Finding Your Way in Presbyterian Policy and Teaching on Interfaith Relations
Many Presbyterians ask about the practical and theological bases for relations with men and women of religious traditions outside the Christian family. During the last 30 years, our church has adopted a number of papers and policies that provide such guidance, many of which are available on this Web site.
From The Book of Confessions and the Book of Order
Some of this guidance is found in The Book of Confessions. For example, the Confession of 1967 notes that “The church in its mission encounters the religions of [humanity] and in that encounter becomes conscious of its own human character as a religion ... The Christian finds parallels between other religions and his own and must approach all religions with openness and respect. Repeatedly God has used the insight of non-Christians to challenge the church to renewal” (The Book of Confessions, 9:41-42). “In A Brief Statement of Faith,” Presbyterians affirm that “In sovereign love God created the world good and makes everyone equally in God’s image, male and female, of every race and people, to live as one community ... In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom and peace” (10.3-4).
The Book of Order states that “The Church is called to a new openness to the presence of God in the Church and in the world, to more fundamental obedience, and to a more joyous celebration in worship and in work” (G-3:0401). It also mandates that “the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will seek new opportunities for conversation and understanding with non-Christian religious bodies in order that interests and concerns may be shared and common action undertaken where compatible means and aims exist” (G-15.0104).
Presbyterian Principles for Interfaith Dialogue
The primary policy document of our church in the area of interfaith relations is “Presbyterian Principles for Interfaith Dialogue,” adopted by the 211th General Assembly (1999). This document provides Presbyterians with six principles to guide us in our engagement with neighbors of other faiths. These principles are wide ranging and include both practical suggestions and theological affirmations, such as the following:
“When God gives us courage to engage in the giving and receiving — the listening and speaking — of dialogue, Jesus is present. Through the power of his Spirit, we are enabled to be truly ourselves in authentic relationships.” (in section 4)
“We need to recognize that others’ religions have brought them comfort, identity, and meaning. We are not called to approach others in judgment but in awareness of God’s limitless love and grace.“ (in section 6)
Presbyterian Statements in Addition to the Principles
The General Assembly has at various times adopted papers and resolutions that also provide guidance for Presbyterians. Unless noted below, you can download or learn how to obtain this resource from the Interfaith Toolkit section of this Web site:
"Toward a Theological Understanding of the Relationship Between Christians and Jews," adopted by the 199th General Assembly (1987), offers seven affirmations to guide Presbyterians in understanding their relationship with the Jewish community.
A parallel paper on Islam was adopted at the same Assembly and was the basis for the resource "Christians and Muslims in Dialogue: Facets of a Relationship." PDS #74-292-02-001
The 209th General Assembly adopted “Respectful Presence: An Understanding of Interfaith Prayer and Celebration from a Reformed Christian Perspective” for assistance to those persons and groups who are involved with interfaith celebration, prayer and worship.
Respectful Presence (document only)
Respectful Presence (with Congregational Study Guide)
The 214th General Assembly (2002) commended to Presbyterians study of the document “Striving Together in Dialogue: A Muslim-Christian Call for Reflection and Action“ (fruit of a decadelong process of Christian-Muslim dialogue facilitated by the World Council of Churches). Find this resource on the World Council of Churches Web site.
An additional source of policy regarding interfaith relations is found in the report “Building Community Among Strangers,” adopted by the 211th General Assembly (1999). PDS #OGA-99-028. That document notes:
Central to the ongoing story of the Bible is God’s long-term, patient, merciful purpose of recreating a human community in which the love of God and neighbor becomes a fact of history.
In the spirit of Jesus Christ, we are called to maintain a respectful presence with people of other faiths. We commit ourselves to meet such persons with gentleness and humility and to seek to learn more about the worshipping practices and faiths that they represent as a way of deepening our own. And we acknowledge that we are called, by the God who created us and the world in which we live, to remain faithful in our proclamation of the gospel in Jesus Christ, and to work with others irrespective of their practices and faith commitments, toward a world marked by justice and peace and in which the whole creation is nurtured and protected.
“Turn to the Living God: A Call to Evangelism in Jesus Christ's Way,” adopted by the 203rd General Assembly (1991), states:
With other Christians we are called to make joyous witness to persons of other faiths in a spirit of respect, openness, and honesty ... As our Christian affirmation meets the faith of others, we are not called to respond in judgment but in awareness of the limitless, saving presence, power, and grace of God. The spirit that is to inform our witness among people of other faiths “Presupposes our presence with them, sensitivity to their deepest faith commitments and experiences, willingness to be their servants for Christ’s sake, affirmation of what God has done and is doing among them and [God's] love for them” (“Message” of the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism in San Antonio, World Council of Churches).
Guidance from Ecumenical Conversations
Presbyterians also find bases for interfaith engagement in thoughtful statements developed in ecumenical conversations in which the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) had an active role. Among these are the following:
“Interfaith Relations and the Churches,” a policy statement adopted by the churches of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. in 1999, provides a useful framework for thinking about interfaith relationships as part of Christian discipleship. A study guide is available to go along with this document.
“Ecumenical Considerations for Dialogue and Relations with People of Other Religions” was developed by churches from many nations belonging to the World Council of Churches and adopted in 2002. It takes stock of what Christians have learned in 30 years of active international dialogues and revisits the Guidelines for Interreligious Dialogue adopted in 1979.
For a more complete listing of resources, including brief brochures and articles on a number of topics such as “Witness and Evangelism Among People of Other Faiths” and “Guiding Principles for Ethical Decisions Concerning Religious Freedom Around the World,” please go to the Interfaith Toolkit.