Although churches are guided by many considerations, including the condition of their finances and the interests of their members, theology is generally the underlying principle that governs the kinds of programs that are considered appropriate or inappropriate.
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The importance of theology is particularly evident in the following example. First Reformed Church is one of the historic landmarks in its East Coast community. Founded in the mid seventeenth century, its membership has remained constant in recent years, numbering just below two hundred. The neighborhood is rich in religious diversity. Besides Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Protestant churches, it includes four synagogues, two mosques, two Hindu temples, and two Buddhist temples. In the past two years, First Reformed has participated in two three month long Bible study classes held jointly with a synagogue four blocks down the street. At first, about twenty five people from the church attended, and then the number grew to around forty. Each week the discussion focused on a passage from the Hebrew scriptures. The pastor and the rabbi led the discussion, but mostly the members of the two congregations just shared their impressions and opinions about the passage. The experience was so positive that the congregation has been considering repeating it and perhaps initiating a similar forum with one of the mosques in the neighborhood.
The Reverend Jon Hoekema, now in his twelfth year as pastor at First Reformed, views these interfaith activities as a natural expression of Christ's teachings. The congregation's theological orientation, he says, is firmly trinitarian, mainstream as far as the denomination (Reformed Church in America) is concerned, and conservative. He believes that Christ opens people to a relationship with God that deepens and enriches their lives, and for this reason, he strongly urges people who want a relationship with God to study the Bible and become involved in a community of believers where they can learn about Christ. His understanding of salvation is more positive than negative: those who know Jesus have an abundant, eternal relationship with God; those who resist God's will may in the end also be forgiven or perhaps a merciful God will simply terminate their existence, rather than sentencing them to eternal suffering. Mr. Hoekema says that there is no way to be sure about this, so it is better to focus on other aspects of Christianity.
The most important teaching, in his view, is to love one another as God has loved us, and this means loving everyone. "Because of Jesus, I now have a new relationship with every other human being on the face of the earth. They are my brother and sister because God is our father. The way I describe it is because of the exclusive nature of my commitment to Christ I have become a very inclusive person. There is this exclusive nature of Christianity. It is a commitment to Christ which seems to exclude others, but because of my relationship to Christ he has showed me that I am a brother and sister to every other human being on the earth." Thus, in his ministry, he tries to live up to this ideal of inclusivity. He is pleased, for example, that his once all white congregation is now a melting pot of European Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Puerto Rican Americans and that it helps sponsor a couple of foreign missionaries. He takes an active role in the local clergy council, which includes rabbis as well as pastors, and has been working through this organization to combat hate crimes reflecting the racial, ethnic, and religious tensions in the community.
Over the years, Mr. Hoekema has had ample opportunity to think about the implications of his seemingly paradoxical view about the exclusivity of Christianity being conducive to an inclusive approach to religious diversity. Reared in a predominantly Christian community in the Midwest and having attended a conservative Christian college, he was challenged by some of his college and seminary professors to think hard about his religious assumptions, rather than merely taking them for granted. Traveling in Europe, visiting Holocaust sites, and having close friends who were Jewish and Hindu, as well as his reading, forced him to think about how to be Christian in a religiously diverse environment. It concerns him that some of his friends have decided that there is little reason to be Christian at all because they regard all religions as equally valid, and he worries about people who seem to embrace tolerance and pluralism without having thought through the implications of these values for their own faith.
His own views are still developing. He says, for example, that he would have no trouble talking to a Muslim about how to become a Christian if that person were interested; at the same time, he thinks there is a kind of devotion and piety in Islam that God probably respects and, indeed, from which Christians could learn. He believes that Jesus is God and is God's revelation to humankind, yet he also believes that people of other religions find God through the way of humility and obedience that Jesus taught even though they may not consciously invoke the name of Jesus. He regards the Bible as God's infallible word, meaning that it is trustworthy, but rejects the idea of biblical inerrancy and insists that the Bible is one of many ways in which God is revealed. His interpretation of Jesus' statement about being the way, the truth, and the life emphasizes the differences between this statement in the gospel of John and those of the other gospel writers; while respecting the teachings of other religions, he also dismisses the notion that all religions are equally true or simply substitutable for one another.
For a person like Mr. Hoekema who takes theology seriously, the reality of other religions not only in the world but in his immediate neighborhood poses an opportunity to think more deeply about his faith than otherwise might have been the case. He expects Christianity to become a minority religion in the United States within a generation or two and says that this will probably be a good development. At least those who remain Christians, he hopes, will have a clearer understanding of why they are trying to follow the teachings of Christ. Meanwhile, he acknowledges that he does not have all the answers but believes his God is big enough to encourage Christians to interact on level ground with followers of other religions without fear.
A contrasting view of relating to people of other faiths that reflects a different theological orientation is well illustrated by Jim and Nancy Parsons, co pastors of a four hundred member Assemblies of God church in a large city on the East Coast. Like Mr. Hoekema, they have had plenty of opportunity to think about the relationships between Christians and people of other faiths. Located in a downtown area, their church is within a few blocks of two synagogues, a Hindu temple, and a Buddhist temple, and there is a mosque a little farther away. The congregation itself is quite diverse: more than half of the members are from Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and other Central and South American countries, a quarter are African or African American, and the remainder are white Anglos and Asian Americans. Although the members include people of all income groups, ranging from the homeless to wealthy business managers and professionals, the Parsons have also started mission congregations in several other communities to accommodate lower income families who feel uncomfortable worshipping downtown.
All this keeps the Parsons busy enough that they have little time to think about interacting with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists in their neighborhood. They abandoned a small effort to draw Jewish children to some of their programs a few years ago, report that they currently have no contact with Hindus, know only a few Muslims, are critical of an interfaith church in the area that in their view accepts everyone too easily, and now channel most of their own interfaith efforts through a group of Messianic Jews whose ministry they support in a small way. Even if time pressures were not a factor, the Parsons say they would downplay interfaith activities. "In this city that kind of thing has been done to death," Mrs. Parsons explains, "and to be honest, it has not been effective. What usually happens is that you sit down and have people share and emotions get heightened. I'm not saying it shouldn't be done, but we have never seen anything effective. What we focus on with the people is building relationships. What we teach our people is how to win someone to the Lord through relationships. That's the major focus of our ministry."
The Parsons' ministerial focus is an expression of their understanding of the Christian faith. A Christian, in their view, is essentially a person who learns the truths that Jesus set forth in the Bible and who "disciplines your body and your mouth and your mind and your tongue and your living by the standard of the Bible." The Parsons insist that they are not talking about a list of do's and don'ts but standards that God revealed in the Bible to help people lead happier, more loving, and more obedient lives. The main reason for trying to live according to these standards is to please God. Anyone truly interested in pleasing the Lord will, accordingly, spend ample time reading the Bible and attending a church where the Bible is preached.
They recognize that many (probably most) people do not seriously try to follow Jesus in these ways and thus it worries them to think about those who stray from God's path. This is the basis for their church's emphasis on evangelism through relationships. "Because we are very relationally based," Mrs. Parsons says, "we try to offer a different answer for every person. We use the `feel, felt, and found' text. If a person is sick and scared, I've been sick, I've had a bad diagnosis, I know what that feels like, so I can say, `I know how you feel I've felt that same way, and here's what I found that the Lord was able to walk me through this, and I would have never gotten through it without his strength.' "
As far as their Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist neighbors are concerned, the Parsons are convinced that they need to hear the gospel of Jesus, come to an understanding that the Bible is the only "standard of truth," and be converted just like an atheist or anybody else. Although this conviction might be expected to lead the Parsons to focus especially on meeting and converting people of other religions, the "feel felt found" aspect of their thinking tempers their approach. Using Jehovah's Witnesses as a negative example, they distance themselves from people who aggressively go door to door trying to make converts. In their view, a person has to be in the right spiritual, mental, and emotional place before he or she is willing to seriously consider becoming a Christian, and usually this preparation involves a major personal crisis of some kind, such as losing one's job, coming to terms with an addiction, going through a divorce, or experiencing a serious illness or death in the family. When that happens, it makes no difference as far as the Parsons are concerned whether the person is a Muslim or an atheist; if the person is in enough pain, it becomes possible to talk persuasively to that person about Jesus.
Although they do not aggressively evangelize non Christians, the Parsons are quite clear that these people do not know God. Their interpretation of Jesus' saying about being the way, the truth, and the life is that this statement leaves open only two options: either Jesus was telling the truth or Jesus was a liar and, since the latter option strikes most people as unattractive, they argue that Jesus really meant it when he said that he was the only way to come to God. Thus, they have little interest in trying to understand the teachings of other religious traditions. They acknowledge that there are well meaning people who follow these traditions, but these people will not have eternal life unless they believe that Jesus died for their sins.
As these examples suggest, Christian theology and how congregations relate to and think about people of other religions are inextricably interwoven. Pastors like Jon Hoekema who are interested in learning from their Jewish and Muslim neighbors are often somewhat more open in their thinking about such questions as the uniqueness of the Bible than pastors like the Parsons who feel that greater understanding of other religions is less important than engaging in personal evangelism. But theology provides only the broad framework in which pastors' thinking about other religions is shaped. Within these larger frameworks, pastors still struggle with questions about how exactly to think about and relate to people of other religions.
Consider what the Reverend Jim Jimson says about presenting the gospel to Jews or Muslims or Hindus. He is the pastor of a four hundred member Southern Baptist Church in a southern city. A seasoned pastor in his mid-forties, he earned a college degree in English literature before attending seminary at one of his denomination's divinity schools. Since coming to his present congregation, he has had ample reason to think about ministering to people from other religions. The neighborhood, once exclusively white, is now a mixture of blacks, Hispanics, Vietnamese, other Asian Americans, and other recent immigrants. His church is less than a mile away from a Hindu temple, less than three miles from a mosque, and only four miles from a synagogue and a Buddhist organization. He says the church has initiated no programs specifically concerned with evangelizing, or in other ways interacting with, people from these different religions. But he does encourage his congregation to make friends with their non-Christian coworkers and neighbors. The goal of initiating such friendships, he says, is to open the door for opportunities to tell people from other religions about Jesus.
This sounds like straightforward evangelization. But Mr. Jimson's exact words are worth considering more carefully. After acknowledging that he would like his church to be doing more to reach out to people of other faiths, he says, "This is where we kind of get into the difficulties. There's a verse in the Bible where Jesus says, `I'm the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father, but by me,' which very much narrows things down, [especially] if you take it that he said those words and meant them just as straight as he said them. There's another one in Acts, and the reason I quote these verses is because like I said, I feel constrained if this really is the Word of God, then I'm constrained to take that perspective, if you will. Peter told some folks, `There's no other name given under heaven by which men might be saved.' Now if that's the case, if Jesus is the only way to God, then we need to reach out to people of other religious beliefs. I know this sounds " He trails off somewhat apologetically, saying to the interviewer, "I don't want to make you angry, I hope I'm not doing that."
When the interviewer reassures him that she really wants to know what he thinks, he continues, "I'm not apologizing, but at the same time I want to be " He searches for the right words: "Yes, then I'm constrained to say there's one way to God and, boy, this sounds " Again he breaks off. She reassures him again. "Okay," he says. "I just don't want to sound arrogant, because it's not me who's come up with this. If I'm going to be faithful, then I'm constrained to say, then other folks have missed it. I don't want to make it sound like I've come up with this, or I found the way or something."
What this pastor wants to tell people with other religious beliefs is that they must turn to Jesus to be saved. If he ever had the opportunity to talk with a Jew or a Muslim, he says he would like to say something like this: "We're not making fun of your beliefs or anything, but if we have found the only way, we want you to come that way too. Not to join us, but so you can be with God."
The problem that causes him to backtrack and search for the right language is believing that only his religion is true when the culture in which he lives is sufficiently pluralistic to accept more than one view on almost everything and, at a minimum, to discourage people from saying things that seem blatantly arrogant. It helps that he is able to say, in effect, "This isn't really my opinion, but since it's there in the Bible, I have to tell you what the Bible says." Yet that argument, too, runs into difficulty when he has to explain why his view of the Bible is more correct than those of other Christians who regard it differently.
This is just one example of how difficult it is for Christians to find the right way to talk to non Christians or to imagine talking with them. It does not suggest that the problem is intractable and certainly does not imply that Christians should never engage in dialogue with people of other faiths. It illustrates only that interfaith encounters are not easy; indeed, they are sufficiently difficult that many congregations avoid them as often as they can. But refraining from interfaith activities is itself a decision that reveals some of the challenges that religious diversity brings to Christian communities.
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