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Reformed Christian Engagement with People of Different Faith

Section I. Toward a Reformed Understanding of Non-Christian Religious Traditions

A. The foundation in our common creatureliness.

The core conviction that God is present or manifest to all human persons is the foundation for all Christian engagement with people of different faiths (Acts 17:27c: “. . . He is not far from each one of us.”). We are all created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27), for God (Prov. 16:4; Rom. 11:36; Col. 1:16; Heb. 2:10) and his glory (Is. 43:6-7; 61:3), for fellowship with him (Ps. 8). As God’s image bearers we live in his created world, a world that testifies to us about God (Ps. 19; Rom. 1, 2)

This manifestation of God to all people yields a limited knowledge of God among all people, an awareness of “God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature” (Rom. 1: 20), along with a moral sense that comes from having “the requirements of the law . . . written on their hearts” (Rom 2: 15). Being aware that God exists, is powerful, and expects conformity to his law, however, is insufficient; it does not bring forth a true knowledge and saving faith. Instead, as the Apostle Paul, notes, the natural (i.e., sinful) human response to God’s self-manifestation is repression and exchange.  Apart from the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, human beings “suppress the truth by their wickedness,” and “exchange the glory of the immortal God for images” and “the truth for a lie” (Rom. 1: 18, 23, 25). Consequently, God “gives them over” to suffer the judgment of sin’s own deserts. The moral universe is turned upside down.

At the same time, both realities — all human persons bear God’s image and live in God’s world and all are sinners who suppress the truth of God and exchange it for the lie — point to an identifiable similarity (analogy) among the non-Christian religious faith traditions of the world. The human race is one and because our human understanding is limited and sinful we keep returning to the same fundamental questions about what it means to be human. These questions will always be with us and create bridges for Christians to dialogue with and witness to people of other faiths.  In sum, God addresses us in two ways: “First by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe,” which “like a beautiful book” leads us to “ponder the invisible things of God”; and, second, “more openly by his holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life, for his glory and the salvation of his own.” (Belgic Confession, art. 2)

B. The twofold mission of the Redeemed:

Christian believers are persons who have been called out of whole human race while we were “dead in our sins” and “made alive with Christ” (Eph. 2: 4). This is a gift of God’s mercy and grace; “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph. 2: 10) In gratitude we follow our Lord’s parting instruction to his disciples: “Go out into the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you . . . .” (Matt. 28:18-20) Or, in the Apostle Paul’s words: The “God who reconciled us to himself through Christ . . . has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you. On Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (II Cor. 5: 18-20) We are called to preach the gospel, plant churches, and disciple the nations.

Our Christian identity ought to be visible in all that we do. This does not mean, however, that evangelistic witness is our only calling in life. We are also to be generous, practice hospitality, bless our persecutors, live at peace with everyone, feed our hungry enemies and give our thirsty enemies water, honor civil authorities and pay our taxes, and do no harm to our neighbor. (Rom. 12:8 -13: 10, passim)  The prophet Jeremiah put it this way to the Babylonian exiles: “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jer. 29:7) As we think about our relationship with neighbors who do not share our faith, we must always remind ourselves of what our Lord taught us: “Love God above all else and your neighbor as yourself.”  (Matt. 22:37-38) He also reminded us in the parable of “The Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37) that we should be prepared to be surprised about the answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

C. Practical guidance for "inter-religious engagements”

1.  With this two-fold calling before us, we have some ground-rules by which to think about “inter-religious engagement.”

  • We stand committed to the truth of the Gospel, to our faith in Jesus Christ as the only way to the Father (John 14:6; Acts 4:12); it is to this hope that we bear witness and to which we call all people.
  • We live in a religiously plural world and are obligated to know and love our neighbors.

Inter-religious conversations must take place, first of all, as a way for us to understand each other, remove false stereotypes, and learn to see our neighbors as persons rather than as representatives of a religious tradition or ideology.

We must, therefore:

  • Consider all people in universal terms as image bearers of God rather than focus on particular characteristics including race, ethnicity, and religion.
  • Distinguish our creaturely solidarity with all human persons from our more restricted solidarity and unity in Christ which is spiritual/religious and moral.
  • Be forthright about our own convictions.
  • Distinguish clearly our rejection of someone’s religious convictions from our acceptance of them as fellow citizens.
  • Work hard to know what others really believe and not be satisfied with quick and superficial reports.

2.  As we seek to build bridges with people of other faiths, the following are common elements among all people of faith, including Christians:

  • A sense of the whole/totality of existence (cosmic relationship)
  • A sense of universal moral law or norm that is above us
  • A sense of providential or destining power that directs all things
  • A sense of relatedness to a higher power
  • A recognition that we need redemption/salvation/deliverance

Section II: Biblical foundations for Reformed Christian mission

From the beginning, God has been calling to himself a people, a people who thirst for living water, a people from every nation, a people with whom God makes an everlasting covenant, giving life in abundance to those who live as God teaches humanity to live. Thus, the Word of God has gone out and will not return to the Lord until it has accomplished the purpose for which he sent it. (Is .55: 1-13)

Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh, the Son of God, came into the world offering living water to all who are thirsty. ( Jn 1: 1-10, 14-18,12-13)  As Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well, “…those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (Jn 3:16; 4:13-14) Under the New Covenant that Jesus Christ enacts, God gives his people a new heart, the inner renewal they need to live in communion with God and neighbor forever. (Jer 31:31-34)

Thus began the two thousand year-old, worldwide history of people turning together (converting) to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. In Christian community, 1) with sins forgiven through the sacrificial passion and death of Jesus Christ,  2) raised to new life in Christ, 3) by the Holy Spirit, alive in love with God and with one’s neighbor, 4) in all things, giving thanks and praise to God, 5) in the breaking of bread, celebrating God’s victory over sin, death, and all that is evil, 6) and in taking God’s justice to the ends of the world, we are called to be God’s people.

As God’s people, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in Christian community over generations examine their received, customary ways of living, they refute and sternly reject what is not of Christ; what is of Christ is lifted up by the Holy Spirit as a gift to the Body of Christ. Just as a stream takes on the coloring of the soil through which it flows, so also the living heart of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit, beating in the lives of people around the world saves, heals, repairs, corrects, reforms, and transfigures all of human life. As the people of Jesus Christ of one village join the people of Jesus Christ of a neighboring village, from the ends of the earth the worldwide One Body of Christ comes together wearing a robe of many colors.

As God’s people, by the Holy Spirit, live the new life in Jesus Christ, they set their minds on things that are of God and not on things that are sinful, they put to death all that is not of God and clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, and above all, with “love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Col. 3: 1-14, passim).

The new people of God serve a Master who is “raised from the dead and seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (Eph. 1:19-23). In him, God makes “us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions … . For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph. 2:4-5, 8-9) Alive in Jesus Christ, we who were “foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world . . . [are] brought near through the blood of Christ.” (Eph. 2:12-13) Through the cross the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile is destroyed and we all have “access to the Father by one Spirit.” (Eph. 2: 14-18)

Just before he ascended into heaven, Jesus the risen Lord commissioned his followers “to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that [Jesus] had commanded.” Jesus reminded them that he would be with them to the end of the age (Mt 28:18-20) and as he ascended into heaven, Jesus told them that they would be given power when the Holy Spirit comes (Ac 1:6-11).

With Jesus Christ with us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we live, bear, and offer the good news of Jesus Christ to all nations, tribes, and languages. As we do so, we encounter people who are “religious” but in ways that are quite different from the Jewish and Christian faiths based on the Book of the Old and New Testaments. Sometimes, in the modern world, these faiths are referred to collectively as “world religions.” We need to be cautious in using this terminology for a number of reasons:

1.  The word “religion” comes by way of Latin and originally had a polytheistic significance. The danger in our day is that the notion of “world religions” stands in for a pluralistic relativism that considers the “gods” of all religions to refer to a common human reality — we all experience that there is “more to life than meets the eye” and respond to it in some way — and that all roads eventually lead to the same destination. 

2. Since the term “world religions” comes from the same period in Western history when nation-states were being formed, “religions” were often conflated with nation-states and seen to be in competition or at war with each other.

3. With the rise of secularism, many people separated reason — what we share with everyone across religious lines — from “religion” which is judged to be non-rational belief and private with no relevance for public life.

These three developments are not in accord with biblical faith which recognizes and acknowledges only one true God, revealed in Jesus Christ, the only way to the Father; which seeks to bear witness by persuasion and not by conquest; and which rejects the split between private faith and a Christian’s public discipleship.

Sadly, Christian missionary practice has not always been true to its own character. It has participated in colonial conquest and accommodated itself to the privatization of the faith. At times it has given the impression that one must be converted to the “religion of Christianity” to be saved instead of calling for conversion to Christ. We need, therefore, to state clearly that to be a Christian is not to join a different “religion” but to belong to Jesus Christ by faith through grace and called to a life of obedience of which Jesus Christ is supreme example. (Rom 1:1-6) It is to Jesus Christ, God incarnate, that people convert (turn together). It is Jesus Christ who came into the world as a carpenter’s son to save, heal, repair, and reform humanity (not to “found” a “religion”).

God continues to call to himself a people unto himself, out of their darkness into his light, from their deadness in sin to new life in the power of the Holy Spirit.  God calls us in love, a love revealed to us in all its fullness by Christ who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2: 7-8) In that same Spirit we are sent to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” and “shine like stars in the universe as we hold out the word of life.” (Phil. 2: 12, 15)

As we go forth to share the good news of Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit, may our actions speak this good news at least as well our words and may our words be Biblical words that are salt (purifying), light (clarifying), and yeast (enlivening) for God’s people. “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as slaves for Jesus’ sake. . . . But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. (2Cor 4:5, 7)

Section III. Reformed Christian Engagement with People of Other Faiths

When we as Reformed Christians participate in interfaith engagements, we build on the theological foundations already presented. We come with a deep commitment that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life—the only one in whom salvation is found. Even so, we acknowledge that other faith traditions also sometimes have exclusive claims. Interfaith engagements focus, not on convincing the other, but on learning about them in ways that promote peace and respect in the societies in which we live alongside each other.

Interfaith engagements offer both partners the opportunity to present who they are, what they believe, and what they practice as people of faith. The basic structure of such engagements requires respect for the partner and a willingness to listen and observe without rushing to answer or assess. The intention of such engagements is to come to better understanding of the partner’s faith and practice as people of that faith desire to live it out. The purpose of such engagements is for the participants to develop respect and appreciation for the religious traditions of the people of different faith so that we can avoid “bearing false witness” against them. The hope of such engagements is that better understanding can lead to respect and, where appropriate, collaboration on issues of shared concern in the multi-cultural, multi-religious, and secular societies in which the partners live in North America.

For the process to have integrity, it is necessary that both partners recognize that interfaith engagement is not the venue for proselytization. Both partners must commit to respectful interaction and openness, without seeking to turn the engagement into something else. Indeed, any such endeavor would be dishonest, for that is not what the partner in the engagement agreed to and would almost certainly result in a refusal to meet for any further interaction.

Genuine interfaith engagements can result in personal friendships, in which friends could seek to lead the other to conversion. But interfaith engagements should not be seen only as the prelude to such friendship evangelism. Interfaith engagements seek to bring two religious traditions together in ways that promote civil society, respect, and—where possible and appropriate—mutual service.

Interfaith engagements can take several forms and involve different kinds of participants. Four commonly recognized types of interfaith engagements are:

1. Theological exchange—specialists seeking to enhance their understanding of their respective religious heritages and to appreciate the spiritual values held by those of different faith.

2. Religious experience—those who are well-versed in their own religious traditions sharing their respective spiritual riches in regards to prayer and contemplation, faith, ways of seeking God, etc.

3. Life—people striving to live in love toward their neighbors of different faith, by sharing their joys and sorrows, their human problems and preoccupations, and their hopes and fears.

4. Action—persons of various religions working together to deal with issues of shared concern in society (e.g., poverty, homelessness, environmental concerns, addictions, pornography, abuse, and so forth.

Note: In this document, for ease of communication, the terms “interfaith” and “inter-religious” are used interchangeably.