July 6, 2010

Not Mere Dialogue: Is Exchange Compatible with Evangelism?

The recent move by Claremont School of Theology to be part of an effort to train leaders of other religions alongside Christian pastors has sparked a great deal of conversation and debate on the nature of inter-religious dialogue and theological education.  This debate was further stimulated by Claremont President, Dr. Jerry Campbell, when he was reported as saying that "Christians who feel they need to evangelize persons of other faiths have 'an incorrect perception of what it means to follow Jesus.'”  My own contribution to the discussion has focused on the priority of the earliest church to evangelize within their own pluralistic context.  In that post I argued from Acts 17 that the Christian task was not primarily dialogue but declaration.  While I stand by that claim, I would like to offer a bit more specificity.

I do believe that Christians can enter into fruitful conversation with person of other religions.  I have engaged in such conversations and have benefited from them.  That said, I affirm that the Christian task is not to engage in mere dialogue.  Fruitful dialogue will carry with it the clear presentation of ideas.  As Christians interact charitably with persons from other religions, we ought also be aiming to clearly and persuasively communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ with the hope that our dialogue partners will believe and be granted ultimate salvation in Christ.  Some would claim that dialogue necessarily excludes Christian witness.  However, I find it difficult to see how a Christian involved in authentic dialogue can avoid the clear presentation of his faith.  If the Christian is not faithful to present his views clearly and with conviction, then he is selling his dialogue partner short and robbing them of the opportunity to better understand the Christian faith, even if they are not there converted. 

An example will help illustrate the point.  Within the first two years of my work as a pastor, I had opportunity to meet six times with a Jehovah's Witness.  The exchange at our weekly meetings was quite fruitful.  I learned a great deal about the Jehovah's Witnesses, and, I hope, he learned something about Christianity.  I read the material that he gave me not with the aim of being persuaded but of understanding his view.  We both attempted to present our views clearly and persuasively.  And there were no secrets.  We both declared our intention to evangelize the other.  The point is that the effort to evangelize did not conflict with our efforts to understand each other and gain mutual understanding of the other's point of view.  Both dialogue and evangelism were happening simultaneously.  This is what I mean by saying that Christian dialogue with other religions is not to be merely dialogue.

Let me conclude by saying that if a Christian never engages in dialogue with non-Christians, then he will not be able to be fully obedient to the Great Commission.  Most Christians never get the opportunity to address crowds of unbelievers.  So if they are to evangelize, they must find people of other or no religious affiliation.  The prerequisite of discipling the nations is actually meeting and engaging the nations.  The meeting, though, is never for the sake of mere dialogue, but dialogue in which the gospel is presented clearly and persuasively.

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