By Mateen Elass, on his personal blog.
Due to ongoing reverberations from the June 2016 PCUSA General Assembly where a “Muslim partner” led the gathered Presbyterians in a prayer to Allah seeking their conversion to Islam, newly appointed Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson, Jr. has published a defense of the denomination’s position on interfaith relations, particularly with Islam.
Entitled “Remembering a Biblical Narrative That Shapes Our Interfaith Commitments: Building Bridges Through Interfaith Work“, this 1400 word document seeks to justify the PCUSA approach of linking together arm in arm with non-Christian (indeed anti-Christian) religions and marching buoyantly into a utopian future where all is love and beliefs don’t matter.
Nelson begins by greeting readers “…in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” But that hopeful start is lost in all that follows. We are led by the title to hope that Nelson will give us a biblical narrative showing how to navigate the minefields of interfaith relations. Instead, we are told to ignore beliefs that rightly separate us and lift instead a common “ethic of love.”
The only biblical text Nelson cites in defense of his view is one he has to misquote in order to justify his stance. In Mark 9:38-41, Jesus’ disciples report to him they had come across a man not of their group who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They had ordered him to stop since he was not of the twelve chosen by Jesus. When Jesus hears this, he upbraids them, saying, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.” Nelson is keen to show that the key for Jesus is commonality of purpose, not being part of his immediate group. Apparently for Nelson all interfaith groups seemingly have the same purpose, and so are acceptable to Jesus, and should be acceptable to us. Though the biblical text makes clear that the unknown man in question is doing ministry in Jesus’ name, and that Jesus’ rationale for not prohibiting him is that “no one doing ministry in my name can in the next moment badmouth me…,” Nelson incredibly twists this text in order to baptize interfaith cooperation:
“Jesus acknowledges the commonality of purpose between groups of religious leaders other than our own. When the disciples of Jesus reported to him that there were others casting out demons in another name, he responded, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mk. 9:39–41).” [Emphases mine.]
The problem is, this man is acting in the name and under the authority of Jesus, not from some competing religious stance. Jesus affirms his ministry because it is being done in his name, not in the name of some other religious authority. To use this text for support of interfaith relations, particularly with regard to Islam, a religion that denies the gospel significance of the name of Jesus, is to abuse Scripture in pursuit of a personal agenda.