On the Full Compatibility of Evangelism with Inter-Religious Harmony
In a society which is like a microcosm of vast urban areas of countries larger than itself, where people live in a small area, the populace has been nurtured in the idea that harmony must be forged and maintained between ethnic groups. The mass media are quick to report any infringement of laws that proscribe the provoking of resentment or tension between racial or religious groups. The question of the philosophies, techniques, and platforms used by the various faiths to gain more adherents can be an incendiary one.
The ilk of religious expansionism that pursues headlong an increase in the membership of a constituency without a care for how relations between ethnic and religious communities may be negatively affected, quite simply, has no place in Singapore, which highly prizes her success in the interfaith harmony project, and continually fosters it.
Thankfully, faith communities in the city-state have demonstrated remarkable maturity and sensitivity in their dealings with one another, with spiritual leaders fully accepting and embracing the need for a peaceful coexistence between the groups they represent.
Nevertheless, a present absence of misunderstanding and conflict cannot be mistaken for a permanent state of affairs, not especially in an unstable global climate.
A Personal Concern and Conviction
With that sophisticated backdrop in mind, I thought it meet, as a concerned Christian and committed citizen, as most of us are, humbly to offer a personal perspective on Christian evangelism which defends the claim that that facet of the Christian faith does not at all undermine or violate the important principle of inter-religious harmony in our society.
More fundamentally, it is hoped that such a venture into a discussion about a contemporary but in fact timeless topic would be testament to the fact that organised Christian communities and the individual persons who constitute them do not act with improper motives or carry out their activities under any form of secrecy or deception. As such, they may speak quite honestly and publicly about what they really do in articulating their faith to others.
In support of my strong assertion that evangelism is not antithetical to inter-religious harmony, I would like to suggest some aspects for our mutual consideration.
The aim of evangelism, put in a very brief manner, is to bring good news, that of the salvation accomplished by God on behalf of humanity. All the great doctrines of the Bible, whether it be of God, as triune Creator, or of Christ, as incarnate and atoning deity and returning King, or of the Holy Spirit, as the Spirit of power, or of the Church, as the body of Christ, are significant dimensions of that message.
Christian Truth and Sensibility
A problem arises with the question of the exclusive nature of the Christian faith, by which is meant that Christians have confidence that their distinctive edifice of beliefs is true, with the titanic implications of this.
The question may be asked as to whether Christians, in believing their faith to be true and thereby proclaiming it, are acting in accord with their Scripture when they put down other religions.
I submit to you that humility and wisdom require that we refrain from commenting on other religions, of which we may, and, indeed, oftentimes, know very little. Just as it is always presumptuous to derogatively label or stigmatise any person, so it is never permissible for us as Christians to criticise the religion of other persons. This principle holds true even for Christians who have previously come from other religious backgrounds and may have some degree of knowledge about their former faiths. They cannot denigrate other faiths without ignorantly dismissing the clear fact that all religions, even non-Christian ones, exist for the moral and spiritual benefit of their constituencies.
If, therefore, we are to say anything at all in commendation of our own spirituality to our non-Christian fellow interlocutors, it should be solicited or welcomed in some way. The message of Christianity is offered to be heard primarily by those who would be receptive to it. For this reason, there is no room for antagonism, aggression, or provocation in evangelism.
The Chief End of Religion
In the following paragraphs of this article, my desire is to underscore a premise to which I had alluded; namely, that the major and mainstream non-Christian religions such as are represented in Singapore may not be equated, likened, or in any way compared to the false and immoral cults overtly denounced in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament.
The view of the Roman Catholic Church as laid out by Pope Paul VI in 1965 at the Second Vatican Council on some of these religions is notable because it displays a grasp of their meritorious goals. According to the statement, the different faiths serve an important existential role in proffering “answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stir the hearts of men: What is man? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment and retribution after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?”
The statement goes on to summarise, in a fairhanded manner, the aims and teachings of the various religions, a section which is worth reading.
Conscious of the possibility of evangelism and outreach being done in a misguided way, three major church bodies which represent more than 90 per cent of Christians worldwide held discussions over a period of five years, eventuating in the publication in 2011 of a document titled Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct.
Among the twelve principles set forth in the document is a need to turn away from the evil of misrepresentation: “Christians are to speak sincerely and respectfully; they are to listen in order to learn about and understand others’ beliefs and practices, and are encouraged to acknowledge and appreciate what is true and good in them. Any comment or critical approach should be made in a spirit of mutual respect, making sure not to bear false witness concerning other religions.”
Such an approach paves the way for the pursuit of harmonious relations with people of other faiths: “Christians should continue to build relationships of respect and trust with people of different religions so as to facilitate deeper mutual understanding, reconciliation and cooperation for the common good.”
In the final analysis, there is no inherent conflict between the biblical practice and philosophy of evangelism and the noble attempt to foster and maintain peaceful relations among faith groups. Evangelism is not to be pursued at the expense of other religious communities or in direct competition with them, as though religion were merely a commodity to be marketed.
Christian Truth, Gentleness, and Grace
Gone are the days of Christendom when misguided adherents of the faith might denigrate other religions with impunity and no real consequences, when the church was perchance under far less scrutiny than she is today, particularly in the crowded marketplace of ideas and people that is Singapore.
Even so, we should not commit the error of imagining that we as Christians need to revise our approach to outreach simply because times – and religious demographics and population densities – have changed, and chiefly in order to avoid state prosecution. That which is established as a policy for evangelism must be founded ultimately on the affirmations of the Holy Writ, which in one place describes one form of testifying to the gospel in instructing believers who were facing persecution:
“Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (1 Pet. 3:13-17, ESV).
It is to be noted that St. Peter, to whom this epistle is ascribed, did not urge any kind of aggression on the part of Christians, not even those who were being mistreated and might have been expected to retaliate. On the contrary, his pastoral exhortation firmly prohibited violence of any sort, calling instead for a demonstration of “gentleness and respect” in making a presentation of the gospel.
In that regard, rather than stressing the superiority of this set of beliefs over that, there is much value for the Christian community in graciously accepting her role, alongside other religious groups, as contributor to moral good in society. As we do our level best, but only with the inspiring and sustaining help of God, to enrich the spiritual life of our city, we do not show or appear to show contempt toward the efforts of others to do the same.
At this point, we are confronted with a redoubtable challenge, that is, to introduce gentleness and grace into our evangelistic endeavour, as it behoves us to do, without sacrificing biblical truth. Here, it is critical to ensure an absence of ambiguity in expression of intent. As a case in point, Christians cannot jettison the belief that they worship the one God, who definitively and decisively revealed Himself in the Jewish man Jesus, from the village of Nazareth, who lived, died, and, we believe, resurrected, two millennia ago, for the salvation of humankind.
Be that as it may, they can make it clear that they seek only to share about a faith that has personally convinced, convicted, and transformed them with a view to bringing some form of encouragement. No compulsion should be involved, and, in light of the possibility of offense, Christians would do well first to ask the other person, who must be an adult capable of making rational and moral decisions for themselves, if they are open and can be open to hearing a testimony about a different religious faith, and to inform and at every opportunity show the hearer that their freedom to embrace the religion of their choice is always respected, regardless of the religion in question. Finally, in a point which can hardly be overemphasised, even in our personal presentations of the gospel, we should take special care not to comment on other religions.
These, then, have been some personal thoughts on evangelism in a multi-religious context. May the Lord bless all our efforts to bring unremitting comfort and hope to others.
About the Author: Emond Chua is a member of St Andrew's Cathedral and is currently finishing his theological studies at Singapore Bible College.
 See the second and third paragraphs of the document at: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651028_nostra-aetate_en.html
 These being the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council on Inter-religious Dialogue (PCID), representing the Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical and Pentecostal traditions.
 Accessible via: http://www.worldevangelicals.org/pdf/1106Christian_Witness_in_a_Multi-Religious_World.pdf