18. Interfaith Dialogue In Evangelical Missions (Part II)

Approaches to Interfaith Dialogue

E. Stanley Jones was a Methodist missionary in India during the first half of the 1900s who was a strong advocate of interfaith dialogue.  He set the rules for his "round table talks" so that "no one argue, no one try to make a case, no one talk abstractly and no one merely discuss religion," but that all simply share what religion means from personal experience. This openness in validating others’ spiritual experiences did not lead him into a quicksand of syncretistic thought, nor into a relativistic sludge in which the uniqueness of Christ was lost.  Rather he observed that "there was not a single instance I can remember where Christ was not in moral and spiritual control of the situation by the end – those who knew Christ were testifying to something redemptively at work at the heart of life, redeeming them from themselves, and from sin, putting worth and meaning into life, giving an unquenchable hope to men, lighting up the inward depths of life, bringing them into fellowship with God in beautiful intimacy and furnishing a dynamic for human service" (Quoted in Codman-Wilson 1999:214).

Such a result is only possible when certain attitudes in dialogue are cultivated and care is taken to avoid misunderstanding and presumption.

Integrity in Dialogue

Integrity demands that dialogue not be a means of evangelism, nor a replacement for evangelism.  Evangelism in mission seeks for a response leading to transformation.  Integrity necessitates a sincere agenda of understanding in dialogue and not a hidden attempt at transformation.  "Dialogue is merely an opportunity for learning and exploring, whereas witnessing speaks of Jesus Christ" (Pope-Levison 1994:133).  Even as anthropology as a discipline in it own right provides essential insight for the missionary, so dialogue provides essential guidance for the evangelist while being a valid enterprise in its own right.  Dialogue is not for proclamation of the gospel and the call for repentance and faith in Christ, but it provides the understanding that is a necessary prerequisite for relevant and significant gospel communication.

Clarification in Dialogue

Because pluralism tends to reduce God to abstractions, the understanding and clarification of terms and concepts is essential for effective dialogue.  The God of the Bible must be represented clearly and honestly and this is difficult when common vocabulary and agreed definitions are elusive.  The word "God," understood in the Christian context as the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, has a vastly different nuance in Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.  This is not overcome simply by choosing correct words, as if our assumed theology will permeate the selected vocabulary.  Rather the underlying stories and assumptions of all participants need airing so that a common ground can be discovered upon which constructive dialogue can be built.

Alternatively, the concepts of other faiths and world-views must not be distorted by squeezing them into the categoriesthat make sense to us.  This does not discourage us from dialogue but underscores its necessity.  Without mutual understanding there can be no communication.  However during this search for common ground, care must be taken to maintain distinctiveness so that the truth of the gospel is not compromised.  "Without my commitment to the gospel, dialogue becomes a mere chatter; without the authentic presence of the neighbor it becomes arrogant and worthless" (Bosch 1991:484).

God speaks to cultures in ways specific to their framework of understanding. Dialogue both reveals these distinctions and demands care in classifying the categories.  For example, a shame / honor society will be more sensitive to the concept of Jesus’ removing our shame, than to the idea of Jesus removing our guilt. In such a context the concept of salvation as overcoming sin needs to be carefully dealt with. Sin as shame is conquered by restoring honor to those dishonored (Sidebotham 2002:1) rather than by removing condemnation from the guilty.  To assume a mutual understanding of concepts such as sin or salvation without exploring possible differences is to run the danger of being irrelevant and misapplying God’s word.

Respect in Dialogue

An attitude of mutual respect with a belief in equality concerning each participant’s personal authority in determining spiritual truth is also necessary in dealing with other faiths.  Neither an air of superiority, nor a feeling of intimidation is appropriate in exploring unfamiliar faith experiences. The positive result should be not only a deeper respect for another’s beliefs and values, but also confidence that the unique message of "Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Co 2:2 KJV) can become a river of clear, fresh water even in foreign soil.

The Value of Conflict

Finally, although the beginning of dialogue must establish common ground, the goal of dialogue is not agreement.  Conflict of belief without the demand for resolution is not just inevitable in dialogue, it is invited.  This is not a negative feature, rather it provides the opportunity to declare Christ’s claims as exclusive and unequivocal – as long as we are open to hear the exclusive claims that others will make.  These claims are not declarations designed to end dialogue, but open acknowledgements that commitment is not compatible with plurality of belief, and at least to some extent, the acceptance of one way necessitates the rejection of another.  In this way dialogue opens the doors into understanding the beliefs and values of those who see the world through a framework far removed from our own.

We cull from the story of David and Goliath the assurance that God is with us despite insurmountable obstacles.  The Sindhi Muslim reads the story and applauds the self-abandonment of one whose only concern is God’s honor.  We look at the washing of the disciples’ feet and accept Christ’s action as the model of humility we are to emulate.  The Sindhi focuses on Peter’s response and is confirmed in the conviction that the essence of discipleship is total submission and obedience to the teacher despite culturally unacceptable demands.  Communication between people living in such different worlds can only be facilitated through interfaith dialogue.


  • References cited:
  • (1) Bosch, D.J. 1991. Transforming Mission.  Paradigm shifts in theology of mission.  Maryknoll: Orbis.
  • (2) Codman-Wilson, M.L. 1999. Witness in the Midst of Religious Plurality: The Model of E. Stanley Jones in Confident Witness – Changing World: Rediscovering the Gospel in North America Edited by Craig Van Gelder. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 203-218.
  • (3) Pope-Levison, P.  1994.  Evangelism in the WCC: From New Delhi to Canberra, in New directions in missions and evangelization 2.  Theological foundations, edited by J.A.  Scherer & S.B.  Bevans, Mayknoll: Orbis, 126-142.
  • (4) Sidebotham, B. 2002. New Paradigm for Outreach to Mid-East Cultures:Gospel Restores Honor to the Dishonored. Shofar: The Operation Reveille 6 (no. 1, First Quarter). Taken from www.oprev.org/1stQtr02.htm#feature3 website of The Operation Reveille
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Author: Mark Naylor DTh (missiology)

I have been with Fellowship International since 1984. Karen and I served in Pakistan for 14 years and returned to Canada in 1999. I have continued to be involved in Bible translation traveling twice a year to Pakistan. My current role with Fellowship International and Northwest Baptist Seminary is as Coordinator of International Leadership Development