Living in a Non-Christian World

Excerpted From
Encountering World Religions
By Irving Hexham

Paul, in his letters, frequently addressed real problems facing Christian communities scattered across the Roman world. Among these problems was the question of how Christians should treat food in societies where, before it was sold and during preparation, it was often presented to various gods and laid out before idols to gain a spiritual blessing.

Paul’s responses to such questions were always based on Scripture and the realities of the situation people were facing. In the case of “food offered to idols,” he begins by pointing out that idols are images made by humans, and the gods they represent have no real existence. The food is perfectly edible. The problem is not the food or the fact that someone performed a religious act intended to add spiritual power to it. The problem was that some new converts, weak in faith, might misunderstand and think they were participating in a pagan rite. In 1 Corinthians 8:1–13, Paul tells his readers that for the sake of the weaker Christian, one should not give the impression that one had participated in such a ritual.

He advises Christians to avoid pagan feasts and public displays of devotion to pagan gods. But if a non-Christian friend invites a Christian to dinner, the Christian can decide what to do and does not need to ask if the food was sacrificed to idols before eating it. The key issue for Paul, as he makes clear in 1 Corinthians 10, is one of conscience and not endangering the faith of a younger Christian. As he writes in 1 Corinthians 10:23, “‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive.”

This principle means that Christians are to make an informed judgment and act in a way that honors God by presenting a clear witness to others. Paul concludes his discussion of food sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 10:31–33 by saying, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.”

These verses are well-known to most Christians and used frequently as a guideline for behavior, particularly regarding how one interacts with nonbelievers. What is often overlooked is that for at least the last fifteen hundred years, the “nonbeliever” in Western societies was someone just like oneself who simply did not believe in God or live in a Christian manner. Now the situation has changed, and we in the West are once more living in a society that is far closer to Paul’s time than any society since at least the early Middle Ages. Today many people we meet are no longer nonbelievers who reject their Christian heritage; they are true believers in other religions. When we seek to apply passages from 1 Corinthians, we must realize our social context has changed.

Take a close look at these passages and similar ones in the New Testament. Notice that it is taken for granted that Christians live alongside members of other religions described as “pagan.” What is particularly interesting is that it is assumed Christians would be on good terms with these people and might be invited to their homes for a meal.

This raises a question: “How many non-Christians do you or I know with whom we are on close enough terms to visit their homes and eat meals with them?” Perhaps not many. Yet Paul assumes friendship is the basis of at least one form of evangelism, and he roots this belief firmly in his biblical understanding of God as the Creator of all people, as he points out in 1 Corinthians 8:4–6.

Evangelism in a Post-Christian Society: A Personal Approach

In July 2011, Mark Howell, pastor of communities at Canyon Ridge Christian Church in Las Vegas, Nevada, wrote in his blog: “Honestly, if you would’ve told me 25 years ago that I’d need a resource that would help me understand world religions, I’d probably have rolled my eyes and said, ‘I have no plans to be a missionary.’ … In 2011 we live in a very different culture, post-Christian America, and developing an understanding of other religions is essential.” He then went on to recommend my earlier book Understanding World Religions as a way “to get up to speed on the beliefs and, more importantly, on the worldview of representatives of the other major religions.”

Since then I’ve come to realize that Mark had two advantages that many may lack. First, he was theologically educated and able to apply what he read in the book. Second, he admits that growing up in Southern California he knew Buddhists and Muslims as friends and was prepared for living in a religiously plural society.

Unfortunately, many of us are not as fortunate as Mark in knowing how to approach members of other religious traditions. This book was written to introduce Christians to other religious traditions and to help us relate our beliefs to people who embrace religions very different from our own.

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Excerpted from Encountering World Religions by Irving Hexham. Copyright © 2019 by [Copyright Holder]. Used by permission of Zondervan.

Irving Hexham
Irving Hexham

Irving Hexham is professor of religious studies at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.