How Should a Christian Relate to Those in Non-Christian Movements and Religions?
by Alan W. Gomes
As we witness to those in non-Christian religions, we must guard against a formulaic approach that would treat them all as if cut from the same cloth. At the same time, we must not ignore the commonalities underlying religious allegiance, whether Christian or not. So long as we are appropriately sensitive to individual differences, we can identify some helpful strategies for winning adherents of non-Christian religious movements.
Address the personal motivations underlying religious commitment. Often people commit to a religion in order to meet personal needs. In new religious manifestations, in particular, there is a focus on the transformation of the self. Adherents of false religions often join to address intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual needs. People are looking for loving relationships and a sense of connectedness; a family atmosphere (particularly attractive for those who are without family or whose family is dysfunctional); a sense of acceptance and self-worth (sometimes by being part of “God’s great work” through the religious movement or false religion); an opportunity to achieve idealistic goals (e.g., doing works of philanthropy and charity); a way to meet deep spiritual longings (e.g., to experience a sense of the “divine” or the “transcendent”); and a belief system that will provide answers to life’s deepest questions (“Why am I here?” “What is the purpose of life?”).
These aspirations hardly are unique to members in false religious movements. Nor is there anything necessarily sinister in the fact that people have and seek to meet these needs. Indeed many people become involved in biblically based Christian churches for the same reasons—joining our churches, e.g., because of the caring and committed relationships they experience as part of God’s family. The problem with false religions, is that they cannot ultimately satisfy the deepest longings of the human spirit; only the true gospel can do that.
One of the most important things we can do in reaching out to those ensnared in false religion is to provide an environment where these spiritual, social, emotional, and intellectual needs can be met. The church should and generally does provide such an environment anyway, but for those emerging from false religions, the need is especially acute. Some new religious movements can be harsh on those who leave, shunning or “disfellowshiping” them. The person who leaves such a group may experience in one fell swoop the loss of his entire support system of family and friends. The church needs to be sensitive to this and be prepared to go the extra mile in embracing such individuals, enfolding them into the body of Christ with loving arms.
Properly classify, understand, and refute the false belief system. As important as the interpersonal factors mentioned above are, it is also necessary to understand correctly and then refute biblically the false belief system.
The first step is to classify accurately the type of belief system in question. A basic distinction should be made between new religious movements dependent upon Christianity and religious groups that make no claim of Christian allegiance. The former claim to be Christian but deny one or more central doctrines of the Christian faith. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Science are such examples. World religions, such as Islam, also deny core Christian beliefs, including the doctrine of the Trinity and the deity of Christ. But unlike new religious movements of Christianity, world religions do not claim to be Christian and in fact would explicitly repudiate such a label.
The distinction between new religious movements dependent upon Christianity and world religions is not merely academic. One would approach a Mormon differently from a Muslim. For example, one does not have to convince a Mormon that Jesus Christ is the Savior and that Christianity is true. Indeed, the Mormon already thinks that Jesus is his Savior and that his church is the true restoration of Christianity under Joseph Smith. The task is to show that Mormonism is a counterfeit form of Christianity, with a false Jesus who cannot save. A Muslim, on the other hand, not only will have faulty views of what true Christianity teaches but also will need to be convinced that Christianity is the true religion.
We must also understand the non-Christian belief system we are confronting as accurately and in as much detail as is practicable. Failure to do so can quickly short-circuit a witnessing opportunity, for the followers of false religion will soon tune out a Christian who imputes beliefs to them that they do not hold. It is important, as Robert and Gretchen Passantino point out, to observe a kind of golden rule when discussing non-Christian belief systems: represent their belief system as accurately as you would have them represent yours. Only then can we hope to be taken seriously as we confront the errors of the false religions with the claims of Jesus Christ.