Serious Reservations About the Global Faith Forum

Also posted at SBC Open Forum.

by Ken Hamrick

The 2013 Global Faith Forum (GFF) was concluded Nov. 16, and was held at the NorthWood Church in Keller, TX, where the senior pastor, Dr. Bob Roberts, Jr., founded and leads the movement. I was unaware of such a forum until Dr. Joel Rainey, Director of Missions at Mid-Maryland Baptist Association and a panelist at the GFF, published his glowing support in a recent article on SBC Voices, entitled, “Talk With the World, Not Just About It: Reflections on the Global Faith Forum.” I found Dr. Rainey’s article to be somewhat troubling, and I registered my initial objections in the comments section. In the discussion that followed, I was driven to look further into this movement and its teachings.

Hoping to find that my misgivings were unjustified, I instead found them reinforced rather frequently as I watched many of the videos of the forum that are available. It’s not that the GFF isn’t worthwhile or is all together bad. Much of what I found was very good—indeed, the GFF as intended (without the problems presented below) might be at the forefront of what Evangelical missions ought to look like at this point in time. Even Dr. Ed Stetzer, the President of LifeWay Research, had a lot of good things to say in his 2010 speech at the GFF and in his 2010 blog article, entitled, “Multifaith and the Global Faith Forum.” Dr. Roberts’ passionate love for Christ and for his fellow man come through very clearly. I do not doubt his faith or his good intentions, and I commend him on his tremendous efforts to foster a greater understanding among Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists, etc. However, sprinkled throughout the Global Faith Forum are statements that are theologically sloppy at exactly the places where such a movement ought to be clear and precise.

It is one thing to want to push effectiveness as far as possible by walking a path that is very close to the line of pluralism without crossing it; but quite another to do so without a caution commensurate with the danger involved in being so close to that line. In other words, since the GFF’s views, teachings and practices are as close as one can get to interfaith pluralism without actually crossing that line, then Dr. Roberts should have made every effort to prevent that line from being unintentionally crossed—or even straddled—by implication (or by misunderstanding).  Instead, as we will see below, that line is often straddled and obscured. Exacerbating the problem (or perhaps it is the root of the problem) is the implied superiority of narrative and experience over theological statements and principles.

According to their web site, the Global Faith Forum is described in the following terms:

At the Global Faith Forum, we’re moving from a conversation about other faiths, to a conversation with other faiths. A conversation that allows us to hear from leaders with different faiths, different worldviews and different ideas that shape the way we communicate in the 21st century…
…The Global Faith Forum brings together distinct and conservative bodies of faith for greater understanding, while facing our differences with grace and humility. Muslims, Jews, and Christians hold different beliefs about who Jesus and God is. As people of faith, we must maintain our distinct beliefs, yet live in peace with others of faith. God calls followers of each faith to carry out the dialogue of our distinctions in a spirit of common dignity for one another. The multi-faith perspective is about deepening respect for one another while dialoguing about our differences. Participants are not asked to boil down their beliefs to define God in common terms but to hold to their distinctions with a spirit of respect between participants.

Even in this general description of what the GFF is all about, they seem unable to avoid statements that blur the lines. Does the “humility” with which the different “bodies of faith” face their differences include the kind of humility insisted upon by pluralists—the kind of humility that is the opposite of the supposed arrogance of the exclusivist truth claims of Evangelical Christianity? And if not, then why is so critical a nuance left unstated and undefined? Leaving aside, for the moment, the implied equality in the GFF’s presentations of Muslims, Jews, and Christians (and Buddhists, etc.) as members of the same category, I find no Biblical basis for the surprising statement, “God calls followers of each faith to carry out the dialogue of our distinctions in a spirit of common dignity for one another.” Are we to accept that God “calls” Muslims, etc., as the followers of a “faith,” to do anything other than repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ?

From video of the Global Faith Forum in 2010, at 00:27, Dr. Roberts stated:

We are here because we believe that as followers of God (for me as a follower of Jesus), that God expects us to get along. And there’s been too much tension, there’s been too much rivalry, and not enough peace between different people of different faiths. And I live in America; and I believe in freedom of religion. And I want everybody to be able to express their faith, but I don’t want anyone to compromise their faith; but I want everyone to get along in their faith. Now, not everyone is gonna do that. But some of us can…

It might be understandable for Dr. Roberts to loosely use the term, “followers of God,” to describe both Christians and those of false religions, for the purpose of dialogue with the latter. But it is over the top for him to assume such a term as true to the extent that the God that we all follow “expects us to get along.” This reeks of implied equality of all faiths under one God who has the same expectation of all of them (“to get along”). As the statement continues, there’s “too much rivalry” between them. We are not called to “get along” with false religions, but to do our best to prevail over them. Dr. Roberts surprises us again by saying, “…I don’t want anyone to compromise their faith…” Of course, no Christian wants another Christian to compromise his faith; but unless the so-called faith of a Muslim (or member of another false religion) is compromised, he cannot be converted to Christ and saved from eternal wrath.

Although the implied equality of all faiths is powerfully communicated from the GFF by the constantly repeated categorization of different “faiths” including Christianity as followers of God (who ought to get along), the fact is that—Biblically speaking—there is only one true faith in the one true God (through His Son, Jesus Christ), and anything else is not really faith but rebellious unbelief. The Bible never portrays those of false religions as simply seeing a different light, or seeing the same light in a different way; but rather, it portrays them as hating the light, running from the light, and being blind to it. There are only two categories, the Church and the world—and not “bodies of faith” and the world. Jesus warned us that the world will always hate us because it hated Him first. But the GFF remains optimistic about making the world a better place.

From video of the GFF in 2013, at 1:57:21, Dr. Roberts explained his eschatology:

I want to talk to my own tribe, Muslims and Jews if you don’t mind. […]

…There’s another view, saying—(postmillennialists)—it’s the role of followers of Jesus to make the world, as the bride of Christ, as the Church, ready so that Jesus can come back. We’re part of that. By the way, that’s what Whitefield believed, that’s what Wesley believed, that’s what Jonathan Edwards of the Great Awakening believed. So their perception was not things are gonna get worse and worse and worse, and Jesus is gonna come back, and everyone is gonna have to go through tribulation, but we get to bypass it—that wasn’t their view. Their view was their job was to make the world a place where Jesus would be pleased to come back because of the presence of Jesus.

This explains the optimism of Bob Roberts, and the optimistic undercurrents of the GFF.

Dr. Roberts stated, GFF10, at 01:41:

…And then some other things changed, and I actually discovered that I liked Arabs… and I like Muslims… and I loved them—and what’s worse, they became my friends. And I started praying for them, and some of them even started praying for me. Why are we here? Because we live in a different world where all religions are all places. And we don’t have the luxury anymore of having a competitive philosophy about everything. We can collaborate on many things—there’s some things we’ll never be able to agree on but we can always get along.

And at 05:29, he stated:

Everything we do around here is a story—it’s not a book, it’s not a set of principles, it’s not a conference to come and learn how to do “one, two, three;” it’s our story.

He prayed for his Muslim friends and they prayed for him… “all religions are all places…” and “…we can always get along.” He really makes it sound as if God  is not the problem between us—we  are. Whenever theological principles and “philosophies” are eschewed in favor of narrative, experience and “story,” the room for error increases dramatically. Principles can be compared and weighed, but almost anything can be justified by a “story.”

Dr. Roberts tells how he worked with imams to build schools for Muslims, GFF10, at 05:40:

And as Omar was bragging about me building him a school, all of the sudden those imam’s asked me, “Build us schools!” And I thought to myself, “This is the competition. [I] can’t build them schools.” Then I began to think, but if you work in Afghanistan, then you must go through the imam in the village. Then, all of a sudden, I became tormented, and I had a WWPD moment: what would Paul do? I began to think about it. What did Paul do?—He went into the synagogue, he went to Mars Hill… he went to the Gentiles. And then I thought, “God, if I’m doing something wrong, kill me. Otherwise, I’m gonna work with these imams.” And so we did. The only thing was, all these young pastors that I work with, I told them they were also gonna work with imams and they each now had a village to work in. So they began to build schools. They read the New Testament; we read the Quran. Twenty-five percent of the students had to be girls, and the rest is history…

He said that twenty-five percent of students had to be girls, implying that this was a requirement that the Christian builders insisted on, but was that the only requirement? Were the schools also involved in teaching Islamic or Christian doctrine? We are not given much information.

Dr. Roberts said, GFF10, at 07:56:

So, what have we learned? So I’m gonna list what I spent a whole day with the pastors, very quickly.

Number one: We start with the hand, not the head. We start working together. We don’t start as preachers talking theology or we’re never gonna get along. But if we realize that we have a common responsibility to build our cities and we come together and serve one another around things that need to be fixed (or, as in Texas as we say, “things that need fixin'”), then we can do something. It means that there are some things we may not be able to collaborate on, like starting churches or starting [“mareths”?], but I sure can collaborate [with] you on helping the poor and teaching our children and building cities.

It is strange that Dr. Roberts seems to think that theology should be set aside whenever it might get in the way of accomplishing something worthwhile through collaboration with those of false religions, such as “helping the poor and teaching our children and building cities.” I’m not sure that building cities is a task given to the Church in Scripture. Certainly helping the poor and teaching children are God-given tasks. But where is the Biblical basis for collaborating with false religions in the work? In whose name will we feed the poor: in the name of Christ, in the name of Allah—or in the name of the “Global Faith Forum?” God gets the credit only by the name of Christ. And what will we teach these children if we are collaborating with Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims and who knows what else? Secular education is a false myth, since the mere absence of the proper acknowledgement of the true God and teaching of Biblical truth is a religious statement as strongly against God and truth as any explicit statements can be.

Dr. Roberts states, GFF10, at 08:41:

Second: It means that we need a new platform. We’re calling it multi-faith, not inter-faith. We’re Evangelicals. We really believe that Jesus is God in the flesh, that he died on the cross for our sins, that He’s coming back again—and that the Trinity is not three gods but one God. And those of you that are imams and Muslims that I’m close to, that we’ve talked to, because I have rejected the prophet Mohammed—as a prophet, not as a man, not as a human being—I would never say anything negative or ill about the man—but if I believe that he was a prophet from God then I would have to be a Muslim. But I do not; but I respect him. So, multi-faith says, we may disagree with one another; but we should not let our disagreements in theology keep us from being in relationship with one another—think about it: we’re in relationship with one another every other dimension of this country we call America, and you’re gonna tell me we can work together in taxes and education and everything else, and we can’t treat one another with respect of different faiths? What’s wrong with us? We as Christians as the majority have a responsibility to encourage the minority of Muslims, Jews and Buddhists even if we disagree with them. Maybe they would listen to our message a little bit more if we treated them with the respect that we came to this land for, one day many centuries ago.

More is necessary to secure the border between “multi-faith” and “inter-faith” than a mere change in label or “brand.” Dr. Roberts makes a shocking statement in saying, “I have rejected the prophet Mohammed—as a prophet, not as a man, not as a human being—I would never say anything negative or ill about the man—but if I believe that he was a prophet from God then I would have to be a Muslim. But I do not; but I respect him.” Really? Not only does Bob Roberts respect people who are Muslims, but he also respects Mohammed himself—and would never say anything negative or ill about the man?  How about the fact that the man denied the divinity, atoning death, and resurrection of Christ, and has led millions upon millions into hell? Yet, Mohammed has Dr. Roberts’ respect.

He asks the question, “…you’re gonna tell me we can work together in taxes and education and everything else, and we can’t treat one another with respect of different faiths?” We should not be disrespectful of people merely because they are members of a false religion; but that does not mean that we should have respect for these different, false religions that are leading myriads into hell.

Dr. Roberts says that Christians should encourage Muslims, Jews and Buddhists: “We as Christians as the majority have a responsibility to encourage the minority of Muslims, Jews and Buddhists even if we disagree with them.” Encourage them how?  He doesn’t tell us. Are we to encourage them in their efforts to win converts or gain influence? We are left to wonder.

Curiously, Dr. Roberts equates respect with religious freedom: “Maybe they would listen to our message a little bit more if we treated them with the respect that we came to this land for, one day many centuries ago.” We did not come to this land for respect, but for freedom from government control of religion. Perhaps they would “listen to our message a little bit more” if we treated them with more personal respect. However, there is such a thing as respecting a person’s false beliefs so much that the gospel message gets drowned out by all the warm, “loving” acceptance; in which case, they might assume that the God that Bob Roberts represents cannot be less accepting of their beliefs than Bob Roberts himself.

Dr. Roberts said, GFF10, at 10:06:

Third: All things are all places. There’s no privacy. Everything is in the public square. So we have to learn to have one conversation—just one. We can’t have our internet conversation, and our tribal conversation, and…—one conversation, where I can talk about the great commission and Jesus in a public manner—not compromise my faith, but do it in a way that’s respectful of you.

And at 10:32, he stated:

Fourth: It means that we have to move from complex, tribal theology to core, simply, global theology, where we understand what one another is saying. I need to understand what you Muslims believe—and be honest with me. Please be honest even if it hurts me, be honest, and I will be honest with you.

So then, not only does Bob Roberts want us to move away from complex theology, in favor of a theology that is simple enough for Muslims to understand, but he also wants us to keep only the simple form as our singular conversation, never moving back to the complex, even in “private.” He wants us to have only one conversation, and complex theology has no part in it. How far is this from having one simple, “global theology” that all “faiths” can agree with?—Not far enough.

Dr. Roberts says, GFF10, at 10:54:

Sixth: It means from vilifying other faiths and tearing others down to first critiquing your own. But it also means living yours at its best.

According to Dr. Roberts, we are not to vilify “other faiths.” Would denying that they even qualify to be in the category of other faiths, since they are mere idolatry, be the first step toward vilifying them?

At 11:05, he makes a statement that is inexplicable for a Christian Evangelical to make:

Seventh: It means that we serve not to convert but because we are converted and we love God—and the greatest conversion that all of us can have is more conversion of our own faith in our hearts and in our lives.

Read that again: “It means that we serve not to convert but because we are converted and we love God…” Really? An Evangelical leader is saying that we do not serve for the purpose of converting unbelievers? And then, he continues with something even more astonishing: “the greatest conversion that all of us can have is more conversion of our own faith in our hearts and in our lives.” Dr. Roberts has all along been speaking to his “multi-faith” audience. And now he tells them that the greatest conversion that any of them can have is more conversion of their own  faith in their hearts and lives! Incredible. What need have they to be converted to Christ? As I contended above, such statements are theologically sloppy exactly where precision is most needed. Earlier, he asserted, “Everything we do around here is a story… it’s not a set of principles..” A set of well-thought-out principles is desperately needed where so much of what is said and done can be so easily misconstrued as pluralism—or worse,  can so easily drift into pluralistic tendencies of thought. Maybe abandoning complex theology does not yield a simple global theology after all, but a sloppy  global theology.

Dr. Roberts said, GFF13, at 18:16:

So what I would say to you that’s critical to understand is, value  your faith. Don’t see it as something that causes you from not getting along; but, how do you get along? How do you work on that? How does it work? What are the implications for that? Value your faith. It’s everything.

How can a Bible-believing, Evangelical Christian think for one moment that we ought to advise adherents of false religions to value their faith? On the contrary, we should advise them to abandon their faith, repent, and believe in the only one who can save, Jesus Christ. Do not value what is worthless! But as Dr. Roberts continues, we find that he does not see faith in a false god as worthless. At 20:11, he states:

See, faith is important in a society, even regardless of the faith. Let me tell you four things faith does in society: it represents the character of a society; it represents the spirituality of a society; it represents the conscience of a society, and it serves to build convictions in the society. And that’s why I’m concerned about religious freedom.

It is far better for a society to be without the supposed benefits of a false faith than to have every benefit and be held under the sway of an attractive lie that blinds its people and leads them to hell. False religions are not  the next-best thing to Christianity.

Dr. Roberts states, GFF10, at 11:47:

I discovered that I had a lot to learn from a lot of people who weren’t even Christians. And I remember when Tee [?], the Vietnamese boy who came to live with us—and he wound up going to the university (he was with us for many years)—I remember when he came and when he lived with us, and we would sit and we would pray—and he’s not a Christian, he’s not a religious person—and he would be with us. Tee can pray, reflect, do whatever, but our family’s praying over the food at this time before we eat. By the time he was leaving, a time or two he would say, “Let me  pray.” “—But Tee, you don’t believe in God!” “I want to pray anyhow.” Let me tell you what I believe. I believe God hears the prayers of all those people that are seeking Him with all of their being. And that’s why I love Tee. He’s not a Christian. I’m an Evangelical—you bet I wish he was! But I won’t love him any less…

Of course, God “hears the prayers of all those people that are seeking Him with all their being;” but the primary indicator that anyone is seeking God with all his being is immediate belief in the gospel  when it is preached. Mark this truth: not one person has ever sought God with all his being while remaining in his unbelief regarding the gospel. Until “Tee” believes in Christ, he is not seeking God with all his being.

Similarly, from the GFF blog article, entitled, “Learn to Love People More Than Religious Work,” Bob Roberts states:

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that we want to share Jesus without relationship.  That may be good for getting a “religious” decision, but not good for the long-term Gospel in a country.  In one of my meetings this last week I was with a top leader in Vietnam that I admire so much.  He’s been in my home, my church, and around my family a lot.  In his own way, this man loves God.  Over a meal he began to tell me how God has been speaking to him—he can sense God’s presence and is hearing God’s voice and is serving God even though he wouldn’t consider himself a Christian.  What’s funny is in my previous life I would have blown all that off.  Not anymore—the world is full of Cornelius’ we just don’t recognize the fact that God can speak without using our words or our religion!

This is, perhaps, the most pluralistic statement that Dr. Roberts has made: “the world is full of Cornelius’ we just don’t recognize the fact that God can speak without using our words or our religion!” He writes of his Vietnamese friend, “In his own way, this man loves God… God has been speaking to him—he can sense God’s presence and is hearing God’s voice and is serving God even though he wouldn’t consider himself a Christian.” This is astonishing, coming from an Evangelical leader such as Dr. Roberts.

Dr. Roberts stated, GFF10, at 02:39:

…But one thing I would say to you: keep in mind, no religion or no country is perfect. Amen?

When speaking to a “multi-faith” audience, why would you imply that all religions are equal in that all are imperfect? Can an imperfect religion claim a knowledge of the truth that is perfect enough to justify the claim of exclusivity? If our religion is imperfect like other religions, then on what basis do we claim to be the only ones who have the truth? Christianity was created by God, not men; and as such, it is a perfect religion, but one that is imperfectly followed by imperfect men. 

Dr. Roberts said, GFF10, at 03:20:

We can reach out to one another. We can love one another. We can invite Muslims and Jews and Christians into our homes. And we can just quietly start building this little army… that’s getting stronger—more Evangelicals, more Muslims, more Jews, more Agnostics, because we are sacred, all, in the eyes of God because we all agree that human life is sacred. That means in every single one of us there is something of the divine. Can you agree with that? So if that’s the case, we should reach out.

I find no Biblical basis by which any Evangelical should agree that “in every single one of us there is something of the divine.” In Christian believers, the Holy Spirit within us is divine; but other than that, there is nothing “of the divine” in men. We are made in God’s image, but it goes too far to say that sinful man has “something of the divine” within.

As for the “little army” that the GFF is hoping to build, we will have to wait to see what becomes of it. I hope that Dr. Roberts will give his attention to improving the theological statements and implications that come out of the GFF—to sharpening the line that distinguishes “multi-faith” teaching and practice from pluralistic thought—the line between truth and error. In this, may God bless Bob Roberts and the Global Faith Forum.

Ken Hamrick, 2013