free,” it seemed consistent to me. I was living in a Christian nation. Or so I thought.

    As I moved across the country, and ultimately to British Columbia nearly a decade ago, I noticed a changing religious flavour the farther I moved west. The Sikh and Buddhist temples and the mosques of Islam that I saw in high-school textbooks were scattered throughout Vancouver and Victoria. The cultural framework in which I would be fulfilling my calling was quite different from the place where I started.

    Multiculturalism, and the resulting religious diversity, is an official policy of Canada, introduced during Pierre Elliott Trudeau's time as prime minister. As citizens of this great country, we are expected to accept people regardless of their religious beliefs. Also, the biblical mandate to “love our neighbour” teaches us to show respect for people of all religions.

    The subject of pluralism and the Christian response to it is perhaps the most daunting challenge facing the Church today. Far more than just a matter of pragmatism, it is a difficult theological question: How do I function in my ministry context when nearly half of the people I encounter identify with a religion other than Christianity?

    In typical Wesleyan fashion, I rely on four different sources to help me reach my theological conclusions. The Methodist Albert Outler referred to this as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: tradition, Scripture, reason and experience.

    1. Tradition—Historically, what does the Christian Church have to say on this matter?
    While space does not permit a comprehensive overview of this subject, it is important to say that the opinions of the Church and leading Christian thinkers throughout history have been varied. We can narrow down the viewpoints into three categories:

    Normative Pluralism. This is the view that all ethical religions lead to God and salvation. This would be the most liberal viewpoint. Christianity is thus seen as one of many paths.

    Exclusivism. This is the conservative viewpoint that states that salvation is found in Christ alone. Typically, an exclusivist believes that we need to explicitly pronounce faith in Christ in order to be assured of salvation. There are some exclusivists who choose to remain agnostic about the fate of those who have not yet heard the gospel.

    Inclusivism. This is the centrist viewpoint between pluralism and exclusivism. Inclusivists believe that salvation has its origin and fulfilment in Jesus Christ, but that may mean that the subject is saved and is not fully aware of it. The individual might not have heard the gospel or may be following a different religion. However, they are responding to God in the best way that they can, based on the revelation that they have received.

    I admit that I find it difficult to accept the pluralist view. If all roads lead to God, then of what significance is Jesus Christ? Why evangelize? At first glance, exclusivism appears to be the most faithful to the historical Christian message of salvation in Christ alone, which is one of its strong points. However, there are a couple of difficulties with exclusivism as it relates to sharing our faith. First, it tends to cause believers to appear arrogant and intolerant, which is not helpful to our witness in a pluralistic context. Second, exclusivists fail to consider the sociological and cultural factors that play into whether a person becomes a Christian or not. As theologian Ronald Nash puts it, “Is God's grace limited to the relatively few who, often through accidents of time and geography, happen to have responded to the gospel?”

    If God is loving and merciful, would he sentence people to judgment without providing them an opportunity to choose or reject the gospel?

    Inclusivism is not without its critics either. Inclusivists are sometimes accused of being soft on the gospel. If a person of another religion is already saved, then the impetus for evangelization might be removed.

    While exclusivists often have the loudest voice in evangelical Christianity, historically many Christians have been inclusivists. In fact, they probably represent the consensus viewpoint in Christianity today. C. S. Lewis was an inclusivist. His view was summed up in a scene in The Last Battle (Chronicles of Narnia) where the pagan soldier Emeth learns to his surprise that Aslan regards his worship of Tash (a pagan idol) as directed to himself. This is an obvious inclusivist principle. Lewis earlier wrote in Mere Christianity, “There are people in other religions who are being led by God's secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it.” Concerning the unevangelized, our spiritual grandfather John Wesley once wrote, “We have great reason to hope, although they lived among the heathen, yet [many of them] were quite of another spirit, being taught of God, by his inward voice, all the essentials of true religion.” Lewis and Wesley would agree that there are Christians who do not know they are Christians.

    2. Scripture—What does the Bible say about it?
    Exclusivists probably have an easier time than the other two in finding Scripture to verify their position. The declarations of Jesus himself in John 14:6 (“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”) and of Peter in Acts 4:12 (“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given under Heaven by which we must be saved”) are well-known to all Christians.

    Our job isn't to change people. Only God can do that. We are called to witness, by our words and our actions, to what Christ has done for us

    While inclusivists do not doubt that Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith, they also find a basis for what could be called “anonymous Christianity” in the Bible. The Bible declares that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. However, the Bible does not limit that salvation to one segment of history. As theologian Clark Pinnock wrote, “God has been at work saving human beings before Jesus was born and does so where Jesus has not been named. The patriarch Abraham was justified by faith without knowing Jesus, and Paul holds him up as a model believer for us all, even though he never heard the gospel (see Romans 4:1-25).” Inclusivism places the focus of salvation upon the work of Jesus Christ and his mercy, not necessarily upon our response to it.

    3. Reason—What does rational thinking conclude?
    While we may approach rationalism differently, we can agree that our opinions of pluralism must logically agree with our corollary beliefs about God, sin and salvation. If we believe that God desires for all people to be saved, then we would reject the notion that large groups of humans in history had no chance of being saved. If we believe that God is loving and merciful, we would find it hard to comprehend him sentencing people to judgment without providing them an opportunity to at least choose or reject the gospel. Believing that people are precluded from the Kingdom of God when many haven't had the same opportunities that we've had is akin to Calvinist predestination. I cannot believe that God would allow that to happen for the same reason that I don't believe he chooses some to be saved and rejects others.

    4. Experience—How does my own personal journey inform what I believe?
    In case you haven't guessed, I am an inclusivist. I believe that Jesus is the only way to God and his sacrifice makes salvation possible. I believe that salvation is extended to all those who hear the gospel and choose to accept it. I also believe that there are many people—some Jews, some Muslims, some of indigenous faiths and some of no religion—who are not as fortunate as I was to be taught the gospel at an early age. I recognize that they have not yet heard the good news or they have heard some of it and are not quite sure how Jesus is superior to their own path to salvation. Or perhaps they are mortified to even consider giving up their inherited faith for something new, just as we would be. I believe that some of them are in Christ.

    I am not saying that one has to be an inclusivist to be an effective witness in a pluralistic context. We may want to cling to an exclusivist view. Regardless, we should all approach people with a spirit of inclusiveness. Why? First, inclusivism is a message of hope. I am encouraged by the prospect that the numerical results of Christ's sacrifice will be even greater than what I can see with my physical eyes. Perhaps the people I am sharing my faith with are not as far away from the goal as I used to think. Second, inclusivism helps me to see my neighbour without the distorted lens of nationalism or prejudice. The problem of evil and injustice in our world is big enough without having to add entire races to the mix through no fault of their own. As Peter said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts those from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). Finally, inclusivism provides a fuller picture of God's redeeming will. It upholds the particularity of Christ as the only way of salvation and at the same time explains the universal scope of God's plan to save sinners.

    God is at work in this world, at all times and in many places even through other religions. In Wesleyan terms, we would call it an act of prevenient grace—grace preparing them for a fuller understanding of Christ. Our new Handbook of Doctrine states: “The sacred writings of other religions may possess insights helpful to spiritual searching” and the “Bible can interpret and inform current thinking and attitudes.” Our calling then is to work alongside of God; to go to the people where he is working and moving.

    Being a Christian in a pluralistic environment is an awesome opportunity. Like Paul, who preached to philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens (see Acts 17), we get to share with people who have a sense of the divine and make inroads toward having meaningful dialogue about faith and salvation. It is a tremendous opportunity to open the door to Jesus Christ. I believe that our God is loving and merciful, and that people who are honestly searching will find the truth when they seek it with all of their hearts.

    Major Juan Burry is the executive director of the Addictions and Rehabilitation Centre in Victoria. He is married to Lorraine and they have two children.


    On Monday, August 3, 2020, SirPrimson Hanson said:

    I need the full note for evangelism... from Nigeria territory.cadet.


    On Friday, September 2, 2011, Steve Bentheim said:

    I SO APPRECIATE reading your well written article for the “Salvationist” on religious pluralism. Yes, we here on Canada’s West Coast have seemed more accepting of former Prime Minister Trudeau’s multi-cultural mission. His hope for Latin America was for the more wealthy, American and European churches to be more helpful to the needy
    Praise God for the Salvation Army, which keeps its eye on God’s calling- as expressed both biblically and through our human experience - that our spiritual supply comes solely from God, and only thus we may share our spiritual wealth. I do welcome both you and your wife Lorraine to visit the other offices here on the West Coast, to once again form your treasured circle with us and sing!

    On Monday, July 25, 2011, Jon said:

    To Ron and Joy's comment - I am not convinced that the first doctrine of the Salvation Army is being rewritten. I would like to elaborate on Major Burry's previous response.

    The statement "The sacred writings of other religions may possess insights helpful to spiritual searching" must be taken in context. Immediately following this statement, the paragraph continues: "but the Bible contains the record of God's mission in the world and the nature and scope of the salvation made available in Christ. It stands alone." Preceding the statement are the following words: "In this [pluralist] settling, we continue to maintain that, for the Christian, the Bible is the only authority to define belief and direct conduct."

    Our Handbook of doctrine reminds us that the Bible is the only authority to define the Christian's belief. This being said, in a pluralistic world, we must recognize that other sacred writings contain truths similar to those outlined in the Bible.

    At the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian-Religions, the Catholic Church declared: "One is the community of all peoples, one their origin, for God made the whole human race to live over the face of the earth. One also is their final goal, God. His providence, His manifestations of goodness, His saving design extend to all men, until that time when the elect will be united in the Holy City, the city ablaze with the glory of God, where the nations will walk in His light." The declaration continues: "The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men."

    Similar to the statement in the Salvation Army's Handbook of Doctrine, the Catholic Church's Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian-Religions suggests that we must recognize that there are truths contained in the teachings of other religions. In order to live together as brothers and sisters, we must understand these truths and build on them in order to effectively witness to those who have not received the gospel of Christ. The Handbook of Doctrine's statement is not poorly phrased when taken in context. We are not asked to accept teachings that go against Christianity as "truth." We are simply asked to recognize that there are other sacred writings that provide their adherents with truths similar to our own.

    On Monday, July 25, 2011, Ray Harris said:

    May I suggest that Juan's encouragement to engage in dialogue with other faiths actually grows out of our Salvationist doctrines. For instance, a triune understanding of God should help us to see that God the Holy Spirit is at work in all of the world, not just our religious or cultural piece of it. And our convictions about the importance of "all" in whom God's grace is at work and for whom Christ's death is intended, should prompt us to engage in the kind of conversation suggested by Juan, to "love God and neighbour." Interfaith dialogue is implied by our doctrines; it does not undermine them. This is especially critical following events in Norway this past weekend.

    On Saturday, July 23, 2011, Juan Burry said:

    Thanks for the comment Elsie.

    To Ron and Joy's comment - the point I was making was that the sacred writings of other religions can sometimes form a springboard for us to engage in spiritual discussion with people of other religions. It was not to suggest that people who are already Christians start using them. I think that is the spirit in which the new HOD was written. There are a lot of truths in Christianity that can be found in other religions and in their writings (e.g. love your neighbour). But that is not to suggest the writings are equal.

    It is much better to start from a place of commonality and mutual respect in our friendships than from an adversarial point of view. And if there is a level of truth or inspiration in places other than the Bible, which there obviously are in this world, then why not use them to point people to Christ?

    On Friday, July 22, 2011, Ron and Joy Noseworthy said:

    Our new Handbook of Doctrine states: “The sacred writings of other religions may possess insights helpful to spiritual searching” and the “Bible can interpret and inform current thinking and attitudes.” Our calling then is to work alongside of God; to go to the people where he is working and moving.

    I was raised in the Salvation Army in Newfoundland and now live in Korea. I think that the new Handbook is very poorly phrased. Spiritual searching should come only from the Bible and commentaries based on it. Even so called Christian books should only be read from trusted writers or on recommendation from your spiritual mentor or pastor. For a Christian who is not truly and deeply rooted in their faith, reading other "sacred writings" in their spiritual searching can confuse them and lead them astray. Where do they stop? How much of the other "sacred writings" should they study for insights? Eventually they may stray into clearly non-Christian areas.

    Being a TRUE Christian is not easy and many times these other "sacred writings" are much easier to live up to. The danger is that eventually those people examining other "sacred writings" may develop a simple "be nice" form of religion in which Christ's commands for a true relationship with him are conveniently ignored. No mention of any other "sacred writing" should ever be mentioned. The eleven Salvation Army doctrines have been the foundation on which our worldwide church has been built, and which still hold true for the present day. The first doctrine states that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that it "ONLY constitutes the divine rule of Christian faith and practice." Are we writing a new "First Doctrine"?

    Ron and Joy Noseworthy

    On Friday, July 22, 2011, Elsie Wilson said:

    Great topic/question i have pondered this a lot. as a born-again Christian i know that all religions
    are man made, therefore it makes it easy to trust that my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will provide me with the words to witness to those who are in bondage in false religions. Faith in God, is a close personal relationship with Jesus Christ,(unshakable Belief) not a religion. As a true follower of God, we, as Born again believers have our eyes "spiritually opened" through the Holy Spirit, that we are able to understand the Bible, and accomplish amazing things through Christ. All glory and honor is of course Gods' Amen.

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