On Monday, I caught the tail end of an NPR Fresh Air interview with someone named C. Peter Wagner, about whom I know very little. He used to be a missionary, and he retired as a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. He’s associated with this political-religious movement known as “dominionism.” A dominionist organization he founded, the New Apostolic Reformation, sponsored a prayer rally in which presidential contender Gov. Rick Perry of Texas recently took part. Perry’s involvement is the sole reason there is any national interest at all in Wagner.
I’m being deliberately circumspect in my description of Wagner. I’m sure that he and I share some important theological differences. Based on the interview, I’m guessing he’s Pentecostal, and he has what I would describe as eccentric views of spiritual warfare. I believe in the reality of spiritual warfare and the demonic, as I’ve preached about recently, but I wouldn’t go nearly so far in describing how that warfare manifests itself.
Also, my view of the church’s involvement in politics tends toward Anabaptist separation. In other words, I’m not optimistic that the church can be involved in government in a way that doesn’t hopelessly compromise the church’s witness. If that’s what dominionism represents, I’m against it. (But I’m against a lot of things.)
Having said all that, Wagner seems like a sincere believer. While I don’t share many of his views, he’s hardly any kind of threat to the Republic, as I suspect interviewer Terry Gross and many of her listeners fear. I love secular public radio, but it often treats evangelical Christians like the exotic subjects of a National Geographic special. Is it possible that Gross might have a friend or neighbor who actually is an evangelical? Has she ever gotten to know one before? Are they really so unusual?
But this post isn’t mostly about any of that. What really interests me is Gross’s last question to Wagner, and his response (emphasis mine):
GROSS: One thing about that, and this is something that confuses me. On the one hand, you say that you respect all religions, and that that’s something our Constitution guarantees us. But at the same time, you want as many like-minded Christians as possible in positions in the arts, the media, the government, business, school. And also, you think Christianity is the only true faith. You’d like Jews in Israel to convert to Christianity. It just seems kind of contradictory to, you know, on the one hand, say you respect all religions, but to, on the other hand, say that you really want people to convert to yours.
WAGNER: Well, we – yes, we respect all religions, but we also respect the freedom of exercising our religion. And part of our religion is called evangelization. It’s called presenting Jesus Christ to others and persuading them to become followers of Jesus Christ and walk into the kingdom of God. So – so we’d like to maintain our right in a plural – in religious pluralism of exercising our privilege of winning other people to Christianity.
If I accept the premise of Gross’s question, then I, too, belong to a whacky Christian fringe movement. We’re called the United Methodist Church. We also think that Christianity is the one true faith. We want Jews in Israel to convert to Christianity. And listen to these extreme positions, which come from the 2008 United Methodist Book of Discipline:
The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world… (¶ 120)
The people of God, who are the church made visible in the world, must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced. There can be no evasion or delegation of this responsibility; the church is either faithful as a witnessing and serving community, or it loses its vitality and its impact on an unbelieving world. (¶ 129)
I thought Wagner answered the question just fine, but I would add that a part of “respecting” other religions means respecting the ways in which other religions’ truth claims compete with Christianity’s truth claims. I am not respecting other religions if I say that they’re really the same as mine or that their competing truth claims don’t matter. Of course they matter! People sometimes die on account of these differences!
Christianity claims that God revealed God’s self definitively in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And if that revelation is definitive, then other perceived revelations are either false or redundant. Like it or not, there is a built-in exclusiveness to Christianity.
Of course, many Christians—and certainly many Methodists—may disagree. But this exclusiveness isn’t a distortion of the true faith by recent fringe groups. It has been near the heart of the Church’s proclamation from the beginning and continues to be so.
Like it or not.
But if you don’t like it, what’s the alternative? One terrible alternative (if we believe in the God of Christianity) is to place ourselves above God and say to God, in effect, “You don’t have a right to reveal yourself in an exclusive way.” But suppose God did? Is God wrong or are we?