Christian Witness by Catholics, Evangelicals, and Mainline Protestants

Christian Today ran an article this week on a freshly released statement which recommends conduct for Christian witness among Catholic, Evangelicals, and Mainline Protestants. Chris Norton, writing for CT, did a fine job capturing reactions from an array of evangelicals. Chris graciously contacted me beforehand to ask for my opinion, since my work focuses on the Catholic/Protestant intersection; however, with the Billy Graham Center (BGC) issuing an official statement, I chose to not comment. So this is my chance to share a few reactions. First, a word of introduction to the document, the full BGC statement, and then a few thoughts of my own.

As the title suggests, this is a document on the ethics of Christian evangelism. Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct is purported to be the first document to receive unanimous endorsement from the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID) of the Catholic Church, and the World Council of Churches (WCC). As stated in the preamble, “This document does not intend to be a theological statement on mission but to address practical issues associated with Christian witness in a multi-religious world.” The three-part document states that its intent is to "encourage churches, church councils, and mission agencies to reflect on their current practices … for their witness and mission among those of different religions and among those who do not profess any particular religion."

Here is the full BGC response issued by Executive Director, Dr. Lon Allison.

We at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College appreciate the Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World document for as far as it goes. We believe it speaks eloquently to other world religions who in many places, condemn the Christian Church for coercion. This brings needed correction to those claims. 

We wish the document went further. We would have liked the uniqueness of Christ, as the Son of God who died and rose again for the forgiveness of sins to have been more emphasized. While he is, as the document says, the supreme witness, he is much more.  He is also what we bear witness to! Secondly, we wish that the verbal witness of the good news of Jesus was considered more central to how we express love to our world. While it was appropriate to teach how acts of service and justice, as well as Christian behavior are witness, we desire to say that the most essential element of witness must be the verbal expression of the gospel adorned by love acts, respect and gentleness. 

Finally the document operated from an assumption that Christians do witness, but do it badly or incompletely. At least in the Western world we argue that gospel witness is not done badly as much as it is not done. How we long for every believer, everywhere having the good story of Jesus and his love on the “tips of their tongues.”

I affirm the BGC statement. If you read the twelve principles of the document, you’ll probably agree that they are fine as far as they go. However, I don’t resonate with the last sentence of number eight. Here is how it reads:

8. Mutual respect and solidarity. Christians are called to commit themselves to work with all people in mutual respect, promoting together justice, peace and the common good. Interreligious cooperation is an essential dimension of such commitment.

Of course, no one should take issue with "mutual respect and solidarity," and the first of the two sentences is fine. The final sentence, however, says something a bit different. I for one would not say that interreligious *cooperation* is an essential dimension of mutual respect and solidarity. Dialogue, yes; but not necessarily cooperation.

I would also like to see more attention given to traditions challenging one another to learn and grow. Once again, the document says from the outset that it isn’t a theological statement on mission, but, is instead concerned with “practical issues associated with Christian witness in a multi-religious world.” But don’t our beliefs eventually find expression in practice? And if we all agree on the need for our practice to uphold and express the truth of Christian theology, then shouldn’t we be concerned with sharing such truths with one another? In other words, the sorts of Catholics and Mainliners that I must appreciate are those who believe what their church teaches and who care about sharing those ideas with me. The ideal vision isn’t silencing such dialogue, but, instead, promoting it in a spirit of grace and truth.

On the positive side, I’m delighted to see that the conversation is happening. There is something about sitting down at a table with Christians from different traditions, even when those differences are deep, and talking about how to relate to one another. In the end we may not agree, but at least we can show the world the love and truth of Christ in the process. This too is a valuable part of our witness.

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