by Harold Lindsell
DELEGATES at the Congress on the Church’s Worldwide Mission (April, 1966) came down solidly against syncretism in their “Wheaton Declaration,” insisting that the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ be maintained. At the same time they urged missionaries to seek greater effectiveness in communicating the Christian faith, avoiding unbiblical cultural accretions.
DELEGATES at the Congress on the Church’s Worldwide Mission (April, 1966) came down solidly against syncretism in their "Wheaton Declaration," insisting that the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ be maintained. At the same time they urged missionaries to seek greater effectiveness in communicating the Christian faith, avoiding unbiblical cultural accretions.
The congress saw the need for vigorous discussion of syncretism and for defense against it. Only as evangelicals persistently examine syncretism, with heightened awareness of its implications, refinement of their understanding, and large scale individual involvement, will syncretism be seen in its proper perspective and its dangers be avoided.
If theological syncretism prevails, it will do so because evangelicals have abdicated their responsibilities. We are called upon to give a reason for the hope that is in us. This statement immediately rules out the simplistic idea that all we need to do is "preach the Gospel." Need we be reminded that no one can preach the Gospel if he is isolated from the religious ideas and systems of those he is trying to reach? And we should not be naive enough to suppose that this means Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims, but not existentialists, secularists, and anti-Christian scientists, and agnostics.
I am convinced that, in order to meet the dangers of syncretism, expose its fallacies, and demonstrate the uniqueness of Christianity, evangelicals must project themselves boldly into involvement with people who hold all the options that challenge Christianity. Grave dangers confront us when we exercise this option, and these must be faced and assessed.
First, there are those who claim that involvement on a certain level may mean compromise. To avoid compromise, one must come out and be separate. This does avoid compromise and does lead to separation, but does it not also make witness virtually impossible? It separates the evangelical from those he seeks to reach, and who cannot be reached unless there is personal association or conversation. The Apostle Paul did not hesitate to move boldly among the syncretists of his day. He met them head on and left us the imperishable heritage of an earnest apologetic for the Christian faith.
A second reason why some evangelicals may refuse to engage in combat with error is fear of infection and loss of faith. Both are real dangers, of course. But doesn’t the physician open himself to infection when he treats patients? What kind of faith is it that cannot withstand the cold breezes of dissent and opposition? What kind of hothouse religion is Christianity, if it can continue only when its adherents are protected from other ideas? Just as the soldier in wartime is exposed to death and may die, so the Christian soldier is exposed to other viewpoints. This is the risk of battle. This is the testing ground that determines the vitality of faith and commitment.
A third reason we often remain isolated is our unwillingness to listen and a spirit of condemnation. The evangelical is already convinced that these other viewpoints can contribute nothing to him, and that to listen is a waste of his time. He may 1101 appreciate the fact that he learns by listening, and that such learning will enable him to converse intelligently with the one whose faith he wishes him to exchange for Christianity. Our unwillingness to listen is often caused by the honest conviction that God has already judged these other viewpoints and condemned them. But God still loves those who embrace error; Christ died for them too! The physician does not condemn the patient who has contracted a venereal disease. His function is not to pass judgment upon the diseased man, but to heal him. It is not the function of the Christian to pass final judgments upon unbelievers; that is God’s prerogative. The believer’s privilege and responsibility is to bring to such people the healing message of the Christian faith. His function is evangelistic, not judgmental. He must show them the answer to their need. But he has no access to them when he approaches them in the spirit of condemnation. Rather, he ought to sympathize with them in their plight because he once was like them. He is an exbeggar giving another beggar the same kind of bread that saved his life.
If evangelicals are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, they must begin talking to those they seek to reach. This includes not only those of the non-Christian religions of the world, but Roman Catholics, death-of-God theologians, ecumenists, universalists, atheists, agnostics, or what have you. To do this is to engage in dialogue, which means to exchange ideas.
WILLING TO LISTEN
Evangelicals must be willing to listen to what others have to say, and must really listen. Listening is not merely sitting by politely, passively waiting until the appropriate moment when you can get in your retort. Listening is an honest, earnest effort to find out what the other man is trying to say, and to do this without a condemning spirit. It is not a question of what we think he believes, but what he thinks he believes. Until we understand what he is trying to say, we cannot forge an apologetic in response to his unbelief, nor can we reach him. As soon as he discovers that we are knocking down straw men and answering arguments that are not his, he is beyond reachability. Intellectual integrity and Christian honesty demand that we do not attribute to others what they do not believe. This means that we will have to pay close attention to what others say. But it also means that the margin of error between what they believe and what we believe may be narrowed considerably. Only as we think hard and analyze clearly will be able to see what the real nature of our disagreement is, and how we can forge an answer that will mark off the Christian faith from the other option.
When evangelicals have listened to other men, they must then frame their apologetic in response to the beliefs of those to whom they would witness. This means that we do not turn away in disgust from those who hold viewpoints that controvert Christianity, and simply preach the Gospel to them, in the hope that this will drive the demon of syncretism from their minds. We must ask, "What is the nature of the gad that the other man worships?" "Why is his notion of his god defective and our notion of ours correct?" "Is the difference that separates us simply one of degree, or is it a matter of kind?" We need to be reminded that these questions are just as valid for the death-of-God theologian as for the Hindu. The former is just as much a syncretist and calls for response from us too. To inveigh against the death-of-God theologians solves no problems. To answer them objectively, rationally, biblically, and with love and patience, is the better path.
WHAT DIALOGUE MEANS
Dialogue does not mean that concessions have been or will be made to the standpoints of those with whom dialogue takes place. The notion that even to engage in dialogue is to make a concession is false, nor does dialogue presuppose that either party will change his mind. Obviously the people with whom evangelicals engage in dialogue are hopeful that they will convince the evangelicals, just as evangelicals hope to convince those to whom they speak. From the outset the evangelical is a propagandist in the best sense of that abused term. He is an evangelist. His purpose is to change the mind of the other person. He does not engage in dialogue simply to find out what the other person is thinking. He listens and talks so that he can answer error and convince the other person that the Christian faith is true.
Dialogue does not mean that evangelicals should give the impression that they do not believe or take seriously what they advocate. Commitment to Christianity must be passionate. It always includes a proper dogmatism, that the exponent of Christian faith possesses final truth, not of his own devising, but revealed by God in Scripture. It is often not so much the possession of dogmatic convictions that alienates, as the manner in which one expresses those convictions. Any evidence of disdain for those in bondage to nonbiblical concepts, any expression of feelings of superiority, any judgmental attitude of the other party hurts the cause the evangelical professes to represent.
In dialogue the evangelical does not come to a bargaining table to grant as much as he can to the person on the other side of the table, in the hope that he will likewise gain concessions. The core of the Gospel is not bargainable. Cultural accretions are. No useful purpose is served by adding to the core of the Gospel those elements that characterize our own understanding of the Gospel as it relates to social, economic, and political factors. We can hope that once the Gospel, through the regeneration of individuals, has become a reality, the Holy Spirit will work out some of these important problems.
If and when it becomes obvious that dialogue serves no useful purpose, it can be broken off. But to shrink from at tempting dialogue because of the feeling that no useful purpose will be served is to abdicate to unbelief and fail to go into the world at the command of the risen Lord. Prior to World War II, for example, it became evident that dialogue with Hitler served no useful purpose. He did not enter into dialogue with integrity, nor was it his intention to convince men in a voluntary manner by reason and logic. His was the logic of armed might; he had no intention to leave others to pursue their ways if they did not agree with him; he would force them to do his will. But the Christian cannot do this. He can only present his case, urge a positive response to his entreaties, and sorrowfully leave the hearer to his own ways if he will not voluntarily change.
BAR TO DIALOGUE
Perhaps the single greatest bar to evangelical dialogue with others is the attitude that prevents the evangelical from originating such dialogue. Opposing, as he rightfully does, the syncretistic tendency toward universalism in the ecumenical movement, he will take no steps to initiate conversations with people from that camp. Certain as he is that Romanism over lays the Gospel of grace with works for salvation, he shies away from contact with those of that conviction. Appalled by the grossness of heathen practices among Hindus, he will not throw himself into that arena for combat. But the unhappy fact remains that we cannot reach people with whom we do not talk. There can be no conversion to Christianity of those who do not hear its message.
Therefore, in meeting syncretism, evangelicals cannot disengage themselves from contact with, nor wait passively for approaches from the people they hope to reach with the Gospel. They must aggressively reach out to initiate dialogue. They have been sent to others, not commanded to wait for them to come. They are to go out, not to remain at home in their pleasant isolation from the world. Theirs is not a defensive battle. It is to attack, to meet the enemy face to face, to risk everything for Christ’s sake and for those others for whom the Savior died.
Evangelicals plainly stated at Wheaton that they believe in the finality of Jesus Christ, and that they must act to acquaint believers with the dangers of syncretism. The time has come to fulfill this objective and to frame an apologetic for unbelievers everywhere. The place to start is the world in which these people live and think and die. We must meet them where they are. We must go out and be ready to interact with them, having a spirit that is as wise as a serpent and as harmless as a dove.
Copyright © 1967 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.