World Religions, The Great Commission, and Baptism

What role to the various non-Christian religions of the world play in God’s redemptive purpose, or do they have a role to play at all?  This question has become more acute as the world has grown smaller and the (formerly?) Christian West has come into significant contact with vast multitudes of religious people who are not Christians.  How should Christians appraise this situation, and what does that mean for our approach to missions?

At least three approaches to the various religions of the world have been influential at various times, and they are as follows:

1. The Historic, Orthodox View: The church has long affirmed Cyprian’s axiom, “Outside the church there is no salvation.”  Of course, there have been significant differences over how to define the word “church,” but the basic idea that has been dominant throughout church history has been that, apart from faith in Jesus Christ, no one can be saved.  This means that adherents to non-Christian religions, no matter how sincere they may be, are lost and under the wrath of God without Christ.  Certainly, there have been notable exceptions to this doctrine, but it has been the majority view for 2,000 years. 

2. The Liberal View: Liberalism sought to define all religious expressions in terms of a universal human experience.  For a classical liberal, then, all religions are merely variegated expressions of the same experiential core.  What matters is not the set of beliefs you profess, the rituals, or the way of life that you follow.  Those will vary from culture to culture.  What matters is the common experience that underlies these various expressions.  Liberals seek to build unity among world religions by claiming that they are all, at their core, really the same thing (often with the assumption that Christianity is the highest expression of the universal religious experience, but not different in kind from the other religions of the world). 

3. The Postliberal View: This view has blossomed in the last few decades, and it represents a reaction to the liberal view, but not a return to orthodoxy.  According to postliberals, there is no universal religious experience.  To make that claim is to reduce the various religions of the world to something that they are not and to subsume them under one’s own version of liberal Christianity.  Religions often contradict each other in terms of what they affirm and the ways of life that they produce, so they cannot be mere outward expressions of the same thing.  Instead, postliberals argue that religions are like languages.  We are born into them, and over time we learn them and assimilate to their rules.  For example, I was born in an environment where English was spoken, and over time, by hearing, imitating, and a little formal study, I became proficient in the way the English language works.  I live, move, and have my being in the English language.  My thought processes are shaped by language (is there any thought that ever occurs to you that is not embedded in linguistic patterns?).  In the same way, I was born into a Baptist tradition.  Over time, I learned by experience the Baptist way of life.  Now, I live and move and have my being in this particular religious tradition.  I have learned the way Baptist religion “works,” and I have assimilated myself to its language, rituals, and traditions.  According to postliberals, these things give rise to religious experiences, not the other way around.  I have religious experiences because I am part of a Baptist tradition.  I do not express some universal, prelinguistic, undefined religious experience through my Baptist religion.  Therefore, it is simply illegitimate to claim that my religious experiences and those of a Buddhist represent the same thing in different forms.  Instead, we should view religions more like games that we play according to different rules.  Just as it is illegitimate to say, “Touchdown!” after shooting a free throw in basketball, so is it illegitimate to subsume Buddhist religious experience under my understanding of the Christian religion, as classical liberals have done. 

The postliberal approach to religions has given rise to a new kind of missiology where dialogue has become more popular than conversion.  George Lindbeck has argued that various religions have the potential to express various aspects of God’s redemptive purpose for this world.  While we should not subsume non-Christian religions under our own (as Karl Rahner did by calling adherents of other faiths “anonymous Christians”), Lindbeck has argued that we should recognize that non-Christian religions may each bring something unique to the table, and that these unique features may represent positive aspects of God’s redemptive purpose.

It looks as though Brian McLaren has been influenced by Lindbeck.  In his book A Generous Orthodoxy, McLaren argues that the church’s mission may include encouraging Muslims that we encounter to be better Muslims, Buddhists to be better Buddhists, etc.  In other words, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and all the various religions of the world have a legitimate place in the renewal of creation that has come about in Christ, and as the church we should encourage adherents to those religions to walk in the way of Jesus while remaining within their own faiths.  McLaren has been called a postconservative, but his approach to missions seems to be very postliberal (though I wonder how much distance there really is between postconservatism and postliberalism). 

My contention is that the Great Commission kicks this postliberal idea (and the classically liberal idea) in the teeth.  Jesus commanded us to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19)  Granted, one could argue that making “disciples” does not necessarily mean making “Christians,” and that we could fulfill Jesus’ command without calling for conversions to the Christian faith.  Aside from the fact that such an idea has no basis in the context of Matthew, it falls to pieces as soon as we get to the next phrase.  Let me quote the verse in full:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” 

To make disciples, then, evidently includes “baptizing them” in the name of our Triune God.  Baptism is the sacrament that brings a person into the church.  It initiates one into the Christian faith and marks that person out forever as one united to this particular group, confessing this particular faith, and repudiating one’s connection to anything that would contradict it.  That’s why baptism is so revolutionary in some parts of the world.  To be baptized is to take a major plunge (pun intended) into a new way of life, to take on a new identity, to be defined forever after as a disciple of Jesus Christ, yes, even a Christian (as opposed to a Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu).

The missiologies of Lindbeck and McLaren logically entail a denial of the importance of baptism.  McLaren in particular seeks to fulfill the main verb of Jesus’ command (“make disciples”) without fulfilling one of the participles attached to it (“baptizing them”).  It seems that the wording of the Great Commission becomes extremely relevant to current debates over missiology. From the beginning, Jesus has given us the command to convert people, to bring them out of whatever religious commitments they may hold, and initiate them into the church through baptism.  This is an integral component of making disciples, and if we are not doing it, then we are not making disciples. 

So where does this leave other religions?  What role do they have to play in God’s world?  I won’t claim that there is no good in them at all.  Many religions play an important role in shaping communities and societies according to moral standards (although, it must be admitted by all, many religions contribute to the destruction of communities and societies).  As such, many aspects of various world religions are reflections of God’s common grace and of the universal sense of divinity that has been hardwired into us by our Creator.  But I see no biblical evidence that they have any saving value.  In fact, I see positive evidence that they do not.  In Scripture, pagan idolatry is universally condemned.  Paul’s contention that humanity suppresses the truth of general revelation and perversely worships the creature rather than the Creator appears to be a universal indictment of humanity apart from special revelation (Romans 1:18-32).  The fact that the exalted Christ sent Paul to the Gentiles “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me” (Acts 26:18) implies that the nations of the world currently lie under darkness, under the grip of Satan, and under the penalty of unforgiven sin.  This speaks strongly against the idea that vast multitudes of people are finding redemption through their non-Christian ways of worship. 

Our approach to other religions, then, may legitimately include an element of dialogue, for dialogue connects us as human beings to one another.  But our goal must always be conversion, because without faith in Christ, expressed through the taking on of a new identity in his church, there is no salvation.  For 2,000 years this has been the majority view, and we affirm it–whether we realize it or not–every time we stir the waters of baptism.       

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