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Why Interfaith Dialogues Are Not (Necessarily) Biblical: A Response to Fred Butler

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Fred Butler has been nicknamed the “Grace to You Mail Guy” by Brannon Howse for years now (several times when broadcasting for WVW, Howse told me I could not be friends with Fred, which I happily ignored because I graduated the Third Grade in 1988). In fact, Fred Butler does a little more for Grace to You than work in the mail room. As I understand it, he heads up a volunteer program for the aged members at Grace Community Church, who lend their time to the ministry. Butler is also a steady figure in social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, and occasionally writes for his blog, Hip and Thigh, and as of late, The Bible Thumping Wingnut. He’s also written a post or two for Pulpit & Pen. Butler is a loveable, cuddly furball of charm and wittiness, who seems to be a perpetual supporting character in most interesting Internet debacles that entertain the theological-minded. Butler is a witty, charming, fuzzable, adorable and likable guy.

That being said, Butler’s recent article at Bible Thumping Wingnut deserves a fair-minded, friendly response. His post, Do the Scriptures Forbid Interfaith Dialogues? requires some loving correction.

Butler writes…

I recently got into an extended Twitter squabble on the topic of interfaith dialogues and whether or not Christians can engage in them with unbelievers. I noticed a lot of horrible use of Scripture employed against the idea of interfaith dialogues. It was so bad, I felt compelled to address at least one key passage raised in our exchanges. I also wanted to offer up some other thoughts on the matter.

I cannot speak as to whether or not the Scriptures employed by those to whom Butler refers in said “Twitter squabble” were horrible, as with one several-hour exception last week, I haven’t been on Twitter in two years. I do know that Twitter is not the place to go if you’re looking for a thorough analysis of, well, pretty much anything. He continues by citing the Wikipedia definition of Interfaith Dialogue and summarizes it as, “The idea of interfaith dialogue (IFD) is constructive cooperation and positive interaction between people of different religious traditions,” which Butler argues is “a rather broad concept.” Butler acknowledges a second use of the term, writing, “…IFDs are not meant to synthesize contradictory beliefs into some hybrid system everyone can agree upon. (Think, “Chrislam”). Rather, the dialogues seek to understand where those of different religious convictions are coming from so as to promote acceptance between opposing groups.”

This is the two-part definition of Interfaith Dialogue (hereafter, IFD) that Butler is working from. He then lays out what he calls, “Misconceptions.”

Now, I would think Bible-believing, God-fearing Christians would desire pursuing amiable cooperation with their neighbors of different faiths. What would be sort of a vanilla co-belligerence. In fact, the Scriptures would implore Christians to live in peace with unbelievers, Proverbs 16:7, 1 Timothy 2:1,2. Living in Southern California certainly affords the opportunity to practice such cooperation. I have had Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Catholic, Mormon, and Greek Orthodox neighbors and associates. All of us getting along with each other, despite our religious differences, has been good for establishing the harmony of our relationships.

This is where I believe the meaning of IFD has been minimized beyond the point of its usefulness. Clearly – as Fred would attest – the Bible would not have us be at perpetual, literal warfare against unbelievers on account of their unbelief. Explicitly, the instructions of both Christ and the Apostles would have us recognize all people as neighbors (Mark 12:1), and Butler’s use of texts telling us to live peaceably is apropos. However, what the Scripture is describing is not IFD (emphasis on the D) but peaceable interaction. I would suggest, knowing Fred like I do, that he has positive and healthy relationships with Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Papists, Mormons and Eastern Idolaters irrespective of their religions. Equating neighborliness interaction with IFD is a false presumption on two counts; first, it assumes that positive interaction is the same as “dialogue” and secondly, it assumes that interacting about things neighbors by necessity interact about (like HOAs and PTAs) are related to faith by necessity. Of course, these interactions are not Interfaith Dialogues so much as they’re inter-human interactions, and Butler’s comparison is an apples-and-oranges type fallacy.

Butler continues…

Additionally, my close proximity and daily interaction with those various acquaintances moves me to explore what it is they believe. My hope is to have opportunities for asking questions, challenging their convictions, and bringing the Gospel to them. The more I am basically informed as to their beliefs, the more productive our conversations are for the sake of Christ.  The problem with many Christians is the idea of acceptance of other beliefs. Acceptance, as I noted previously, is a loaded term. What exactly is meant by acceptance? This is where I believe it is important to recognize two categories of IFDs, good IFDs and bad IFDs.

Of course, nothing here is questionable. Certainly our inter-human interactions should lead us to inquire about our neighbor’s beliefs and the sharing of our own. And certainly, the more basically informed one is about another’s beliefs, the more productive evangelism may be. Here, I agree with Butler and I disagree with Steve Camp, who seems to assert that there’s no need or reason to learn about false religions for the cause of evangelism. As a polemicist, I especially consider Camp’s assertions foolish, in the same way as would an apologist (knowing the enemy is half the battle). What is troubling – and what will lead you to see Butler’s error – is that he asserts there are “good IFDs” and “bad IFDs.” Simply put, the “good IFDs” Butler refers to, are really no IFDs at all. They’re just two people interacting in the course of a world that contains lots of different religions. For example, I’m friends with the Hindu who runs the convenience store across the street from my church (I attended his baby shower, he gives me pictures of his newborn, he asks about my family when he sees me, and so on). In these interactions, faith obviously comes up, but it is not an IFD by the classical definition of IFD. It’s just basic humanity). We are not inviting each other to our respective houses of worship to take turns dialoguing specifically about faith, for the purview or witness of others. That is Interfaith Dialogue, as people typically use the term.

Butler defines what is a “bad IFD,” writing…

The bad IFDs are seen in any garden variety ecumenical schmooze-fest. A recent example is Purpose Driven Rick Warren seeking common ground with Roman Catholics in the Orange County diocese. His IFDs with them are not employing general cooperation highlighted in the first portion of my working definition above. Rather, he is cheerfully compromising biblical truth. He has attended Catholic services, spoken at their churches, and is overly friendly with the Roman Catholics to a fault. He is extremely accommodating to their false Gospel, encouraging even his congregation to be friendly with Catholics, putting aside any theological differences.

What Butler is describing is not a “bad IFD,” but is a just plain and ordinary IFD. That’s what they are. Any attempt to accentuate or find “common ground” between true and false religion is IFD, and should be rebuked by the use of Scripture in 2nd Corinthians 6:14. While we recognize that there are similarities between Christianity and Romanism, for example (we both believe in the Trinity, etc.) whatever differences are so vast it creates a chasm too great to traverse and it is an unproductive comparison for the Christian to make. There is “common ground” between Christianity and almost every false religion, given that we are in general agreement on the Second Table of the Law. But given that we disagree on the Gospel, all those agreements are worth exactly zilch. Likewise, all IFDs encourage congregations to be “friendly” with Temples of Idols, with a recent (and now infamous) IFD having the Christian side of the dialogue encourage believers and idolaters to bow their heads and pray together (may God forbid such a thing). This isn’t “bad IFD,” this is just plain ordinary IFD.

The good IFDs, on the other hand, would involve missionaries in India learning what Hindus believe so they can have better conversations with their neighbors who live around them. The same could be said about Christians living in predominately Mormon Utah. In fact, any thoughtful Christians who live nearby to religious unbelievers would seek out some basic knowledge of their faith so as to discuss particulars with them.

I would disagree with the notion that missionaries learning about native cultures and religion is an IFD in any real sense. This is what you call a lexical fallacy, using a term that may make technical sense according to a dictionary (or Wikipedia article) that doesn’t take into account its common usage in a particular context. A conversation with a lost person is not an IFD unless you use a definition that is so broad it’s entirely unhelpful.

The next problem I have with Butler’s article is that he continues to conflate learning about false religion with what is known colloquially as IFD. He writes…

While there isn’t any direct teaching for or against IFDs in Scripture, I believe we can glean some insights from various passages. For instance, we know from the NT record that Paul had a working knowledge of Greek religious culture. He was intimately acquainted with how Greek philosophy and religious belief shaped gentile thinking.

In Acts 17:17, we see Paul reasoning with the Jews in Athens. None of the conversations are recorded for us, but I believe we can guess it was related to the idolatry that filled the city (vs.16). Furthermore, he was familiar enough with Athenian philosophy that when he was called before local authorities, he challenged their idolatry by referencing two of their philosophical writers, (vs.28).

Coming to the letter of 1 Corinthians, Paul knew much about the pagan temple culture of Corinth.  He confidently rebuked the so-called “strong” Christians for sinfully flaunting their liberty by continuing their temple practices while claiming to be Christians (1 Corinthians 8-10). The letter to the Colossians further reveals that Paul was educated regarding the Gnostic heresies troubling the Christians there.

From the OT, we could also consider Jeremiah, who was left in Jerusalem as a mediator of sorts between those Jews who remained in Israel and their Babylonian occupiers. Also Daniel and his friends who were forced into a religious school and trained as Chaldean soothsayers.

Though they may not be entirely similar to our modern idea of IFDs, in all of those cases, some degree of IFD had to take place in those circumstances. That is especially true for Paul as his missionary journeys took him outside Israel and into the gentile areas of the Roman empire.

I believe that Butler’s first sentence in this portion is wrong, and I’ll address that in a moment. Considering the rest of his Biblical elusions, Butler has again conflated studious research into the teachings of false religion with IFD. What Butler seems to suggest (only if his logic holds and his use of Scripture is pertinent) is that Paul, Jeremiah, and Daniel engaged in IFD because they were aware of the pagan religion in the context of their culture. First, this is presumptive. There is no way of knowing how the Prophets and Apostles became aware of the false religions around them, but one could rightly surmise that it came from living in the culture where these religions were already prominent. But secondly, Butler seems to suggest (if his argument is at all pertinent) that the only way someone could possibly become familiar with the teaching of false religions is to engage in IFD. Only if IFD is defined in the broadest (and most unhelpful) way possible, could you characterize cult research as IFD. The question is if it’s likely that Paul, Jeremiah, or Daniel would would have invited their Babylonian occupiers, Chaldean overlords, or Greek Pagans into the Jewish Temple (or synagogue) to share with the crowd what they believe and then have a respectful back-and-forth, trying to find theological commonalities and then breaking bread in what they advertised as “fellowship.” Only then would Butler’s assertion that these accounts provide insight into IFD be astute.

Butler next explains why, in his view, certain Scriptural texts seemingly forbidding IFD don’t actually forbid IFD. He writes…

Critics cite two passages they insist prohibit Christians from engaging in IFDs, 2 Corinthians 6:14-16 and 2 John 10-11.

Beginning with 2 John, the apostle’s words really have nothing to do with hosting IFDs in our churches. Rather, the warning is against local churches providing a base of operation for deceivers who intentionally teach falsely about Christ. Specifically, the deceivers are fake ministers going out and teaching that Jesus did not come in the flesh. John is rebuking churches actively aiding and assisting false ministers in proclaiming a false Gospel, not forbidding Christians from talking with unbelievers in an IFD.

My detractors also frequently reference 2 Corinthians 6:14-16.  However, Paul is also not forbidding IFDs in that passage. What he speaks against is genuine compromise with false religion that impacts the Christian faith. More that likely, Paul has in mind situations along the lines of the bad IFDs I noted above. Christians involved in pagan temple ceremonies and other idolatrous practices in Corinth. Those utilizing IFDs as means of furthering their relationships with unbelievers for the sake of the Gospel are not compromising theological convictions.

The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved wrote in his second epistle, If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.” While Fred is correct that the Text doesn’t explicitly address IFD, as we commonly understand it, it does address it implicitly. While not prohibiting a Christian from displaying hospitality to Mormons who happen to be visiting as neighbors, it would prohibit Christians from displaying hospitality to Mormon elders who are on mission to convert people in the neighborhood. Those who are actively seeking to ‘evangelize’ for their false religion should not be given any warm welcome; they should be strongly reputed and sent on their way without so much as a glass of water to nourish them. Because of my interpretation of this passage, I will visit with Mormon elders on my porch, but will not invite them into my home. If I am invited by someone to meet with Mormon elders who have scheduled an appointment with them, I advise them that the Mormons be offered no food or drink. Then, I do not dialogue with the Mormons, I dispute with the Mormons. I do not allow them to discuss what we have in common because, without the Gospel, all of that commonality will ultimately lead to eternal separation and amounts ultimately to no agreement.

What Butler seems to do is conflate conversing or witnessing to a practitioner of false religion with inviting a missionary of false religion into one’s home (or church) to respectfully let them speak that which is against God.

2 Corinthians 6:14-16, which tells us that there is no agreement between Christians and idolaters, is poorly handled by Butler. He argues that the passage only forbids those whose intentions (like Rick Warren) are to compromise their theological convictions. This serves to absolve anyone from doing precisely what this passage says ought not be done, so long as their intentions are to help promote the Gospel. The problem with this assessment from Butler is several-fold. First, it makes the passage’s relevance (or authority) dependent upon the intentions of the interpreter. The problem, coming from a Reformed perspective that is eternally pessimistic regarding the anthropology of human nature, is that it’s exceedingly dangerous to make our Christian ethic regarding IFD based solely upon the intentions of men. Not only are men not infallible (and thus prone to poor intentions), man is also not omniscient, and their motives may be hidden even unto themselves. One of the most tragic things I have heard in this debate is someone say, “I am the only infallible interpreter of my intentions.” Not only was that not Reformed, it was theologically inexcusable. The Scriptures should speak for itself and not be exegeted by the personally subjective, emotive assumptions about our intentions. The passage says (through a presumed answer to a rhetorical question) that the House of God has no agreement with the Temple of Idols and light has nothing in common with darkness. Butler’s interpretation adds a parentheses to the passage (if you’re going to compromise your convictions), and it is rejected by the very sentence structure in the passage:

Righteousness has no partnership with lawlessness.

Light has no fellowship with darkness.

Christ has no accord with Belial.

A believer should share no portion with an unbeliever.

That which has no partnership, fellowship, accord or portion with the wicked includes the righteous, light, Christ, or believers. Butler’s assertion that there’s an unspoken parenthesis that says, “If you’re going to compromise your convictions” would imply that the righteous, light, believers or even Christ would be compromising their convictions in the first place! This passage is not written to those prone to compromise, as it includes Jesus Himself! The passage is clearly written to those who are not prone to compromise, and even they have no partnership, fellowship, accord or portion with false religion. The virtuous do not have a pass, expositionally or interpretatively, in this passage. It was written to the virtuous.

What this means is that Rick Warren and the best evangelist or apologist who has ever lived are still bound to not offer fidelity with the propagators of false religion, even if they (or their followers) are utterly convinced they will not compromise. By the Biblical standards, the IFD itself is the compromise.

While I disagree with Butler’s use of Scripture – and in fact, think it refutes his point – I agree with his last sentence which reads, “While I certainly don’t expect all my readers to agree with my sentiments, my hope is that they will at least extend charity to Christians who disagree with them regarding IFDs.” We will continue to display charity toward those with varying opinions on IFD, while yet still asserting that it is Biblically untenable to advertise fellowship with darkness as a way to evangelize, or to put soft pragmatism above the hard truths of Scripture.

I hate pragmatism. I still like Fred Butler.


[Contributed by JD Hall]