WASHINGTON (BP)–Evangelical Christians, particularly Baptists, believe in both their responsibility to share the Gospel of Christ for the purpose of conversion and others’ freedom to accept or reject that witness, Richard Land said at a March 3 conference at Georgetown University.
Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, participated in the conference, titled “Proselytism and Religious Freedom in the 21st Century,” as a member of a panel on religious adherents’ duty to share their faith. Other panel members were Mohamed Magid, imam of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center in Sterling, Va., and vice president of the Islamic Society of North America, and Randi Rashkover, director of Judaic studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
“For us, what is called in this conference proselytism, which we would prefer to call evangelism or witnessing, is not a choice. It’s an obligation. It’s a responsibility. It’s a command,” Land said.
After reading to the audience Jesus’ commands in Matt. 28:19-20 and Acts 1:8 for His followers to make disciples and be witnesses, Land said, “We believe it is part and parcel of our faith.”
Sharing the Gospel of Christ “must never be done coercively,” he said. “We, as Baptists, believe that any kind of coercive faith or any type of forced faith, in fact anything other than a voluntary faith, is no faith. It’s a false faith. It’s a hypocritical faith, and it is of no use.”
Land said, “I would argue that there’s a universal right of freedom of conscience for every human being, no matter where they’re born, no matter what faith fellowship they’re born into. They have a right to their faith or lack of faith. They have a right to change their faith. And they have a right to practice their faith.”
He agrees with Roger Williams, the 17th Century Baptist leader who opposed the New England Puritan leaders’ mixing of church and state, Land said.
“For any — any — human being to try to coercively interfere with another human being’s relationship to God is ‘soul rape’ and should not be tolerated in any society,” he said, quoting a term used by Williams.
“At the same time, I have an obligation to share my faith,” Land said. “And what people need to understand, for Christians, this is an act of love. It’s not an act of hostility…. You have to understand that if we really believe what we believe, it’s an act of love we want to share with others.”
Rashkover, however, said, “[N]ormatively within Judaism, there is no mandate for proselytism.”
“With a few noteworthy exceptions, the Jewish tradition does not advocate active conversion of others,” she told the audience. “On dogmatic grounds alone, proselytism is not something that is pursued. But, historically speaking, one of the reasons why we can say that Jews don’t engage in proselytism is because they have been the victims of negative proselytizing in the past, so they have developed quite an allergy, a sociological allergy, to that particular practice.”
Rashkover urged a new route for Jewish-Christian relations, one in which “not proselytizing is the normative requirement.”
She called for Jews and Christians “to recognize how a refusal to participate in a fully open exchange with others constitutes a denial of theological freedom…. Reciprocal learning becomes not only possible but required.”
Rashkover thinks “Jewish reaction can actually freely entertain the reality of Christian witness,” she said, adding, “The question gets a little bit more complicated when the Christian witness seems to implicitly or explicitly have the agenda of conversion.”
She described it as “the difference between sharing and testifying to your faith and the agenda of changing the position” of another.
As a Christian, Land said in response, implicit in his witnessing is “the certainty that Jesus said He was the Way, the Truth and the Life, and that we have an obligation to share that with others. So, when I’m witnessing to people, I’m not only sharing my faith, I’m sharing my faith with the hope that the Holy Spirit will use that to change their faith. When someone shares their faith with me, which the Mormons do rather routinely, and I admire their dedication, they’re trying to change me to their faith.”
In Islam, “freedom of religion is very important,” Magid said.
Citing an Islamic verse, he said, “You cannot compel people to believe, force them to believe.”
In providing meals for the homeless in Washington, the Muslims at soup kitchens “never have asked someone as we give them the food to accept Islam, because you cannot play on people’s vulnerability -– at all,” Magid told the audience.
In Islam, the word “invite,” not “convert,” is the best one to use, indicating a person can “reject invitation or accept invitation,” he said.
Magid acknowledged “that historically [Muslims] have incidents where people have been forced to convert their religion.”
“Today, unfortunately, we do have church burnings in Pakistan. I’m not going to deny that,” he said.
“We have those kinds of problems, and we do believe that this is not based on Islam.”
Land said, “Obviously, there’s a terrible history of persecution and abuse of power in the Christian faith. And I feel uniquely able to speak to it because Baptists were the ones” being persecuted. “Really, our unique gift to the Christian tradition is soul freedom …,” he said.
“[A]s a Christian, I reject any coercion in religion,” he said. “I acknowledge that it went on, and to the extent that we can apologize for it, we do as Christians — although I must say, as Baptists, we’ve been coerced; we’ve never been the coercers.”
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.