World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Study VI: Witness in a Religiously Plural World

The study guide My Neighbour's Faith and Mine: Theological discoveries through interfaith dialogue, was published by the WCC in 1986. Since then it has been translated into numerous languages and used widely.

01 January 1986

A. Our witness and other witnesses

1. Texts
Christians are called to bear witness to the good news, a witness expressed through the word of proclamation, in the liturgy of the church, and in the life of service. But what of the witness of people of other faiths? Even though Christians are surrounded by people who have their own witness to offer, there is sometimes very little awareness of the intensity with which others wish to offer their witness and the universality of the message they bring. Listen to the following witnesses:

a) Swami Vivekananda, who brought energy and insight to the Hindu renaissance of the late nineteenth century, had this to say after his journey in the 1890s to the USA and Europe:

Spirituality must conquer the West. Slowly they are finding out that what they want is spirituality to preserve them as nations. They are waiting for it. They are eager for it. Where is the supply to come from? Where are the men ready to go out to every country in the world with the message of the great sages of India? Where are the men who are ready to sacrifice everything so that this message shall reach every corner of this world? Such heroic souls are wanted to help the spread of truth. Such heroic workers are wanted to go abroad and help; to disseminate the great truths of the Vedanta. The world wants it; without it the world will be destroyed.

The Complete Works of Vivebananda, Almora, Advaita Ashrama, 1924-32, III, p. 276.

b) From the start of his mission to the end, the Prophet never lost track of the universal nature of his mission, whether he was preaching to relations, Arabs, or addressing the whole of mankind. This mission is Islam. Islam is total submission to the one true God, the Creator, the Sustainer and the Supreme Sovereign of all the world. Muslims are therefore charged with the noble mission of bringing the whole world to its Supreme Sovereign, and of freeing it from servitude to any false god. The propagation of Islam to all people is a religious duty which must be undertaken by all true Muslims by following the good example of the Prophet who was sanctioned as "Mercy for all mankind ".

Badru D. Kateregga and David W. Shenk, Islam and Christianity: a Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1981, p. 76.

Ven. Ananda Mangala Thera speaks of Buddhism as an "evangelistic religion" which sees the need for tolerance and understanding in the very act of witnessing:

In multi-religious societies evangelism is to be understood as a calm and a peaceful exercise in the propagation of religious beliefs. It also requires a respectful understanding of co-existence with other religious beliefs, whether primitive or more developed. Evangelization needs a disciplined code of "truthfulness" in furthering human resources to gain "freedom and happiness", not only here and now, but also in the "here-after"...

Buddhism is undoubtedly the first evangelistic religion, followed by Christianity and Islam. When Gautama Buddha admonished his disciples in the following words, Buddha Dhamma became an evangelistic religion: "Go ye forth, O Bhikkhus, on your journey, for the profit of the many, for the bliss of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, the profit, the bliss of devas and mankind, go not, any two together. Proclaim, O Bhikkhus, the Dhamma glorious in the beginning, glorious in its middle and glorious in its ending. "...

Emperor Ashoka established a golden rule of ethics (regarding evangelism) when he admonished in the following manner:

One should not honour only one's own religion and condemn the religion of others; but one should also honour others' religions for this or that reason. In so doing, one helps one's own religion to grow and renders service to the religions of others too. In acting otherwise, one digs the grave of one's own religion and also does harm to other religions. Whosoever honours his own religion, and condemns other religions, does so indeed through devotion to his own religion, thinking: "I will glorify my own religion". But on the contrary, in so doing he injures his own religion more gravely, as concord is good. Let all listen, and be willing to listen to the doctrines professed by others.

2. CommentIn these passages we find that people of various religious traditions also understand themselves as commissioned to bear witness to their faith. In Islam the propagation of the faith is seen as a religious duty, for the message of Islam is understood to be universal. In the Buddhist text we see a similar emphasis; the path of Buddhism is seen as a way that would bring liberation to all people. There is, however, a call to Buddhist missions to be based on profound love and concern for humanity and respect for other faiths. In Swami Vivekananda's speech there is a sense of urgency. He sees the world - especially the industrialized world - to be in danger of religious bankruptcy and spiritual peril. He calls upon the Hindus to volunteer to bring the message of the sages of India to the world, without which "the world will be destroyed". He sensed that the spirituality of the East was urgently needed to balance the growing materialism and soullessness of the West.

As Christians we have often thought of ourselves as the bearers of the message and others as mere recipients. We have looked at witness mostly as a one-way process. How then can we respond to these passages from people of other faiths which point to a similar sense of urgency, commitment and a sense of obligation to bear witness to the world?

This has become an important question because there is an amazing resurgence of religion in our world today. Some see this phenomenon as the rejection of the secular, technological culture and a search for a spiritual basis for life. In responding to this quest all religions have become manifestly "missionary" in character. They all seek to provide an understanding of the human predicament and project a way to overcome it which would be meaningful to the contemporary person. We are, of course, aware that not everything about the religious revival of our time has been a blessing. But can we any longer ignore the fact that we live in a world where there are many witnesses? How can we cope with the plurality of witness which is a reality of our age?

3. Discussion and questions
Discuss the message contained in the testimony of these witnesses. Are there others you have heard, known, or read about who present a powerful witness to their faith, in word or deed?

a) What is your understanding of such witness on the part of people of other faiths? How do they understand it? This is a question you might wish to discuss in dialogue with neighbours of other faiths. If you do so, you may also discuss methods of bearing witness, and the legitimacy of bearing such witness in today's world.

b) What do you think Paul meant when he said: "In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways; yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good and gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons satisfying your hearts with food and gladness"? (Acts 14.16-17)

c) Despite the fact of their differing beliefs and traditions, Christians and people of other faiths often work and struggle together for justice and social change. We as Christians understand our engagement in the struggle for justice to be part of our Christian witness. How do we understand the witness of those who join with us? What implications does this have for interfaith dialogue?

B. Different biblical understandings

1. Texts
The biblical writers present us with a variety of understandings of witnessing to the Christian faith. Through the centrality given to particular texts our view of witness has been shaped in particular ways. In the light of what you have learned about witness in other faiths look at the following biblical passages:

Acts 1.8 -- Being witnesses.
I Corinthians 11.26 -- Celebration of the Eucharist as the act of witness.
Matthew 28.19 -- Making disciples of nations.
Matthew. 25.31-46 -- Witness as service. (There are scholars who disagree with the service-centred interpretation of this passage.)

Here are some thoughts on Christian witness in the world:

a) Our obedience in mission should be patterned on the ministry and teaching of Jesus. .. Churches are free to choose the way they consider best to announce the Gospel to different people in different circumstances. But these options are never neutral. Every methodology illustrates or betrays the Gospel we announce. In all communication of the Gospel, power must be subordinate to love.

From Mission and Evangelism: an Ecumenical Affirmation, Geneva, WCC, 1983, Paragraph 28.

b) It is Christian faith in the Triune God... which calls us Christians to human relationship with our many neighbours. Such relationship includes dialogue: witnessing to our deepest convictions and listening to those of our neighbours. It is the Christian faith which sets us free to be open to the faiths of others, to risk, to trust and to be vulnerable. In dialogue, conviction and openness are held in balance.

From Guidelines on Dialogue, Geneva, WCC, 1979, Part III.

c) The content of the Church's witness is the continuation of Jesus' ministry: kerygma (proclamation), diakonia (service) and koinonia (fellowship). The witness is not just the numerical and geographical expansion of the Christian faith nor is it a form of ecclesiastical propaganda in a spirit of triumphalism. It is the identification of the Church with the oppressed, the struggle for liberation and service among the poor. Witness is first of all internal, that is, the self-penetration of the Church into the profound roots and dimensions of its nature and existence, and then external, in other words, the self-realization of the Church in time and space. These two aspects of witness are intimately and dynamically inter-related. Therefore, witness is not one of the functions of the Church: the Church does not have a witness, it is the witness.

From Martyria -- Mission: the Witness of the Orthodox Churches Today, ed. Ion Bria, WCC, 1980, p. 213.

... Hence the worshipping community itself is an act of witness. On the other hand, the nourishment received in the Eucharist enables each community member to become witness to Christ's life in the world. Eucharist is the source of Church life and mission, the inner stimulus which motivated the community for mission. Thus the Liturgy must not be a closed event limited to the celebration in the church and to the nominal members of the Church; it has to be continued in the lives of the faithful in all dimensions of life. One cannot separate Liturgy and life, therefore there is a "liturgy " after Liturgy. .. Mission was not primarily seen as an opportunity to extend geographically the frontiers of the churches, but rather as a way of continuing Christ's life in the life of humanity.

Ibid, pp. 8,10.

3. Discussion and questions
Discuss your understanding of witness, drawing on the above statements and on your own experience. Describe the nature of your own witness in your situation. How is the witness of the church or of individual Christians received? What have been the obstacles? In discussing your own situation, consider the following questions:

a) How do the terms "mission", "evangelism", "witness", and "dialogue" describe the relation or attitude of the church to people of other faiths? What distinctions would you like to make between or among these terms and the attitudes they suggest?

b) In the light of your study and experience with people of other faiths, what can we learn about the way and the spirit in which we bear witness to the gospel today?

c) "In dialogue, conviction and openness are held in balance." How can this be done, individually and corporately?