Interfaith and Inter-church Relations: A Roadmap on Engaging Others
Ganoune Diop, Ph.D., Director, Public Affairs & Religious Liberty
General Conference of Seventh-day Adventist World Headquarters
Today, the church faces a critical choice which will determine the future of our relations with other Christians, other religions and other societal institutions. A decision has to be made about how we speak to and about other churches and governments.
Ellen White’s advice is clear:
“They must plan to work in harmony in order to work to advantage. We want more, much more, of the Spirit of Christ, and less, much less, of self and the peculiarities of character which build up a wall to keep us apart from our fellow men.
We can do much to break down these barriers by revealing the graces of Christ in our lives. Jesus has been trusting his goods to the church, age after age. One generation after another for over eighteen hundred years have been gathering up their hereditary trust until the increasing responsibilities have descended to our time.”
“Do not denounce other denominations. —When some who lack the Spirit and power of God enter a new field, they commence denouncing other denominations, thinking that they can convince the people of the truth by presenting the inconsistencies of the popular churches. It may seem necessary on some occasions to speak of these things, but in general it only creates prejudice against our work and closes the ears of many who might otherwise have listened to the truth. If these teachers were connected closely with Christ, they would have divine wisdom to know how to approach the people.”
“We should not, upon entering a place, build up unnecessary barriers between us and other denominations, especially the Catholics, so that they think we are their avowed enemies. We should not create a prejudice in their minds unnecessarily, by making a raid upon them. There are many among the Catholics who live up to the light they have far better than many who claim to believe present truth, and God will just as surely test and prove them as He has tested and proved us.”
“We profess to have more truth than other denominations; yet if this does not lead to greater consecration, to purer, holier lives, of what benefit is it to us? It would be better for us never to have seen the light of truth than to profess to accept it and not be sanctified through it.”
Despite these unequivocal admonitions, a populist vision of our mission continues to believe in focusing on telling people that Catholic churches, Protestant churches and Orthodox churches are going to join national political entities and alliances to persecute God’s remnant people who keep God’s commandments, including the Sabbath and the faith of Jesus. This is not our mandate as a church.
We can choose to focus on the dark side of historic churches, on apostasy or drifting from biblical truths as we understand it and insisting on what we consider heresies, or we can choose to focus on the eternal gospel, the good news, the gospel of hope in the sufficiency of Jesus Christ to heal all the wounds of human existence. Jesus promised he will complete what he was building throughout history when he comes as Lord of the whole universe. We are called to be agents of light, participating in the mission of the Light of the World, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Jesus is the creator of life. He is the light of the world. Only light overcomes darkness. “In him was life and life was the light of the world. The light shines in the darkness and darkness did not overcome it” says the gospel of John (1:5). The best way to deal with darkness, whatever we think it is, is to witness to Jesus Christ, the light of the world. He is the one we are called to uplift before the world.
The Example of the Early Followers of Jesus: Context of the Spread of the Faith in Christ
The early Christians lived under a brutal Roman Empire occupation. Emperors like Nero who scapegoated Christians had accused them of igniting the fire in Rome. He had unleashed unspeakable persecutions against the Christians. Another infamous emperor who persecuted Christians is Domitian. The letters to the 7 churches of the book of Revelation contain information as to the dire situation Christians were experiencing. These persecutions have been exacerbated under the reign the emperor Diocletian.
Nonetheless, the focus of early Christians was not on attacks or on assaults against their persecutors, present or future. Their passion and focus were on loyalty, faithfulness to Jesus Christ and the witness to his sovereignty and sufficiency. The resurrected Christ said to his followers in Smyrna. “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold the devil is about to cast some of you into prison so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death and I will give you the crown of life…He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death” (Rev 2:10-11.
They were several antichrists said the Apostle John; however, he focused on the gospel. The love of God and the call to love one’s neighbors as oneself.
Jesus prophesied that the gospel of the kingdom will be preached to all people in all the world and then the end shall come. The gospel of the kingdom is therefore to be preached. It is guaranteed. There lies the confidence of Christians, trusting that Jesus Christ will fulfill his prophecy and promise.
Also, regarding the difficult times of persecution against the followers of Jesus. Jesus guaranteed that the gates of hades will not defeat the church of Jesus Christ. This assurance he also gave to Christians at Smyrna. Nothing will defeat them. Ultimately, the last enemy, death or the Second death will have no power over those who remain loyal to Christ.
There is no need to slander other Christians. We need not position ourselves as accusers of the brethren and erect walls, barriers and feed peoples’ prejudices. Enough of the violence we decry in the memory of the historic inquisitions and persecutions, and crimes against faithful followers of Jesus.
Remarkable were those who throughout history indwelt by the love of God, prayed for their enemies, even as they were being martyred. The fear of being persecuted should not transform Christians into persecutors. Even though this had happened in history, it needs not be perpetrated. We are peacemakers, praying for those who in fact are fighting against God, even in the name of God. What a paradox.
Blessed are the peacemakers said Jesus.
Our focus should be on the sovereignty and sufficiency of Jesus Christ.
He is our sacrifice, our priest and our king. When Jesus is uplifted, he draws people to himself.
We are his witnesses not his lawyers or fighters. We are people of peace following the prince of peace.
As with geopolitical issues, our call is to engage the whole world with the modus operandi of our day: constructive dialogue and reasoned arguments through peaceful persuasion. The alternative is shaming and blaming, accusations, suspicions of conspiracies and criminalization of others. We should nothing to do with these tactics. These are not methods of the Holy Spirit as Ellen G. White said.
Jesus reminded us the wheat and the tares will grow together until He comes. It is not our responsibility or power actually to uproot the tares.
Our mission and energy should be to focus on Christ, grand center of attraction in our mission endeavors.
How do we do that?
The extraordinary tool of religious freedom
“The banner of truth and religious liberty held aloft by the founders of the gospel church and by God’s witnesses during the centuries that have passed since then, has, in this last conflict, been committed to our hands. The responsibility for this great gift rests with those whom God has blessed with a knowledge of His Word We are to receive this Word as a supreme authority. We are to recognize human government as an ordinance of divine appointment, and teach obedience to it as a sacred duty, within its legitimate sphere. But when its claims conflict with the claims of God, we must obey God rather than men. God’s word must be recognized as above all human legislation.
A “Thus saith the Lord” is not to be set aside for a “Thus saith the church” or a “Thus saith the state.” The crown of Christ is to be lifted above the diadems of earthly potentates. Ellen G. White. The Acts of the Apostles, p. 68, 69.
The platform in which truth and liberty are articulated is the New Covenant Jesus offered through his incarnation, life, teachings, death, resurrection, ascension, enthronement, heavenly high priestly ministry and Second Coming as Lord of the reconciled unified cosmic reality.
- The uniqueness of this new covenant is based on God’s offer of direct access to God. In other words, Seventh-day Adventists hold the view of the radical end of all mediations.
- No need for holy places, holy objects, or holy personnel, holy performances meant to provide salvation.
- Again, the revolution brought about by this offer of direct access is the end of religion itself and its apparatus of rites, rituals and cultic performances as means of salvation.
- These aspects highlight our roots in the radical Reformation.
- That is the whole purpose of the incarnation for the salvation of humans God created in God’s image.
- The book of Hebrews was meant to underline the primacy, supremacy, and sufficiency of the New Covenant Jesus brought, far beyond anything in the past or in the future from that standpoint in history.
Direct access means that God is the author and agent of salvation. God became prophet, sacrifice, priest and king.
The big difference for us is that Jesus is alive. Only He, can be our sufficiency.
In every interchurch forum, in every interfaith forum this is our testimony. Jesus is alive we would not recognize any in-between between Jesus and each one of us.
Seventh-day Adventists do not recognize the mediation of any creature be they spirits, angels, or human beings.
We respect leaders from other denominations. They are entitled to their freedom of thought, conscience, choice, association, and assembly. Freedom to worship according to the dictates of their conscience.
Yes, that is why we adhere to religious liberty. Yet, it is also our test of authenticity.
Our working policy, our official constitution in other words, says:
“Public Affairs and Religious liberty is also involved in government relations, inter-church contacts, and where indicated, networks with non-governmental organizations which have kindred goals in upholding religious freedom
“The department not only works for the religious liberties of both individual church members and organized entities of the church, but also supports the rightful religious liberties of all people,” General Conference Working Policy (2020-2021), p. 396.
Notice the expression “The rightful religious liberties of all people.”
This is a test for us to demonstrate if we truly believe in religious freedom. Others have the same right as we do.
Religious Liberty is a gem that signifies the most precious truths of our theology of creation.
Obviously, the truth of the Sabbath as expression of our allegiance to God’s sovereignty, and trust in the sufficiency of Jesus Christ but also the truth of human dignity, equality, and the most important contribution of the Biblical Christian faith from an anthropological perspective, the truth of the sacredness of human life, and therefore the infinite worth of every person.
Christ’s sacrifice highlights this truth. For God every person matters.