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23 December 2016

Should Christians visit a temple?

Should Christians visit a temple?

Our recent survey on belief and unbelief found that 26 per cent of evangelicals who answered were worried that engaging with other faiths could leave them spiritually at risk. Does this mean Christians shouldn't eat halal meat, visit places holy to other faiths or read the Qur'an? Kumar Rajagopalan from the London Baptist Association explores.

In seeking to share Christ with those of other faiths, is it necessary to do anything other than befriend and share the gospel? Is there any reason to visit a temple or any other place of worship? Is there anything to be gained by reading their scriptures or attending social or religious events that you are invited to? Are there any spiritual dangers to the believer engaging in any of these activities?

Evangelicals, who sincerely desire to share the gospel and see others embrace Christ as Saviour and Lord, will have a range of opinions on these questions. However, it's important that we don't misjudge or criticise those with opposing views, but that we "make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:3). Praying that the diverse approaches fellow believers take will bear fruit is, in my view, the best approach.

Having embraced Christ from a Hindu background, I have been on a journey with respect to these matters. In my early years as a believer I cut myself off from all aspects of my family's Hindu life, by refusing to attend the temple, rejecting the food (prasad) presented at the temple, and withdrawing from many of their social activities. This was painful to them, and placed my parents in a difficult and embarrassing position with their friends. However I did read about Hinduism, primarily to find ammunition to attack their faith; enthusiastic stupidity!

At some point my brother shared his perspective on my refusal to eat food from the temple: "Mum and Dad love you unconditionally; they know you are and will remain a Christian. When they give you prasad, their intention is to bless you and they are showing you love in the only way that they know. When you refuse, you think you are standing up for your faith, but you are just trampling all over their love." I thought about this, considered Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 8, and started to accept prasad. In 2004 when my father turned 70, my mother was fearful that I wouldn't attend the service at the temple, thereby hurting my father and causing discontent among their friends. My wife and I did attend, and my father was delighted.

In the first 19 years of my Christian life I had one opportunity to share the gospel at my father's request. Since taking the above steps, and visiting the temple on other occasions, I have had many opportunities to share with my parents. By obeying the Lord's command to "go and make disciples", I have entered my parents' space, rather than inviting them into my space, and been able to share the gospel.

By visiting a temple, mosque or other place of worship there is the opportunity to learn about a faith and its practice, in order to share Christ in a relevant way with Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and others. Visiting can also help dismantle the perception that Christians have an arrogant disregard for other faiths and cultures.

Before you go to the place of worship you intend to visit, it's important to prepare carefully and prayerfully. Since many have a website, you can prepare by visiting their site, which will give you an idea of what takes place, the service times and list of special events. Some places have clear directions for visitors, while others are more informal. Wherever you visit, you will be welcomed, permitted to observe and ask questions. Please ask permission before you take photos, as this will not be allowed in some places. Be careful to dress appropriately and be ready to remove your shoes. You don't need to participate in any activities, and you can politely decline if invited to do so.

If you are offered food at the temple or you are in a setting where halal meat is being served, which is probably the more prevalent issue, note that in Mark 7:1-23 and Matthew 15: 1-20, the Lord teaches that all food is clean. 1 Timothy 4:1-5, teaches that everything received with thanksgiving is consecrated. A key principle in 1 Corinthians 8-10 and Romans 14 is not to cause a fellow believer to stumble into sin by exercising one's freedom to eat such foods. While I eat prasad, I don't compel any other believer to do so, and I never flaunt my freedom to do so.

Before the personal experiences cited above, I engaged with the biblical text through the lens of my bias against entering a temple and eating foods offered there. Through and after these experiences, I have been able see scripture with fresh eyes. When Paul speaks to the Athenians he says: "… as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship..." (Acts 17:23) Paul spent time paying careful attention to their objects of worship and discovered a way to share the gospel in a contextually appropriate manner. In the course of his sermon, he quotes a Cretan and Cilician philosopher to make his point; he shares the gospel in a manner that is accessible to them. Therefore a familiarity with the scripture and culture of another faith community can be helpful. In 1 Corinthians 9:22 Paul states: "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some." The most daring example of cosmic contextualisation is the incarnation of the Lord Jesus, who entered and lived in a sinful world, but lived an exemplary sinless life and became sin for us, thereby rescuing us from sin and death.

As you form friendships with those of other faiths I would encourage you to prayerfully consider visiting their place of worship, if possible with other believers, to learn and understand better what they believe. Also read and learn about other faiths, including their scriptures, to equip you to share Christ effectively. Above all let us not be fearful of undertaking these tasks, because since the Holy Spirit resides in our hearts, He that "is in [us] is greater than the one who is in the world" (1 John 4: 4).

Editor's note:

As we highlighted in the magazine, not all Christians feel comfortable with interfaith conversations and interaction with other places of worship. There are two main concerns surrounding this. First is an issue of spiritual understanding - many places of worship of other religions are adorned with statues or idols depicting gods - this is particularly true in temples, which Kumar spoke of. Some Christians are concerned that even while worshipping Jesus in a temple, doing so while looking at an idol is wrong - does the statue stem from demonic sources? The second major concern is that interfaith conversations are a step too far when Christians haven't yet managed to understand each other largely, let alone those of another faith. Some Christians believe this time should be spent getting to know those who belong to other churches instead of those who belong to other faiths.

What do you think? Are you inspired by Kumar's story and his outreach, or do you think Christians should stay inside their church? Let us know on Twitter, using the hashtag #EAfaith

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