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Jesus, yes; coercion, no

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–In an “I’m OK, you’re OK” world, any mention of a crucified-for-our-sins, raised-from-the-dead Jesus can’t be anything but offensive.

And when representatives of the World Council of Churches, the Vatican and major world religions gather to draft a code of ethics targeting evangelism efforts that violate the “religious sensibilities” of others, you’re almost guaranteed an outcome hostile to the core message of historic Christianity.

That’s why I’m glad the World Evangelical Alliance joined the “conversion code” dialogue when it convened for its second meeting, held in August at Toulouse, France. You can count on the WEA to stand firmly not only for freedom of religion and human rights, but also for the duty of Jesus’ followers to teach what he taught: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6 NAS).

You have to wonder, however, about the dialogue’s prospects for success.

Discussions with other religious traditions are valuable, to the extent they dispel myths and stereotypes and increase understanding between groups that often find themselves at odds with each other. The problem arises when you start trying to forge an agreement about religious truth. Diplomacy breaks down when folks on one side of the table subscribe to a starry-eyed “all roads lead to the same God” viewpoint and those on the other side believe “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 NAS).

Evangelical Christians -– including Southern Baptists -– ought to be at the forefront of any campaign to prevent unscrupulous people from pressuring vulnerable souls into changing their religious affiliation. Any Christian who bribes, harasses or forces someone to “convert” to Christianity betrays the Lord who chose to lay down His own life to free the rest of us.

Authentic Christianity is about relationship, not religion. While institutional religion may be worried about its members “converting” to another group, biblical Christianity focuses on the personal transformation that occurs when a person accepts in faith the free gift of eternal life offered by Jesus Christ.

There’s more than one fly in the ointment with this inter-religious dialogue about “conversion.”

For one thing, evangelicals aren’t the primary culprits when it comes to coercing others in matters of religion. Hindu nationalists in India regularly force new Christians to renounce Jesus at gunpoint. It is not uncommon in Pakistan for Muslim men to “convert” Christian women and girls by kidnapping and raping them. Evangelicals are far more likely to run feeding programs and conduct medical clinics.

Another problem with the dialogue is that Jesus was an exclusivist about salvation. He told His followers He was the only way back to God -– and He commanded them to make disciples of all the nations. That doesn’t sit well with many people these days, including many of those participating in the discussion about ethical evangelism.

After the first dialogue, held near Rome in 2006, participants called on religious people everywhere to “heal themselves from the obsession of converting others.” Earlier this year, WEA spokesman John Langlois said this code of conduct should “make clear that the superiority mentality in regard to other religions has been overcome.”

What one group sees as a “superiority mentality,” however, may simply be a commitment to objective historical truth, said Don Kammerdiener, who served for almost 40 years as a missionary and administrator with the International Mission Board.

“I don’t believe in a slashing evangelism that cuts somebody down, but the truth can be painful,” Kammerdiener said. “Christians are not saying that our philosophy is superior. We are, however, saying that it is an historical fact that Jesus is alive and that as our Lord He has sent us to share that fact with the world. The folks who are sitting down at this conference probably do not share that view.”

No one should find it surprising that people willingly -– gladly -– come to Christ from empty religions that impose demands without any assurance of God’s approval. Leaders in those traditions think they can stop the exodus if they hamstring Christian witness and ministry.

But the human heart yearns for truth, and Christians are the only ones who can point to a fact that proves who really speaks for God. Christians alone offer reconciliation and relationship, rather than ritual and religion.

A code of conduct that affirms religious freedom and condemns coercion would be a marvelous thing. For one thing, it would give leaders of other traditions an opportunity to publicly renounce the atrocities committed every day in the name of their deities.

But if anyone thinks a piece of paper is going to deter Christians from obeying the command of our living Lord to take the Good News of freedom in Christ to all the nations, I’ve only got one thing to say:

Don’t hold your breath.
Mark Kelly is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

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