Religious Conversion and Christian Conduct in the Modern World

The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) is an important conversation partner in the larger worldwide ecumenical discussion. (The WEA represents, in a loose network, 420 million Christians worldwide.) The Alliance made news this week by agreeing to give approval to working with the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Vatican on a Christian code of conduct regarding religious conversion. This, regardless of the discussion itself, is a historic development in my estimation.

The WEA held a consultation in Toulouse, France, on August 8-12. Some 30 Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Pentecostal and Evangelical theologians and church leaders from Europe, Africa, Asia, and the United States outlined the content of this new statement at Toulouse. Finalization on their work is not expected until 2010.

The archbishop of Toulouse, Mgr. Robert Le Gall, a Benedictine monk who has wide experience in interreligious dialogues, said this document could ensure the “mutual respect of those who are engaged in a religion” while it can also preserve the “right to spread and explain one’s faith.” Dr. Tony Ritchie from the Church of God, a Pentecostal US-based denomination, said the code would not be about “whether” Christians can or should evangelize as widely as possible but about “how” they do it. What he advocated, according to the press release of the World Council of Churches, was a “dialogical evangelism” that is ecumenically oriented and marked by an ethical approach.  This kind of language scares the socks off of some American conservatives but it excites me to my core.

Another participant, the secretary of the Council of Churches of Malaysia, proposed that the code show an attitude of respect for the right of the faithful of any religion to their beliefs. No problem with this point either. But then Dr. Hermen Shastri added, “Religious preachers need to be told that no religion has a monopoly on the truth, that there are many ways to find salvation.” Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Catholics and non-liberal Protestants will all find much to be nervous about in such a statement. This is what makes the effort to craft a code of conduct dicey and intriguing. The road is filled with potholes and every faithful Christian can see it. We should watch all of this with interest and pray for real discernment. But fear, I submit, is not a proper response in these ominous times, if it ever was a proper response in any time. We have to know the past well but we can not live in the past if we deal faithfully with the present and the future. Too many of us are stuck in the 16th century right after the "big bang" and we can’t see any light at the end of the closed mine shaft. This is why these new consultations and discussions trouble us. We keep reading them in the light of a fixed time in history as if nothing has happened to change anything in 500 hundred years. Welcome to the world of fierce polemics, and they are on every side—Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox. 

Among the issues identified by the participants in France as elements upon which this new code of conduct should be based are: common understandings of conversion, witness, mission and evangelism, and concern for human dignity; a distinction between aggressive proselytizing and evangelism; and, the balance between the mandate to evangelize and the right to choose one’s religion.

The complexity of such discussion, and of a resulting document, presents interesting and important missional challenges for every serious Christian. For example, how does a Christian minority live effectively in India, or how does a British evangelical minister faithfully in a section of the city where the largest church building has now become a Hindu temple, and how do US Pentecostals struggle with the fact that they “are indeed ecumenical but do not know it" as one Pentecostal leader put it.

This code of conduct will attempt to reach a consensus about what should be banned in Christian mission and what guidelines should be accepted for dealing with complicated issues like interreligious marriages. The hope is that the code will become a tool for discussions with governments where anti-conversion laws are already in place or are now being considered. How do we advance the cause of religious freedom, address concerns about the ethics of some Christian practices of evangelism and help erase intra-Christian tensions and fears in our world? These questions motivate those who talked in Toulouse last week.

There is no way this process can be forced upon anyone. Such a move is not only ludicrous but inconsistent with the very process itself. So what do the framers hope to really accomplish? They want to “impact minds and hearts” around the world and allow “moral and peer pressure” to do a better job of making needed changes.

I applaud this effort and I will watch it prayerfully and carefully. I am committed to making disciples of Christ among all peoples but I think we also have to face the modern world very differently than the world of colonial days and of the vast empires that made pacts with religion to protect and promote it. We are living in a different age and those who do not see it are asleep intellectually and spiritually. True mission calls for a better and newer response. For those who profess to follow the Lord of love have we any choice but to engage such issues with concern and with a real desire for peace?

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