The president of a United Methodist-affiliated seminary says Christians who feel the need to evangelize people of other faiths have “an incorrect perception of what it means to follow Jesus.” The comment from Jerry D. Campbell, president of California’s Claremont School of Theology, was published July 2 by the United Methodist Reporter.
“The correct perception [of following Jesus] is much more on [the] side of learning to express love for God and love for your neighbor as yourself,” he told the newspaper.
Dr. Campbell’s remarks were reported in an article about Claremont’s plan to become an “interreligious institution” that offers clerical training for Muslim imams and Jewish rabbis as well as Christian pastors (see this June 14 MethodistThinker report). Claremont intends to later add training for Buddhists and Hindus, as well.
(On June 25, the United Methodist Church’s University Senate approved Claremont’s new multifaith educational model; details below.)
In dismissing an evangelistic imperative in relation to people who practice non-Christian faiths, Dr. Campbell appears to be calling into question the church’s historic understanding of the Great Commission recorded in Matthew 28, as well as much of the Christian movement’s evangelistic and missionary ministry over its 2,000-year history.
Further, Dr. Campbell’s comments seem at odds with official United Methodist doctrine, which declares that the “ultimate concern” of the church’s ministry is “that all persons will be brought into a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ” (United Methodist Book of Discipline ¶127). The Book of Discipline also states that while United Methodists “respect persons of all religious faiths,” the UMC “affirms that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Savior of the world, and the Lord of all” (¶121).
The United Methodist statements about Christ’s uniqueness, lordship, and salvific work stand against a “pluralistic” religious view that sees all religions as equally valid and as serving essentially the same function.
From the religious pluralist’s perspective, evangelizing people of other faiths is not only unnecessary but constitutes an exercise in arrogance, as summed up by missiologist and theologian Lesslie Newbigin in his influential 1989 book, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (here via Google Books):
If what matters about religious beliefs is not the factual truth of what they affirm, but the sincerity with which they are held; if religious belief is a matter of personal inward experience rather than an account of what is objectively the case, then there are certainly no grounds for thinking that Christians have the right— much less any duty — to seek conversion of [others] to the Christian faith….
[According to the religious pluralist, we] have no right to affirm…that there is no other name given under heaven whereby we are to be saved.
The issue of how — and if — Christians should seek to evangelize people of other faiths was a “recurring theme” at Edinburgh 2010, last month’s ecumenical world mission conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, according to a June 4 report published by the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries.
Many perspectives emerged among the 300 delegates from 67 countries and more than 50 Christian denominations…. A few voices in a study section on other faiths spoke in favor of a “live and let live” approach to non-Christians, but the temper of the small group reports there reflected that of the overall Edinburgh 2010 conference — witnessing to one’s faith in the contexts of living….
A witness approach prevailed among the panelists of conference speakers in the June 4 press conference. “Mission is the church breathing,” said Dr. Dana Robert, the conference keynote speaker, who is a professor at Boston University School of Theology and a United Methodist. “If we don’t breathe, we die,” Dr. Robert said.
In relating to people of other faiths, she recommended an approach of engagement and hospitality to all people…. For Christians, she said, “witnessing to the love of God in Jesus Christ” is an essential part of life, but the results of that witness lie with the Holy Spirit.
Groups participating in the Edinburgh 2010 conference included (partial list): the Anglican Communion, Baptist World Alliance, the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, the Roman Catholic Church, the World Council of Churches, and the World Methodist Council.
Dr. Dana Robert, in addition to serving as the Truman Collins Professor of World Christianity and History of Mission at the Boston University School of Theology, also heads the School’s Center for Global Christianity and Mission. One of the Center’s stated tasks is “to explore the relationship of mission studies and interfaith dialogue in theory and practice.”
In his 2002 book, Christianity at the Religious Roundtable: Evangelicalism in Conversation with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, Timothy C. Tennent, now president of Asbury Theological Seminary, argued that inter-religious dialogue and faithfulness to historic Christianity are not mutually exclusive. But he rejected acceptance of an “all-religions-are-fundamentally-the-same” ideology.
[W]e must not succumb to the forces of religious pluralism that seek to bring to the table of dialogue a version of Christianity that has been robbed of its distinctiveness. For too long interreligious dialogue has been advanced and identified with a pluralist agenda that openly seeks to accommodate other world religions by discarding distinctive Christian doctrines such as the incarnation and the resurrection of Christ….
True interreligious dialogue acknowledges that all religions in one way or another seek to defend certain truth claims. It is not fair to any religion to allow it to be ensnared in the swamp of religious pluralism, which concludes that we are all saying the same thing….
Many of the proponents of dialogue… [insist] that any desire to convert another person is a fundamental violation of the mutuality inherent in dialogue. The result is the advocacy of a dialogue without persuasion. However, the mutuality of dialogue is not sacrificed if everyone is permitted to speak with persuasion….
[W]e must learn to listen to and understand the actual claims of other religions in order to effectively bear witness to our faith. The New Testament does not just call us to preach the gospel, but to communicate the gospel. This means we cannot speak the gospel into thin air; rather it must be effectively communicated to specific contexts, and we must be ready and willing to respond to real and specific objections and doubts, giving reasons for the hope that is within us (1 Pet. 3:15)….
[I]t is argued [by some that] Christians who dialogue are actually engaged in a monologue disguised as a mutual exchange. On the contrary, I have discovered over and over again that I am enriched by the mutual exchange….
I do not think my own appreciation for the doctrine of the Trinity would be nearly as deep if the doctrine had not been challenged so often by my Islamic friends. It was the Buddhists, not my own Christian friends, who finally helped me see the momentous dangers of advocating faith without a clear connection to the historical Jesus of Nazareth….
[W]e stand at an opportune time in the history of the church…. Many who so eagerly jumped onto the postmodern bandwagon are beginning to realize that the true struggle is not between tolerance and intolerance but between truth and falsehood. A new openness to revelation is emerging as well as a desire to reclaim the language of truth that has, until recently, been dropped into the abyss of relativism.
This makes it an exciting and strategic time to sit down at the religious roundtable and bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ.
Although Asbury Theological Seminary is not one of the United Methodist Church’s 13 official seminaries, it currently educates about 17 percent of all those training to be United Methodist clergy, according to a 2009 article in Good News magazine.
On June 25, the United Methodist Church’s University Senate, a elected body that determines which schools meet criteria for being affiliated with the denomination, approved Claremont School of Theology’s new interreligious educational model.
The Senate also ordered the release of an estimated $800,000 in Ministerial Education Fund (MEF) money that had been withheld earlier this year pending a review of Claremont’s multifaith educational model and its overall financial situation. MEF funds are raised from local United Methodist churches via the UMC’s apportionment structure.
Riley B. Case, associate director of the Confessing Movement Within the United Methodist Church, described the University Senate’s decision in favor of Claremont as “a tragic step for the United Methodist Church to take,” according the United Methodist Reporter (from the same article quoted earlier).
“[Is Claremont] really fulfilling what ought to be the purpose of United Methodist seminaries?” he asked. “Are they tied into the mission of the church, which is to make disciples for Jesus Christ?”
However, Ellen Ott Marshall, associate professor of Christian ethics at the UM-affiliated Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, told the Reporter that Claremont’s interreligious approach is “a tremendous and exciting leap forward.”
Although no other UM seminary has thus far adopted a multifaith model, in 2007 UM-affiliated Emory University, home of the Candler School of Theology, named Buddhist leader (and Tibetan head of state) the Dalai Lama as a Presidential Distinguished Professor.
This fall, Emory is sponsoring an Interfaith Summit on Happiness featuring Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church, The Dalai Lama (a title that roughly translates as “Ocean of Wisdom”), Muslim scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth (U.K.).