When approaching the early church from a Biblical perspective, one must unavoidably begin with the Acts of the Apostles (or, as many Bibles have it—simply “Acts”). This book, which comes right after the Gospel of John, tells of the apostles’ interactions in the world after Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection.
In many ways, Acts is a rather odd book. It’s filled with miracles, martyrdoms, conversions, and the curious workings of the so-called “holy spirit,” which serves as a source of spiritual guidance and power.
One may fairly ask what this book has to do—if anything—with interfaith cooperation. After all, nearly every story told in its pages has the apostles going into a group of non-believers, proclaiming the Gospel, and then either winning followers to their cause or getting thrown in prison (sometimes both). And, in a few instances, we are told of an apostle being put to death for proclaiming his faith.
To the outsider, Acts can certainly seem aggressive and rather off-putting (what is all this “speaking in tongues” business, anyway?) and even to the seasoned church-goer can pose some interesting questions. Yet I think there’s something quite important one can gain here that bears significance when discussing how evangelism intersects with interfaith.
All throughout the book, the writer of Acts describes the apostles as having proclaimed their faith boldly. This boldness is important. As I’ve already mentioned, spreading the Gospel of Jesus was risky business, and the apostles—and by extension, any member of the early church—were willing to die for it. They possessed a deep conviction for their message, presumably because, as the Bible says, they knew it to be true. Peter and the others had walked with Jesus, talked with Jesus, and dined with Jesus… after he had died.
One of the criticisms Greg and I hear most often regarding interfaith work is that it entails a diluting of one’s faith and a stunting of one’s evangelical power. The thought runs something like this: “Interfaith cooperation requires respect for others’ beliefs, thus inhibiting my ability to tell them about Christ and their need for salvation. Therefore it is useless to become involved in interfaith because it does not necessarily result in large numbers of converts at the end.” Indeed, did not the early church strive to convert all those who they encountered?
I would say that this approach comes from two places: 1.) a possible fear of/lack of faith in one’s Christian beliefs, or 2.) a misunderstanding of how interfaith cooperation typically works.
Typically in interfaith scenarios, one’s faith is put on the table—people know you are a Christian. It then becomes your actions that define what living a Christian life means to you. In interfaith work, everyone acknowledges a fundamental theological disagreement; Christians know that theologically they differ tremendously from Jews and Muslims and Sikhs, for example, and that each believes they hold the exclusive religious truth. Thus, the Christian willing to use interfaith as a platform for evangelism does not need to state outright the exclusive claims made by their faith unless asked to do so. What should happen instead is that Christians enact the teachings of their faith to show what it means to them and what it means to others who choose to live by its precepts, and, when given the opportunity, share their story of how the Christian faith has transformed their life and motivated them to serve the community and the world.
When we shrink from engaging in interfaith cooperation, I believe we fail to proclaim our faith with boldness. Now, I know that, to some, this notion may seem and sound rather counter-intuitive. I know that one may say that this boldness/conviction should actually give license to the believer to rebuke those of other faiths. Indeed, even the apostles did this when addressing the Pharisees and the like.
Yet I think we need to be cautious here, as we do not operate in the same period under the same contexts as the apostles did, and we must adapt our notions of evangelism accordingly. Simply stating that Christians believe to hold exclusively the truth necessary for salvation would be, as I stated above, just stating the obvious in interfaith dialogue. Everyone doing interfaith work knows that each faith claims something exclusive, and so we must look for a better way of expressing our faith with boldness than rebuking others, which can so easily fall prey to over generalization and the preaching of a fire-and-brimstone message of eternal damnation. (As many have pointed out in these past months, this message is not a popular one in today’s culture, but I won’t get into that here.)
I believe that there is a way to find balance. I believe that there is a way to show boldness through your actions that do not define themselves against others. What do you think? Is it possible to be bold for your faith in interfaith cooperation efforts without coming across as preachy? Or do you think interfaith does in fact stunt our ability to proclaim our faith?
What do the Acts of the Apostles say about interfaith?