Mission and Culture - Applying the Lessons

In the previous articles in this series we attempted to define what we mean by 'mission' and 'culture', and saw that as we seek to take the whole gospel to the whole world we need to learn to re-express it in terms which are appropriate to the cultures of those among whom we work and witness for Christ, while yet being faithful to the substance of the gospel itself. In this final article we turn our attention to an important aspect of culture in which this dual commitment is put to its greatest test - that is the aspect of religious belief.

As has already been noted in these articles, we are living today in what is increasingly becoming a 'global village'. With improved mobility and channels of communication, adherents of the different religions are no longer living in geographical isolation from one another, but are often living side by side in the same neighbourhood. In this context few would dispute the importance of working out a satisfactory approach to the whole question of inter-faith dialogue.

Broadly speaking, one of three approaches has usually been adopted to this issue:

At one extreme there are those who regard other religions as wholly false, if not satanic, and explicit faith in Christ as necessary for salvation. The problems with this approach are that it overlooks those areas where there is an overlap in belief between Christianity and other faiths; it fails to take due account of general revelation which God has given to all (see John 1:9, Acts 14:16f, Romans 1:19f and 2:14-16); and it fails also to take due account of those passages in the New Testament which talk about believers who lived before Christ (and who therefore had no explicit faith in him) being accepted by God through faith (see Heb 11, Rom 4 and Matt 8:11). If such believers will be saved, we may ask, why not those of similar faith, both before and after Christ, who have been on the receiving end of a similar degree of revelation?

At the other extreme are those who regard other religions as all equally valid paths to God and effective means of salvation. According to this view, the religions of the world are simply culturally conditioned responses to one divine reality. There is therefore no need to convert anyone from one religion to another, and even to attempt to do so would be to practise an unacceptable form of cultural imperialism. All may find salvation in whatever religion they have inherited. The problems with this app-roach are that it overlooks the sometimes vast areas of substantial disagreement between Christianity and other faiths; it fails to take due account of those parts of scripture which speak of Jesus as the definitive revelation of God (see John 1:18, Colossians 1:15 and Hebrews 1:1-3) and the only saviour (John 14:6, Acts 4:12 and 1 Timothy 2:5); and it flies in the face of Jesus' original commission to his disciples, the teaching and practice of the apostles, and the experience of millions of Christians down the ages who have found in Christ a salvation they could find nowhere else.

Others seek to steer a middle path through the two extreme positions just outlined. According to this view, which coheres well with the understanding of culture expressed in these articles, the religions of the world contain a mixture of the good, the bad and the indifferent. Religion is an ambiguous phenomenon that calls for a discriminating approach. Yet for Christians, Christ remains the definitive revelation of God and the only saviour; so those who will ultimately be saved, who will be judged to have responded in faith to the degree of revelation available to them, will be saved through him, even if they did not know him by name on earth. Evangelicals who follow this general approach tend to affirm in addition that all claims to religious truth (including those made by Christians themselves) must be tested by the written revelation given in scripture; that this position should be clearly distinguished from universalism (the view that all will be saved in the end); and that Christ's commission to make all nations his disciples remains a matter of paramount importance.

If we follow this sort of approach to the understanding of the relationship between Christianity and other religions, as I believe we should, how should we go about the task of inter-faith dialogue in practice? Perhaps three guidelines may be suggested:

  1. Firstly, it is important that we see our non-Christian neighbours as persons made like us in God's image, and treat them with maximum love, respect and sensitivity. As Wesley once said, we are to be the friends of all and the enemies of none. Developing a positive personal relationship, so far as this is possible, is therefore highly desirable.
  2. Secondly, it is important as a consequence that we listen to and learn as much as we can from our non-Christian neighbours. None of us knows everything, nor is any one of us infallible. We therefore need to enter into dialogue in a spirit of humility, being ready to be taught, challenged and corrected whenever necessary, and affirming whatever our conversation partners say which we see to be in accord with scripture. We need to build bridges of understanding, map out our common ground, and strengthen the ties that may serve to bring us closer to one another in our understanding of the truth.
  3. Thirdly, however, we are to bear our own witness to Christ. If we are to be faithful 'ambassadors for Christ' (2 Corinthians 5:20), we must faithfully present the truth about him as we understand it, share our own personal experience of his saving power, and challenge our hearers to make their own response to his call to discipleship. At the end of the day, the gospel is not something to be negotiated, compromised or watered down, however much our own understanding of it needs to be broadened and deepened, and however much it continually needs to be re-expressed in culturally relevant terms. It is rather something to be shared confidently and joyfully, in the knowledge that the one who has saved us can and will save all who trust in him. The outcome we must be prepared to leave in the hands of God, but we may at the same time rely on his promise that at least some of the seed we sow will fall on fertile ground (see Isaiah 55:10f and Mark 4:1-20 and parallels).