We live in a pluralistic world, with a plurality of ideas, philosophies, beliefs and religions. How are we to treat these various belief systems and worldviews? Just how should the believer interact with those of differing faiths, or no faith at all?
The answers to these questions are complex and lengthy, and there has been a heated discussion among believers for some time, with various points of view being advocated. Perhaps I can address the issues by referring to a recent email I received. This friendly critic said he does not always agree with what I write, and went on to say that we have to be cautious in how we deal with other belief systems and worldviews. This is what he had to say:
“I think we have to be careful not to be offensive and disrespectful to other people of different faiths and philosophies. Paul in fact was very diplomatic and well respected among a variety of different thinkers. He was able to act with the Jews as a Jew and as well as interact with Christians, Romans and Greeks. We are not doing Christianity any favour by name calling and insulting other philosophers and academics. It just creates an even bigger distance between Christians and others and further alienates us, and increases the ‘them and us’ mentality.”
This is a fair comment which raises some important issues. My short answer would be this: yes, we are to treat all people with respect and dignity, but we do not necessarily have to treat all philosophies, ideologies and religions with respect.
Let me unpack that a bit. It is clear from Scripture how we are to treat people. Paul says in Col. 4:6,
“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”
Or as Peter puts it, “Show proper respect to everyone” (1 Peter 2:17). And in the next chapter, he says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (3:15).
So in one sense, whether we are talking to an atheist or a Buddhist or a radical Islamist, we are to treat them respectfully and politely. But what about their actual teachings, beliefs, worldviews or religions? Must they all be treated with respect? If we look at the Scriptures, it becomes clear that not all beliefs and religions are seen as equal, and often false beliefs are treated accordingly: with decided disrespect, censure and out and out opposition.
Consider some of the ways that the New Testament writers treated competing beliefs and theologies. Jesus himself could be quite strong about false teachings. Consider Matt. 7:15: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.”
And in the book of Revelation, Jesus could tell John of “the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate”. (Rev 2:15) Can you respect a doctrine while at the same time hating it?
Paul also could be quite abrupt and impatient with what he regarded as false teachings or counterfeit gospels. Consider for example Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 8-10 on idols, especially in 10:19-21, where Paul argues that participating in pagan religious feasts means becoming partners with demons. And in 1 Tim. 4:1 he could speak of “doctrines of demons”. How are we to be respectful of other people’s beliefs, when according to Paul, some of these teachings are actually demonic in origin and are leading people astray? We are nowhere in Scripture told to respect demons, yet we are clearly told that some beliefs and religious teachings have demonic elements in them.
Attacking the person?
It is also interesting that not only are these false beliefs attacked with vehemence, but sometimes the carriers of these false doctrines are as well. John the Baptist of course was not always a paragon of tact and diplomacy. Calling the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers” (Matt. 3:7), was hardly conciliatory, bridge-building language. Indeed, the line “oozes with sarcasm” as Craig Blomberg points out.
Jesus could say of the unbelieving Jews, “you are of your father the Devil” (John 8:44). And of course he also had some very harsh things to say about the Pharisees, calling them “whitewashed tombs” and the like. Elsewhere he could call them “blind guides” and “blind fools” (Matthew 23:16-17). Not very polite or respectful words there.
And consider Paul, whom my critic mentions. Is it true that he was always “very diplomatic” with those he spoke with? Generally, probably yes. But quite often, not. In Acts for example we read of Paul calling Ananias a “white-washed wall” (Acts 23:3).
And in Galatians 1:6-9 Paul says that if any one brings another gospel which is not the one true gospel, “let him be accursed”. Those are very strong words indeed. He is saying such people should be eternally condemned. Such is the seriousness with which Paul views such matters. This does not sound like diplomacy and respect. Instead, them’s fightin’ words.
And things do not become more polite or conciliatory in Phil. 3:2: “Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh”. This is extremely strong language which Paul uses here, but he is rightly concerned about those who would pervert the Gospel.
Paul says this of false teachers in 1 Tim. 6:3: “If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing.” Other such passages can easily be produced. Thus I am not sure if Paul is being “very diplomatic”, at least on numerous occasions.
My critic also claims that Paul was “well respected among a variety of different thinkers”. But with all due respect, when I read the book of Acts and the Pauline literature, I find a very different picture. Aside from people getting saved, the main reaction to Paul’s preaching was hatred, persecution and attempts to kill him. I am not sure how these negative responses can be viewed as ’respect’. It is clear in Paul’s letters that he has numerous enemies to contend with, and plenty of opposition. A lot of people not only did not respect Paul, they hated him and his message. And this is something Paul in fact glories in! See 2 Corinthians for example.
(For more on the issue of dealing with others and their views, see my article, “Rhetoric, the Bible, and the Believer”.)
Is unity always possible?
Notice that my friendly critic warns against creating an ‘us against them’ mentality. But is it really possible to fully follow Jesus Christ and not have division and strife result? Indeed, is unity at all costs something we should be aiming for?
The Bible seems to make much of the fact that God’s people will bring division and separation. Many examples can be cited here. In Matthew 12:30 Jesus said that “he who is not for me is against me”. In Luke 16:13 he said we “cannot serve two masters”. Again, in Luke 12:51, he says, “Do you suppose that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, No; but rather division”. In the same way Yahweh said through Joshua, “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15).
Throughout Scripture men are forced to declare their hand, to let it be known which way they will go. Thus to follow the true God will always result in an ‘us against them’ mentality. This happened wherever Jesus went: he caused division. Consider just a few passages:
“On hearing his words, some of the people said, ‘Surely this man is the Prophet.’ Others said, ‘He is the Christ.’ Still others asked, ‘How can the Christ come from Galilee? Does not the Scripture say that the Christ will come from David’s family and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?’ Thus the people were divided because of Jesus” (John 7:40-43).
“Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.’ But others asked, ‘How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?’ So they were divided” (John 9:16).
“At these words the Jews were again divided” (John 10:19).
But perhaps even more importantly, Jesus warned about a kind of false ecumenism, wherein everyone is happy with what you say: “Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets. . . . Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:22-26).
Indeed, Jesus often spoke of how the true prophets were rejected in the past, just as he was being rejected. In a sense, speaking God’s truth will always bring opposition. While we are not to go out of our way seeking division and controversy, it will nonetheless follow those who stand up for Jesus Christ. It is inevitable.
In the end, my critic seems to overstate his case. Being a true follower of Jesus will mean divisions will ensue, and unity will not always be possible. While we must treat all people with respect, we are not called to treat false doctrines or non-Christian religions with respect. We instead are told to contend for the gospel, and speak truth into a world that no longer believes in truth. Such proclamation of truth will always offend and insult some.
That is why religious vilification laws are so mischievous. Whenever a person stands up for religious truth claims, those who do not support that view will take offence or feel vilified. It is the nature of truth claims to cause division, and set one group against another.
As but one example: when a Christian insists that Jesus died on the cross and rose again, a Muslim will find that offensive, because Islam teaches the exact opposite. Are we really, in the interests of all getting along and not being offensive, to water down the gospel and not proclaim those truths which will cause others to get upset or take offence?
There may be a place for ecumenical endeavours, and inter-faith dialogue, but never at the expense of Biblical truth and radical Christian discipleship. Compromise, and watering down the gospel, so that we might get along with others, and/or not offend others, is not the way to go.
By all means, we need to be gracious and respectful of others, but it is the nature of the gospel message that when it is proclaimed in all its fullness and power, division and opposition will arise. Jesus promised this, and church history bears witness to it.
So while I will try to take on board the spirit of what my critic has to say, I must reject some of the faulty assumptions that lie beneath it. I repeat, we must not go out of our way to be offensive and insulting. But standing up for biblical truth will certainly offend some. That is the way it must be.