A recent Hartford Institute study indicates an increase in connections across all faith traditions, especially among more civic-oriented communities. Since the 9/11 attacks, congregations have gotten more involved in interfaith work and are cooperating more for the social good of their communities. In the past decade, American congregations' involvement in interfaith worship doubled and their involvement in interfaith community service nearly tripled. Although interfaith work has increased in both evangelical and oldline churches, the most liberal congregations have the highest level of this activity. 

Older evangelicals have a very difficult time thinking about interfaith dialog and practice. Their categories are totally black and white. You are for Christ or for the devil. This is spiritual war and we must choose sides. We cannot serve God and Satan so we cannot have discussions with non-Christians unless they are evangelistic conversations. We must remind people, as soon as possible, that they are going to hell unless they convert to our faith in Jesus.  

I have clearly overstated the case here for a reason. Even if my words are not entirely accurate they are too close to reality for comfort. 

What is the problem here? 

1. We have failed to see that the term "brothers and sisters" has several different meanings in the Bible and tradition. Clearly, the New Testament speaks of "brothers and sisters" primarily in terms of those who are one with us in Christ. But there is more nuance to this issue than some will allow. We are plainly related to one another as members of the same human family, created by the same God and loved by the same Creator who sent his one and only Son into the world to save us. He did not send the Savior into the world "to condemn the world" (John 3:16-17) as the Fourth Gospel makes so plain. 

We are all created by God thus none of us exists independently from God. "We live and move and have our being in God." Ontologically we are all brothers and sisters who are coming forth from God here and now as a divine creative act. This is why St. Francis could speak of "brother sun and sister moon." Evangelicals have often lost this robust doctrine as it is expressed in the first article of the creed.

2. We have far too often assumed that if we talk to non-Christians about matters of God and faith then we must talk to them in an aggressive way about our faith or we have failed to take evangelism seriously. I find this premise entirely wrong. It seems to me that it is like saying, "The only way we can and should talk to people of non-Christian persuasion is if we can talk about their need to convert and join us." Surely we can have loving and wonderful conversation with people as real friends and neighbors without that conversation leading us to "present the plan of salvation" as our only purpose for a relationship. 

3. We need to read our Bibles much more carefully if we are to enter into the growing interfaith reality. I recently engaged several serious Christian thinkers about this subject because of a simple re-reading of the parables of Jesus. I am quite aware that judgment is a biblical theme. I take this quite seriously. But I am also aware that Jesus revealed the Father's love for the world. He did not reserve his love for the "right" crowd. In fact the one crowd that he most frequently warned of impending danger was the conservative religious crowd that was most sure they knew who belonged to the true people of God and who did not. 

So what needs to happen? We need to stop reacting against liberal conceptions of "the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God." These conceptions were false and remain dangerous if advanced without the clarity of the good news. But what we replaced this danger with was a theology of anger and judgment that left us with precious little to say to non-Christians but "repent" and "you are headed to hell without Jesus." If you think I make this up talk to non-Christian under age 40! I believe deeply in repentance but I do not believe that I can even begin to communicate why a God of love commands all people everywhere to repent unless people know I love them. People do not care what I love unless they know I love them. And they cannot know I love them if I will not converse with them out of deep human respect precisely because they are loved by the living and true God whose love I have found in Jesus Christ. 

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  1. David Rogers December 23, 2011 at 7:52 am

    I am all for friendly relationships, mutual respect, tolerance of others in other faith traditions, and even a certain degree of solidarity with worthy projects of mutual concern. But I think we must be careful, especially at a blog like this that makes so much of Christian unity, to distinguish between unity and solidarity. We can never be one in the true sense of the word with those who don’t believe and embrace the gospel, not, at least, in the way we are with those who do.
    Further thoughts on this: http://sbcimpact.org/2011/02/28/unity-and-solidarity/

  2. Dan December 23, 2011 at 9:00 am

    I would disagree with your premise depending on what you mean by “true sense.” If you mean that those who are in a growing fellowship with Jesus cannot be ‘one’ with those who are not in a growing fellowship with Jesus, then I would agree with you. I think this speaks to being unevenly yoked. The problem with not detailing what we mean by being one is that anyone can then define it by whatever measure they choose which makes them comfortable and confident in their faith. I don’t believe we are supposed to be comfortable in our faith, but that’s another matter. The fact is, I’ve been in plenty of ‘Christian’ places where plenty of the ‘members’ were NOT in a growing fellowship with Jesus, but because some specific doctrine or theology was professed by all, they all considered themselves ‘one.’ That kind of solidarity, in my opinion, is pointless. It might bring comfort and confidence, but it brings nothing to the expansion of the Kingdom. If you read, Dr. Armstrong often, then you know that he does in fact differentiate between unity and uniformity, which I think is a far better term then solidarity.
    Regardless, John, seems to me you’re channeling Ratzinger again. Meaning of Christian Brotherhood? Brothers and sisters in Christ and brothers and sisters in Adam. One big family. All called to serve the Kingdom. None abandoned by God. Disciplined, yes. Judged, yes. Allowed to freely choose, even things ultimately destructive, yes. But God is still their Father, and the perfect Father never abandons His family.

  3. John H. Armstrong December 23, 2011 at 10:00 am

    “Channeling Ratzinger?” I love it (frankly) and consider the prospect with joy at so many levels. While clearly not a Roman Catholic I seek to recognize truth where I see it and in this case the Catholic Church in particular, and Ratzinger as a leading theologian in our time, both lend support to what I am saying here. Fundamentalism is stuck in a category that it must defend without seeing the bigger perspective (cf. Vatican II) that I am embracing via the catholicity I so deeply affirm. Thanks Dan and thanks David for an honest and helpful criticism that is taken in the good spirit with which you gave it here.

  4. LKH January 5, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    As a 31-year-old who teaches teenagers I definitely see the younger generations more comfortable with interfaith realities… They seem more equipped to engage in these kind of dialogues while maintaining a loving sense of their own beliefs. I do not mean to imply you have to be under 30 to do this, just that it’s more built into the postmodern upbringing of kids now. And I do agree that an “us v. them” mentality is not reflective of the meaning of “brothers and sisters”.

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