The United Nations has declared the first week of February ‘World Interfaith Harmony Week’ during which states are asked ‘on a voluntary basis’ to encourage churches, mosques and other religious organisations to deliver a message of the need for interfaith harmony, based on a love of God and a love of one’s neighbour.
Given that the United Nations does not use the Bible to guide policy, it seems only sensible to weigh the suggestions they give against the truth we have in Christ (Colossians 2:8). It would be wrong to accept their message and deliver it in a church setting if the message does not agree with the Bible, and even if it does agree – yet it may be that it needs to be properly explained through the Bible.
In order to do this, I’ll ask three questions to start the discussion of ‘the interfaith question’. I’ll first ask whether the Bible supports an interfaith category; then what the Bible sets out as normal in terms of interfaith harmony, and finally the ways in which the Bible teaches us to approach the interfaith challenge.
Treat this as my thoughts on the matter – it is for you to review the scriptures yourself and see if you agree with the conclusions I have reached.
The Interfaith Category
If we are to discuss interfaith issues, we must first establish to what extent there is a category for interfaith issues. Interfaith issues are defined as those relations which one religion has with persons or institutions of other religions. In the Christian context, it becomes the relationship between Christianity and persons or institutions of religions other than Christianity.
This is where we encounter the first problem: the Bible does not differentiate between persons of other religions, or indeed of no religion. In terms of categories, a given person is either Christian – or he is not. A person is either ‘in the light’, or remains ‘in darkness’ (Ephesians 5:8). All those who deny the truth of God are under the wrath of God (Romans 1:18,22-23,28; Ephesians 2:3). The whole world, Paul writes, is accountable to God (Romans 3:19).
If there is no Biblical category for those of ‘other religions’, then it is important that in our discussion of the issues we remember to equally include those of no religion. In Biblical terms therefore the ‘interfaith question’ should be treated as the question of ‘the church and the world’. The way in which the Christian relates to those of other religions should not differ as a matter of policy or philosophy from the way in which the Christian relates to those of no religion at all – and so our questions must be likewise rephrased to talk not of those of other religions, but of all those who are not Christian – that is, the world.
Having seen that there is no Biblical category for ‘interfaith’ relations, and that in terms of doctrine it differs nothing from relations with the world – let us review the scripture and determine what it is that the Bible teaches about harmony between the church and the world. What should we expect, if we hold true to Christ?
First, it is worth noting that the division between the church and the world is more than mere membership; but is one of power and dominion. The world is described as under the power of Satan, whereas the church is under the power of God (Acts 26:18, Ephesians 2:2, 1 John 5:16).
As such, the world cannot but hate the church. If a man in the world were to receive the truth, then he would no longer be of the world, but of the church. To this point I bring the very promise of Christ, who declares “because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19), and goes on to say that “they will also persecute you” (John 15:20).
Much scripture attests to this persecution, suffering and tribulation, by which we are assured that it is only through many tribulations that we must enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22), and directly told that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (II Timothy 3:12). So, “do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you” (I John 3:13).
As an example of a Christian life, one surely cannot better Christ himself. It is in Christ that we see persecution even to death, and teachings which were the occasion of great anger amongst those of other beliefs. Far from ensuring interfaith harmony, Jesus even caused a religious riot – such that the governor saw fit to put him to death to avoid further problems (Matthew 27:24). Was Christ wrong in proclaiming the kingdom of God – as he certainly foreknew that it would lead to religious confrontation?
Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, did little better. He, carrying out his mission from Christ, encountered not religious harmony but was lead right into confrontation after confrontation. In Acts 17:5-8 we read of one such event in which there was not only rioting by those of other beliefs such that the whole city was said to be ‘in an uproar’, but also a mob attacking the house at which they stayed and dragging those they could find out. When Paul is later held before the governor Felix, the charge against him is nothing less than “one who stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the world”!
Was Paul wrong in obeying God despite the fact that it would predictably cause a loss of religious harmony? Is it right to obey God, or to obey man (Acts 4:19)? We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).
When we consider interfaith harmony then, we need to bear in mind that the Bible promises us persecution and hatred from the world. We are promised that if we are indeed of Christ and not of the world then we will be persecuted, rejected and hated. If we are able to set about a course of action which can remove this persecution, rejection and hatred then either we make the word of God a lie, or we are no longer Christian, nor are we living a godly life.
Thus, the second thing to conclude is that it is not possible for Christians to achieve interfaith harmony. Whilst Christians may not persecute or mistreat the world, yet the very promise of God guarantees that the world will persecute and mistreat Christians. This is a very significant thing to bear in mind – for it means that the UN message is promoting something we know is possible to achieve only if we abandon our Christian faith so that the world might love us.
The Interfaith Challenge
Notably, the Christian is not told to withdraw and remove himself from the world which certainly hates him. Rather, he is sent into the world, and with a purpose. When Christ offers up his prayer of John 17, although he knows the world has hated Christians for being not of the world (John 17:14), he does not ask the Father take Christians “out of the world” but that they be protected from falling into the hands of Satan (John 17:15). Christ has sent Christians into the world, just as he himself was sent into the world by the Father (John 17:18).
This sending out into the world is for a stated purpose, which is to proclaim the Gospel – and to do so to all creation. It will not be received by all, but yet it is to be proclaimed to all that those who believe will be saved (Mark 16:15-16).
The Christian is told not to be conformed to the world, but to be transformed by the renewal of his mind. He is to present his body as a living sacrifice to God, even though he is in the world (Romans 12:1-2). It is not an easy mission of worldly blessings that the Christian is sent upon, but one with adversaries, opposition, and suffering – sufferings which are experienced by Christians throughout the world (I Peter 5:9). The Christian indeed hopes for a future of peace and harmony, but is only promised that future with the return of Christ – the eternal glory to which we have been called (I Peter 5:9).
Meanwhile, the Christian is told not to be a friend of the world, indeed to do so is to be guilty of adultery towards God. As James teaches, “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). We’re taught not to love the world or the things of the world – for as John reminds us, “if anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).
Thus, there is a great danger that this quest for interfaith harmony in itself is an attack upon Christianity. If it is designed to promote friendship with the world (of which other religions are but a part), then it does wage war against the prohibition of scripture.
I suggest then that Christians focus not on ‘interfaith harmony’, but on that work to which we are all called by our Father in heaven, and upon which we are sent out by Christ himself – to proclaim the Gospel to all creation. To do so is the very highest form of love of God, and also the very greatest love of neighbour.
To refuse to bring the Gospel to your neighbours because it would disturb interfaith harmony is not to love your neighbours; as Paul asks – how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? (Romans 10:14) As for whether it is a case of waiting for a harmonious time – there may be merit in that in worldly terms – but our Lord teaches us that “no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world” (John 7:4), and again Paul exhorts Timothy to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season” (II Timothy 4:2). And yet, as we do go out, we do so in the full knowledge that to obey God means to be hated and persecuted by the world, going out knowing that we are as sheep to be slaughtered – to be killed all the day long (Acts 8:36).
What can we do for “interfaith harmony” in good conscience? Well, we are taught to live our lives in the world in order to proclaim the truth – to proclaim the Gospel – speaking it in love (Ephesians 4:15). When we are persecuted, we are even to bless our persecutors and not curse them (Romans 12:14), loving our enemies (Matthew 5:44), and again, doing good to them who hate us (Luke 6:27). All these and more I freely grant are absolutely required of us, and our Biblical contribution to the concept of “interfaith harmony”.
However, we must insist that no man can ever ask or require of us is to refrain from preaching the Gospel to all creation. We cannot even consider keeping the Gospel of the the death of Jesus Christ for our sins (I Corinthians 15:1-3) silent, or decide that in the name of interfaith harmony we will not proclaim it boldly to those of any given religion – or indeed to those of no religion. It is true that it is precisely this Gospel for which the world hates us, persecutes us and rejects us – but on this point it seems to me that we cannot compromise.
It seems to me that to remove the preaching of the Gospel to all creation, to all peoples of every nation, is to remove Christ and his work from our Christianity, and to choose for ourselves the world instead of the Kingdom of God.