Friendship in the Presence of Difference - Study Guide

A new Study Guide is now available for people to think about forging friendships with people of other faiths.

The Assembly Relations with Other Faiths Working Group has developed the resource based on the paper, Friendship in the Presence of Difference: Christian Witness in Multi-faith Australia, received at the 13th Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia in July 2012. 

In his introduction, ROF Convenor Michael Barnes says the intention of the Study Guide is to "open a conversation about the increasing religious diversity in Australia and how we understand our Christian identity in this context."

"It is also an opportunity to explore how we might respond to the use of violence or fear based on religious difference. As people of God, called to share in Christ’s love, the best way to overcome such messages of fear and hate is by building friendships with people of other faiths."

Thanks to Rev. Heather Griffin for developing the resource with the assistance of the Queensland Synod Interfaith Relations Committee and to Rev. Dr David Gill for his revision.

Download Study Guide - Friendship in the Presence of Difference

Below is a list of extra resources compiled for each chapter.

Study OneStudy TwoStudy ThreeStudy FourStudy FiveFurther Resources

Study One – Our Context

More Video:

Extra Activities:

  • Create a Group Agreement:
    Draw up a list of ideas that would help every member of your group feel included and heard. Have someone type up this list and circulate it to all members.
  • List of World Religions: Make a list of all the different living religions (not denominations) you know. Try to put the religions in order from greatest to least number of adherents world-wide, then try to put them in order from the oldest to the newest religion. Check your answers online.
  • Cultural Identity: Reflect on how much each of the following have helped shape who you are?
    • Career
    • Gender
    • Family background and family history
    • Cultural group to which you belong
    • Churches or other places of worship you’ve attended
    • Where you live
    • Interests e.g. sporting teams, favourite music
  • Play a game of Cultural Bingo
  • Discuss: The ad, titled “You Never Lamb Alone”, launched by Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) generated controversy and outrage in the Hindu community because it featured Lord Ganesha, a revered Hindu deity, who is considered vegetarian by followers. Consider what it means to respect the values of other faiths in Australia today. 


Study Two – Interfaith Interaction in the Bible

More Video:

  • Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, and Croatian Protestant theologian Prof. Miroslav Volf in conversation at the Templeton Prize Lecture at New York University on the topic: Religion's Place in a Religiously Violent World
  • A Conversation with author and Charter for Compassion Founder Karen Armstrong at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs on Rethinking Religion and World Affairs

Bible Study Discussion Starters

Read Genesis 14

In the time of the Hebrew Scriptures, many peoples (the Hebrews, the Canaanites and other Semitic peoples) worshipped a supreme God known as “El”. 

In Chapter 14 of Genesis we find a typical situation of local tribal wars and power mongering. Yet in verses 18-20 we have the story of a different king, a king who is a “priest of the Most High God”, but not of Abraham’s family.


  1. What is different in the interaction that Abraham has with Bera, King of Sodom, and the interaction that Abraham has with Melchizedek, King of Salem.
  2. Which king does Abraham trust? Why?
  3. Read Hebrews 6:20 to 7:3. Jesus is called “a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek”.  What does the name “Melchizedek” mean?
  4. Can you think of people of other faiths who you would describe as “righteous” and “peaceful”?
  5. How might this knowledge impact on your interfaith friendships?

Read Luke 10:30-36 - The Good Samaritan

In Jesus’ day, Samaritans were sworn enemies of the Jews. While Jews and Samaritans shared a common scripture, the Torah, there was a fundamental difference.

Jews worshipped in the Temple in Jerusalem. They believed God was located right there on Mount Zion, the most sacred site in the world. Not so, according to the Samaritans. God was to be found on Mount Gerizim, in Samaria, and to be worshipped in the Temple built there.

Each community had sacred stories that justified the site of their Temple. Each claimed that Abraham had made preparations to sacrifice Isaac on their mountain.

Often the most intense conflict takes place between groups who share much in common and then split, like Catholics and Protestants; just so, Jews and Samaritans.

This antagonism fuelled a deep-seated division. Each side propagated this division with their own stories. The rabbis instructed Jews not to talk to Samaritans or to enter their territory.

When Jesus introduced a Samaritan into his parable, the Jewish audience most likely reacted sharply. But it was the Samaritan who loved his neighbour as himself, regardless of religious or racial differences.


  1. Stories you have come across of people of another faith or race to your own showing great compassion.
  2. If you had been the lawyer, how would you have reacted to being told to be like a Samaritan when you considered yourself to be far superior spiritually to such people?
  3. Are there people that you would find it difficult to accept help from? Are there people you would find difficult to help?
  4. How does this parable answer the lawyer’s question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Read Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10 - The Roman Centurion

During the excavation of Capernaum, archaeologists found evidence that there was a small garrison of soldiers posted there by the Romans. In Jesus’ time, according to the Gospel accounts, the commanding officer in Capernaum was a centurion - a title indicating that he had approximately 100 men under his command. This local garrison would have been stationed in the town for broad “peace-keeping” activities and for ensuring that the locals paid their taxes. They were, in effect, the local police force.

The centurion of the Gospel stories is not mentioned by name. In Matthew’s account, the centurion comes directly to Jesus on behalf of his servant who is ill. Luke is keener to show that the centurion was well respected by the local Jewish population. In Luke’s account, the centurion sends some Jewish elders to make the request. They state (Luke 7:4-5), “He is worthy of having you do this for him for he loves our people and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”

In Matthew’s version, there is no indication at all of the centurion’s race or religious convictions, nor does Jesus ask. The centurion simply trusts. Jesus’ response to the request (Matt 8:10-11) is “in no-one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”

Although it has been suggested by some scholars that the centurion was a “god-fearer”, a gentile who showed some allegiance to the God of Israel, this is only one possibility. Whatever his background, it is probable that he also still had some allegiance to the gods he was introduced to in childhood.


  1. Given that the local population would usually have despised the Roman occupiers, and that the soldiers, likewise, would have looked down on the locals, how hard do you think the centurion would have found it to come to Jesus for help?
  2. What personal traits did the centurion exhibit in coming publicly to Jesus? What motivated him to do so?
  3. What is Jesus’ reaction to this “outsider”? Does he place any conditions on the help he offers?


 Read Matthew 2:1-12 - The Magi from the East

The word “Magi” is usually translated as “wise men”. Later tradition turned them into three Kings. We are simply told that they are “from the east”, so naturally people have speculated on where this might be. Some have suggested Arabia, others Persia and yet others Babylon. What was their religion? We are not told! If the Magi came from Persia then the likely religion is Zoroastrian. The Roman Empire was religiously pluralistic so any number of religious beliefs are possible. Because they followed a star, the assumption is that astrology played a part in their belief system. We do know that they did not have a good knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures, since Herod needed to consult the chief priests and scribes in Jerusalem about where the Messiah was to be born (Matt 2:4-6).

Perhaps it is particularly significant that Matthew doesn’t allot the Magi a race or a religion. Are the Magi simply representative of the wider humanity beyond the land and beliefs of Judaism?

Initially the Magi are led by a “star” which they interpret as a sign of the birth of a “king of the Jews”. What motivated them to search for him? We don’t know. It is Herod who refers to the person the Magi seek as “Messiah”, an interpretation that is obviously acceptable to the Magi as they follow the advice to seek him in Bethlehem.

What does all this infer about their religious beliefs and the religious beliefs of those in power in Jerusalem? Both the Magi and Herod took each other’s religious beliefs seriously. Yet no-one from Jerusalem accompanied the Magi on their trip to Bethlehem.

After the Magi have encountered the child with his mother Mary and have paid him homage and offered their gifts, they are warned “in a dream” not to return to Herod. They leave “for their own country by another road”.

Despite later stories that arose, there is no consideration given in the text to these Magi converting to Judaism (or the later Christian sect within Judaism). There is no other appearance of these characters later in Matthew’s Gospel or in other Gospels. But they are very important in the telling of the story in Matthew’s gospel. Why so? Is the implication that when God chooses, God works through those of other religions to help us see what we ourselves are blind to?


  1. What personal characteristics do the Magi have that are absent in Herod and his religious advisers, and “all of Jerusalem”?
  2. What knowledge do the religious advisers (chief priests and scribes) have that the Magi don’t?
  3. Think about the modern understanding of the mission of the church - to see where God is acting in the world and get alongside that action. Compare this with the response of Herod. How might you have reacted?
  4. “To see God in action” - what pointers would you use to find where God is acting in the world today?


Brown, R., The birth of the Messiah: a commentary on the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, Geoffrey Chapman, 1977.
Bruner, F.D., The Christbook A historical/theological commentary: Matthew 1 - 12, Word Books,1987.
Osborne G.R. Matthew Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament Series, Zondervan, 2010

Study Three – Friendship and Hospitality

Reflections on Hospitality:

  1. Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, in bringing his faith in God to bear on the deep pain he holds of the horror of past conflict in his own land, has the following to say:

The only way to peace is through embrace… I open my arms to create space in myself for the other.  The open arms… are an invitation to the other to come in and feel at home with me.  In an embrace I also close my arms around the other - not tightly so as to crush her and assimilate her forcefully into myself, for that would not be an embrace but a concealed power-act of exclusion; but gently so as to tell her that I do not want to be without her otherness.  I want her to remain independent and true to her genuine self, to maintain her identity and as such become part of me so that she can enrich me with what she has and I do not.

Boyce, G., An improbable feast: The surprising dynamic of hospitality at the heart of multifaith chaplaincy., publ Geoff Boyce, 2010, pp 26-27.

  1. In his book Backyard Theology, former Uniting Church President Rev. Prof Andrew Dutney says:

Before hospitality was an ‘industry’, it was a virtue - one central to the lives of Christians.  The people of God knew themselves to be foreigners and strangers who had been welcomed by God into the household of faith.  They, in turn, were called to extend that welcome to others (e.g. Leviticus 19: 33-34, Ephesians 2:11-21)… It was and is a normative biblical practice.

Abraham modelled hospitality in the extravagant welcome he gave the ‘three men’ who turned up when he was camped by the oaks of Mamre… That encounter was recalled as part of the birth of a nation and was imitated by the children of Abraham who remembered their own history of reliance on the hospitality of foreigners as they wandered in the wilderness.  Abraham’s hospitality to the ‘three men’ is also well known to Christians as the subject of the famous icon of the Trinity by Rubelev (1410 AD).  It’s a powerful connection - Abraham’s welcome of strangers becomes a glimpse of the being of the triune God.  There’s something very godly, even sacramental, in hospitality.

Dutney, A., Backyard Theology: Conversation starters on faith, life and leadership, MediaCom, 2011.

  1. Catherine Cornille writes:

Hospitality in difference forms an important challenge to most religious traditions. It involves a recognition that there might be elements of truth in the other religion of which one’s own religion has no previous knowledge or understanding.

Catherine Cornille, The im-possibility of interreligious dialogue, Crossroad, 2008, p.197.


A Common Word between Us and You (2007): an open Letter signed by 138 leading Muslim scholars and intellectuals to the leaders of the Christian churches and denominations of the entire world.

Jews and Judaism: a Statement by the Uniting Church in Australia (2009) is a statement which acknowledges misunderstandings, ignorance and bigotry of the past and seeks a mutually enriching way forward.

Study Four – Owning our faith

Video Reflection: Watch Muslim interfaith advocate Dr Nora Amath speak about her positive and negative experiences with Christians. There are two videos.


  1. What are the positive aspects of Nora’s story of living in Australia as a Muslim?
  2. What aspects of her story caused Nora the most pain?
  3. What differences were there between Nora’s earlier encounters with Christians, and the Christianity she encountered in Dave Andrews?


Doc.Bytes – Discussion Starter on Evangelism prepared by the Uniting Church Assembly National Working Group on Doctrine.

Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct (2011)

The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID), the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), produced this document to serve as a set of recommendations for conduct on Christian witness around the world.

The document lists a number of important principles which it calls all Christians to adhere to, especially in inter-religious contexts.  These include:

  1. Acting in God’s love.
  2. Imitating Jesus Christ.
  3. Christian virtues. Christians are called to conduct themselves with integrity, charity, compassion and humility, and to overcome all arrogance, condescension and disparagement.
  4. Acts of service and justice. Christians are called to act justly and to love tenderly (cf. Micah 6:8).
  5. Rejection of violence.
  6. Freedom of religion and belief.
  7. Mutual respect and solidarity. Christians are called to commit themselves to work with all people in mutual respect, promoting together justice, peace and the common good.
  8. Respect for all people. Christians recognise that the gospel both challenges and enriches cultures. Even when the gospel challenges certain aspects of cultures, Christians are called to respect all people. Christians are also called to discern elements in their own cultures that are challenged by the gospel.
  9. Renouncing false witness. Christians are to speak sincerely and respectfully; they are to listen in order to learn about and understand others’ beliefs and practices, and are encouraged to acknowledge and appreciate what is true and good in them.
  10. Ensuring personal discernment… changing one’s religion is a decisive step that must be accompanied by sufficient time for adequate reflection and preparation, through a process ensuring full personal freedom.

More Video:

Watch this ABC Report about how an Anglican Church in Perth opened its doors to the local Muslim community when it needed somewhere to pray.

Stages of Interfaith Engagement

A set of steps for developing friendship between people of faith. Remember the solid grounding of any friendship is trust.

STEP ONE:  Be prepared

  • Come with an open mind and a listening heart
  • Think about the key elements of your own faith
  • Do some basic research about the faith the other person holds

STEP TWO: Get to know each other

Sharing practices of our faiths is a good starting point for an interfaith conversation:

  • What special celebrations are coming up in your faith community?
  • What does this celebration mean for people of your faith?
  • What are appropriate greetings if we want to wish you well during this time?
  • Are there ways in which we of a different faith can make this time easier/more joyous for you?

TIP: Keep an eye out in your community for things like festivals, fetes and open days - they’re a great way to connect, for example Chinese New Year, the Diwali Festival, Eid al Fitr celebration and Chanukah. Many faith traditions, during their times of celebration, offer much hospitality to those in their neighbourhood. Accept the invitation!

STEP THREE: Core teachings

Share and appreciate the core teachings of each other’s faith.  It is at this stage that spiritual growth tends to occur for all participants as each begins to appreciate the teachings close to the hearts of their new friends.

  • What, for you, are the core teachings of the Christian faith?
  • What words would you use to talk about these core teachings to someone of a different faith? 

STEP FOUR: Identities

Both cultural and religious histories help shape our identities.  Your new friends may have been in Australia many generations or they may be new arrivals. 

  • What would they like to tell you about their culture? It may be the same as yours or different. 
  • What is the history of their community or their religious group in Australia?

STEP FIVE: Truth telling and overcoming fear

It is important to share honestly and openly on the aspects of our faith traditions that have been used to vilify “the other”. As Christians, we need to own our history, rejoice in the good, and to humbly seek forgiveness for those parts of our history where we have failed to “love our neighbour as ourselves”.

It is amazing the positive effect this has on relationships with others.

We also need to listen with compassionate hearts as others share with us the ways in which the words in their holy books have, on occasions, been twisted and used to promote violence and hatred.

As we get to know people of other faiths, as we become aware of their joys and pains, we also become more aware of those who would divide us, those who have used stereotypes to build up fear and hatred of people different to ourselves. By getting to know one another and the authentic teachings of the other’s faith, we can overcome harmful stereotypes and divisive messages.

STEP SIX: Difficult conversations

Be mindful of sensitive topics when we converse with those of other faith traditions.

You may agree that certain subjects are “off limits”, or indeed, each person may feel they can express how they feel about a particular topic and listen deeply to the other person come from an alternative perspective.

Do not try to solve problems or win arguments. Allow your friend to voice their fears and pains, knowing that those feelings will be respected. 

  • What would be the indicators to you, in your friendship, that you could venture into sensitive areas?
  • What techniques could you use to defuse a situation if feelings start to run high?

STEP SEVEN: Visiting each other’s place of worship or participating in multi-faith services

Visiting a place of worship different to your own can be daunting. What are the protocols? What do I do and say? At the same time, to attend a worship service of another faith tradition can be profoundly moving, especially if one of your new friends accompanies you and explains the meanings behind various aspects of the religious practice there.

Locate a worship centre of a different faith in your neighbourhood, do some research and discuss appropriate behaviour with a person of that faith.

STEP EIGHT: Working together

We can take friendship to another level by working together on projects which support the values of our various faiths.  For example, projects which respond to climate change, domestic violence, poverty or refugees.

One organisation working across faiths is the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC).

  • What issues can you think of that different faith groups could work on side by side?
  • Are there specific issues in your own neighbourhood?

STEP NINE:  Speaking up for one another

In friendship, we must live up to our core principles and values. It is our Christian belief that all human beings are made in the image of God, whatever our gender, our race or our faith.

When a friend is attacked or marginalised, we have a role to play in defending their rights and dignity.

There are many examples of people of different faiths standing in solidarity with one another at times of crisis.

One example is the Letter of Support from the Uniting Church Hunter Presbytery in NSW for the building of a new mosque following aggressive opposition and anti-Islamic sentiment from opponents.

Use these steps to assist you in forming your own interfaith friendships where you are. How you do it will depend on your circumstances and your creativity.

As a group, discuss options for enabling such friendships to occur.