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Is “Loving Witness” an Oxymoron?

When I first started writing for RELEVANT, my hope was to learn how to bridge the apparent divide between interfaith dialogue and evangelism. I wanted to articulate a paradigm of Christian witness that was both respectful of other faith traditions but also faithful to our calling to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).

However, as I’ve been writing these posts, one criticism keeps coming up: “How can you say you love people if you are constantly trying to convert them?” In fact, one individual even said that we should just view people of other faiths and philosophical standpoints as people and not evangelistic projects, as if evangelism and love were mutually exclusive. But these critiques aren’t coming from people of other faiths—they’re coming from Christians.

And so we are confronted with the question: Is the phrase “a loving witness” an oxymoron? Is it possible to authentically love a person and still desire to see them come to Christ, or does a commitment to evangelism automatically lead us to view other people as nothing more than projects?

I don’t ask these questions facetiously, because I think they reflect the reality that too many Christian “evangelists” have presented to the world: that of the closed-minded bigot. In fact, this is exactly what I believed for many years after becoming a Christian. I thought Jesus was great for me, but I hated the term “evangelism.” For me, it conjured up too many images of people standing on street corners with megaphones yelling condemnation at passersby or of sign-holders on the university quad with lists of all the kinds of people God apparently hates. “Evangelism” was a dirty word, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

The truth is that we should rightly shrink back at such examples. But is there no alternative? Is the answer simply to do away with evangelism?

I don’t think so. But in order to reclaim the phrase “a loving witness,” we first need to recover a few truths I think we have lost in this discussion.

The reality of exclusivity

Too often, when I have been involved in interfaith discussions, I have often found myself on the receiving end of suspicious questions and nervous glances. Why? Because I’m a self-proclaimed evangelical Christian. I think the assumption is that, because of my particular beliefs and my desire to “be a witness,” I am not very open to meeting with, befriending or learning from people of other religious backgrounds.

By definition, evangelicals have very particular beliefs about God, humanity and the nature of salvation—but that does not mean we have to be hostile to interreligious dialogue. Just because I might not agree with or accept another person’s religious belief does not mean that I hate the person or that I’m out to destroy positive interfaith work.

I admit there have been evangelicals who have operated this way, and for those people I apologize and am sorry for the ways in which members of my own community have hurt those of other communities. But just because someone may hold an exclusive truth claim about their religious tradition does not mean they can’t participate in interfaith dialogue, much less have positive and loving relationships with people from other religious and philosophical backgrounds.

In fact, my suspicion is that there are a lot more exclusivists in the world than we immediately think. The reality is that none of us would hold the religious or philosophical position that we hold if we did not think what we believed was more right than what someone else believes. This goes for even the most open-minded Universalist. In fact, it has often been the open-minded Universalists who are the most persistent in trying to get me to stop believing what I believe and adopt their own religious or philosophical position, which sounds an awful lot like evangelism to me.

At some level, we all hold beliefs and positions that are incompatible with those held by others. And this goes for issues far beyond religious dialogue. We hold particular views on politics, the economy, world affairs, social issues and more.

The reality is, we’ve allowed political correctness to run amok to the point that we don’t know how to disagree in a loving way and still have meaningful relationships with other people. My hope is that when we enter into spiritual conversations with one another we would find commonalities, but we should not be afraid of encountering differences as well. Until we recapture and rightly understand the truth of what it means to disagree and still view each other as human beings, we will never be able to hold faithfully to biblical truth and still genuinely love those who have views that differ from our own.

Recovering the heart of Jesus

But there is another truth we need to reclaim, as Christians, and that is that evangelism was the heartbeat of Jesus. In his groundbreaking book The Master Plan of Evangelism, Robert Coleman writes, “[Jesus] lost no opportunity to impress on his followers the deep compulsion of his own soul aflame with the love of God for a lost world. Everything he did and said was motivated by this consuming passion.”

When I look at the life of Jesus, what I see is that He loved people extravagantly. In fact, I am convinced there is no one in history who loved more unconditionally and radically than Jesus did. He did not see people as projects or numbers to add to His flock. He saw them for who they were: living, breathing human beings whom His Father loved. And I doubt many Christians would disagree with me on this point.

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And yet it is often those same Christians who affirm this who have such an extreme allergy to evangelism.

So, where’s the disconnect? I think it’s in having lost the pulse of Jesus’ life.

In articulating His own mission, Jesus said, “For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). It is only when we recapture this truth about Jesus’ own self-understanding that the rest of His life makes sense. This is the reason He went out of his way to stop in Samaria and hang out with the woman at the well (John 4). This is the reason He wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41). His whole life’s purpose was to reconcile people to their Father God. It was because He understood the radical love of God that He lovingly witnessed to people in both word and deed.

To divorce the two values of love and evangelism is to try and divide the heart of Jesus—something that we, as His followers, are not at liberty to do.

So, how do we recover this ethic of embodying a “loving witness” to others? Well, I think it starts by going back to the Gospels and seeing how Jesus did it. Observe His actions and conversations. See the heart He had for others. Take note of how lovingly and patiently He listened to people. Listen to the ways in which He compassionately invited people to examine their own assumptions and explore what it meant to truly know God.

It is His model we must reclaim if we are to overcome the false pictures we have of evangelism and witness. Furthermore, doing this will enable us to enter into relationships with others that both honors them as people and is faithful to the missionary heartbeat of the God who loves them and desires to draw them back into relationship with Himself.

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