Do you know any heathen or pagans? [When I asked that question in church there was an uncomfortable silence that was my answer]. I want you to reflect on the reason for the discomfort we feel with these terms found in the Bible. For instance, the King James Version of the Bible uses the term “heathen” 150 times, while the New International Version uses it just once in 1 Thessalonians 4:5, and instead uses the word “pagans” a number of times. Our Lord Himself used a word that has been translated as “pagans” in Matthew 5:47; 6:7, 32. Paul used that word (1 Cor. 5:1; 10:2; 12:2) and so did Peter (1 Pet. 2:12; 4:3) and John (3 Jn.v.7). On the other hand most of the Bible and theology dictionaries I consulted had no articles on either “heathen” or “pagans”. When I looked up the Oxford Dictionary the word “heathen” was defined as a derogatory noun identifying “a person who does not hold a widely held religion (especially Christianity, Judaism, or Islam)” and the word “pagan” was defined as “a person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions.”
The only exception among the Bible dictionaries that I had in my library was the New International Bible Dictionary which had an article on “Heathen, Pagan”. In summary the article indicated that these words were literally a translation the word “nations” which in most cases was translated “Gentiles.” While it is true that ancient Jews despised Gentiles, the word itself was not loaded with any sense of abhorrence. It was merely an in-house word to distinguish God’s people from others.
Keep this in mind as you think about this: should we be using the term “non-Christians” when referring to those who are not followers of Christ? Most Christians use the term without any qualms. I have used it all the time until now. But recently I was in a situation where there were both Christians and those who were not Christians. The moment one of the Christians present dropped the term “non-Christians” my eyes went to those who were not Christians to note that their faces lost the animated, involved expression and a cloud came over their face indicating their withdrawal.
First of all we need to face this fact: God does command the practice of separation by His people. That is the essence of being holy. When a person or thing is holy or dedicated, the person or it is “separated” or “set apart.” In that sense it is not a religious word at all. When we had a dog, one plate was holy or dedicated to Elsa.
When a person or community is holy to God, dedication consequently involves being separated from others:
Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you're going. This will prove to be a trap to you. But tear down their altars, crush their sacred stones, and cut down their poles dedicated to the goddess Asherah. (Never worship any other god, because the LORD is a God who does not tolerate rivals. In fact, he is known for not tolerating rivals.) Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in that land. When they chase after their gods as though they were prostitutes and sacrifice to them, they may invite you to eat the meat from their sacrifices with them. Then your sons will end up marrying their daughters. When their daughters chase after their gods as though they were prostitutes, they'll lead your sons to do the same thing (Ex. 34:12-16, God’s Word Translation)
While I’ve read the Bible through a number of times, it was when my former associate pastor Paras Tayade drew my attention to it, that I noted the significance of Leveticus 18:3
Do not follow the practices of the people of Egypt, where you once lived, or of the people in the land of Canaan, where I am now taking you (Good News Translation).
God clearly indicated to His people that they were not to be like people they knew in their past, nor to be like people they would know in their future. He didn’t give them any room for accommodation or compromise of any kind.
The New Testament reiterates that position:
Stop forming inappropriate relationship with unbelievers. Can right and wrong be partners? Can light have anything in common with darkness? Can Christ agree with the devil? Can a believer share life with an unbeliever? Can God’s Temple contain false gods? Clearly, we are the temple of the living God (2 Cor. 6:14-16, God’s Word).
Clearly Christians must practise separation. However maintaining our distinctiveness does not require being offensive. It is offensive to define others by our identity, as though they have no identity of their own. It would be offensive for me to introduce someone with the word, “Meet my friend non-Kuru.” That would be a denial of the other person’s individuality. Describing people of other faiths as non-Christians is just the same. We treat them as non-entities whose existence must be described with reference to ourselves.
We need to guard our distinctiveness. So, separate we must. But we still need to remember that we are to reach out to those who don’t know Christ, not keep aloof from them or brush them off. Jesus told His disciples,
Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt.28:19).
There are three things Christians must do in relation to those who do not follow Christ:
• Share the good news that Jesus has come
• Draw one and all to the Lord Jesus
• Include them in our community of love because every proclamation of the gospel is an invitation to brotherhood (1 Jn. 1:3)
But if we are to reach out to people in love with the love of Jesus, then there is a need for sensitivity toward people who are different from us. To be sensitive we need to learn to think instead of shooting off our mouths. And if we are to be think before we speak, then we need to become good listeners—including listening to the way we talk and what we say. So, listen to God, listen to others and listen to yourself when you talk.