I like ice cream. Rocky Road happens to be one of my favorite flavors, but really, anything with walnuts, almonds or peanuts will do. On the other hand, I realize that someone else may really love sorbets or fruit-flavored ice creams or, strange as it may sound to me, not like English walnuts on everything. There are even people who don’t like ice cream. And that’s perfectly fine in the ice cream shop where everything is a subjective matter of taste. There is no right or wrong. The person who has a peanut allergy is not churned into an ice cream heretic because they can’t have peanuts on their peanut buster parfait. And the double dark chocolate lover is not intolerant when it comes to excluding fruit from their sweet cones of delight.
I like ice cream. I also enjoy Christian apologetics. And I think both are gifts of God. But what does my love of ice cream and apologetics have in common? Absolutely nothing at all. And that’s the point. World religions are not like the myriads of flavors of ice cream out there. And Christianity is not a “have it your way” religion. The idea that religious truth is relative is simply another form of American idolatry: “your truth” is good for you and I have “my truth” and no one is right or wrong. That’s patently false, not to mention self refuting.
Subjective preference and taste have little to do with whether or not a religious claim is true or false. In fact, the one thing that all world religions have in common is their mutual incompatibility. It’s not up for a taste-test; it’s simply a matter of logic. All of the world’s religions could be false; that’s possible. But to claim that the world’s religions are all true, or even a matter of subjective preference, is a logical impossibility. And until the world understands this (don’t hold your breath) it will never understand why Christians cannot worship with false gods and false religions.
Now, when it comes to the Christian Gospel – that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself – it’s possible that this claim too is false, along with all the other world religions. But Christianity and Judaism, or Christianity and Islam, or Christianity and Mormonism cannot all be true at the same time. Christianity is not simply one flavor out of many.
That’s why, when Christians participate in public events of any kind in any context, simply speaking the Gospel isn’t the only thing that needs to be said. By standing in the buffet line we give the impression that Christianity is simply one flavor out of many. While we should work hard to remove any scandal and offense in our public lives, the one that we cannot remove – indeed that we must proclaim – is the scandal of the cross. We preach Christ Crucified. And no other world religion does. We must do both, tear down the false temples and build the positive case for Christianity.
Christians must differentiate themselves from the world and the world’s religious chaos that surrounds us. What separates Christianity from every other world religion are facts, eyewitness testimony. Christianity is open to investigation and is grounded entirely on historical, objective events that if proven untrue, toss it in the trash on your way out the door. If Christ is not raised, our faith is in vain. But Christ is raised from the dead; the central message of Christianity is a matter of historical fact and investigation.
Our culture today is closer to what it was during the time of the apostles than it has been in centuries. Christian persecution is on the rise. Martyrdom is an increasingly real and present possibility for Christians around the world. Earthly rules are escalating their antagonism towards Christians. And Christianity is once again surrounded on all sides by pagan religions, non-believers and a cacophony of world views in the market place of religious ideas. Christians in 2013 can learn a great deal from our first century forefathers when it comes to evangelism, apologetics, and proclaiming the Christian gospel in a pluralistic society.
With the recent inter-faith prayer vigil in Newtown, CT – and the controversy this has stirred up in the church – these issues have returned to the forefront of the news media – not to mention the Internet, Facebook, and blogs – and with varying degrees of reliability. Contrary to the popular claim, we do not find examples of Christians participating in inter-faith services in the New Testament, let alone the Old Testament. When Israel engaged in inter-faith worship in the Old Testament, the prophets called it what it was: theological adultery. That is to say, this is a first commandment issue: idolatry.
Jesus did not stand alongside the priests of the Roman pagan temples or even his own Rabbis and proclaim mutually contradictory teachings and claim he was doing it for the sake of the Gospel. On the contrary, he frequently called out the Pharisees, Scribes, and Sadducees for their false teaching and called them to repentance and forgiveness of sins. Likewise with St. Paul, whether he was in the synagogue or the public square. St. Paul did not offer a prayer or a sermon while the sacrifices of Athena were going on in the temple in Athens. He did, however, meet with many Athenians in the public square. He knew their poets, quoted their works, and then proceeded to tell them that their unknown God was known (Acts 17). Repeatedly, whether in Athens or Ephesus, he condemned unbelief in Christ, false belief in all other gods, and then proclaimed the Gospel. Paul was simply following Jesus’ word to the apostles: repentance and forgiveness of sins must be proclaimed to all nations (Luke 24).
If anything, St. Paul was consistent. In Acts 4, Peter and John are before the Jewish council. And by today’s standards, he was anything but politically correct. He told his fellow Jewish brothers that they had crucified Christ. And that there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). St. Paul knew that the truthfulness of Christianity was nothing at all like ice cream (or whatever sweet treats Paul liked, if any). He knew that Jesus’ claim to be God and his death and resurrection which vindicated that claim is a message that is both exclusive and inclusive, exclusive for Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life and no one comes to Father except through Him; and inclusive, for Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
In the public arena, both must be proclaimed. It’s not enough to simply preach the Gospel, for the sake of love, in the public square without also speaking the truth about the other false religions around you. Paul does this in no uncertain terms in First Corinthians when teaching about the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot share in both, for what fellowship has light with the darkness (2 Corinthians 614-18)?
A Christian apologist today must do what St. Paul did routinely throughout the book of Acts and in his epistles, speak the truth in love. You can’t have one without the other. Truth and love cannot be bifurcated or dichotomized. Truth without love has no object; it is empty. And love without truth is a lie; it is a pure subjective fantasy where right and wrong does not exist. When love becomes detached from the truth of Scripture and the faithfulness of the Lutheran Confessions to that Scripture, the proclamation of the Gospel simply appears to be one flavor out of many at the religious ice cream parlor. This tastes good in the food court of public consumption. It’s popular, no doubt; for sinful man is lactose intolerant to the pure spiritual milk of Christ Crucified. But in the end, this kind of gospel is no Gospel; and it is neither truthful nor loving. For when we sacrifice truth for love (or vice versa) we lose both. Lord, keep us steadfast in your Word!
Peter’s words be a helpful reminder and source of encouragement:
Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is right? 14 But even if you do suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence; 16 and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing right, if that should be God’s will, than for doing wrong. (1 Peter 3)