The church is in the news a lot in Singapore these days. Recently the papers carried the story of a sermon that was deemed to be disrespectful of Taoism. A 10-minute audio clip from that sermon had been posted on YouTube.
In it, a church pastor, Mr Mark Ng, can be heard joking with the congregation about Chinese rituals; in one instance, he compared praying to Taoist deities to “seeking protection from secret society gangsters.” (Yen Feng, “ISD looks into clip of sermon which mocked Taoist beliefs” The Straits Times, June 15 2010, A6)
Mr Ng’s church had apologised publicly through the church’s website. Later Mr Ng went to the Taoist Federation office and apologised personally to the Taoist Federation chairman. The apology was accepted. What can the church learn from this incident?
Firstly, in the Internet world, where every mobile phone is a camera and recorder, anything said in any meeting can be posted online for all to see and/or hear. The danger is that something that is said can be taken out of context. The plus is that it aids integrity. If we believe what we say is the truth we will hold on to that whether in private or in public. Few things can be hidden nowadays and surely not sermons and other public talks. We have to be more deliberate about what we believe and what we say.
Second, Christians are called to love, and love does not ridicule. We see Jesus demonstrating the gospel of the Kingdom by feeding the hungry and healing the sick. Jesus did preach a gospel of repentance but it was a preaching that went hand to hand with His demonstrations of love. When He approached Jerusalem for example, He wept over the city knowing that it would soon suffer judgement (Luke 19:41-44). I can’t see this Jesus ridiculing those of other faiths and therefore I can’t see those animated by His Spirit doing so too.
Maybe some of us need to renounce an unhealthy triumphalism that may have crept into some quarters of the church. We are sinners saved by grace. There is no place to feel superior to those of other faiths. And the government is right to keep an eye on things that may lead to inter religious conflict.
However what the church must not do is retreat from her commitment to absolute truth and the truth that “. . . there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among people by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 NET). These are the truths we live by, truths for which we must be prepared to suffer for if need be. Indeed later in Acts Chapter 4 we find the disciples getting into trouble with the religious authorities of the day because they refused to stop preaching about Jesus. Christians must never hurt others in the Name of Christ. But there may be times when we have to suffer for the privilege of following Christ.
Living in a multi-religious secular country like Singapore, we are grateful for the freedom of religion we enjoy. It is a freedom that allows us to hold on to our religious convictions including our evaluation of truth claims made by other faith communities. It is a freedom that allows us to teach what we believe to be true to our children and to our faith community.
However that same freedom also protects the rights of those of other faiths and those who hold to no religious faith, to have their convictions and their opinions of my religious convictions. More than once for example, I have encountered those who think it irrational that Christians believe in one God who is also three, and that Jesus is both fully God and fully man. I respect their beliefs. Indeed it is in knowing our differences that allows for healthy dialogue. I have learnt much from my friends of other faiths even when I have not agreed with them.
Today, the Christian commitment to truth is being challenged in two directions. First there is the post modern suspicion of any claim to absolute truth. Then there is the fear of inter-communal conflict. We must not be cowed by either of these challenges to the extent that we withdraw into our spiritual ghettos, reducing Christianity to a subjective privatised faith. More than ever we need to know God’s truth. But we must also be committed to living out those truths. For finally the most powerful apologetic for the gospel is a transformed life. Our lives must be so different from those who do not know Christ that people are curious as to why we are different. Our lives must evoke the question for which Christ is the answer. Indeed, there is salvation in no one else.