Imagine for a moment that the house next door sold recently and your new neighbors are moving in today. You’ve heard that they are a young married couple with a small child, and you’re excited at the possibility of new friends and someone for your daughter to play with. You’ve prayed fervently that they will be a good Christian family.
You watch through your front window as the family pulls into their driveway. The minivan doors open, and you see your neighbors for the first time. The man is wearing a turban and has a long beard, and it’s hard to see the woman because of the scarf covering her head. Clearly your prayers for a good Christian family have not been answered.
How would you feel in that moment? Does this mean your hopes of friendship with the new neighbors will have to be set aside?
If you’ve never had an experience similar to this, the day is coming when you will. The global connections in our world today mean that Seventh-day Adventists will inevitably find themselves in contact with people of other world religions. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs are, or soon will be, among our neighbors, coworkers, classmates, and fellow citizens. But how should we, as committed Adventists, relate to those of other faiths?
The Bible provides principled guidance on how we should relate to people who don’t share our same faith commitments. We’ll discover this biblical counsel by exploring three questions. First, should we be open to engaging and befriending those of different religions? Second, what is the rationale for engaging with them? Finally, what principles should guide our interaction with those who are not of our faith?
Should we engage?
Throughout the church’s history Adventists have been careful to avoid close association with the world. We have a keen sense of the brokenness of all that surrounds us. We are well aware that a great controversy is taking place between Christ and Satan, and we don’t want to be misled or deceived. So we have a long-standing impulse to withdraw from what we see as dangerous influences in society. This impulse to separate from others is illustrated by our preferences for a private Adventist education and for rural living.
There is wisdom in this approach, certainly. But we should also acknowledge that it’s possible to so overemphasize the dangers of engagement that we move from prudence to paranoia and unhealthy isolation.
As a young pastor, I encountered this defensive paranoia one day as I was about to enter our church building. I was stopped by a deeply concerned member. She had seen a picture in an official Adventist publication of one of “our pastors” preaching while wearing a robe. She was horrified because, as she explained, “Catholic priests wear robes, and we’re not Catholics!” She interpreted the picture as evidence that Adventism was being infiltrated by “the other side.”
In that moment I felt compelled to ask a question about robes. “What about Jesus?” I asked her. “What did Jesus wear when He preached?”
When we consider whether or not we should engage with those who believe differently than we do, the question “What about Jesus?” is still important to ask.
John’s Gospel records an interaction Christ had with His followers just after His resurrection. Jesus’ small group of disciples was under threat from both religious and political adversaries. They were huddled together, the Bible says, “. . . with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders” (John 20:19). Jesus came to them and said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (verse 21).
The Father sent Jesus from the safety and purity of heaven to purposefully engage with a sinful world—a world filled with people who didn’t expect Him, believe in Him, understand Him, or love Him. Just as He had been sent, Jesus also sent His disciples into the world. Their numbers were few and their opponents were great, but Jesus didn’t tell them to flee or to retreat.
Our Savior also sends us today. In the words of Ellen White: “Of all His children to the close of time, no less than of the first disciples, Christ said, ‘As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world’ (John 17:18), to be representatives of God, to reveal His Spirit, to manifest His character, to do His work.”
In his book Fear of the Other William Willimon writes, “It is the nature of the body of Christ that locked doors are ultimately more costly to the survival of the church than open doors. There is a high price to be paid for fearing the threat of the Other more than we fear disappointing Jesus.”
The question of whether we should engage with those of other faiths is answered quite clearly in Scripture, and the answer is “yes.”
This brings us to our second question.
Why should we engage?
In John 3:16 Jesus declared a truth that should forever impact the way we look at the world. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” If God loves the people of the world—the Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and all the others—how can we, as professed followers of God, withdraw from those God loves?
In Acts we read an account of Paul and Barnabas in the idolatrous Roman colony of Lystra, known in the ancient world for its worship of the gods Zeus and Hermes. Paul addressed the people there and described God by saying, “He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:17).
I recall the surprise I felt when I first reflected on these words of Paul. My Adventist-trained reflexes led me to recoil from idolators, to emphasize their hopelessness, misery, and distance from God. Yet in this passage Paul emphasized something quite different. He reassured his “heathen” audience that God had been kind to them by caring for their physical needs. Then, instead of accentuating their depravity and brokenness, Paul said God had filled their hearts with joy!
What kind of God does this? It must be a God who doesn’t love just Seventh-day Adventists, but who loves and cares for all people, regardless of their religion. If we are God’s children, we will love and care about them too.
This brings us to our third and final question.
What principles should guide us?
A complete answer to this question is far beyond the scope of a single article. I will, however, suggest a few things to keep in mind as we engage with those of other religions.
First, we must be anchored in Jesus. Disobeying Jesus’ call to go into the world is spiritually dangerous. But it’s also true that obeying Jesus’ call is spiritually dangerous. We are sent out “like lambs among wolves,” Jesus said (Luke 10:3). So because we are easily swayed by our associations and surroundings, we must actively choose to anchor ourselves in Jesus. No one should go out into the world without prayer and consistent study of God’s Word. We need to put on the full armor of God (Eph. 6:10-18). If we haven’t made this commitment, we ought to do so now, before we launch ourselves into cross-religious friendships.
Second, we must listen and learn about the religions around us, even if we don’t agree with what we hear. We see this principle illustrated by Paul during his stay in Athens. Acts tells us that Paul “was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). Rather than cloistering himself away from it all, however, he actively sought to understand the beliefs of the people of Athens better.
His learning is evident when he finally had a chance to address the leading thinkers of the city. Paul told them he had “walked around and looked carefully at [their] objects of worship” (verse 23). Then he did something that would likely scandalize many of us today. As he declared that God was near to each of us, Paul supported his argument with two direct quotations from the Athenians’ own religious writings (verse 28). First, he quoted the Cretan poet Epimenides: “For in him we live and move and have our being.” This line is from a poem, Cretica, in which Epimenides argued that the god Zeus was immortal. The second quote Paul cited, “We are his offspring,” is from Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus.
Ellen White says, “The wisest of [Paul’s] hearers were astonished as they listened to his reasoning. He showed himself familiar with their works of art, their literature, and their religion.” Yes, Paul knew the Scriptures and the power of God, but he also took the time to listen and even learn the culture and religion of those he was trying to reach. Given Paul’s example, it would be difficult for us to defend intentional ignorance of the religions that surround us.
This brings us to a third point to keep in mind as we interact with those of other faiths: we should expect to both give and receive a blessing. We certainly have good news to share that will bless others, but God may also have something to teach us through those of other faiths.
In The Desire of Ages Ellen White tells us, “The light of God is ever shining amid the darkness of heathenism.” She wrote this while reflecting on the Magi, who came to worship young Jesus and offer Him their gifts. These Magi were uncircumcised Gentiles “from the east,” (Matt. 2:1), and the Jews of Jesus’ day considered them as heathen, outside the circle of God’s people.
Speaking of these Magi, Ellen White said, “In their own land were treasured prophetic writings that predicted the coming of a divine teacher.” And yet when the Magi arrived in Jerusalem, their message was rejected by the priests and rabbis. Why?
“These learned teachers would not stoop to be instructed by those whom they termed heathen. It could not be, they said, that God had passed them by, to communicate with ignorant shepherds or uncircumcised Gentiles.”
But that’s exactly what God had done. It’s what God continues to do. He communicates with and shines His light on the religious “other.” As we relate to those of other religions, will we only speak? Will we assume we have nothing to learn? Or will we allow the possibility that God may be trying to teach us something through those we call heathen?
I found Ruby by researching the various Buddhist organizations in Portland, Oregon. When I contacted her and told her I was doing some research on Buddhism and wondered if I could talk with her, she agreed. We met at a busy restaurant and ordered our food while trying to get acquainted. When our food arrived, there was a moment of awkwardness as we both hesitated before eating. I asked her, “Do you do something before you eat?”
“I do,” Ruby said. “I do a silent offering of gratitude to all the beings whose efforts in any way contributed to my meal. That can be the bacteria in the soil, the truck drivers who brought the food, and the farmers. And, in this case”—she looked at the omelet on her plate—“to the chickens that won’t hatch.”
“Oh!” I said. “I offer thanks too.”
Then we bowed our heads together—the Buddhist and the Adventist—and suddenly it wasn’t awkward anymore.
In the years since this experience, I sometimes think of Ruby before my mealtime prayers. When I do, I don’t just thank God for the food. I also thank God for the farmers, the farm laborers, the truck drivers, the cooks, and everyone who, in some way, contributed to my meal. I think my new way of praying is better, thanks to Ruby.
If God could speak through Balaam’s donkey, and if we can learn lessons from the “birds of the air” (Matt. 6:26) and even from ants (Prov. 6:6), then we can also learn and grow as we interact with those of other religious backgrounds.
Since God loves people of other religions, we ought to love them too. As we engage with them, we should remember the importance of anchoring ourselves in Christ. When we are securely anchored in Jesus, we can then listen and learn about what others believe, even though we disagree. Finally, we should expect that our interactions with those of other faiths will be mutually beneficial. God will use us to bless others, but God can also use them to bless us.
So the neighbors are moving in. The bearded man with the turban and the woman in the long scarf need help carrying boxes. That’s something you can do. It’s true that they aren’t Christians, but maybe your prayer for good neighbors—and for new friends—has been answered, after all. It’s time to find out.
Paul Dybdahl is professor of mission and New Testament in the School of Theology at Walla Walla University, Walla Walla, Washington, United States.