The Southern Baptist Convention created the program of interfaith witness in 1965 and assigned it to the Home Mission Board. M. Thomas Starkes was the first director.
In its early years, the interfaith witness department developed several basic objectives to present a balanced program to assist Southern Baptists in carrying out the Great Commission: <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
- To research the beliefs and practices of other religious groups and to provide resources on these groups to Southern Baptists. This objective highlighted the similarities and differences between Baptists and other faith groups and gave Southern Baptists a resource when confronted with other faiths. The department distributed 700,000 pieces of literature on dozens of religious groups to Southern Baptists in 1988.
- To provide training and materials for evangelistic witness to adherents of non-Christian faiths. Training conferences fell into two categories: two-hour awareness conferences and eight to 12-hour in-depth workshops to equip Interfaith Witness Associates (IWAs), both clergy and laypeople, to lead awareness conferences in local churches. By 1989, 367 IWAs were certified by the Home Mission Board and their respective state conventions to lead awareness conferences. Over half of these IWAs were certified to lead conferences on Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
- To help other religious groups understand Baptist polity and theology. This was accomplished through face-to-face meetings with adherents of other faiths, as well as formal dialogues, which met once or twice annually. Dialogues were held with Lutherans, Quakers, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Scientologists and Mormons, among others.
Dialogue topics with Roman Catholics included views of Christ, Scripture, grace, salvation, eschatology, spirituality and the Christian’s responsibility toward the environment.
These discussions taught us about other faiths, but they also showed us how those faiths saw us as Baptists. The results were often surprising. Understanding of each other’s faith, not unity, was the goal.
In addition, the Interfaith Witness Department helped local churches learn how to communicate and better understand their Roman Catholic neighbors.
The Baptist position on Christ, salvation and the other topics were never compromised, though critics of the department were concerned in the beginning. While direct evangelism was not the purpose of the dialogues, every participant went away having heard the plan of salvation as held by Southern Baptists.
Many of the friendships formed during these dialogues are still strong today. During one session, a rabbi announced to the group that he would never become a Christian, but if he were to do so, it would be because of friendships he had developed in dialogues with department missionary George Sheridan.
A Roman Catholic bishop, who had been involved in the dialogues, contacted a bishop in another country on behalf of evangelicals in that country.
The Interfaith Witness Department was one of the most popular programs in churches, but one of the most misunderstood programs at the Home Mission Board. Administrators could not understand the theological, cultural and family barriers, which an adherent of another faith had to overcome when becoming a Christian.
Families would sometimes hold funeral services and declare the family member dead. Spouses would sometimes divorce the convert. The spouse remaining in the family faith might take the children and the convert would have no contact with them. Jobs were sometimes lost. Becoming a Christian involved more than affirming the Four Spiritual Laws, the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Roman Road or praying the sinners’ prayer.
In an organization driven by statistics, the Interfaith Witness Department could not produce the desired number of converts, and so was accused of being soft on evangelism. Nothing was further from the truth.
In 1994, the renamed Interfaith Evangelism Department placed fundamentalist adherents on the Baptist side of the dialogues.
The new Baptist participants soon learned Roman Catholics and others were as firm in their faith as were Baptists, and could argue their positions as convincingly. They quickly concluded that Roman Catholic theologians could not be easily persuaded to accept Southern Baptist theology. Although dialogues had been held with Roman Catholics since 1971, Baptist Press announced the dialogues, which it said began in 1994, would be concluded in 2002.
While evangelism is a most important task, the relationships developed through dialogue are an important step before evangelism can effectively take place.
History for today’s Southern Baptist leaders began in 1994. As one leader said, “We have no history; we are here to make history.”
The great work done for Southern Baptists by interfaith leaders such as Lloyd Whyte, Glenn Igleheart, Billy Mitchell, A. Jase Jones, C. B. Hastings, Maurice Smith and others have been dismissed as though these men never existed. That is a tragedy.
Gary Leazer is the founder and president of the Center for Interfaith Studies, Inc.