The Gospel will always be offensive to some
Inter-faith dialogue is to be welcomed - so long as we do it right
I don't think I am instinctively confrontational. I work hard at relationships because I am convinced that good relationships are the key to success in all areas of life.
It's for this reason I can heartily welcome the latest Baptist Union resource which aims to dispel some of the myths of inter-faith collaboration. "The 12 Myths of Inter Faith Engagement" addresses issues such as whether God only works through Christians, whether other faiths just want to convert Christians, and whether the inter-faith agenda seeks to make one world religion.
The initiative has been produced in the hope it will empower Christians to engage more fully in serious dialogue with people of other faiths and none.
Now I would be the first to admit that dialogue is a biblical virtue, but I am also convinced that we need to be very careful about what we mean when we use such potentially anaemic words. I would suggest that we could do no better than refer to the definition framed at the National Anglican Evangelical Congress held in Keele in 1967 when it said "Dialogue is a conversation in which each party is serious in his approach both to the subject and to the other person and desires to listen and learn as well as to speak and instruct".
If we accept this as a working definition it is clear that the New Testament presents us with a God who wants to dialogue with us, and therefore we ought to be willing to dialogue with people of any and no faith. We see this truth exemplified in Paul's approach when addressing the "Athenian illuminati" in Acts 17.
And we should not ignore the fact that we can blithely assume that people are being offended by the Gospel when in truth it is we who are proving offensive. In our determination to defend and promote the truth we can lack tact, humility and an aura of grace, the kind of grace Jesus displayed when he was faced with a woman caught in the act of adultery.
But this very story should also remind us too that Jesus frequently offended His contemporaries by the things he said and the way he behaved. We can see the storm clouds beginning to gather right at the outset of his ministry when he claimed to be able to forgive sin, just as we can see them breaking at His trial when He was finally condemned for 'blasphemy'.
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Tolerance has been noticeably absent for much of the church's history, but we dare not elevate it above truth. We fool ourselves if we forget that the world's major religions differ hugely and that we are called to promote the one who claimed to be the way and the truth as well as the life.
We would be conceited to deny that there are elements of truth in non-Christian systems but we would also be denying our very raison d'etre if we ever concluded that they offer alternative ways of salvation.
If Jesus is "the light that enlightens every man" then we must evaluate every claim to truth alongside His. If Jesus is "the way" then all others must be dead ends. If He was and is the incarnate Son of God then He is God's final and defining Word. If Jesus is Lord then every other human being who has ever lived will ultimately bow down to Him.
Few if any of us like to be criticised let alone be told that we must submit to the one who says we will die in our sins unless we accept that He is divine.
Claims like this will always prove offensive, which is why we constantly need to find ways of showing others we love them before we try to convince them.