Last Sunday an unusual worship service was held in Philadelphia. While many of us worshiped here, a very different gathering was taking place at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Tenth Presbyterian Church actually was invited to participate, although we declined to accept.
Some months ago we received a letter from the National African Religion Congress, which has its headquarters here in Philadelphia. It was a friendly letter, addressing us as “Brothers and Sisters in Faith” and closing with a blessing in the name of Christ. In between the address and the blessing, the letter asked if we would participate in the African Religion Ceremony of Ceremonies. It also encouraged us to recognize the pagan traditions of Africa as true religions. Here is what the letter said:
For decades African Religion in the Western Diaspora has remained estranged from the various forms of Western Christianity (Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical), because of ignorance and propaganda. Voodoo, Yoruba, Santeria, Condomble, Lucumi, Ifa, Shango Baptist and the Akan are religions under God, which follow the universal principles and ethical characteristic (sic) of all religions. Yet, the religions of the African Diaspora are not accorded the respect which they merit. The African Religion Unity Conference offered an opportunity to learn the true nature and purpose of these ancient African faiths, which predate all modern religions.
This approach to religion is becoming increasingly popular in America. More and more people seem to believe that there are many roads to one God, that deep down all religions are really the same. Whether a person is a pagan, a Buddhist, a Christian, or whatever else does not really matter. Religion is mainly a matter of what you do, not what you believe, and all the different religions are simply different ways of being good. Every culture demands our respect, and respecting other cultures includes accepting other religions.
The materials we received from the National African Religion Congress included a sheet explaining why traditional African religions are compatible—if not identical—with biblical Christianity. “Like all great religions,” they said, “Voodoo is based on the belief in one God. We recognize Christ as the Savior and we believe in the Holy Spirit (the Holy Loa). The Loa (singular or plural) are divine forces or the messengers of God. You may know them as the Holy Spirit, the saints or as angels. The Loa guide us and govern the activities of our daily lives.” In other words, it is possible to believe in Jesus Christ and to practice Voodoo at the same time. The implication is that Christians need to put aside their intolerance and start accepting paganism on its own terms. If the practitioners of Voodoo are willing to recognize Christ as Savior, then why aren’t Christians willing to practice Voodoo?
Many Americans—including some church-goers—would be hard-pressed to answer that question. We have become timid about the truth, reluctant to ever say that what someone else believes is false, especially when it comes to matters of faith.
The truth is that the Voodoo Gospel is false. Do not be confused by the claim that native African religions “recognize Christ as Savior.” Remember the words of Jesus himself: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 7:21a). The native African religions are a good example of what Jesus was talking about. None of them believe that the one true God exists in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For them, the Spirit is not a person, but a divine force. Or he is made up of hundreds of angels (which are really demons in disguise). Because these pagan religions do not recognize God’s true Spirit, they cannot worship the true Christ, who has fellowship with the Holy Spirit but does not consort with pagan gods and goddesses.
Biblical Christianity cannot be combined with Voodoo or with any other form of religious worship. To worship Christ at all is to worship Christ alone. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6); he did not say, “I am a step along the way, a partial perspective on the truth, and one among many equally-valid lifestyle choices.” With Christ it is all or nothing. He demands to be worshiped as the one and only Son, trusted as the one and only Savior, and served as the one and only Lord.
The fact that Christians insist that Jesus is the only way does not mean that we are intolerant. Tolerance means allowing people the freedom to believe what they believe, especially in matters of religion. In this sense, biblical Christians should always be tolerant, even of paganism. Christianity is not coercive. We recognize that every human being makes a personal choice either for or against the God of the Bible. Our evangelistic work is not a threat, it is simply an invitation. We invite people to trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. If they choose to practice Voodoo instead, we do not and cannot make them stop.
Our tolerance of other religions does not mean that we agree with them. One of the virtues of tolerance, properly understood, is that it allows for vigorous disagreement. In fact, the very word “tolerance” practically requires disagreement. If I tolerate you, it means that I am putting up with something I would rather not have to put up with at all. I may even try to talk you out of it. But until I persuade you to stop, I will respect your freedom to continue.
When it comes to religion, it is right for people to expect Christians to be tolerant, provided they understand what tolerance means. True Christian tolerance means respecting people who worship other gods (or no gods at all) without agreeing that all gods are equal. As far as the native African religions are concerned, we reject the claim that Voodoo or any other form of paganism is pleasing to God. We refuse to worship God through the “Holy Loa,” or any other false spirits. And we invite all Africans everywhere to receive Jesus Christ alone for salvation.
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