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Christian Witness In A World of Faiths


Ted Schroder
April 24, 2005

Jesus commissioned his disciples to "Go and make disciples of all nations." (Matthew 28:19) The relationship of Christianity to the world is questioned by some who feel that missionary activity is injurious to peace between cultures. The election of a new pope has raised again these concerns. Non-Christians do not want to feel that they are regarded as having an inferior faith to Christians. There is a desire for mutual respect. Yet, healthy faiths always want to share their message with others. Most of us are Christians because missionaries shared the Gospel of Christ with our ancestors who were pagans, in Europe, or America, or Africa, or Asia. Today Christianity is growing more rapidly in Latin America, Africa and Asia than anywhere else because of the vibrancy of the faith of Christians in those areas. The faith, hope and love that the Gospel of Christ brings, cannot be bottled up and denied to those who want to benefit from it. If Jesus Christ is Lord of all, as the New Testament proclaims, then all deserve to know about him. If his achievements on the Cross and the resurrection are the medicine of the soul, giving eternal life in all its fullness, then we are obligated to give them to others.

What is off-putting to those who do not share our faith is, not so much, the content of Christianity, but the way in which it sometimes has been communicated. So the primary question in our day may be, what is the appropriate manner in which to witness to one's Christian faith to those who do not share it? St. Paul's speech to the Athenians (Acts 17:22-31) gives us some pointers.

As a member of a very small minority of Christian missionaries St. Paul had to approach his audience in Athens with sensitivity if he were to gain a hearing. He reasoned with them (17). St. Paul was a scholar who was talking with philosophers. But they were idol-worshippers. He did not condemn them for their idolatry, even though he was distressed by it. They needed to be convinced of the futility of worshipping idols. His approach was that of respect for all individuals as human beings. Therefore he engaged in a respectful argument with them. He felt that he could reason with them about what constituted spiritual truth.

If you respect others, and feel that you can have a reasonable conversation with them, you will keep your emotions in check, and not allow yourself to become confrontational. This requires humility, the desire to serve the other person in their search for the truth. It requires being sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit. It means being aware that you might be only one link in a chain that God is weaving to help this person to find truth. The seeds that we plant in the minds of others may take time to germinate and bear fruit. We must believe that God is at work and that he has a plan of which we are only a part. Therefore we must be patient in our witness.

If you respect another person's mind, you will love them as created by God to receive his truth. St. Paul said that "we are God's offspring" (29). Through creation God is the Father of all people, and all are his offspring, his creatures, receiving their life from him. Therefore all people are to be equally loved. Love for others was the hallmark of the ministry of Jesus. Reasonable conversation, respect and love, go together. The primary response of Christians to non-Christians is love. While we may disagree with the faith, or even the life-style of others, we can still love them as recipients of God's grace.

Love and respect also involves being willing to listen to others. Others will want to share with us their faith, or lack of it. Paul was well aware of the faith of the Athenians and so was therefore able to speak relevantly to their needs. He knew their culture well enough that he was able to quote their poets.

Love and respect also means that you can be honest with others. He did not shy from explaining why he did not believe in idols. He told them that God does not live in temples built by hands. He presented God as not being served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he is the source of all life to all people: "he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else." (25) While the Athenians had been trying to supply the needs of God through their offerings, God was actually supplying all their needs. This is a major distinction between God and idols. God is self-existent; he needs nothing. "Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone - an image made by man's design and skill." (29) In fact, he calls worship of idols as ignorance of the true God, and urges people to change their ways. Paul was not afraid to disagree with the thinking of others if it was done with love and respect. He had to offer an alternative to their thinking with an exposition of his understanding of the truth.

He affirmed them. He acknowledged that they were religious (22). The word religious means respect for the supernatural. The majority of people in this world are religious. Therefore we have much in common with one another. The form of our religions may differ, as did the Athenians version from the apostles. But they could agree on the reality of the supernatural world. There was a common wavelength on which they could communicate. Finding that common wavelength can provide a suitable opening into the lives of others.

Paul told them that he had observed their objects of worship, and found an altar to the unknown God. There was a recognition that there was something about God they were still searching for. They admitted that their knowledge of the supernatural was incomplete. Paul used this admission as a launching pad for his description of the God of the Bible. Paul saw the other faiths as the expression of a thirst for God, but he knew that only Christ could satisfy that thirst. So he approached others with the belief that they were thirsting for more knowledge and experience of God. They had a God-hunger that that was unsatisfied.

He shared his understanding of God as revealed in the Bible: that God is Creator and Lord of the universe and therefore of all people; that God is sovereign over history; that God has implanted a thirst for the divine in human beings; that God is near to us and the source of our lives; and that one day God will judge the world through Christ, and has given a proof of that by raising him from the dead.

Some people have no belief in God, and see the world as determined by pure happenstance, or the survival of the fittest. But they still have a hunger for meaning, to make some sense out of their lives. So for many people this hunger, this vacuum in their souls, is not interpreted in religious terms. It may take the form of free-floating anxiety, or despair, or guilt. There are many "unknown" gods in the lives of modern men and women. The Christian has to take time to befriend others enough to be able to talk about Christ when the time comes and the chink in the armor is evident.

"Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope you have. But do this with gentleness and respect." (1 Peter 3:15)

Amelia Plantation Chapel

Amelia Island, Florida

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