Last year, the Episcopal Church and United Methodist Church (UMC) officials downplayed their traditional differences and optimistically predicted they were on their way to “full communion.” Now the head of a major United Methodist agency has insisted that God is calling Christians, Jews, and Muslims to put aside their differences to advance the social gospel.
The Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe, General Secretary of the UMC’s General Board of Church and Society (GBCS), preached at the Washington National Cathedral on Sunday, April 17. She began by celebrating the ecumenical cooperation between the UMC and Episcopal Church and the ministry of Methodist Rev. Canon Gina Gilland Campbell at the cathedral. Campbell, who presided over the service on Sunday, joined the staff at the cathedral following an ecumenical agreement between the two denominations.
Yet Henry-Crowe went far beyond Methodist-Episcopal ecumenism during her sermon. She delved into interfaith cooperation – particularly between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – that bordered on syncretism. This sentiment was mirrored by the cathedral’s decision including readings and sung calls to prayer by Jewish and Muslim representatives: Cantor Mikhail Manevich from Washington Hebrew Congregation, Rabbi Bruce E. Kahn from Temple Shalom of Chevy Chase, and Imam Talib Shareef from The Nation’s Mosque, Masjid Muhammad.
Henry-Crowe preached from Genesis 12:1-9, the passage in which God called Abraham to journey “to the land that I will show you.” She used the reading to demonstrate how God supposedly calls Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the same way:
“The text is about the journey that we all share. Each faith family has its own history and narrative and ways of telling the story. But it is God’s story, and it is our story. It is a pivotal story of God calling us – Jews, Christians, Muslims – through Abraham and Sarah. It is about our spiritual journey.”
Henry-Crowe said Abraham and Sarah’s journey to the Promised Land foreshadowed the shared spiritual journey of the three monotheistic faiths “into the new country.” According to Henry-Crowe, this “new country” is a utopian world where all three monotheistic religions unite around the social gospel. After reiterating that “God’s story is given to us all, those who claim Judaism and Christianity and Islam,” she insisted:
“God will come to us and lead us into this new world, where we can care for children on the border, stop gun violence, end racism, eradicate poverty, tear down walls, and remember and desire and hunger for the tree of life and the garden of peace.”
She suggested that achieving this goal required overcoming mere stylistic differences. She said those journeying “across faith lines and into new territory” would encounter “new friends, with unexpected communities, unknown rituals, unfamiliar practices, curious words, strange signs, uncommon or no symbols, unexplored conversations…”
Interfaith cooperation isn’t new for Henry-Crowe. She said that early in her ministry, she began meeting with leaders from various major world religions. During her sermon, she revealed the telling sentiment behind these meetings: “Most of all we did not want to hurt each other’s feelings, and we were burdened with many histories and narratives of ourselves and of one another.” In the end they were able to express their “own authentic faith identity and voice” while ministering together.
What was so troubling about Henry-Crowe’s message was how she emphasized acceptance of other religions at the expense of the Christian claim to exclusive truth. Never did she clearly articulate the Christian gospel during her sermon. She did, however, find time to highlight numerous popular facets of the social gospel.
In contrast, Scripture makes clear that neither the social gospel nor any other belief system is a substitute for the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Peter said of Jesus on Pentecost: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12, ESV)
Henry-Crowe’s goal to foster understanding between Christians, Jews, and Muslims is indeed laudable. But reducing the differences between these religions to mere rituals, words, or symbols demonstrates that she doesn’t really understand any of these beliefs or is willfully misrepresenting them.
Indeed, each of these faiths makes exclusive claims to truth. They assert that everyone must repent from certain sins in specific ways and adhere to unique moral codes in order to obtain salvation. It’s impossible to reduce them to a single common Abrahamic tradition. They have substantive and irreconcilable theological differences.
What Christians need to hear from the pulpit isn’t that they believe essentially the same thing as Jews, Muslims, or other people of faith. They need to hear that God is calling them to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth, and by extension to promote human flourishing.
Lax theology is not the answer. Transformative truth is.