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Vol. 20, No. 1
New Code of Conduct for Christian Witness
Mark R. Elliott
In January 2011 the Roman Catholic Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, the World Council of Churches (representing mainline Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches), and the World Evangelical Alliance agreed upon a new code of conduct for ethical, non-coercive sharing of the gospel. These church bodies, which collectively represent approximately two billion members, or 90 percent of the global Christian population, negotiated this path-breaking code of conduct in three consultations spanning a period of five years: May 2006, Lariano, Italy; August 2007, Toulouse, France; and January 2011, Bangkok, Thailand (www.internationalbulletin.org; pp. 194 and 196).
In “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct,” all parties concur that “Proclaiming the word of God and witnessing to the world is essential for every Christian. At the same time, it is necessary to do so according to gospel principles, with full respect and love for all human beings” (Preamble of “Christian Witness.” All citations to “Christian Witness” are taken from the text online at www.oikoumente.org/eng/a/en/news/news-management/article/1634/christians-reach-broad-co.html. Hereafter, all references are from this document unless otherwise noted.)
The desired practical outcome for “Christian Witness” is to see churches and mission agencies “reflect on their current practices and…prepare, where appropriate, their own guidelines for their witness and mission” (Preamble). The document notes that “In some contexts, living and proclaiming the gospel is difficult, hindered or even prohibited, yet Christians are commissioned by Christ to continue…in their witness to him.” At the same time, “If Christians engage in inappropriate methods of exercising mission by resorting to deception and coercive means, they betray the gospel….Such departures call for repentance” (“A Basis for Christian Witness,” Points 5 and 6).
The sections of “Christian Witness” entitled “Principles” and “Recommendations” provide a valuable blueprint for sharing the gospel with integrity. Key affirmations, with accompanying commentary by the East-West Church and Ministry Report in italics, may be summarized under five headings: I. fair representation of other confessions and faiths; II. disavowal of all forms of violence and coercion; III. advocacy for government impartiality in matters of faith; IV. calls for tolerance, respect, and inter-religious dialogue; and V. the need to distinguish between acts of mercy expected of all Christians and inappropriate allurements.
I. Fair Representation of Other Confessions and Faiths
To characterize other churches and religions fairly, “Christians should avoid misrepresenting [their] beliefs and practices” (Recommendation 3). “Any comment or critical approach should be made in a spirit of mutual respect, making sure not to bear false witness concerning other religions” (Principle 10). Appendix 3 of “Christian Witness” further urges that “Freedom of religion enjoins upon all of us the…non-negotiable responsibility to respect faiths other than our own, and never to denigrate, vilify or misrepresent them for the purpose of affirming superiority of our faith.” The ever-present temptation in making comparisons is to commend the example of the most praiseworthy spiritual paragons of one’s own tradition while omitting to mention or minimizing the significance of the shortcomings of one’s own confession. Individuals who have managed to abstain from unfair representations and comparisons include Plymouth Brethren evangelist Lord Radstock who scrupulously avoided criticism of Russian Orthodoxy in his preaching in St. Petersburg palaces; Don Fairbairn in his exemplary, balanced critique of Eastern Orthodoxy through Western Eyes; and Father Alexander Schmemann in his self-critical judgments as well as defense of his own tradition in The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy and The Journals of Alexander Schmemann 1973-1983.
II. Disavowal of Violence and Coercion
“Christians are called to reject all forms of violence, even psychological or social, including the abuse of power in their witness. They reject violence, unjust discrimination or repression by any religious or secular authority, including the violation or destruction of places of worship, sacred symbols or texts” (Principle 6). Sad to say, the past two decades provide too many examples of violence motivated by religious intolerance in post-Soviet states: the murder of Father Alexander Men and other Orthodox priests; the murder of Korean Protestant missionaries in Siberia; Albanian destruction of Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries (following earlier Serbian destruction of Albanian mosques); an Orthodox bishop in Ekaterinburg ordering the public burning of texts written by “suspect” theologians: Alexander Men, Alexander Schmemann, and John Meyendorff; and ongoing harassment of Russian Baptists and Pentecostals and vandalism of their houses of worship. (On murdered priests: East-West Church and Ministry Report 7 [Summer 1999]: 1; and Orthodoxy in the World, 28 May 2010; www.pravmir.com/article _987.html; on Korean Protestant missionary murders: East- West Church and Ministry Report 3 [Spring 1995], 4; on destruction of Serbian and Albanian religious sites: East-West Church and Ministry Report 12 [Summer 2004], 1-3; and 12 [Spring 2005], 15; on Orthodox book burning: East-West Church and Ministry Report 6 [Summer 1998], 11; on harassment of Russian Baptists and Pentecostals: Felix Corley, “Fined for Meeting for Worship,” Forum 18, 28 October 2011, www.forum18.org. For many additional examples of harassment search the Forum 18 online archive.)
III. Advocacy for Government Impartiality
Unfortunately, much of the religiously inspired mayhem in post-Soviet states is exacerbated by government partiality toward one or another favored faith. The text of “Christian Witness” speaks at length of the necessity of state neutrality regarding freedom of conscience: Christians are encouraged to “call on their governments to ensure that freedom of religion is properly and comprehensively respected, recognizing that in many countries religious institutions and persons are inhibited from exercising their mission” (Recommendation 5). “Religious freedom including the right to publicly profess, practice, propagate and change one’s religion flows from the very dignity of the human person which is grounded in the creation of all human beings in the image and likeness of God….Where any religion is instrumentalized for political ends, or where religious persecution occurs, Christians are called to engage in a prophetic witness denouncing such actions” (Principle 7).
In post-Soviet territories, especially in the Caucasus and Central Asia, changing one’s religious allegiance from a majority to a minority faith is particularly fraught with danger. On this point, “Christian Witness” holds that followers of Christ “are to acknowledge that changing one’s religion is a decisive step that must be accompanied by sufficient time for adequate reflection and preparation, through a process ensuring full personal freedom” (Principle 11). Given existing state and societal pressures to maintain one’s identification with a majority faith, it must be recognized that freedom of conscience may be violated not only through improper pressure or inducement to change one’s religion, but also by improper pressure or inducement not to change one’s religion (Mark Elliott, “Evangelism and Proselytism in Russia: Synonyms or Antonyms?,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 25 [April 2001], 72).
Churches enjoying numerical superiority and/or state privilege typically have exploited their advantages in ways that have undermined freedom of conscience. As a rule, in such circumstances, minority faiths have faced persecution or discrimination. It should be pointed out that a lack of government impartiality in matters of faith has been the case not only in states with established churches (for example, Catholic Spain, Orthodox tsarist Russia, Lutheran Prussia, and Anglican England), but also in circumstances of informal church-state compacts, such as Protestant privilege in nineteenth-century America and Orthodox privilege in post-Soviet Russia.
IV. Calls for Tolerance, Respect, and Dialogue
The text of “Christian Witness” repeatedly addresses the need for tolerance, respect, and inter-religious dialogue: “Christians are called to commit themselves to work with all people in mutual respect, promoting together justice, peace and the common good. Inter-religious cooperation is an essential dimension of such commitment” (Principle 8). “In certain contexts, where years of tension and conflict have created deep suspicions and breaches of trust between and among communities, inter-religious dialogue can provide new opportunities for resolving conflicts, restoring justice, healing of memories, reconciliation and peace-building” (Recommendation 2).
While the above commitments deserve wholehearted support, in the post-Soviet context it must be noted that respect, tolerance, and inter-religious dialogue are extremely rare commodities. In large measure, this sad circumstance is a function, at least in Russia, of a once-privileged Orthodoxy reasserting its claims to spiritual hegemony. Lord Acton’s famous aphorism, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” applies in Russia with a vengeance.
The contrast between Eastern Orthodoxy in North America and in Russia is instructive. As a minority faith in the West, Orthodoxy benefits from, and seems genuinely agreeable to, the concept of full protections for freedom of conscience. In Russia, however, Orthodoxy accepts—and even lobbies the government for—ever-increasing legislative discrimination against Christians outside the fold of the Moscow Patriarchate. The only faiths Orthodoxy tolerates are those that have sworn off witness outside their historic ethnic constituency (Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism), hence their ceremonially privileged characterization, along with Russian Orthodoxy, as “traditional” religions in the preamble of Russia’s discriminatory 1997 law on religion.
Generally speaking, those faiths that favor inter-religious dialogue are religious minorities that suffer legal and/or societal distrust and discrimination, for example, Muslims in post-9/11 America and Baptists, Pentecostals, and Methodists in present-day Russia. The fact is that Russian Orthodoxy has little interest in inter-religious dialogue because, in its privileged position, it sees nothing to gain from it. Traveling through Siberia in September 2011, this writer was struck repeatedly by the desire of Russian Protestants and Western missionaries (politically impotent) to dialogue with Russian Orthodox (politically privileged), but the latter will have no part in it. The existing power differential is all the more striking given the fact that Protestantism east of the Urals appears to be demographically much stronger than Orthodoxy. The author’s interviews with Professor Andrei Savin, Novosibirsk, and seven missionaries and Russian believers, 6-14 September 2011, provided the following denominational figures: 28 Protestant and 8 Orthodox churches in Khabarovsk; 19 Protestant and 4 Orthodox churches in Komsomolsk na Amure; and 65 Protestant and 27 Orthodox churches in Novosibirsk. The same Protestant majority applies in Sakhalin: Natalia Potapova, “Contemporary Religious Life on Sakhalin Island,” East-West Church and Ministry Report 13 (Summer 2005), 3. (In contrast, Irkutsk, the historic capital of Siberia, is home to 35 Orthodox churches compared to 28 Protestant: http://iemp.ru/uprav/hram/hram/php.)
The text of “Christian Witness” urges that “relationships of respect and trust with people of different religions” be built “so as to facilitate deeper mutual understanding, reconciliation and cooperation” (Principle 12). Unfortunately, in practice, Orthodox in post-Soviet states require non-Orthodox to forswear Christian witness as a precondition for tolerance and cooperation.
V. Distinguishing Appropriate Acts of Compassion from Inappropriate Allurements
Finally, the text of “Christian Witness” commends demonstrations of Christ-like compassion, but not material enticements that could lead to conversions of convenience. “Christians are called to…serve others and in so doing to recognize Christ in the least of their sisters and brothers. Acts of service, such as providing education, health care, relief services and acts of justice and advocacy are an integral part of witnessing to the gospel. The exploitation of situations of poverty and need has no place in Christian outreach. Christians should denounce and refrain from offering all forms of allurements, including financial incentives and rewards, in their acts of service” (Principle 4). Similarly, “As an integral part of their witness to the gospel, Christians exercise ministries of healing. They are called to exercise discernment as they carry out these ministries, fully respecting human dignity and ensuring that the vulnerability of people and their need for healing are not exploited” (Principle 5).
As praiseworthy as Principles 4 and 5 are, they give inadequate guidance in differentiating between biblically mandated compassion and service on the one hand and unjustifiable allurements on the other. The fact is that Russian Orthodox define any Protestant or Catholic educational or medical assistance or charitable act as a means of proselytizing and sheep stealing. In the 1990s a pastor from Florida called this writer outlining his church’s plan for an evangelistic campaign in Russia. Following a short-term preaching mission, those Russians who made professions of faith and who joined a new church plant were to be given a trip to their sister church in Florida so they could experience an evangelical worship service in America firsthand. To the best of my ability I tried to explain to this well-meaning but misguided pastor that his approach to cross-cultural ministry was bound to produce “rice Christians” drawn to “faith” by the enticing prospect of a free trip to an American vacationland.
Conversely, just as a paid trip to Florida is an inappropriate allurement for new Russian converts, equally inappropriate is Orthodox insistence that no Protestant or Catholic act of charity is legitimate on what Orthodox define as their exclusive canonical territory, even in cases of charity extended to those who have no affiliation with Orthodoxy. In the mid-1990s an Orthodox priest visited an orphanage near Volgograd, advising the director not to accept assistance from Protestants. The director, who was not a believer, reacted angrily, asking the priest why he had not come to help, rather than criticize Protestants who did help.
No fair-minded Christian would want to endorse the example of the Florida pastor or the Volgograd priest. Nevertheless, the line between commendable and exploitative acts of mercy and service can be quite fine and quite gray. Thus, the appendix of “Christian Witness” is right to note that “Each issue” addressed in this unique, multi-confessional document “is important in its own right and deserves more attention than can be given in these recommendations” (Appendix, Point 5). It would be most beneficial to have the text of “Christian Witness” serve as the basis of discussion for the formulation of a more detailed and nuanced code of conduct for evangelical missionaries wherever they may serve.♦
Mark R. Elliott is editor of the East-West Church and Ministry Report, Asbury University, Wilmore, Kentucky.