Tolerance, Truth-Telling, Violence, and Law

Principles for How Christians Should Relate to Those of Other Faiths

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Since September 11, 2001 the question how Christians and Muslims relate to each other has been more urgent. This question is part of the larger issue of how Christians are called to live in a pluralistic world. More specifically, how shall we as American Christians think and act with regard to freedom of religion in a pluralistic context defined by the ideals of representative democracy? In particular, how shall we bear witness to the supremacy of Christ in a world where powerful cultures and religions do not share the love of freedom or the ideals of democracy?

The elders of Bethlehem Baptist Church, on August 26, 2002, endorsed the following 20 principles as Biblically faithful guidelines for Christians. We commend them, first, to the church under our care for their guidance, second, to the wider Christian community for serious consideration and benefit, and, third, to non-Christian communities for the sake of mutual understanding. Our primary aim is to help Christians commend the uniqueness and supremacy of Jesus Christ with humility and courage so that others might honor him by faith and have eternal life.

1. Whether approved or disapproved by others, we should thankfully and joyfully hold firmly to the true Biblical understanding of God and the way of salvation he has provided and the life of love and purity and justice Christ has modeled and taught. (1 Corinthians 15:2; Hebrews 3:6; 4:14; 6:18; 10:23; Revelation 2:13, 25; 3:11)

2. Both in the church and the world we should make clear and explicit the whole counsel of God revealed in his inspired word, The Bible — both the parts that non-Christians approve and the parts that they don't. We should not conceal aspects of our faith in order to avoid criticism or disapproval. (Matthew 10:27-28; Ephesians 6:19-20; 2 Corinthians 4:2; Galatians 1:10)

3. It is loving to point out the error and harm of Christ-denying faiths. The harm consists not only in some temporal effects, but especially in the eternal pain caused by refusing the truth of Christ. This warning should be given with earnestness and longing for the good of those who are in danger of the consequences of not trusting Christ. (Luke 6:31-32; Romans 13:10; 1 Timothy 4:8; 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9; 2 Corinthians 5:20)

4. We Christians should acknowledge our sin and desperate need of salvation by a crucified and risen Savior, so that we do not posture ourselves as worthy of salvation as if we had superior intellect or wisdom or goodness. We are beggars who have, by grace, found the life-giving bread of truth, forgiveness, and joy. We desire to offer it to all, so that they join us in admiring and enjoying the greatness of Christ forever. (1 Corinthians 1:26-30; 4:7; 1 Peter 5:6; James 4:8-10; Luke 18:13-14; Matthew 10:8b)

5. We should present Christ not as the triumph of an argument among religions but as the most trustworthy, beautiful, important, and precious person in history, and as our desperately needed and loved substitute in two senses: 1) He absorbed, by his suffering and death, the wrath of God in our place; and 2) he became our righteousness before the all-holy God by living a sinless life which was imputed as righteousness to us when we believed on Jesus. (1 Corinthians 2:1-2; 2 Corinthians 4:4; 1 Peter 2:6-7; Romans 3:24-26; 5:18-19; Galatians 3:13; 2 Corinthians 5:21)

6. We should make clear that Christian faith, which unites us to Christ and all his saving benefits, is a childlike, self-despairing trust in the worth and work of Christ, not a meritorious work of our own. Our call for others to be Christians is not a call to work for God or to earn his approval by doing deeds of righteousness or love. We are calling for people to renounce all self-reliance and rely entirely on the saving life and death of Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5; Romans 4:4-5; Romans 10:1-4; Philippians 3:9)

7. We believe it is a just and loving thing to publicly point out the errors of other faiths, provided this is done with sufficient evidence that the sacred writings or representative spokesmen of those faiths do indeed express these errors. It is crucial that we strive to avoid misrepresenting other faiths, as that is not only disrespectful but also undermines our own credibility. (Acts 6:8-7:53; Mark 12:24; Mark 8:33; Acts 3:15; 5:30; Exodus 20:16; Ephesians 4:25)

8. As we expose the errors of other religions, we should feel and express sorrow and compassion for those who do not embrace Christ so as to be saved. (Luke 19:41-42; Philippians 3:18; Romans 9:1-3; 10:1)

9. We should make clear that we are Christians first and Americans second. We are aliens and exiles in the world and our deepest and truest citizenship is in heaven. Our decisive Lord and Leader is Jesus Christ, not the president of the United States. This first and deepest allegiance unites us with Christians of all nationalities more firmly than our secular citizenship unites us with other Americans. In regard to many American values and behaviors we are dissenting citizens. American culture is not Christianity. We believe it is not unpatriotic to criticize unjust and ungodly aspects of our own culture. (Philippians 3:20; 1 Peter 2:11; Matthew 22:21; Acts 5:29; 1 Timothy 6:14-15; Revelation 17:14; Ephesians 5:11)

10. We should not expect a "fair fight" in a secular world that is hostile to God and uncomfortable around the truth of Christ. Therefore, our response to abuse or distortion or slander should not be angry resentment, but patient witness to the truth, in the hope and with the prayer that returning good for evil may open hearts to the truth. We must recognize that persecution of various kinds is normal and that much of the protection we have in America is abnormal in history and in the world. Our witness will not be advanced by resentful huffing and puffing about our rights. It will be advanced by "suffering yet always rejoicing," and by overcoming evil with good, and by steadfast statements and reasonable defenses of the truth. (Matthew 5:43-45; Romans 12:17-21; 1 Corinthians 4:12-13; 1 Thessalonians 5:15; 2 Timothy 3:12; 1 Peter 2:15, 19-24; 3:9; 4:12)

11. We should renounce all violence as means of spreading our faith. Biblical Christians do not try to spread their faith by the use of political or personal violence. Christians spread their faith by suffering, not by causing suffering. Authentic Christianity cannot be coerced by force or manipulation. (Luke 10:3; 2 Corinthians 5:11; Colossians 2:24; 1 Peter 2:19-24; Revelation 12:11; )

12. We should acknowledge and proclaim that Christ will, at his personal appearing, punish those who have rejected him. He will assign them to everlasting judgment in the miseries of hell. However we must make just as clear that Christ's violence at the end of the age is a decisive reason we should not and may not exert violence against others because of their beliefs. This is Christ's right, not ours. (Matthew 25:46; Romans 12:19; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9; 1 Peter 2:20-23; Revelation 6:16)

13. In this present time before the coming of Christ himself in person, civil authorities should not use physical force or any other coercion of power or withheld benefits to reward or punish persons because of their beliefs. (Implied in the Biblical pattern of voluntary faith sought by the power of persuasion and example; and in the necessity of divine enabling grace for conversion. 2 Corinthians 5:11; 1 Thessalonians 1:5-6; Ephesians 2:8-9; Acts 6:14; Philippians 1:29; 2 Timothy 2:24-26)

14. No physical force or any other coercion of power, or withheld benefits, should be used by civil authorities to punish persons because of their speech or writing or art, unless the communication can be shown, through due process of law, to reveal intentions to commit crimes or help others commit crimes. (See the support for #13)

15. We believe that God has given to civil government, not individuals or the church, the duty to "bear the sword" for justice and safety. (Matthew 26:52; Romans 13:1-4; Romans 12:17-21; 1 Peter 2:20-23; 3:9, 14)

16. We should distinguish between a just war of defense against aggression and a religious war against people because of their beliefs. We should acknowledge that this distinction will probably not be recognized by certain religions who define their beliefs to include the right of cultural domination by force. But we should insist on this distinction rather than accept the claim of the aggressor that our resistance to their aggression is a religious attack on their faith. We should argue that the ground of such national defense is the civil right to freedom (of religion and speech and press and assembly), not the disapproval of the religion underlying the attack. We will deeply disagree with other religions, but that disagreement is not the ground of armed national defense. We should distinguish between the de facto military resistance against a religiously motivated force, on the one hand, and the motivation of our resistance, on the other hand, which is not rejection of any religion but freedom for all religions to win converts by non-violent means of persuasion and attraction. (Implied in the previous principles)

17. We should acknowledge that beliefs and behaviors do not have the same standing before the law. No beliefs are to be punished by civil authorities. But some behaviors rooted in beliefs may be outside the law and therefore punishable by the civil authority. These behaviors may include killing other people, assault, stealing, various forms of discrimination, etc. Which behaviors are legally prohibited in a society based on freedom of belief and freedom of religion, will be determined in a process of persuasion and debate and election of representative law-makers, with checks and balances provided by the executive and judicial branches and by constitutional safe-guards for the rights of the minority. Ambiguities are recognized. (See the support for # 13 and the implications of the previous principles taken together)

18. We should distinguish between the right to express criticism of erroneous beliefs and sinful behaviors, on the one hand, and the false inference some draw from this criticism that proponents of the criticized beliefs can therefore legitimately be mistreated. We should not accept the claim that being criticized or denounced as mistaken or as sinners is a form of "mistreatment". It is not a crime (hate crime or otherwise) to publicly call someone's belief wrong and harmful, or to call someone's behavior sinful and destructive. A necessary part of all debate concerning beliefs and behaviors and proposals is the argument that some are wrong, ill-founded, and have deleterious effects. This is how all political debate proceeds. This is not illegitimate in the religious sphere. For example, if someone violently assaulted a U. S. Senator on the street after he had been criticized on the floor of the Senate because his bill was flawed and based on misinformation and would lead to hurting poor people, we would not blame the criticizing Senator for the later violent assault and accuse him of inciting violence. Hence we must distinguish between public criticism of beliefs and behaviors, on the one hand, and the illegitimate inference that these erroneous beliefs and sinful behaviors warrant being mistreated. (See the support for #3 and #7)

19. We believe that different beliefs change the inner meaning of all convictions and behaviors, but do not change the form of all convictions and behaviors. Hence, for example, two persons may have different beliefs but hold the same form of conviction and behavior concerning abortion. We desire that all people share faith in Christ and have convictions and behaviors whose inner meaning is that Christ is the Lord and treasure of life. But, even so, we are glad when the form of our convictions and behaviors are shared by those who differ with us in faith. We believe that it is possible to make common cause with them in social issues provided that this shared action does not undermine the ground and meaning of our Christ-exalting conviction. (1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17; Romans 14:23)

20. We believe that every religion, world view, or philosophy of life may freely endeavor to influence and shape our culture. We renounce the use of force or bribery or deceit in this culture-shaping effort. We affirm the preaching of the gospel, the publishing of truth, the modeling of love and justice, the power of prayer, the use of persuasion, and participation in the political process. We recognize that all laws "impose" some group's behavioral conviction on all. Thus it is not a compelling criticism to say that a law which governs behavior is bad because it "imposes someone's morality" on society. Nevertheless, this makes it all the more important that we support principles, laws, and policies that protect the legal freedoms of minorities who do not have the numbers to sway law-making processes. The extent of these freedoms is determined by the principles expressed above, especially #17. (Implied in the previous principles and supports)