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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

True Religion?

When a person comes to faith in Christ, there is necessarily an immediate and ongoing response. There are certain things they can continue to do. There are other things, however, that they cannot continue to do. And then there are things that they can continue to do, but now with a new motivation. For example: a hard-working father in Barstow, California enters into a relationship with God through Jesus after years of church attendance. Immediately, he is convicted about his materialism and selfishness. These things, he recognizes, he must leave behind in order to follow Jesus. He is also aware of his need to read the Bible and speak to God through prayer, habits he had never picked up despite years of good instruction from his pastor. There are other things in his life, that he will continue to do, but now for new reasons. He should continue work hard and do his best, but not out of a desire for social status or material goods. He needs to keep spending quality time with his kids, but not in order to avoid the embarrassment of an unruly child or to make up for unkept promises of the past. His new motivition to continue all of these behaviors is Jesus. This response is one that happens over time. As we mature in the Lord, we become more like Him. He teaches and stretches us and shows us those places in our lives that need to be developed and changed.

We see this pattern pretty clearly in the case of a churchgoing American: repentence, then the ongoing process of sanctification. But what about a Muslim or a Hindu? If someone from a Buddhist cultural background comes to faith in Christ, can he continue identifying himself as Buddhist? This question is one that missionaries are faced with all over the world. IMB personnel struggle with it on a daily basis.
I believe that there is only one way to God and life in Him; it is Jesus, not Christianity, that provides access to the Most High God. So would I have a problem with an Indian believer who, after being reborn in the Holy Spirit, continues to call himself a Hindu? No. But I'm certain that the Board would not agree. IMB leaders are rumored to be considering a poliicy that would require our personnel to stop using the word "Allah" when referring to God. Allah, some reason, is the Muslim God. Nevermind that it is the Arabic word for God, or that the works-based religion traces itself back to the same Yahweh of the Hebrew people.

I guess the question is this: Did Jesus come to start a new religion? I don't think He did. I think He fulfilled a religion, and permitted those whose cultural identity was wrapped up in it to continue practicing it. In Acts, we read that the first "Christians" continued meeting in the synagogues. For them, their national identity was Judiasm; it was not unlike the cultural Catholicism found throughout Europe or the cultural Christianity common in the U.S.

Did Jesus intend for His followers to build the spiritual family into an institution? I don't think so. Sure, He instructed them to do certain things, and to avoid others. There were certain traditions, like a communion meal or baptism, that He seemed to expect us to continue. But I can't help but wonder how He would feel about joining some of the Southern Baptist churches in the States. I don't mean to say that our way of doing church is wrong, I'm saying that congregational cooperations are a cultural construct, and that we ought to recognize them as such. Being a follower of Jesus is, after all, about a relationship, not a religion, right?


Kiki Cherry said...

I'm struggling with this one. We also have relationships with students who are from all of these different faith traditions.

We have one student who recently came to Christ, but is from a Catholic background. He has chosen to remain Catholic right now, but I believe there is room for that possibility within the Catholic church because they DO still believe in the same God and Trinity that we do. I know some very fine evangelical Catholics.

However, I would have a serious problem with any other religion that did not see Jesus as God. Muslims do not. Jews do not. So to say that their God is the same as ours, is to deny the full trinity.

Upon conversion to Islam, a person has to claim that "There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet." I do not see how a true follower of Christ could remain in a religion that makes such a claim. It is an outright denial of the one true God.

I have the same concern with Hinduism. God is not one of many "god-options." He alone is God. To align with a religion that teaches otherwise would not be Christianity, IMHO.

stepchild said...

Kiki, thanks for your thoughts. I think those of us working across cultures are faced with this question all the time. I appreciate you sharing from your experience.

I agree that one cannot follow Christ and deny His deity, and I'm not aware of any other major religion that consider Him to be God. I guess the extent to which a believer can remain in some nonChristian religion depends on his or her interpretation of that religion.

Sure, fundamentalists in every camp are "all-or-nothing" about their religions. But I see an emerging generation of people who identify themselves with different world religions but do not interpret them so strictly. Just as there are lots of people in the United States who consider themselves Christians yet buy into universalism, there are starting to be more and more Muslim-background believers who, though they do believe Jesus is the only Way, continue to indentify themselves as Muslim. Maybe we could call them (relatively speaking) the "Liberals."

I guess I'm saying that in this day of pick-and-choose worldviews, it doesn't matter if "Islam" agrees that Jesus is God. It matters that there is a growing number of Muslims who do. They are working through the implications and ramifications of it all, just as every person does when they try to live in the tension of sinfulness and life in Christ.

The next logical question, then would be: "Why would anyone, after being born again into life in Christ, continue to call themselves Hindu or Muslim? Maybe because for them, the word "Christian" doesn't mean "follower of Christ." Maybe living as redeemed people within their home culture and is better than being disqualified due to semantics.

What do you think? The more I think about this, the more my brain hurts...

Kiki Cherry said...

I think I hear what you are saying. My parents served throughout 16 different Muslim countries, and I asked them about it.

I have heard of such situations in countries where it would be dangerous to admit to conversion. In one, I was told of a Muslim man has continued to go to the mosque, although he prays to the true God and not to Allah when he is there. He also prays for those around him to come to Christ.

It is not because he is ashamed to be identified as a Christian, but rather that he feels he can be more effective in the long run this way. When the time is right, and he is prompted by the Holy Spirit, he will reveal his new faith, but on an individual basis and for the purpose of sharing Christ with that person.

I've heard several stories from the field of Muslims having dreams and visions, and being instructed in the dream to "find" certain people who will share the truth with them.

I think there is a time for Christians to be bold and willing to die for their faith. But there are also those who choose to be quiet in order to "give an answer" to the ones having dreams and visions.

Is that kind of what you were talking about?

steve w said...

One of the things we learned (but have now forgotten) when we were in Spain is how to say "the Most High God." The Muslims knew how, and recognized the terminology once we started using it. It was a way that allowed us to communicate with them that we were different, and that our faith was different, but they would accept it for dialogue purposes. I don't mean they substituted the Most High God for Allah when we talked, but they understood our point and would dialogue accordingly. BUT LET ME BE CLEAR, I'm no expert, and I'm not telling you what to do. I'm only sharing my experience.

Maybe an analogy could be made with Messianic Jews. They don't normally call themselves Christians. They are culturally Jewish, but followers of Christ. Like Kiki alluded to, I know there are literally hundreds of thousands of "underground" believers throughout the Muslim world. They would be tortured mercilessly or killed for identifying themselves as a Christ follower. I just think they have to be clear it is not Jesus plus something else, but Jesus only. But hey, that's a realization that God has been planting in people's hearts for centuries.

stepchild said...

Steve, you're right. Our faith should be "Jesus plus nothing." I guess in my post I was noticing that American Christians add lots of extra things, but when someone who comes to Christ out of a different religion, we're all worried they might be adding something to "Christ alone."

I guess I'm ok with Jesus + something when people first meet Jesus. Why? Because it isn't until salvation that we can even begin to let go of those things. The beauty is in the process of learning what needs to be "taken off" and what needs to be ""put on" and depending on Christ to do that in us.

steve w said...

Well said. One of the hot discussions, as you know, right now in much of the Western world is in regards to the emerging church movement. Those is this movement say that the Western church has added too many unacceptable ...uh ...add-ons to genuine Christian faith. I agree. I think every culture, and every generation does. And so we keep trying to peel away the add-ons.

What I don't understand is why everyone can't just 'fess up, and say, "Yes we have added both unbiblical and anti-biblical concepts, beliefs, and principles to biblical faith, and biblical ecclesiology. We will keep worshipping Jesus as best we know how, while we 'put off' what needs to be 'put off' and 'put on' what needs to be 'put on'."