July 9, 2010 Volume 24, Number 07
Evangelicals on the interfaith frontier
Fear of compromise fading as proper confidence grows
By Doug Koop | ChristianWeek Staff
Evangelical Christians have long been suspicious of interreligious dialogue, concerned that participants will sell out the gospel out of some need to appear to get along. We've often been apprehensive about unholy compromise, afraid that even the most pious believer might water down the exclusive claims of Christ to accommodate the religious sensitivities of someone who believes differently. We worry that our ability to evangelizeto welcome new convertswill be undermined when we accord people of other faiths the kind of respect and attention we would desire from them.
Yes, evangelical Christians have a reputation for missionfor going into the entire world, preaching the gospel and seeking to make disciples of all nations. It's a mandatea commissioningwe take very seriously.
But something is changing in the way we interpret that calling. A growing number of mature and committed evangelical Christian believers are not afraid to climb onto the back of the interfaith bronco. They are willingin some cases eagerto engage with people of other faiths in order to understand them better. This is mission, they say.
That's why a growing number of key leaders are angling towards interfaith activity. They do not see it as an automatic threat to Christian mission or conviction. Rather, they believe the time is ripe for Christians to think hopefully about the way we interact with people who believe differently. They insist it is important for us to have enough confidence in our own faith that we can respectfully engage others regardless of what they believe or don't believe. They know that our posture toward others should be one of appropriate humility and appropriate conviction. And they're willing to give it a go.
"We are a significant movement within the broader Christian tradition," explains Evangelical Fellowship of Canada president Bruce Clemenger. "When an invitation to dialogue with people of other faith traditions comes along, the first question shouldn't be 'why?' but 'why not?' We should step up and participate. This gives us the opportunity to bring our understanding, our convictions and faith perspective to the table. It gives us a chance to raise concerns about errors or problematic statements. It enables us to contribute to any common agreement or understanding that might result."
Geoff Tunnicliffe, international director of the World Evangelical Alliance agrees. "We want to demonstrate that faith has a place in society, a role in dealing with the big issues of the day," he says. "It's also important for us as evangelicals to be engaged because it helps us overcome some of the stereotypes of who we are." From his experience, Tunnicliffe knows that people from other faith traditions are more interested in understanding what Christians believe and why than in getting us to change our minds.
"Evangelicals should be at forefront of reconciliation because that's the essence of the gospel," says Tunnicliffe. "We don't have to fear engagement. In the New Testament, Paul engaged the culture, including dialogue with religious leaders. We can have a level of theological security in our beliefs.
"Knowing who we aresecure in our values and beliefsgives us the freedom to process and engage with what other faith communities believe."
In the wake of the World Religions Summit 2010, we may very well see the beginnings of a regular interfaith forum of religious leaders in Canada. Don't expect a formal organization to emerge, but delegates from many faiths are ready to meet more often. They want to speak with a single voice to government and their own constituencies more boldly. They want to cooperate where they can. They do not want to bear false witness against their compatriots. They want constructive and positive relationships. They want to promote respect. They are eager to love their God and love their neighbours.
And guess who is taking the lead in coordinating this forum? Hint: the energy is not coming from the Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Roman Catholic or mainline Protestant communities. The catalyst has a distinctively evangelical flavour. May its tribe increase.