WITNESS TO PEOPLE OF OTHER FAITHS
Pr. Joji Mathew
Christ commands us to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth. We are to proclaim His Good News to all people, everywhere and at all times. The world has many religions. Christians in India have long lived, surrounded by people of other faiths. Whatever the context, Christians are to witness to others of Christ. Witnessing to people of other faiths is a challenge.
A Basis for Christian Witness
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). Acts 1-7 describe the gospel in Jerusalem, Acts 8-12 record the spread of the gospel in Judea and Samaria, and Acts 13-28 tell of the gospel going to the ends of the earth. “You will be my witnesses” is both a command and a prophecy. For this purpose, they were appointed; and for this design they had joined with him for more than three years. The disciples saw his manner of life, his miracles, his meekness, and his sufferings. They heard his instructions, conversed and ate with him as a friend. They saw him after he rose, and when he ascended to heaven, and they were qualified to bear witness to all these things in all parts of the earth.
‘Be Christ’s witness’ is our primary mandate. All disciples of Christ are expected to be his witnesses. Jesus Christ asks his followers to witness everywhere. Obedience to the Lord is the primary motivating factor in witnessing. The last commandment of the Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew 28:18-20 is the Great Commission. No Christian can disobey this.
The world needs Christ more than any other time. Witnessing is the primary act of Christian mission. It has an experiential dimension. A disciple who has seen, heard and touched Christ cannot deny the mandate of witnessing.
Role of the Holy Spirit
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you. The verb here is in the “predictive future tense”. This indicates something will certainly take place or come to pass. The disciples still seemed to think in terms of political power, of Jesus restoring Israel’s power as an earthly kingdom. But they would get a different power. The disciples were focused on the restoring of the Kingdom of Israel. Jesus says that “it is not for us to know the times or epochs. Your job is to be my witnesses in every part of the world.”
The word “power” here refers to all the help or aid which the Holy Spirit would grant; the power of speaking with new tongues; of preaching the gospel with great effect; of enduring great trials, etc. Our work as Christians demands divine power. We cannot rest upon our personalities and natural abilities to do the work of evangelism and world missions. The coming of the Spirit in power was necessary for the Church to carry out the commands of our Lord.
The Spirit's coming was necessary for knowledge and understanding of God's Word. "But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you" (John 14:26). Every believer needs to understand the Word of God. But apart from the Spirit's work, that is impossible. We can understand spiritual truth only by spiritual revelation. That kind of revelation comes only from the Holy Spirit. The Spirit's coming was necessary also for boldness in living and testifying of Christ. The Spirit's coming was necessary for the disciples to witness effectively to the good news of Jesus Christ.
"When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness of Me, and you will bear witness also, because you have been with Me from the beginning" (John 15:26-27). As the Holy Spirit bore witness of Jesus Christ to the disciples, they in turn would bear witness to a waiting world. The confusion that seemed to veil their minds was lifted when the Spirit came in power. The Spirit's coming was necessary for the disciples to carry out the work of evangelism and missions.
People of Other Faiths
It is said that we no longer have to worry so much about going to the world. The world has come to us. We may be hesitant, shy, or downright uncomfortable when sharing our faith with people who dress so differently from us, speak languages we hardly understand, and adhere to religions we know nothing about. India and the world situations are not appropriate for witnessing and evangelization. Western Christians face challenges from secularization, though there is talk about an emerging post-secularism which marks the return of religion. But right now, the situation generally does not favour witnessing of Christ. Religious pluralism existed in India for centuries, and it has become an ongoing situation in the West also.
India is the birthplace of some major world religions. In India, we find followers of all religions. The nations that once closed their doors to certain religions have had to change their policies in the face of new realities. When people migrate for jobs and studies, they take their faith with them. In the present situation, all major religions are all over the world. Every day, we come across people of other faiths. Therefore, witnessing to people of other faiths has become a major concern in theology and missiology.
Religious fanaticism has become a threat to the peaceful living of the people all over the world. Religious intolerance and extremism are becoming threat to the world. In any civilized society, people have the freedom to profess and propagate any religion. Extremism in the name of faith is the major hazard in the present-day world. Therefore followers of Christ are to be wise and vigilant as they witness to the power of Christ. In some contexts, living and proclaiming the gospel is difficult, hindered or even prohibited, yet Christians are commissioned by Christ to continue faithfully in solidarity with one another in their witness to him (cf. Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:14-18; Luke 24:44-48; John 20:21; Acts 1:8).
Principles to Follow in Interreligious Contexts
Christians believe that God is the source of all love. In their witness, they are called to love their neighbour as themselves (cf. Matthew 22:34-40; John 14:15). In all aspects of life, and especially in their witness, Christians are called to follow the example and teachings of Jesus Christ, sharing his love, giving glory and honour to God the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. John 20:21-23). The example and teaching of Jesus Christ and of the early church must be our guides for Christian mission. Jesus Christ is the supreme witness (cf. John 18:37). Christian witness is always a sharing in his witness, which proclaims the kingdom, service to neighbour and the total gift of self even if that act of giving leads to the cross. Just as the Father sent the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit, so believers are sent in mission to witness by word and action to the love of the triune God.
Christians are called to conduct themselves with integrity, charity, compassion and humility. (cf. Galatians 5:22). Christians are called to act justly and to love tenderly (cf. Micah 6:8). They are further called to serve others and in so doing to recognize Christ in the least of their sisters and brothers (cf. Matthew 25:45). Acts of service, such as providing education, health care, relief and acts of justice are an integral part of witnessing to the gospel. The exploitation of poverty and need has no place in Christian outreach. Religious freedom includes the right to publicly profess, practice, propagate and change one’s religion. This flows from the dignity of the human person created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Genesis 1:26).
Thus, all human beings have equal rights and responsibilities. Where any religion becomes used for political ends, or where religious persecution occurs, Christians are called to engage in a prophetic witness denouncing such actions. Christians are to speak sincerely and respectfully; they are to listen to learn about and understand others’ beliefs and practices. Any comment or critical approach should be made in a spirit of mutual respect, making sure not to bear false witness concerning other religions. Witnessing is a must, but should be done with an attitude of love and respect towards the people of other faiths.
In a context where violence and death take place in the name of religion, Christians are to live as true witnesses of Christ. To be "my witnesses," as Jesus calls every disciple, means that we are His emissaries representing Him before a world alienated from Him by sin. We go to the world with His authority and blessing. We go to the world carrying the solitary message that delivers a sinner from eternal damnation: the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christians affirm that while it is their responsibility to witness to Christ, conversion is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit (cf. John 16:7-9; Acts 10:44- 47).