A Biblical Foundation for Interreligious Engagement
Evangelicals are a "people of the Book," and any approach to how we live our religion among those of other religious traditions must take this into account. But is it possible that our biblical foundation for interreligious engagement is off kilter? I suggest that it is, and as an alternative I present a more appropriate biblical foundation for interreligious encounters.
Years ago I was on staff with a major apologetics ministry that provided seminars for churches on various "cult" groups. They used an approach to Scripture that is commonly found among Evangelicals as they encounter both "cult" groups (or new religious movements) like Mormonism, as well as world religions such as Islam. This involves a confrontational method of citing various biblical passages on important Evangelical doctrines in contrast with the teachings of a competing religious group. There are a select number of Bible verses that are appealed to as a foundation for this approach, and these include Jesus and his stern rebuke of Jewish leaders, New Testament texts warning about false teaching in the church, as well as Old Testament passages warning about false prophets, and the example of Elijah confronting the prophets of Baal.
As I studied these passages and considered the broader framework of biblical teaching, I came to the conclusion that this understanding was flawed. Later, as part of the 2004 Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization's issue group that explored Evangelical responses to "cults," I became part of an international group of missions practitioners and scholars who had come to the same conclusions as I. It resulted in one of the more significant papers to come out of that Lausanne gathering.
My fellow Lausanne group members acknowledged that there is an important concern in the Bible for doctrine, sound teaching, and the need for discernment within the church. That must be acknowledged. However, we also recognized that, among other things, the commonly accepted biblical basis for interacting with other religions is inappropriate. It is based on the wrong texts and contexts, and it need not be primarily confrontational.
In terms of texts and contexts, Jesus' rebuke of the Pharisees and Sadducees is an "in-house" critique of the religious leaders within Judaism, not an example of engaging those outside of our religious tradition. Therefore the context of Jesus' rebuke is misunderstood and misapplied. While the New Testament does provide a reminder of the need for sound teaching within the church, the texts often cited in this regard refer to disputes within the boundaries of the church, not in evangelistic encounters or other ways of engaging those in other religions outside the church.
Given these shortcomings, an alternative is needed so that Evangelicals can have a solid biblical foundation in which to relate to those in other religions. This biblical alternative includes the following elements that need to be embraced by Evangelicals.
1) Rediscover a Christological hermeneutic. The Apostle Paul handled the Old Testament in a particular way when citing it and writing what would become our New Testament. This has tremendous ramifications for Evangelicals today. Perhaps the best illustration of this comes through a consideration of Paul in Romans 15:8-10 where Paul quotes Psalm 18:41-49 and Deuteronomy 32:43. But Paul does something amazing in Romans in that he changes the meaning, leaving out the texts that talk about the destruction of Israel's enemies. In so doing Paul puts forward what some have called "a consistent pattern of reinterpretation 'in Christ,'" so that the "meaning is artfully and deliberately reshaped according to the 'way of peace,' which is the way of Christ." If we apply this to our selection of texts that inform interreligious encounters the results are dramatic. Recall above that Elijah and the prophets of Baal are often cited as justification for a confrontational approach to interreligious engagement. But Brian McLaren reminds us that
...we can't tell the story about Elijah (1 Kings 18) calling down fire on the prophets of Baal without hearing Jesus' rebuke of his disciples for recommending the same violent response to the 'religiously other' (Luke 9)....We can't tell the story of the slaughter of the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 7) without telling Matthew's masterful reversal of that story in Jesus' encounter with the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15). (Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, 194)
John W. Morehead is the Custodian of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, the Director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies, and has been involved in interreligious dialogue for many years in the contexts of Islam, Mormonism, and Paganism. He is editor of Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue, by Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega.