Category Archives: Theology of Interfaith Cooperation

Do Not Bear False Witness Against Your Neighbor: The Surfer Boy and the Receptionist

surfer

And God spoke all of these words…You shall not give false witness against your neighbor. Exodus 20:1, 16

Several months back I overheard a conversation in an office waiting room. A young 20-something guy entered the waiting room with his board shorts on and his windblown hair haphazardly tucked beneath his backwards baseball cap as though he’d just come in from surfing – not uncommon in the beach community of Jacksonville, Florida. He strolled confidently to the receptionist and asked her a question about the availability of a person he wanted to see, made an appointment and it seemed his business was done and he’d be on his way. Instead he asked the receptionist where she was from, if she liked her job, and then talked about the weather. He then began to tell her about a Bible study he was leading and a little about his faith journey – for the longest time he felt lost, was starting to get in trouble, then he found Jesus, was born again and began to set his life straight.

After sharing his testimony he asked the receptionist, “What religion are you? She looked surprised then hesitant.

“I guess you could say I’m a Christian,” She replied.

“Oh, that’s cool,” said the surfer boy, “you know I used to think I was a Christian. I went to church sometimes, and my parents and everyone I knew were Christians, so I just figured I was Christian too, but I wasn’t saved, I wasn’t really a Christian.” The surfer boy paused to make sure the receptionist was following. “But now I’m saved because I told Jesus that I’m a sinner – I recognized all my sins- and then I professed Jesus as the son of God and the savior of the world, so now I will go to heaven and I know I’m a Christian.”

“I see,” said the receptionist, “well I also think it’s really important to be a good person.”

“Well sure,” responded the surfer boy, “we should all be good people, but that’s not going to get us into heaven. Take Judaism or Islam, for example, in Judaism and Islam you have to follow a set of laws in order to get into heaven. There’s no grace there, it’s all about doing things on your own and trying to get into heaven based on merit.”

“Really?” asked the receptionist.

“Yeah, totally. Muslims have to pray 5 times a day or they don’t get into heaven, and Jews have to keep all of the Old Testament commandments or they don’t get into heaven. Can you imagine having to keep up with that? No one can get into heaven on their own – it’s impossible to be perfect.”

With that, the surfer boy invited the receptionist to attend his church, bid her a good day, and was on his way: just another Tuesday afternoon.
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I’m very familiar with this routine, it’s one I know well. I used to be quite skilled in turning a seemingly mundane encounter with another person into an opportunity to evangelize. While this is no longer part of my everyday routine (I don’t personally feel called to this style of witness) I really don’t think there is anything wrong with this kind of evangelism. That being said – did you catch what the surfer boy said about Islam and Judaism?

Take Judaism or Islam, for example, in Judaism and Islam you have to follow a set of laws in order to get into heaven. There’s no grace there, it’s all about doing things on your own and trying to get into heaven based on merit.

These claims aren’t actually wholly true.

To start with, in Judaism there are various understandings about how to observe Torah. The religion of Judaism isn’t theologically singular as many assume. There are many sects of Judaism and many teachings on how one can or should follow Torah. Some are quite strict while others are more flexible. For example, in Reform Judaism, many do not even keep Kosher. The concept of grace, however, does exist in Judaism (where do you think we Christians got it?). Many Jews believe God chose the nation of Israel to be God’s light in the world and to lead the way in righteousness, not because Israel was the greatest nation, or the mightiest or because of anything Israel did or was (Deuteronomy 7:7), rather God chose Israel because God simply favored Israel. Further, the goal of observing Torah is not necessarily to get into heaven – many Jews do not even believe in heaven; nor is the goal to gain favor with God. According to Jewish theology, as a Jew, one is already part of God’s favored people.

It is true that in Islam Muslims are called to pray fives times a day, but this does not guarantee them entrance into heaven. A Muslim woman once told me that Muslims believe that no matter what we do here on Earth, or no matter how much faith we have in God, none of us are guaranteed entrance into heaven, there is always the possibility that we will end up in Hell. Therefore, if we do enter heaven – then it was because we did something good and because ultimately God allowed it according to God’s goodness. Again, we mustn’t assume that Muslim theology is singular.

While I do not pretend to be an expert on Jewish or Islamic theology, in fact, I’m far from an expert (I’m barely literate) but I bring up the story of the surfer boy and the receptionist as an illustration of a mistake us evangelicals regularly make – bearing false witness against our neighbor. Yes – that pesky ninth commandment can be such a pain in my rear, but it’s one we should really take seriously. The Ten Commandments is the foundation of the Judeo-Christian values system (is there one Judeo-Christian values system? probably not – but I digress) and as the foundation of said values system, each one should be considered carefully.

The ninth commandment is often paraphrased as, “do not lie,” but the more accurate translation from the Hebrew is “do not bear false witness against your neighbor.” If this sounds like legal language to you, you would be right. It is widely understood that this is a reference to ancient Jewish court systems. In a court case the accuser also acted as witness, so to bear false witness would also include wrongful accusation. While this particular commandment pertains specifically to the court of law – it seems fair to say that the sin carries forward into the ins and outs of daily life. Just as it is sinful to bear false witness and bring wrongful accusation in court, it is sinful to do so outside of court.

What does any of this have to do with living Christian in a religiously diverse world?

It is sometimes the case that in the attempt to share the Gospel with another person, or bring them to Jesus, that we talk about Christianity in relation to other religions – we compare and contrast. This a pretty common sales tactic used to convince consumers your option is the best option. It may seem distasteful to describe evangelism as sales – but in many ways that’s often the Evangelical’s hope, is it not? To “sell” others on the idea of Christianity? So it’s natural in many ways to say, “hey, yeah Christianity is a religion – like Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism – but it’s actually different from these other religions and here’s why.” And I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with comparing.

What’s wrong…actually let’s take this a step further…what’s sinful is comparing Christianity with other religions in a way that is dishonest, untrue, or misrepresents other religions, or the followers of those other religions. In other words, it is a sin to bear false witness against your neighbor’s religion.

That ninth commandment is one of the reasons I find interfaith cooperation and dialogue so important. A professor of mine at Princeton Theological Seminary, Dr. Richard Young, introduced me to this idea in a class I took called “Pluralism, Dialogue and Witness.” We are not good neighbors, we do not love our neighbors, when we are bearing false witness against them by sharing untruths about them to others.

Bearing false witness against another’s religion while acting as a witness to the Gospel, in the end, is not really witnessing to the Gospel. After all, the Gospel of Jesus is supposed to reveal truth in its most ultimate form. The truth of God is love and grace and redemption – themes that aren’t really congruent with claims of non-truth.

It is incredibly easy to bear false witness against your neighbor, or your neighbor’s religion, when you don’t know your neighbor. I truly believe that it is the rare case when a person bears false witness against another religion, or one of its followers, it is on purpose. The truth is we are almost always ignorant of our ignorance. We don’t always know the truth about the truth claims we’re making.

Interfaith dialogue, building interfaith friendships and relationships, gives us ample opportunity to know our neighbors and to better understand their ideologies (both religious and non-religious). The new knowledge, insights, and understandings gained from these relationships better equip us to obey the ninth commandment in a new and profound way.

So I would really challenge you to think about what you’re saying about other religions before you say it. Where did you get your information? Why are you sharing it? Remember those words from God – the ones God spoke to Moses and Moses carried all the way down from that mountain,

Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Consider speaking the truth when sharing the Gospel, and if you don’t know that you know the truth, consider speaking to the truth of the Gospel without sales tactics that may cause you to inadvertently sin.

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From polemicist to peacemaker

John publicity photo

John W. Morehead
Guest Author

Recently Greg Damhorst asked me if I’d be interested in submitting an essay to the relaunch of Faith Line Protestants, and I was all too happy to do so. The topic I wanted to interact with is my theology of interfaith cooperation, and where I find my motivation to engage in this process the way that I do.

I am in a very different place in regards to interreligious encounters than I was years ago. Previously I worked for one of the larger ministries addressing “cults,” those new religions considered heresies, and toward which an apologetic refutation was presented, often in the name of evangelism. This seemed like the best and most biblical way to engage members of such groups, and I spent countless hours with Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others, exploring and refuting their doctrine from my Evangelical perspective. I also taught many Christians to do the same as a guest speaker in churches across the country.

But I have always been fairly self-critical, and widely read, and this eventually led to discomfort with this confrontational way of engagement. The more I set aside popular apologetic volumes and read the history of Christian missions, missiology, sociology of religion, and religious studies, the more I felt like I was creating a caricature of various religious groups, and being needlessly confrontational in interaction with their adherents. I eventually experienced a paradigm shift, moving from “cults” to cultures, and came to see people in new religions, and world religions too, not so much as members of deviant religious systems, but as people involved in dynamic religious cultures.

But perhaps the most significant motivation for me in my current way of engaging those of other religions is Jesus. I recognize that no matter how a Christian interacts with Muslims, Mormons or whoever, they believe they are doing so in a way that reflects Christ. But many times our assumptions here don’t line up with the reality of the Gospels. Yes, there are times when Jesus uses rebuke, such as with the Jewish religious leaders, but we’ve been applying such texts out of context. A fresh reading of the Gospels shows that Jesus’ harsh rhetoric is reserved for those leaders inside his own religious community (Mt. 23:27). To the marginalized and the outsider he offers compassion.

This is most striking with a consideration of Jesus and his encounters with Gentiles and Samaritans. Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman (John 4:4-42) is especially illustrative. He breaks with his own religious community’s taboos concerning a frowned upon religion, he informed about his conversation partner’s religion and culture, he demonstrates respect rather than denunciation (while retaining disagreement), and his exchange involves listening as well as presentation.

Through a careful reassessment of the example of Jesus I came to embrace a different way of interreligious engagement. My concern for orthodoxy has not diminished, but my confrontational orthopathy (theology of emotion and attitude) has transformed into a benevolent one. In my shift from polemics to peacemaker (Mt. 5:9) and ambassador (2 Cor. 5:20) I now try to pursue more faithfully the imitation of Christ in our multi-faith world.

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Eats Well with Others

What does eating have to do with evangelism? If you grew up going to church, then you likely grew up attending church potlucks (or pitch-ins, or covered dishes—or, whatever they were called in your hometown).  Christian churches everywhere host meals on special occasions or following worship in the spirit of fellowship.  This practice is rooted in one of the basic tenets of our faith—that when we break bread together we are celebrating the life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who offered us his flesh and blood (bread and cup) as a sign of his covenant with humanity. In order to follow Christ, we Christians eat together.

Long before Jell-O salad and deviled eggs, Christian communities came together to share the Lord’s Supper. But early Christians didn’t always break bread in the spirit Jesus showed.  In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul admonishes the followers of Christ in Corinth for eating in an unfaithful way: “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. 21For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.”

In order to observe the Lord’s Supper, Paul points out that we cannot merely gather together; we have to gather in a spirit of hospitality and humility. No one can go hungry or thirsty at the Lord’s Supper. Paul goes on to say: “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. 34If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation.” My New Testament professor, Dr. Brigette Kahl, says that the very definition of what it means to be Christian is to be a “co-eater”. To be a Christian is to eat with others; to wait for others; to sacrifice our own comfort for the comfort of others; to be one who sets a wide table at which everyone is welcome.  For Paul, this is no small command. Those who eat in an “unworthy manner” will face judgment and risk condemnation.

In our religiously diverse world, Christians are called to eat and fellowship with those of all faith traditions and backgrounds. We are called to extend the Lord’s Table beyond the church walls in order to make the example and teachings of Jesus a reality in our world. Interfaith cooperation is about being with others; in Christian terms, it is about eating with others. Evangelicals and all Christians embody the life and sacrifice of Jesus when we seek communion with all of the “others” around us, despite our differences.

 

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