“When dialogue shrinks from seeking converts, it makes Christian witnessing impossible.”

Nowadays “dialogue” is a much-used word, especially in theological circles. In proper context it is a useful word that faces up to the realities of our “one world” and expresses the principle of international, intercultural, and interracial mutuality. “Dialogue” furthers the cause of good will among men by bringing about an understanding of various points of view. It encourages friendly tolerance in order to break down ugly and unnecessary dividing walls and achieve solidarity within the human family. So considered, “dialogue” is commendable, and the basic attitudes it connotes deserve the espousal of thoughtful men everywhere.

On the other hand, however, dialogue does entail some dangers for the “witnessing” that is the primary responsibility of Christians. Contemporary dialogue is often a genial exchange of views. It is governed by a kind of gentleman’s agreement that each party to the dialogue must refrain from implying that his convictions are not negotiable. A participant must have no proselytizing intent, no hope that either party might change his views under the impact of challenging ideas. Indeed, in this concept of dialogue held by many today, it is all but profane to suggest that one view might be superior to another.

At this point, dialogue can become a substitute for, or even a barrier to, witnessing. Christian witnessing seeks without apology to influence others to make decisions about Jesus Christ—decisions about his supremacy over all other objects of man’s worship, trust, and obedience. Such witnessing is not just a good-natured dialogue about our views; it is rather an intensely earnest effort to communicate to others our sense of the sufficiency of Jesus Christ to meet the fundamental needs of human personality. Not a self-righteous monologue, it involves the mutual confidence and good will produced by a genuine sharing of views. The desired result, however, is the acceptance of Christ and of the Christian understanding of life. Any witness that seeks less than this is faulty, though many intermediate goals must be achieved in the process of seeking a decision for Jesus Christ.

When dialogue shrinks from seeking converts, labeling any such attempt an offense against the person and dignity of another, it makes Christian witnessing impossible. It puts Christ in the pagan pantheon as one of many options for the thinking man. It gives tolerance priority over conviction. And, obsessed with the view that there are no absolutes, such dialogue is concerned only with comparing relative views. It thus devitalizes any honest quest for truth by presuming that there is no final truth. Such a procedure tends, furthermore, to confine dialogue to the intellectual dilettante and to discourage rank-and-file Christians from bearing simple witness to their faith in word and in deed.

Recently I talked with a steward on a plane flight over the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. When he learned I was a preacher, he put to me a series of questions of the type skeptics believe will disarm any theologian—questions about creation, Cain’s wife, Jonah, and the like. While I attempted to answer a question, he was relishing the next one he would throw at me. Finally I said, “One thing about you troubles me greatly. You are interested only in questions and have no interest at all in answers.” Startled, he looked curiously at me and replied, “You know, I never thought of that. You just could be right.”

Much that passes for dialogue comes under similar judgment. It is interested in questions but resents and rejects answers. All the while, the Christian Gospel offers answers—final answers, redemptive answers—to the most fundamental questions hard-pressed humanity can ask. The Christian witness must confidently and humbly offer answers. It must have a sympathetic appreciation of the difficulty many have in accepting the Christian answers, and it must realize that seeking love is very patient.

Dialogue used as a means of witnessing is vitally important. But dialogue as an escape from witnessing is futile and accomplishes little. Indeed, much of the aimlessness and confusion in contemporary theological circles may well be the result of such dialogue.

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