LAY LEADERS who gathered recently for the Bishop’s Lunch Fellowship were told that the church needs to learn some new habits to participate in public discussions.
“Things have changed in Singapore,” Bishop Dr Robert Solomon said at his presentation on Public Square Issues. “Issues are being discussed more, and we are encouraged to discuss them more. That is why the church needs to learn some new habits. We need to be the salt and light in the world,” he said.
Speaking to the gathering on Oct 13, 2007, the Bishop addressed three current public issues facing the nation and the church: Religious harmony, homosexuality and life sciences.
On the topic of religious harmony, he sought to clarify a common confusion over the meaning of harmony. He said that “religious harmony is not about harmonising religions and beliefs, but about finding harmony between people of diverse religious faiths”.
“We need to distinguish between religions and people of religious communities,” he said, noting that Christians need to be more aware of the beliefs and practices of other people.
“We do not need to run down other religions. We must not be aggressive and arrogant.”
A stable multi-religious society means interaction between people of different faiths. In this context, he said that Christians need to affirm a biblical approach to other religions. While such a viewpoint rejects idolatry and recognises only “one true God who alone should be worshipped”, it also understands that “God is working more widely than we think”. Prophets like Isaiah, Jonah and Amos pointed out that God’s purposes were often carried out even by nations other than Israel.
In general, he said, there are three different ways in which Christians have viewed other religions – exclusivist, inclusivist and pluralist.
The exclusivist position recognises that Christ is the only way. However, within that position there have been three different traditional approaches. One might view religions as an evil delusion (1 Cor. 10:19-21), a human attempt to find the truth or a preparation for the Gospel. Bishop Dr Solomon suggested each approach may have validity in varying circumstances.
The inclusivist view maintains that while “Jesus is the final and definitive revelation of God, His hidden presence and saving action may be found in other religions. The salvation offered by Him can therefore be mediated in and through other faiths”. However, this position is not biblical because Jesus was explicitly “revealed and acknowledged as the Saviour, at whose name every knee must bow” (Phil. 2:10-11), he said.
The pluralist approach asserts that all religions provide equally valid ways of salvation. The Bishop said that this also is neither a Christian nor a biblical position.
Nevertheless, in Singapore it is important to be sensitive to people of different faiths, especially as Christians engage in evangelism. For that reason he called attention to a brochure of the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS). The Guide to Common Issues in Inter-Religious Relations provides guidelines for interaction with people of other religions, including participation in activities of the Inter-Racial and Inter-Religious Confidence Circles (IRCC) and the Community Engagement Programme (CEP).
“We need to share our faith with others with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15).
After talking about religious harmony, the Bishop spoke on the issue of homosexuality, pointing out the current interest in repealing Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises gay sex. While there have been voices calling for acceptance of homosexuality, he maintained a view that has already been expressed in The Book of Discipline of The Methodist Church in Singapore as well as in the recent Methodist and NCCS statements on homosexuality.
The Book of Discipline declares, “We consider the practice of homosexuality to be incompatible with Christian teachings. However, we do recognise that homosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth.” Counter to arguments in support of homosexuality, he said that there is no conclusive scientific or medical evidence of a “gay gene”. He added that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to biblical teachings.
Bishop Dr Solomon also briefly reviewed issues in the life sciences, especially current chimera research, referring to attempts at developing hybrid embryos which contain genetic material from different animals, including humans. The resulting “mixed animals” would be used for scientific and medical research.
He warned that that idea goes against the biblical worldview of Genesis 1:26-27, that humans are created in God’s likeness. “We are in danger of going against the Creator’s instructions,” he said.
There were lively discussions on these issues during both the plenary and small group time.
On the question of the church being more active in public discussions, Mr Stephen Lim, an Associate Lay Leader of Paya Lebar Chinese Methodist Church, said: “I feel we are more introverted than extroverted. Our ability to adapt to change is a bit slow. Maybe that is because of our organisational structure.
“Among Christians, Methodists seem to be the most conservative and slow to respond. I wonder if that is because of our organisational structure,” he added.
Mr David Ong, the Director of Finance, Administration and Programmes of The Methodist Church in Singapore, commented that “when we talk with others we should be conscious of their beliefs”.
On the issue of homosexuality, many were concerned about pastors who appear supportive of the agenda of the gay community.
Bishop Dr Solomon said that pastors are accountable to their respective Annual Conferences and come under their jurisdiction.
However, some of the leaders present felt the need for greater oversight.
Agreeing, Mr Michael Tan, an
Associate Lay Leader of Barker Road Methodist Church, said: “These recent moves in the homosexual community show that certain parts of the public space move faster than the church. It’s like a clashing of gears.” Referring
to the current structure that has a General Conference and three Annual Conferences, he asked: “Is this structure even relevant now?”
Dr Stephen Yeo, the LCEC Chairman of Bukit Panjang Methodist Church, commented that “we need to tell the difference between showing sympathy for those with homosexual tendencies and not compromising our clear biblical position”.
Mr Yeak Lik Kai, an Associate Lay Leader of Foochow Methodist Church, said: “We all agree that the practice of homosexuality is against the teachings of our Christian faith as stated in the Bible. But we can help those with homosexual tendencies by counselling them and bringing them to Christ.”
Mr Peter Soh, an Associate Lay Leader of Christ Methodist Church, said that “as much as we want to hate the sin and love the sinner, as we accept them [homosexuals], will we begin to accept their behaviour?”
There was also some concern about the youth of the church. Mrs Sarah Looi, LCEC Chairman of Living Waters Methodist Church, said: “We lack discussion on these issues in our churches, especially among the young people. We need to talk about these issues openly and give them guidance.”
The Rev George Martzen is Minister Attached to the Bishop’s Office.