For more than fifty years, the worldwide Christian community has been discussing relationships with other faith groups. Sometimes the debates consider formal contacts between institutional churches or ecumenical bodies and parallel organizations within the other populations or, when the Christians are a minority, between the churches and the various political authorities. At other times, the focus narrows to the daily interaction of individual Christians or Christian families and those around them. Often these discussions have seemed to be of a controversial nature, posing a choice between “proclamation” or “witness” on one hand and “dialogue” or “coexistence” on the other.
Some people, insisting on the Christian duty to love one’s neighbours (and even one’s enemies), would eschew any form of proclamation, in order to avoid offence to other believers and to promote a sentiment of irenic equality before the law (and even before God) of the various belief systems.
In some cases, such people act out of fear of intercommunal violence, but usually their motives are rooted either in a theological supposition of confessional relativism or in a conviction that a harmonious society will allow the full expression of every faith perspective, including their own. In the other camp are those who stress the obligation to preach the gospel in whatever circumstances; many in this group confuse dialogue with a synergistic betrayal of Christian truth or a supine timidity in the primary task of spreading the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. Can we live at peace with our neighbours and still be true to the Lord’s command to make disciples?
Of course, the older theory urges us to bold, sometimes aggressive, preaching to the lost. Adherents of this school include those who use megaphones to regale bystanders at bus stops or shoppers in the markets, generally with little sensitivity to the local cultural ethos. But there are also those who prefer a more direct approach, meeting strangers on their doorsteps or in quiet comers to present the Christian message in the hope of winning souls for Jesus. Whatever their methods, such people act in sincere and urgent response to the commission of Jesus and the fear that any who do not hear the word and accept the message will face eternal punishment. At the opposite end of the spectrum we have those quietists who would live their faith in near secrecy, praying behind closed doors and avoiding any risk of confrontation, whether in an earnest desire for calm or in a more general sense that somehow God will resolve all the apparent disparities without requiring any overt testimony from the faithful.
Between the assertive thesis and the diffident antithesis there is surely a viable synthesis, and it is such a balance that we would seek. Our synthesis would not be a mere middle ground of compromise taking some components of each opposite position and combining them in some fragile mixture, but a positive fusion of the basic hermeneutic insights from both perspectives to develop an outlook that is practical, evangelical and open. This endeavour will first oblige us to reconsider the basic terms, so that our own meaning is clear among the many definitions that each word has acquired. Once we have established the sense of our concepts, their true mutual relationship should become evident.