Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Religious Boundaries and Religious Interaction: Rethinking our Assumptions

Over the last week or so I have interacted with a couple of individuals over the Internet, and these exchanges prompted me to make this post. The first exchange I had came with Don Venoit of Midwest Christian Outreach. Don leads this countercult ministry and is also the current president of Evangelical Ministries to New Religions, a consortium of countercult ministries. On "Crux," the MCO blog, Don wrote a piece titled "Boundary Maintenance," and you can read his article and my responses to it and other reader comments where I tried to respond to misconceptions related to my views.

Related to this is the concept of bounded and centered sets as they relate to ministry approaches. Without going into depth here since I have blogged on this topic previously, I believe that countercult understandings of and responses to new religions represent more of a bounded set approach which, as the illustration accompanying this post states, devotes much of its energy into "maintaining the boundaries, to keep a sense of distinction from other" groups, whether they are similar or not. While I recognize that religious groups have and need boundaries, and these boundaries are constantly reassessed and negotiated in response to the "religious other," I am concerned about those approaches that focus largely or solely on boundary maintenance and bounded set approaches that are often used as if they were a centered set approach. I refer readers interested in this topic to my previous post referenced above for a further analysis of this and its implications for the Christian life and ministry. I hope that Don is able to adjust his understanding of my views on this topic so as to more accurately reflect my position, especially since he is presenting a plenary session at the upcoming EMNR conference on this issue.

Another recent exchange I had is also related to the issues of boundary maintenance and bounded sets. As readers can see from a comment in resonse to my post on the Food, Fellowship, and Faith Dialogue Dinners, it has been asserted that such events which bring traditional Christians and "religious others" together is somehow inappropriate and contrary to biblical teaching. This concern looks at certain biblical passages which touch on the issues of separation and purity for the Christian and their faith, and I think these are important issues that need to be addressed from a perspective that provides for further reflection and a different perspective.

Terry Muck of Asbury Theological Seminary is the author of a number of helpful books, including Those Other Religions In Your Neighborhood: Loving your neighbor when you don't know how (Zondervan, 1992). One chapter in this book is titled "Doesn't the Bible Teach Us to Avoid Personal Contact with Non-Christians?," and Muck wrestles with 2 Corinthians 6:14-17, a passage referenced by the critic of my Evangelical-Latter-day Saint dinner. Muck summarizes the variety of ways in which Christians have interpreted this passage:

"Like many key Scripture passages, 2 Corinthians 6:14-17 has been interpreted in a number of ways. One way is to understand the context of the first-century Corinthian church where Christianity was a new, struggling religion needing all the purity it could muster to survive. Since we do not have that situation today, such interpreters insist, the text does not really apply to us. A second way is to distill a foundational principle from the text that works in all cultures and at all times - Don't associate with unbelievers - and appy it as one would apply a law against speeding: Don't ever do this. A third way is to come to the text with a modern need - for example, a reason to emphasize the importance of religion as a factor in successful marriages - and find in it a passage that disallows mixed marriages.

"What does this text mean for us? Nothing? Is it an argument for separation? A warning against mixed marriage?"

As Muck seeks to answer these questions he looks at the context of 2 Corinthians 6, and in his discussion he notes that Paul was writing to a struggling church filled with people experiencing pain and suffering, and in response Paul notes that God will bring consolation. In Muck's view the suffering/consulation dichotomy is essential to understanding this text in context, and everything which follows in the text flows from this perspective. As Paul moves to personal application for the individual it appears that some people were struggling with desires to return to their former ways of life before embracing Christ. In response Paul tells believers that the point of 2 Corinthians 6:14-17 is that Christians look at life from their new perspective in life as "new creatures" in Christ.

Muck then moves to discussion of how this worked out in specific ways in the first century context and he summarizes it in part as follows:

"This is not a call for separation in the legal or physical sense (as a strict rule). There may be times for such separation, but it is not a hard and fast commandment; it is a call for recognition of the metaphysical separation that our commitment to Christ entails."

Muck then moves from interpreting the text in its original context to discussion of its application for Christians in the pluralistic United States. He suggests guidelines that flow from our pluralistic situation in light of Paul's teaching. These guidelines for interreligious engagement include:

1. Does this contact jeopardize my commitment to the new creation?

2. Does this contact jeopardize my brother's or sister's commitment to the new creation?

3. Will Jesus Christ be glorified by this contact?

4. Will the church be glorified by this contact?

5. Will the non-Christian I am involved with be helped by this contact?

Muck devotes brief space to discussion of each of these, and after stating number five he states:

"Some kinds of contact will not reflect positively on others. Overly aggressive or manipulative evangelistic campaigns hurt rather than help those who belong to non-Christian religious traditions. The 'do no harm' principle of physicians regarding medical treatment is a useful one to consider in concert with the other four principles."

As Muck concludes this chapter and summarizes his analysis of this issue he mentions once again Paul's teaching that Christians should look at life in new ways, and this new perspective informs the way in which we interact with others:

"We should evaluate our own contacts in the same way. As long as we are looking at the world through transformed Christian eyes, contacts with those of other religions have great potential. We live in a culture and world where making such contacts [with "religious others"] has never been more important.

"The key to successful contact is belonging to a community of believers where the new way of looking at life, the transformed worldview, is assumed and supported. From such a base, the question of whether or not to have fellowship with non-Christian religions becomes much easier to answer in the affirmative."

I encourage interested readers to seek out Muck's book in order to read this chapter (as well as the entire book), rather than relying solely upon my summary of his thinking. I believe these ideas are worthy of further thought, and that perhaps many of our biblical and theological assumptions about interaction with "religious others" are in need of careful and critical reflection.


I am the Eggman said...

It looks to me as though some intensive study has been conducted to better understand this single passage that may be construed to mean that we are not to associate with adherents to other religions.

The part of the argument against association that I struggle with is the mere fact that it is the example that was lived out in the lives of Christ, Paul, and most of the disciples. I do not recall any parts of scripture that read "do as I say and not as I do". How is it do we think that the Gospel was spread so effectively through the early church? Without personal contact? I can picture Paul now running through the streets of Philipi or Corinth scratching holy graffiti into the sides of buildings with a stick so as to avoid actually having contact.

Unlikely. Equally is it as well that we are not to have association with those of other religions.

John W. Morehead said...

The following was recently posted as a comment on the Midwest Christian Outreach's blog, "Crux," in partial response to my post. The post is by the President of MCO, and EMNR, and it is copied below with my response:

Don Veinot Says:
February 6th, 2008 at 6:33 pm
I have chosen to respond here as I have noticed that from time to time the posts by those who disagree with you seem to inexplicably vanish from your site.

In my blog I noted some of the biblical passages which mandate church leadership to do boundary maintenance. If I have misrepresented the biblical teaching on this it seems that it would be good for you to show that such work is unbiblical and unnecessary. Whether or not your intent for your use of the expression “boundary maintenance” is to come across as a swear word or not, it does. As far as the accusation of using the “heresy-rationalist” approach, I gave the commonly accepted definitions of these terms which I, MCOI and the members of EMNR do not fit. Of course, if you take a postmodern view of language and give it any old meaning that suits you is not something I can really address.

How I approach and interact with non-believers, whether JWs, Mormons, Wiccans or “religious other” of many more belief systems is the area on which you are the most vague. You come across with regularity that MCOI and the other EMNR membership are little more than unfeeling, scalp hunting, back yard apologetic hacks. That is fine. In order to have clarity on the issues I have asked you repeatedly what I would do differently tomorrow than I am doing today if I adopted your paradigm. In all of these years that question has been met either with silence or in this latest exchange a “figure it out for yourself” response. Unless and until you can answer the question simply, your accusations and mud slinging have no credibility.

John Morehead's Response:
Don, thanks for sharing your response. Although you don't mention me by name, I assume you are responding to me.

It is unfortunate that you begin your post on such a hostile note, and one that is simply not true. Comments on my blog do not simply disappear. Your comment smacks of conspiracy or fear of critique, and neither are true. I do moderate comments on my blog because many of the comments from the countercult are unfortunately hostile, personal attacks, and not very well thought out. My blog is reserved for serious critical discussion of important issues. Those comments that meet my criteria are posted and interacted with. Please don't continue to misrepresent the situation on my blog.

Beyond this initial concern, if you reread my comments here [at Crux] and on my blog you will see that I acknowledge the biblical teaching and need for appropriate forms of boundary maintenance and definition. My concern is with those apologetic models that utilize such methods as evangelistic approaches, and which unfortunately often result in the creation of an "us vs. them" mentality among evangelicals in relation to adherents of new religions.

As to terms like "boundary maintenance" and "fundamentalist," I reiterate that they are used by me as descriptive terms, not pejorative, even though you interpret them that was a reader. But here is an instructive lesson for us: perhaps evangelicals who use the term "cult" in theological and not pejorative senses should consider how adherents of new religions interpret and react to this label. If you are arguing that my terminology should not be used because you find it offensive, what does that say about evangelical fondness for using "cult"?

Third, I do not take a postmodern view of language, but instead, draw upon a common usage of language where unique terms are defined in the way they are used in the primary sources that coin new nomenclature. If you want to understand what "heresy-rationalist paradigm" means then you need to access the sources where this term is defined and explained. If you do this you will see that the concept does apply to what is going on in countercult circles.

Finally, as to my alleged vagueness on what a missional model of engagement with new religions involves in contrast to apologetic approaches, I have pointed you toward several sources which go into great detail on exactly what this looks like, and I have invited you to consider these practical examples. It is unfortunate that you somehow equate this with mud slinging. If you are going to raise critique concerning my views and approach it is fair for me to ask you to accurately understand what you say you disagree with, and to reach this understanding after reading the sources where these views are developed. It appears that you haven't done that. I will leave it to readers to make up their own minds about crediblity.

Anonymous said...

Will Jesus Christ be glorified by this contact?>>>>>

Who is Jesus Christ and why does it matter that He be glorified or not?

John W. Morehead said...

Donna, this post was directed toward a Christian audience that tends to have concerns about certain forms of contact with adherents of other spiritual pathways. For those of us who follow the pathway of Jesus, and want to engage "religious others," such questions are important.