What did Jesus find so reprehensible about the proselytizing of the Pharisees? Was it their method? Was it the outcome (making converts doubly damned)? Was it both?
What should we do to avoid the errors they made? Jesus gave us a clue:
Woe to you lawyers [Pharisees]! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you yourselves did not enter, and you hindered those who were entering.” (Luke 11:52)
What is the “key of knowledge”? Who were “those who were entering”?
The Aramaic word pharisee means “separate”. The Pharisees valued exclusivity, especially relating to the keeping and understanding of the Mosaic Law. They were unlikely to have sought to win the souls of Gentiles, outsiders; more likely, they wanted to turn ordinary Jews into Pharisees—into people like themselves.
Seeking to make others become like us seems to lie at the heart of Jesus’ condemnation. If we do that, we fall into the same trap as the Pharisees.
It’s a matter of substituting knowledge for the key to knowledge. The key to knowledge is Jesus. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (John 14:6) We are clad in filthy rags; our condition is as lost children of hell. So in trying to make others become like ourselves—lost—we are just doubling down on the damnation.
Religion centered on the believer is fatal religion. Our focus should be on God and who He is and what He does. The goal (indeed, the meaning) of conversion is to turn people around, to point them in a direction where they will be able to see God more clearly. It is not to make them be like us. The truth about God is the key to knowledge. It is why the Great Commission calls upon us to baptize (to cleanse) converts in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
Religious switching (or conversion or soul-winning) is both simple and complex. The various religions and denominations represent different ways of seeing God. Where and when you were born and who your parents were largely determine your religion. It is like language: We are born with it, grow up with it, and communicate and express ourselves through it. But we should not think our way of seeing God and speaking about God represents the singular reality of who God actually is.
When we share our faith we must do so with the consciousness that there are two distinct aspects to sharing our faith. First and foremost we must speak of God as the God of all Mankind, and then with great humility share the language that we use to speak about God. Some may find our language and way of seeing God useful, beneficial, maybe even enlightening. Some may wish to learn to speak our language, and that is fine. But people rarely learn a second language without adding their native accents to it. Indeed, no two persons speak of God in the same identical way. Each of us has a religious “accent” and God understands them all.
Paul gave us the key to sharing the Gospel:
For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel. For if I do this voluntarily, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have a stewardship entrusted to me. What then is my reward? That, when I preach the gospel, I may offer the gospel without charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it. (1 Corinthians 9:16-23)
Becoming all things to all people is a remarkable and provocative strategy for soul-winning. There was a time when our worldview was limited to as small a radius as twenty miles from home. Through information and communication technologies, all such limits have gone. We see and hear viewpoints unknown and practically unknowable to our forebears. The Moslem view of God, for instance.
Did Paul mean we must become Moslem to save Moslems? Is it possible to communicate with people of one religion in the language of another? Could one’s religious accent be so heavy as to be misunderstood?
When the village was local (as recently as 200 years ago) it was sufficient speak one language with one accent. In the global village, it is not. There are devices available today that interpret, in real time, conversations between people speaking different languages. Do we need a similar device to have a religious conversation, so that each speaker’s picture of God is translated into an equivalent picture that would resonate with the other speaker? Is it possible, at least in principle?
KB: Isn’t the Bible supposed to serve that purpose? Might we not have used the device of the Bible to its full capacity? Have we thrown away the instructions?
Anonymous: The Bible itself is itself so often interpreted in different ways, which has led to many divisions. The commonality among all believers is not the Bible; it is faith. I can talk with Moslems and Hindus and Jehovah’s Witnesses and be one with them, because we all share faith in God. A Hindu’s prayers for her ailing Christian friend are appreciated as being grounded in a shared faith in God.
Donald: In religion, it’s as though we all share a table but disagree about the goodness of the corn versus the peas and try to get those among our fellow diners who like peas to eat only the corn.
Kiran: A mother’s love is universal. Dining is universal. At a dinner table, diners share some sort of common bond (they might all be friends of the host, for example). Now, historical bonds that seemed to be universal are being broken. For instance, in the time of Jesus, everyone knew where cereal and milk came from, but today’s younger generations grow increasingly remote from such knowledge.
But the bond of love remains intact. My faith has evolved since I converted to Christianity and met with life’s challenges, but my loving relationship with God has remained constant.
Dewan: Some religions call upon their followers to shun or even persecute adherents of other religions. Christianity believes that Jesus sacrificed His life for everybody, not just for Christians. God loves everyone. Christianity is based on universal love.
Jay: We believe that our religious experience helps us avoid or alleviate pain and loss. The ultimate loss of entry to the kingdom of heaven is what really drives the corn-fed diner to try to persuade his flatulent companions to eat corn not peas. But does religious experience really guard against loss? If it does, then don’t we have an obligation to help others share our experience?
Don: But if they reject your experience, doesn’t that put them in double jeopardy? Before you told them, they could claim ignorance of the law, but if you have told them and they have rejected it, they can no longer claim ignorance when judged.
Jay: Community defines people. Do those definitions have a bearing on whether one is lost? Can community define God?
Kiran: As a Pharisee, Paul was arrogant. He thought everyone should be a Pharisee, and set about forcing them to become so. But after he met Jesus and accepted grace, he was ashamed, and changed his ways. Unfortunately, we too tend to think everyone should be a member of our religion. But if we look to our inner light with humility, as Paul did, we will treat others with dignity and respect.
Don: You see food and produce in an Asian street market that are totally alien to Western street markets. Fried crickets, barbecued mice, and the durian fruit have nutritional value, are tasty to the local people, and are locally available. How can we compare this diet to our organic, fresh, raw vegetables?
Donald: It’s a matter of custom, not of right and wrong. It seems that religious doctrine too is often more a matter custom than of right and wrong.
Don: People believe almost anything and eat almost anything. Is there as much spiritual value in the things in which other people believe as there is nutritional value in the things they eat?
Anonymous: All we can share with others is our experience of Christianity—its impact on our lives. We cannot make others undergo the same experience as us. We cannot make them eat the same food as us. We may compare our experience of eating raw organic cabbage with their experience of eating fried crickets, but there must be no compulsion to act.
There is value in trying other experiences, and it is possible one might decide to try the other’s food. But that must be a free choice. God does not force people to follow Him.
Jeff: Some people want to try everything, like Solomon in Ecclesiastes. He had to experience everything to reach enlightenment. Yet we would not encourage our children to try everything! In reality, we speak from our own—narrow—viewpoint.
Jay: Should we acquiesce if our child chooses to try another religion? Should we love them any the less for it?
Jeff: Should we attend worship at other religions’ churches, temples, mosques, etc.?
Donald: Few people do.
Jay: I’m not sure we need to. The call is only to recognize that ours is not the only, nor necessarily the best, church. Do we need to experience them all to recognize that? I don’t know. I guess some people can. But ultimately, the key message from Matthew is that it is dangerous to evangelize that ours is the only right church. Christ said the opposite, in the Great Commission.
Donald: But we believe that Christianity gives us a unique perspective.
Jay: But it is a stretch to say, because of that perspective, that Christians are therefore more blessed than others. The Christian religion is neither universal nor timeless. Would it not be unfair if God were to require Christian belief in people born outside of it?
Don: I doubt that anybody has ever said to someone: “My religion is not as good as yours.”
KB: The same applies to culture, language, ethnicity.
Jay: We value our own “club”. Parents have a hard time imagining that their children might ever leave it to join another.
Anonymous: What would they do in that situation? We need to to take Solomon seriously:
[When] I saw every work of God, I concluded that man cannot discover the work which has been done under the sun. Even though man should seek laboriously, he will not discover; and though the wise man should say, “I know,” he cannot discover. (Ecclesiastes 8:17)
God knows; we don’t. We need to approach everything from that humble perspective.
Donald: The Methodist church is in the process of splitting on the basis of differing views regarding homosexuality. Love is strong enough that most parents (not all) will accept a change in sexual orientation in their child, much as they might struggle with it initially.
Kiran: Suppose my children grow up wanting to convert to an older form of Hinduism that treats women as second-class citizens or even non-citizens and approves the practice of suttee, where widows are expected to throw themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre. What should I do?
Jeff: All the great religions have an afterlife or some other grand goal. But the biggest growth is among the Nones — people with no religious affiliation. An Adventist who visits a local Catholic church at least speaks the same English language and even shares some commonality with Moslems in a mosque. But commonality breaks down between people who do not believe there is a Divine Purpose to life and those who do.
For I have taken all this to my heart and explain it that righteous men, wise men, and their deeds are in the hand of God. Man does not know whether it will be love or hatred; anything awaits him. (Ecclesiastes 9:1)