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Archive for July, 2011

A friend asked me to comment on http://christianityislam.blogspot.com by Elvira Maria Matthews who begins with, “I was born into a Christian family and journeyed through the world of Christendom.  I was exposed to various denominations of Christianity and did a considerable amount of study and analysis.”  She goes on to say she became a Muslim because of several issues she has with Christianity.  The following is my response to some of the questions raised in her blog:

 First, Christendom and Christianity are not synonymous, as suggested in the blog.  Christendom has to do with territories, countries, or regions inhabited by professing Christians, whereas Christianity is personal and concerned with the heart.  Convincing one whose mind is made up will not work unless the Spirit of God convinces and convicts of sin and changes the heart.  Christianity involves a relationship with the one who said: “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6).  I note the blogger says some things Christians believe are “unreasonable and ridiculous.”  That may be true because they accept what God has revealed in his unchanging Word.  The Bible says “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us, who are being saved it is the power of God.” (2 Corinthians 1:18)

Second, I cannot accept the blogger’s statement that the Bible has been corrupted.  This topic deserves more attention than possible here but the argument lacks an historical basis and is unreasonable that an all-powerful God would allow his word to be changed, corrupted or altered.   Several books can help, for example,The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? (F. F. Bruce), or Answering Islam (Abdul Saleeb and Norman Geisler).  The blogger has a hard time understanding how God’s word could be mixed with man, but the Bible explains this: “No prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 2:20-21).   The Spirit of God revealed the mind of God through human instruments, approximately forty of them, who wrote over a period of 1500 years.  Despite that period, and multiple authors, the message is one: How God redeems from sin.

Third, there is a crimson thread throughout the Bible, pointing to the coming one, who shed his blood in order to save all who put their faith in him.  Jesus repeatedly said he was on his way to Jerusalem to die and was fulfilling what had been written of him.  The New Testament builds on a foundation laid in the Old Testament.  For example, the Gospel of Matthew begins with the genealogies.  So when the blogger reads the words of Jesus, she needs to look at the context, plus other things he had to say, lest he be misunderstood.  In fact, the only way to interpret Scripture is to allow Scripture to interpret itself.   

The amazing thing is Jesus predicted he would rise again from the dead on the third day.  Those who heard him, including those closest to him, did not understand this until after the resurrection.  As the time of his death drew near, he said he was prepared to drink the “cup.”  He said he had come to give his life a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28).  Following his death and resurrection, he met two on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24), and rebuked them for being slow to understand why he had come and given his life.  Then it says he went through the Scriptures, pointing to “all the prophets” had said about him. 

In conclusion, one helpful book is A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue, by Badru Kateregga (Muslim) and David Shenk (Christian) because it allows both Muslims and Christians to speak.  I hope these comments, though limited in their scope, will contribute to the discussion.  

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 Last week in the northeastern United States, “Bridging the Divide” brought together a group of about fifty people who have invested much of their lives in seeing Muslims come to Christ. The consultation, including five former Muslims, represented a wide spectrum of views on appropriate ways to reach Muslims. The main issue was insider movements and reports were given by both insiders and non-insiders. The goal was to clear up misunderstandings, identify points of agreement and disagreement, and strive for mutual respect and understanding. Disputes over contextualization have a long history, and serious difficulties remain, but progress was made through face-to-face interaction, frank discussion and a commitment to talk rather than throw darts at a distance. For me, there were three takeaways:

Love

During introductions on the first night many said they had come to listen and this paved the way for unity on a spiritual level. Throughout, there was open sharing and prayer for one another, even tears of repentance, as unkind things had been said, often without understanding. A professor said, “I’ve wondered if we really love one another, but this time I’ve seen it in action.” A young couple, preparing to serve in the Middle East, said they were privileged to see how veteran workers modeled love and forgiveness. The most unusual thing about the consultation was an outpouring of love for one another, including those with whom one cannot fully agree.

In the end, a need was expressed to plainly state the issues that brought us together, as well as those that have divided us. The declaration, captaining the spirit of the consultation, is worth reading:

We gathered for the purpose of “Bridging the Divide” over the differences related to ministry practices in the Muslim world. Over these days we have prayed, worshiped and examined the scriptures. We have examined case studies from the field and celebrated what God is sovereignly doing to call Muslim peoples to Himself and a place in the body of Christ. We have spoken openly and honestly, showing love and respect to one another about our differences. Although serious differences remain and ongoing interaction is needed, we have sought to listen and learn and most of all to hear what God would say to us corporately as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. We have sought to be faithful to Scripture, and by the grace of God we have found agreement on certain issues, clarified misunderstandings and identified issues for further study, reflection and dialogue. With mutual respect and in submission to God and His Word, our authority for faith and practice, we have come to agreement on a number of points and committed ourselves to continue the process that we have begun in these days. To glorify the Lord and help to bridge the divide between us as we seek to extend the Kingdom to Muslim peoples. We repent of our careless and harmful and unconfirmed words, gossip, slander, and bitterness that we may have used against each other, our failures to seek to honor brethren above ourselves; and our contributing to a divisive spirit, since God has called us to be co-laborers in declaring His glory among the nations. We reject the insistence that the particular ways God has worked with our community are the only or preferred ways He must work with others in His great harvest ingathering, and the practice of encouraging cross-cultural workers from a Christian background to take on a Muslim identity. We affirm God is moving globally in a variety of ways to draw Muslims to Christ, the primacy of the Word of God for all aspects of faith and practice guided by the Spirit of God for the people of God, and practicing fidelity in Scripture translation using terms that accurately express the familial relationship by which God has chosen to describe Himself as Father in relationship to the Son in the original languages. We commit to examine the Scriptures and our own hearts diligently to renew and transform our theological, missiological and ethical understanding and practice, love those in the global community lifting up the Lord among Muslims, pursuing the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, and to intentionally seek out opposing peer review for our proposed publications that attempt to characterize the views of those with whom we disagree promote unity and understanding between new and existing express.

Understanding

The consultation provided ways to better understand opposite points of view. One highly respected professor said he was personally C-4, but with students on both sides of the insider issue, he grieved over dissension and nasty things that were being communicated.

Another speaker did an excellent job of explaining where proponents of both sides are coming from. Drawing a line on the blackboard as a continuum, he said evangelicals have different ways of viewing things such as Church, Holy Spirit, history, Islam and conversion (1). He said some believe two or three people (like a husband and wife team) constitute a church. Others insist on some organization, including the appointment of elders, in order to provide leadership and direction.

In reference to culture he went on to say some think of “The Christ of Culture (2), ” where things are neutral and fluid; others see Christ against culture, and still others of Christ transforming culture. As to history, some think of it far less important than what is going on “now” in local contexts. The opposite side sees the Holy Spirit at work throughout history: they value creeds, Christology and the development of doctrines over time. In the area of Islam, there are those who insist on an “essential Islam,” while others think of “islams,” and how local contexts have been colored by it, but vary in their religious commitment. For them the question is which Islam are we talking about? Finally, how do Muslims convert? Yes, there is always a journey, a process, whereby people individually, or in groups move toward Jesus, but how they travel down that path, and at what speed, is in often disputed. Many at the consultation found themselves somewhere in the middle of the continuum on each issue.

Clarification

Topics that generated the most discussion were ethics, translation, identity and hermeneutics. In preparation for the gathering, a survey was taken, and it was noted that there were roughly a dozen who were strongly pro-insider and just as many on the other side. Interestingly, ninety percent of them said it was normal for believers to keep their Muslim identity for a time (following conversion). Also, very few people believe it is acceptable for non-Muslims to convert to Islam in order to reach Muslims. In other words, none of those present said it was acceptable for Christian-background workers to take on a Muslim identity for the sake of the gospel (3).

Equally important, many said it is better to directly translate theological terms that are offensive to Muslims, such as “Son of God,” or “Heavenly Father,” and to provide explanations to such terms elsewhere, either in the text itself or in footnotes. It was helpful to see a translation at the consultation, The True Meaning of the Gospel of Christ, in Arabic that consistently translates “huios theou” (Son of God) as “ibn Allah” (habib Allah), that is “Son of Allah” (beloved of God), thus familial connotations are not lost (4). A large majority of the participants see membership in a local church (an organized body of baptized believers, underground or known) as essential to long-term maturity.

Concern

As the final day of the consultation wore on, and the eleventh hour drew near, a participant who had contributed a great deal to the consultation, walked out. This was a low point in the conference and it seemed the oxygen was taken out of the room. Everyone was exhausted but many voiced support to keep going. By the grace of God, and through wise and sensitive leadership, momentum was restored, and as noted above, our time together ended with broad consensus on a number of issues.

Nevertheless, in the broader context, serious differences remain. For example, in some cases too much credit is given to Muhammad, and in other cases Islam and Christianity are too close for comfort(5). In a post-conference report, a participant said he had been stunned when three western Christians had converted to Islam in his Asian city in order to reach Muslims (6). One “convert” wrote, A Better Way to Help Christians Become Muslims,” and said Isa al-Masih in the injil (New Testament) was the same as in the Qur’an (125). A second book, The Belief of Isma’il (sold at popular training grounds and widely distributed) is a fictional conversation between two Muslims. One, a follower of Jesus, leads in what could be interpreted as the sinner’s prayer:

I want to thank You so much, Allah, for the prophet Muhammad who came as warner, to warn me about how terrible the punishment would be for a sinner like me. I would also like to thank You Allah, for showing me Your by Grace and Your Mercy by sending Isa al-Masih to take the punishment of sin for me. And thank You, Allah, for raising Isa from the dead to heaven in the Hereafter. Amen. (108)

In conclusion, the question for those who attended the consultation on contextualizing the Gospel to Muslims, and those who will continue to talk through difficult issues is this: How can we remain faithful to the Scriptures and yet be open to the amazing things God is doing among Muslims in our day?

[1]In addition to those above, he covered the issue of authority, doing theology and other religions.  

[2]Christ and Culture by Richard R. Niebuhr, New York: Harper & Row, 1951.

[3]Obviously, as mentioned under “Concern,” those few who advocate such were not present at the consultation.

[4]On the negative side, in the same text, it was noted that “ho patros” (father) is sometimes translated as “rabb” (Lord).  This translation, in the view of many at the consultation, loses familial connotation and should be revised. 

[5]“Muslim Churches?  Another Perspective on C5,” EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 3, July, 2011.

[6]This is a matter of interpretation: “Becoming all things to all men” (I Cor. 9:19-22) may be misused, and   “Becoming like a Jew” points to Jewish cultural traditions vs. theology.  And, finding approval of Naaman’s religious accommodation (II Kings 5:18-19) seems to be an argument from silence or assurance of forgiveness vs. approval.

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