How do we honor people around us who hold to false ideas about God? The question is specific, but it opens into a broader discussion. The question itself comes from a listener in Sri Lanka.
“Dear Pastor John, we Christians are a minority in a predominantly Buddhist country here. Bowing before a Buddhist priest with both hands folded is how the Buddhist clergy are greeted in our culture. Buddhists themselves will often bow face down before them. As Christians, some of us are uncomfortable with this. We haven’t found clear direction from Scripture here. Could you help us honor the Lord and his name in our land?”
Well, I love getting questions from situations and relationships and places that are so different from my own. It helps me realize how provincial I am in some of the things I deal with, and yet how universal and relevant Christ and his word are everywhere in the world.
“We shouldn’t give the impression of having more in common with another religion than we really do.”
It’s thrilling to me to think that somebody in Sri Lanka might think that a pastor sitting in a room in Minneapolis, Minnesota — ten thousand miles away — might have something from God’s word to say that would be useful in that culture. That’s just stunning to me.
I hope it is helpful. I consider myself a little presumptuous even to make any effort here. But if I can just stick close to God’s word, perhaps God would make it useful.
The way I posed the question to myself is “How can I honor — I’m thinking of myself and this Christian in the same boat — how can we honor two kinds of teaching in the New Testament that together, no matter how much tension we may feel between them, should both shape our relationships with people in other religions, whether in America or in Sri Lanka, including the leaders of those religions?” In this case, we’re thinking about a Buddhist priest. Here are the two kinds of teaching I have in mind.
Show Honor to All
On the one hand, Peter tells us, “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17).
In this verse, we see four different types of love. First, there is a kind of honor that Christians show to everyone simply because they’re human, made in the image of God, and because they’re potential brothers and sisters. We would love it if they would be our brothers and sisters forever. We would be delighted, and we should try to help them feel that we would be delighted, if they would join us in everlasting joy and submission to Jesus Christ.
Secondly, there’s a special kind of love and affection and bond that exists between Christian brothers and sisters.
Third, there’s an absolutely unique kind of respect and reverence and submission that we owe God, the Creator and Sustainer and Redeemer.
Fourth, there’s a peculiar honor — the same word is used here at the end of the verse — for the emperor. There’s a peculiar honor that we pay for those whom God has put in civil authority over us as we are exiles and sojourners in the world.
Now, the Buddhist priests in Sri Lanka are not Christian brothers. They’re not in that category. They’re not civil authorities, I presume. I don’t know my cultural story that well, but I’m assuming they are not in the role of governors and kings and princes. They are, however, human.
So, there is a kind of honor or respect that Christians should show them. I’ll come back in a minute to try to flesh that out just a little bit. That’s the first kind of teaching that we have in the New Testament: honor all people.
Here’s the second kind of teaching. It cautions us against three things.
“This is the great goal — to give clear evidence and to speak so as to make our witness to the gospel of the grace of God crystal clear.”
First, the New Testament says we should not do or say anything that would cause immature or unstable Christian believers to stumble into doubt or unbelief or disobedience. I’m thinking of 1 Corinthians:
“As to the eating of food offered to idols [or you could say ‘bowing before Buddhist priests’] we know that ‘an idol [or a Buddhist priest and what he represents] has no real existence’ [that is, what he stands for has no real existence] and that ‘there is no God but one.’ . . . However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols [or with Buddhist temples and priests] eat food as really offered to an idol [that is, bow as really honoring what those priests stand for] and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.” (1 Corinthians 8:4, 7)
In that text, it seems to me for the sake of younger or immature or weaker believers, we who might have the freedom to pay a Buddhist priest some kind of respect and not intend anything religious by it should probably avoid such public symbols of religious honor for the sake of the weaker brothers. That’s one warning.
Here’s the second warning. The New Testament says we should not do things or say things or relate to people in a way that would blur the distinctions between Christ and his way of salvation on the one hand, and the teachings of other religions on the other.
I’m thinking of 2 Corinthians 6:14–18:
“Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial [or with Buddha]? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? . . . ‘Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord. . . . I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.’”
Now, the point of those rhetorical questions seems to be that we shouldn’t give the impression of having more in common with another religion than we really do. We need to find ways of distinguishing ourselves from the religion that we have come out of so as to make the differences clearer rather than blurry or obscure.
Here’s the third warning the New Testament gives. The New Testament says positively that we do and say things that would make clear the unique and necessary gospel of the grace of God.
I’m thinking Acts 20:24, where Paul says, “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”
This is the great goal — to give and to speak. That is, to give testimony, to give clear evidence and to speak so as to make our witness to the gospel of the grace of God crystal clear, even if it costs us our lives.
Those are the two kinds of teaching in the New Testament that we need to follow. The one stresses honor to all persons, including Buddhist priests, and the other stresses that we need to maintain separation and distinction from our former religion.
Paths of Love
Let me end by returning to what that honor of a Buddhist priest might look like. It seems to me that there are probably in every culture ways to show respect for people as people but not for what they stand for. Now, that’s a real challenge, but there is the chance that they can respect them as people but not for what they stand for. That’s the cultural challenge. And not just in Sri Lanka, but right here in Minneapolis.
“In every culture, there are ways to show respect for people as people but not for what they stand for.”
I don’t live in Sri Lanka, and I’m not sure exactly what that’s going to look like there. But it would at least look something like this: We don’t act in a mean-spirited way. We seek to avoid pride and self-exaltation. We don’t act in a way that shuns a personal relationship, as if we hold a person in contempt. We seek to be outgoing in our testimony to the grace of God.
We stand ready to lay our lives down for the good of others, including others of different religions. We stand ready to serve. Paul talks about counting others more significant than ourselves. And I think he means that we stand ready to serve them, get down low and do good things for them, in the paths of love.
We do not send signals — cultural signals or personal signals — that the difference between us is minor or what the priest stands for in his religion is admirable or true or helpful when it’s not. It is in fact eternally destructive.
There’s the challenge: find a way to personally honor a priest who is created in the image of God — in at least those ways — and find a way to communicate that we do not share these religious convictions with you.