Mingling, Mission and Misunderstandings: A Conversation About Interchurch Relations

In this interview, Dr. Ganoune Diop, director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) at the General Conference, spoke with PARL associate director Bettina Krause, about his work representing the Seventh-day Adventist Church among leaders of other world communions.

BK: Let me start with a question we frequently receive at the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty department of the General Conference: Is PARL involved in interchurch and interfaith conversations or meetings?

GD: The short answer is “Yes.” But this certainly isn’t a new policy or activity. In fact, PARL has always had the responsibility of developing good relations with people of influence in society—including leaders within other religious groups—on behalf of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This is actually one of PARL’s core responsibilities, and it’s a responsibility that’s grounded on biblical principles, the writings of Ellen White, historical practice, our church’s official Working Policy, and our official church statements. General Conference PARL leaders are also accountable to committees at the General Conference for their activities. So, when we talk about PARL and interfaith or interchurch relations, it’s important to understand the basic context in which this work takes place. These are areas of PARL’s mission that are carefully governed by longstanding practices and protocols, as well as officially voted principles and guidelines.

But it seems that sometimes this aspect of PARL work is misunderstood. For instance, there have been claims that PARL has signed secret agreements with other faiths, or that PARL leaders have joined organizations with the goal of unifying Christian churches. Why do you think these accusations are made?

Well, let me start by saying that articles or social media posts which make allegations like these are nothing less than complete fabrications. At best, they are the result of misinformation or misunderstanding; at worst, they are malicious and deliberate attempts to discredit the church.

To me, this is an issue of basic justice. Even those who don’t know God have adopted the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” and understand that no one should be declared guilty without due process.This actually is part of international law, inscribed as article 11 of the universal declaration of human rights (UDHR). Yet, astonishingly, individuals who claim to be doing God’s work sometimes spread lies within the “court” of social media or the internet without adopting even the minimum requirements of justice. These actions are often couched in the language of self-righteousness and of “protecting” the church. But in reality, this kind of behavior is as irresponsible as it is damaging—it harms the body of Christ, it harms the people who believe these falsehoods, it harms the individuals who are originating and spreading these lies, and above all, it harms the mission of our church.

Perhaps, then, it would be helpful to clearly spell out what PARL representatives are—and aren’t—doing when they meet with other religious leaders in various settings.

The work of PARL is to mingle without compromise. We seize every opportunity to position our church to a standing of visibility, credibility, trust and relevance in the public realm, but without diluting the message or identity of our church. We share information with political and religious leaders about the work of the Adventist Church around the world, including the whole portfolio of services we offer in the areas of health care, education, humanitarian care and so much more. In fact, for anyone who’s curious about the way we introduce the Adventist Church in public settings, you can go onto our website (adventistliberty.org) and download the information dossier from the front page, and this document includes much of the information we regularly share with religious and political leaders.

When talking with others we are engaged in what I call “peaceful persuasion,” in the context of cordial relations, sharing the hope that is within us while respecting those who believe differently. We are God’s witnesses, not God’s lawyers. The God of freedom invites us to promote religious liberty for all people. And if we believe in the God of freedom, we also have to accept that others have the right to hold and share their points of view. That is freedom of conscience! Since the days of our church’s pioneers, freedom of conscience has been part of the DNA of Seventh-day Adventists. For this reason, we respect leaders from other denominations. They are also entitled to their freedom of thought, conscience, choice, association, and assembly. Acknowledging this reality does not change or dilute our own beliefs or identity.

Those who understand the work of PARL recognize that we could never engage in behavior that would compromise the beliefs or independence of our church. That is unthinkable. It’s also important to understand that the General Conference has officially voted policies and protocols, which we follow, and we are accountable for our actions.

So, in other words, regardless of the forum or the setting, or the person with whom we’re meeting, we are not going to let anyone set our priorities or change our values.

Speaking of forums, what type of gathering or events does PARL typically attend? And how do you make decisions about which events are appropriate or not?

Through the decades, PARL leaders have always met other Christians in settings where all come on an equal footing and where the goal is simply to share information and build good relations.

For instance, every year for well over five decades Adventist representatives have attended meetings of the Conference of Secretaries of Christian World Communions (CSCWC). In fact, for the majority of these years, more than 50 years, an Adventist has served as secretary of the CSCWC—and that’s a position I have held for 6 years now. This is a unique space where leaders from other Christian denominations come to share reports about the work of their communion and to become better acquainted with each other. No church is encouraged to change its beliefs. The identity of each communion is respected. There are no resolutions to consider or documents to sign or votes taken to approve any church’s encyclical, declarations or statements. No alliances are formed. Each church represented at this annual meeting comes on an equal basis, with its own distinctive voice.

At our meeting last month, each representative shared a report of their own communion’s activities in the world and spoke about their initiatives or challenges. As usual, no document, edict or agreement was discussed, let alone approved. The top Christian leaders who attend this meeting do not sign or approve any document whatsoever. This is far outside the purpose of this informal group. As representatives of the Adventist Church, we mingle, as Ellen White counsels, to dispel prejudice and to share our identity, mission and message.

On the other hand, we don’t belong to any organization that requires a central authority. This is the reason why the Adventist Church has not joined the World Council of Churches. Our church cannot be under the umbrella of another organization that makes decisions for us. This also is a longstanding position of our church. The distinction between these two types of forums is very clear.

The truth is that God has gifted our church with people who can articulate the Adventist identity, mission and message in a way that people of influence and “learned ones,” as Ellen White call them, can relate to and understand. Those among our membership who fear mingling do not truly understand the scope of our church’s mission. We can’t afford to neglect people of influence, and that includes both civil and political leaders, as well as religious leaders.

Some people may question the value of this type of interchurch work. You’ve represented the Adventist Church internationally at gatherings such as this for more than a decade, and your predecessors, Dr. John Graz and Dr. Bert Beach, also attended events of these kind. Have you, personally, seen any value in these activities?

At a personal level, right at the beginning of my involvement at PARL when I was working as liaison at the United Nations for our church, the Lord opened doors for me to meet people of influence. These included the United Nations Secretary General and various undersecretaries, as well as other key UN officials whose mandates intersected with our church’s interests and services. I was one of the co-founders of a symposium on Faith-based Organizations in International Affairs, which we established to develop a network of influential people and decision makers. Through the years I’ve been thankful for opportunities to help position our church to be respected and recognized as a genuine Christian church; a church which makes a positive difference in this world. I’m grateful that my training and experience as a theologian, philosopher, and a biblical exegete have been real assets, and have meant that I’m often called on to make major presentations at interfaith gatherings. These provide opportunities to share within the interfaith community about the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s identity and mission.

Time and again I’ve seen how God has miraculously positioned us to be invited to attend and to participate at international forums and to be recognized as a reference and resource within the international interfaith community.

We shouldn’t underestimate the value of being able to introduce ourselves on our own terms and in our own words, rather than letting other people define us! There are, unfortunately, those who would portray us as a sect of fanatics at the fringe of mainstream Christianity. Yet being present and visible within the international interfaith community means that our voice can be heard, and we can speak on our own behalf. If at PARL we weren’t committed to promoting the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s unique role in being blessing to the world, we wouldn’t be as passionate as we are in working for the good reputation of the church.

So, the work of PARL is not just mingling for the sake of mingling?

No, certainly not! The work PARL does in engaging with religious leaders is, in itself, a part of our church mission to each everyone—no exceptionswith the Adventist message. Think about it for a moment. Ellen White tells us that along all professing Christians, Adventists should be foremost in uplifting Christ before the world. The world includes leaders of other denominations. But how can we speak to other Christian leaders if we’re not invited to speak during interchurch gatherings? How will we testify to Jesus Christ if we marginalize ourselves?

I think it’s important to recognize that the work of dispelling prejudice also supports other aspects of our church’s mission endeavors in very tangible ways. I’ve seen repeatedly how mingling—sharing who we are on our own terms—has helped to break down barriers of misunderstanding and hostility and has created opportunities for respectful relationships with other churches and religions in challenging regions of the world. People of other denominations and religions and all sectors of secular society ought to know that Seventh-day Adventists are people of peace. That we are peacemakers, not vectors of violence, inflaming antagonism and hostility. Actually, it is not by chance that most interfaith organizations were formed after two world wars which had devastating consequences—16 million and 60 million deaths, consecutively. Peaceful coexistence without compromise or loss of identity is important for Seventh-day Adventists. Enough of wars of religions, also. Beyond being a virtue in itself, we develop peaceful relationships to share the best we are and have. And in doing this patient work of mingling with others without compromise, we help remove potential barriers to mission.

If you’re interested in reading more about this topic, you can download additional resources about Understanding Interfaith and Interchurch Relations from the PARL website. You can also read more about the CSCWC on the Biblical Research Institute website. A 2013 Adventist Review article by Dr. Bill Johnsson gives a useful description of how the Adventist Church has long interacted with the CSCWC.