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Christianity and Religious Syncretism

Dec 2, 2009

This week the Parliament of the World’s Religions (PWR) meets in Melbourne. Thousands of delegates from all over the world are expected to attend this week-long conference. People from all religions, and even atheists, will be in attendance.

While there will be some Christians attending – and speaking – at the event, most will stay away. Of those Christians who will be formally involved, many appear to be of the religious left. This makes sense, since so much of the conference program seems to mirror the agenda of the radical left.

There will be all sorts of trendy, lefty sessions and topics, pushing the usual ‘social justice’ issues, including ‘peace,’ the environment, and women’s issues (read: abortion, etc.). Thus religious leftie Jim Wallis from the US will be a speaker there, along with various Australians of the left.

But leaving aside the politics and ideology of the conference, the question remains: what should Christians think of non-Christian religions, and how should they respond to them? Over the centuries at least three broad answers to these questions have been proposed.

Very briefly, these three positions have been: pluralism, inclusivism, and exclusivism. Pluralism is the most open to other religions, and argues that truth is found in all religious traditions. Christianity does not really have a unique or preeminent place, and salvation can be found in other religions. Jesus is not the only saviour.

Inclusivism, a sort of mediating position, says that Jesus is indeed the only saviour, but that people who have not heard of Christ can still be saved. Exclusivism says that there is no salvation apart from Jesus Christ, and only those who have explicit faith in Christ are saved.

While all Christians should reject pluralism, some Christians have toyed with the notion of inclusivism. But this is not the place to debate these options. I have done so elsewhere, for example, here: billmuehlenberg.com/2008/07/24/891/

But what I wish to do here is simply to look at some biblical passages concerning false religions and false prophets. What is the biblical take on all this? Is religious syncretism (a blending of various religions and paths to salvation) an acceptable option, as will be so prevalent at the PWR?

Consider a few texts in the Old Testament, and how Yahweh reacted to other religions and other religious prophets. While the prescribed penalties concerning false prophets are not something we follow today, the principles found there are still relevant. Thus they have much to tell us as we consider interfaith dialogue and the PWR.

In Deut. 13 and 18 we have famous passages dealing with false prophets. Both texts state that such people are to be subject to the death penalty. Deut. 13:1-2,5 is especially interesting in this regard: “If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, ‘Let us follow other gods’ (gods you have not known) ‘and let us worship them,’ … That prophet or dreamer must be put to death.”

These are obviously very strong words, but they reveal how Yahweh looks upon religious syncretism. Anything that causes the Israelites to abandon Yahweh and follow after other gods is a capital crime. Even if the prophecy seems to come to pass, if it results in adherence to false religious beliefs, it is to be stopped immediately.

In 1 Kings 18 we have the well-known story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal and Asherah on Mount Carmel. After their famous confrontation, we read this in 1 Kings 18:40: “Then Elijah commanded them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal. Don’t let anyone get away!’ They seized them, and Elijah had them brought down to the Kishon Valley and slaughtered there.”

This is not exactly a vote for interfaith dialogue and religious syncretism. These 850 false prophets would no more trouble Israel, providing a nice twist to what Ahab called Elijah in v. 17: “the troubler of Israel”. Yes a real prophet of God will always be seen as a troubler.

Another OT story involves a priest of Yahweh and another confrontation with the Baalists. In 2 Chron. 23:16-17 we read, “Jehoiada then made a covenant that he and the people and the king would be the LORD’s people. All the people went to the temple of Baal and tore it down. They smashed the altars and idols and killed Mattan the priest of Baal in front of the altars.”

Killing false prophets and destroying their pagan altars is again not something we hear much about in contemporary interfaith dialogue sessions. Plenty of other examples can be produced here, such as the death of the false prophet Hananiah as recorded in Jer. 28:12-17, and the punishment of the false prophet Shemaiah the Nehelamite in Jer. 29:31-32.

But this is the OT, my critics will protest. True enough, and yes the church today is not in the same position as Israel as a nation was to Yahweh. Thus the death penalties which featured in Israel’s religious and political life do not carry over into the life of the church today.

But the principles of exclusiveness and divine jealousy for his name and his glory remain. And the same concerns about religious syncretism and false prophets can be found in the New Testament. Let me here just offer two very quick examples, as found in the book of Acts.

In Acts 13:5-12 we learn about the false prophet Elymas who was blinded by God as judgment on his activities, which were “perverting the right ways of the Lord” (v.10). And in Acts 19:13-20 we read about a group of Jewish exorcists who failed in their attempts to imitate true Christian exorcism in Jesus’ name. They were roundly routed by a demon-possessed man, and afterward the Ephesians were “seized with fear”.

As a result, they collected all their books and scrolls on magic and sorcery and publically burned them, even though they were worth a lot of money. Verse 20 informs us of the outcome of all this: “In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power”.

Once again we do not witness amicable interfaith meetings where the disciples and their opponents sit around sipping tea together. Instead, we see some very real power encounters, in which the one true God gets glory over all the false prophets and false religious systems.

These and other episodes found in Scripture are worth bearing in mind as we contemplate our response to something like the PWR. Biblical prophets are never interested in simply getting along with false prophets, nor is God ever pleased with religious syncretism.

The truthfulness of the Christian worldview is always fearlessly and forcefully proclaimed in the NT. As Peter can bravely proclaim in Acts 4:12, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”

That is exactly the word that Christians should be proclaiming at the PWR. Sadly it seems that some Christians who will be taking part in the conference will be doing anything but that. They, and all of us, need to be reminded of the words spoken by Joshua (in Joshua 24:14-15):

“Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”

[1299 words]

18 Responses to Christianity and Religious Syncretism

  • What Christians will be attending? It would be good to know.
    Tasman Walker

  • Thanks Tasman

    In addition to Wallis, whom I already mentioned, you can see who all the main speakers are here: http://www.parliamentofreligions.org/index.cfm?n=7&sn=41

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Also there is a list of Patrons and Board Members – click here: http://www.parliamentofreligions.org/index.cfm?n=1&sn=11
    You’ll see a wide range of all religions included – but both Archbishops along with Tim Costello are patrons…

    The Chair and Organiser – Gary Bouma and Des Cahill – are the two men who did the ‘Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st century’ Inquiry for AHRC earlier this year!

    Jenny Stokes

  • Thanks Jenny

    All very revealing and interesting, isn’t it?

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Again, a very clear, insightful and BIBLICAL article. Thanks Bill!
    Ron Archer, USA

  • Well said Bill, for too many Christians ‘exclusive’ has become a dirty word!

    Do you think an exclusive church has the right to refuse fellowship and identity with those who call themselves Christians but misrepresent the Biblical positions and standards?

    Danny Polglase

  • Thanks Danny

    Yes, we are certainly told in various places in the NT that we must at times break off fellowship with, and/or put out of fellowship, those who teach wrong doctrine or live immoral lifestyles. See for example Mat 18:15-22; Rom 16:17-18; 1 Co. 5:1-13; 2 Thes 3:6; and so on. This is part of the larger issue of church discipline, a much-neglected feature of modern church life. I may have to do an article on this soon.

    And there are even more stern warnings about false prophets and false teachers as well (e.g., Acts 20:28-31; Gal 1:6-9; Tit 1:10-11; etc.). So we are certainly called to be vigilant and on guard.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • For me 2 Peter 2 is the the clincher:

    http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2%20Peter+2&version=NIV

    David Skinner, UK

  • Dear Bill, You have introduced many readers to the insidious syncretism. A generation ago in Switzerland, a European doctor told of practising in Africa, and absorbing much from the witch doctors and those practising the occult. A beloved Professor of medicine from SouthEast Asia wept, and discarding his prepared address, defended the truth of preaching Christ and HIM crucified. I comforted him and prayed for God’s inner strength. The sponsors of this international symposium rebuked him for departing from their schedule.
    A Chinese saint defended the integrity of God’s Word.
    Let’s follow his example.
    Harrold Steward

  • I mentioned to someone a couple of months back that Tim Costello would be speaking at this event (noting that he had previously served as President of the Baptist Union) and they responded by saying perhaps he will preach the gospel to the attendees…

    I would love to see that happen, but traditionally, people who attend these kind of events seem to have trouble expressing “hard truths” and the offensive message of a Christ-centered & cross-centered gospel, from such a platform.

    Yarran Johnston

  • Thanks Yarran

    According to the program he seems to be speaking on climate change, and on world poverty. So it is not in fact clear whether the life and work of Jesus Christ will be specifically mentioned during his talk at all.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill, I just want to congratulate you on the work you do for this website. The information that can be accessed through this website is enormous, and yes, actually distracts me from completing my daily duties!! But please keep up the great work in informing us of the latest news re our faith, as it inspires me in my daily work!
    Jane Petridge

  • Many thanks indeed Jane for your kind words. Yes, it tends to distract me from my daily duties as well!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • If this is distraction, Bill, then let’s have more of it, for the so-called realities of this life are but mere illusions and phantoms meant to frighten us. Your site is a place where we can always drop in, put down our bags, see God’s perspective on the things that momentarily perplex and cause us anxiety and then go back into the fray again.

    Man the post, Bill

    David Skinner, UK

  • Many thanks David

    Yes we all have to do our bit. Keep fighting the good fight in the UK.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Do I take it that with Michael Kirby involved he is representing the homosexual anti-religion?

    Roger Marks

  • I was part of the Christian witness group present every day outside the Parliament of the World’s Religions. We held up two banners stating: “JESUS – the only way to God” & “Don’t trust religions – trust only in Jesus Christ”. Some people commended us, but the majority (as expected) opposed our statements. The sad aspect of this was that almost all our opponents were “Christians”.
    Some of their objections were: “All religions lead to God”, “This is insulting to our visitors”, “You are intolerant”, “Jesus would not have acted like this”, with one person commenting “I sort of agree with you!” In the light of the Gospel record these “Christian objections” are amazingly ignorant. Finally, our team praises God for many opportunities to answer the above persons & raise a clear witness for the truth which offends.
    Spero Katos, Caulfield

  • I spent three mornings outside of the PWR. I became very aware of the worth of standing with a banner proclaiming the GOSPEL OF CHRIST.
    Stan Fishley

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