Jewish, Baptist Theologians Discuss Problem of Conversion in Interfaith Dialogue

A conclave of Jewish and Baptist theologians and scholars confronted a basic issue today that has always been a sore point in interfaith dialogues between Christians and Jews–the mission of the former to convert and the latter to resist conversion.

The problem was discussed frankly during a panel session at the interfaith dialogue sponsored jointly by the Southern Baptist Convention and the interreligious affairs department of the American Jewish Committee. The three day gathering, the first meeting of its kind between Baptists and Jews, is taking place at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary here.

Dr. Lionel Rubinof, professor of social science and philosophy at York University, Toronto, opened the discussion by declaring, “I find myself, a committed Jew, committed to a covenant which excludes the possibility of my being converted. But when I confront you, I confront someone who has a commitment to my conversion.” He said that although missionary endeavors to convert would necessarily end in failure in his case, they were bound to create frustration for those who wished to convert him. “I think that in my effort to resist your invitation to conversion and in the anguish I feel when you open your arms in love and friendship and I must refuse, we both learn something about our identities and we leave each other better off than when we first came together.”

Dr. Luther E. Copeland, professor of missions of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C., acknowledged that Baptists are interested in converting Jews. “If we can’t admit this, we are not ready to face each other in dialogue,” he said. But, he added, “if it is a burden for you to feel yourself as the object of Christian desires to convert you, then understand that it is an excruciating burden to be the agent of such desires or such attempts at conversion. You don’t cease being a Christian because you meet frustration or carry an excruciating burden.”

Discussing the practices of missionaries, Dr. Copeland said “any aggressive, coercive evangelism-psychological aggression or any other kind–is wrong from the Christian standpoint.”

Rabbi Arthur Gilbert, assistant to the president of the Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation, said to Dr. Copeland, “What you really mean to do is not conversion work but witnessing. You don’t do this by ringing doorbells and handing out tracts. You do it by letting God into your own life, by creating a community of such selfhood, such humanity, that it is a profound witness in its own right.” He added. “I would like to compete with you for such witness.”

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