The recent article by Tom Heneghan from Religion News Service about how one of the largest German Evangelical churches has decided to stop trying to convert Muslim refugees coming into Germany-not an uncontroversial decision-prompted me to think about how to balance humanitarianism with the religious obligation of Christians to spread the Gospel. Respecting one’s freedom of religion as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights means that from a humanitarian point of view, trying to force someone to convert against their will is unacceptable. Sadly, this practice has been a part of the historical narrative of both Christianity and Islam. Discussing the reasons why one should convert is acceptable, as long as there is no threat or coercion. The discussion can highlight the ways in which the different religions organize their practitioners’ lives and what would change if the person were to convert.
Heneghan states in his article that
“Most Christian churches have mobilized to help the newcomers, Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants have not spoken of the refugee crisis as an opportunity for evangelization. By contrast, the Consortium of Evangelical Missions — an association linking mission activities of evangelical groups around the country — told its members in late September: ‘We have today the unique opportunity to introduce Jesus to countless people right here who have not yet heard the Good News.’”
The intra-denominational discussion within Christianity around how much emphasis should be placed on the requirement to go and spread the Gospel has always been of interest to me as a Jewish person, as Christians have maintained throughout history that the Jews need to convert to become “perfected.” Dual-Covenant theology, which states that the covenant the Jews have was not actually abrogated by the new covenant of the Christians, shows that some Christian theologians have tried to go beyond the traditional supersessionist view.
Instead of trying to go out and convert people, some churches are changing their approach and making it more about letting those who are curious or interested in learning come to the church, rather than the other way around. This approach is also the same in Judaism, where the idea is to let people come and learn and especially when it comes to conversion, Judaism makes sure that the person is sure that they are ready, as traditionally a potential convert is turned away three times to ensure that they are serious in their wishes to become a Jew.
This move of some churches, including this one in Germany, to change their approach shows that there is a recognition that the traditional approach does not respect the other person in that there is the potential for coercion. Showing that the humanitarian needs of the refugees in Europe is not trumped by the need to convert people means that providing help to those in need is not contingent on the acceptance of the Gospel. If the person later decides that he or she is interested to learn more, making the church more open and welcoming to those who are curious, whether or not they eventually convert is a good sign that some Christian communities are realizing that the insistence on sharing the gospel and conversion can be seen by some non-Christians as pushy or disrespectful. Trying to find a way in which the Gospel can be shared with others-whether they are interested in conversion or not-can only help interfaith dialogue between Christians and non-Christians.
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