Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Danger of Resting on Common Ground

On two occasions I've encountered a growing trend among missional and outreach efforts to connect with non-Christians. Namely, a belief that a person can turn to Christ...and remain in their current religion. I first encountered this on a broadcast of James White's The Dividing Line, where they played a clip of William Lain Craig saying that they can convince Mormons to be "more orthodox" while remaining Mormon; I encountered this again when someone told me that some missionaries were trying to reach Muslims without making them literal "Christians."

The strategy for this belief is simple enough. First, find common ground between the two faiths (for example, the belief in Jesus found within both Christianity and Islam). Looking at the other faithful's scripture. Then, turn the scripture of the faithful towards a Christian interpretation. For example, try to show the Muslims that the Quran speaks in a more Christian language than they might think, or tell the Mormons that their early leaders may have not meant what they've been told they meant. Then, when the person decides to embrace Christ...let them stay where they are, because so long as their heart is towards Jesus, it's OK. If a Muslim wishes to stay at the mosque and pray with the other Muslims, let him.

The second time around, I was introduced to scriptural justification for this tactic.
  • No where in the Bible is a person ever told, "You need to become a Christian." The word "Christian" itself is only used in the New Testament three times: Acts 11:26 ("And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians"); Acts 26:28 (Agrippa says to Paul "In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian"); 1 Peter 4:16 ("Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name"). Supposedly, the hint here is that the name "Christian" was an insult.
  • In 1 Corinthians 7:17-24, Paul speaks in detail about how a believer should not drastically change their position in life because of their conversion: "in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God" (7:24). Therefore, people should not be moved from where they are at the commands of men. 
  • In Acts 17, as Paul speaks to the Athenians, he makes reference to their poets and philosophers, as well as the local religions, speaking to the Gentiles from a Gentile context. In other words, he speaks solely from their texts and mindset.
  • In Acts 15, there is an issue regarding the place of the Gentiles in a church that had started out with predominantly Jewish followers. Some of the Jewish Christians were stating that the Gentiles had to first become Jewish (in other words, adhere to the commands of Moses, including circumcision) before becoming Christian. The Council of Jerusalem, held by the apostles and the church, does away with this notion and declares that the Gentiles are free of this responsibility. The argument by the missions-minded individuals is that in a similar fashion people declare that a person first has to become Christian in order to come to Christ.
I would propose, however, that this line of thinking is not only unbiblical, but dangerous as well. I hope, God willing, to review these arguments one by one, and discuss why this strategy is dangerous.

#1: The Issue of Being Called "Christian"

We are told that nowhere in the New Testament is a person ever told, "You need to become a Christian." When we say this, I think we need to first identify what we mean by "Christian." If we mean a specific church, then I fully agree. I would never tell a Muslim coming out of Islam something along the lines of "You need to join a Baptist church or you're going to hell," or "You need to join a Methodist church or you're going to hell." If this is where we draw the line, then I fully agree. However, if by "Christian," we mean someone who believes that Jesus Christ is Messiah, Lord and God, that He exists within the Trinity, that He was crucified, died, rose again and ascended to the Father, and that only in belief in Him can one find salvation...then I'm sorry, but yes, they need to become a Christian.

In regards to the very question, "Where in the New Testament does it say you need to become a Christian," I'm afraid that this is a bit like the Muslim declaration fallacy. That is, the demand that a Christian show a passage where Jesus exactly states the words, "I am God." As with that fallacy, the words do not have to be stated to be true. No where in the New Testament does it say "You have to believe in the Trinity," yet judging from scripture and what our Lord says, this becomes an obvious part of our faith. Scripture testifies it as a necessity. Likewise, while it does not say "You have to become a Christian," as we already showed in defining what being "Christian" really means, that this too becomes an obvious part of our faith.

In regards to the argument that the word "Christian" is used in the New Testament in an insulting matter, while that is a nice idea to suggest, I do not believe there is any conclusive scriptural proof that the word "Christian" was simply an insult. In any case, it has become obvious that a word meant as an insult at first no longer has that connotation, and should not be used in that connotation (it is certainly obvious, by Peter's epistles, that if the word had any negative connotation, such was being phased out). It is a very dangerous thing to over contextualize a passage, or to use a standard applied by one group of people at one point of time in history as something that can be broad brushed across the board.

If anything, this attempt to speak of unity between the terms "Christian" and "Muslim" is affected more by the secular use of the word "religion" than it is Christian scripture. "Religion" has been used in such a broad definition and application that so many people fall into the trap of believing all religions teach the same thing (which is the equivalent of saying all political beliefs teach the same thing). As we've discussed before, however, there are real differences between a person who calls themselves "Christian" and a person who calls themselves "Muslim," and you cannot confuse - let alone infuse - the definitions of those words.

#2: Regarding 1 Corinthians 7:17-24

Paul does indeed encourage followers to essentially "remain as you are," but it's important to realize why he was saying that. He had spent most of the seventh chapter discussing celibacy, and is now branching off to advise the Corinthians against any drastic life changes in a work-justifying mindset. Shortly after this section he will advise them not to divorce or marry after their conversion (7:25-27).

How literal should we take this command from Paul to "remain as your are"? It might be noted that elsewhere Paul goes on about the changes made in a person's lifestyle. To the Roman Christians (yes, I'm using that word), Paul wrote:
But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. [Rom 6:17-18; ESV]
Likewise to the Ephesian church:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. [Eph 2:1-3; ESV]
And finally to the Colossian church:
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. [Col 3:5-8; ESV]
That we should not make drastic changes in our lifestyle - such as leaving our spouses or quitting our job - on account of our repentance is true. However, that we should remain completely as we were is an exaggeration of Paul's point. If a past lifestyle or belief contradicted that which was taught of God, it was to be abandoned. That which displeased God was thrown away.

Remember from what context we are discussing this: a Muslim turning to Christ and yet still worshiping in the mosque. Towards where does the mosque worshiper prostrate in the mosque? Towards Mecca. What prayers are given while the mosque worshiper prostrates and bows? The prayers of Islam. By what commands are all these given? By the commands of Mohammad. Who was Mohammad to those who adhere to the Christian faith? A false prophet. It is clear that when a Muslim comes to Christ, one of the first things they must do is leave the mosque.

#3: Regarding Acts 17

I've already written about Acts 17 in relation to universalism in this post, so I'm not too surprised I'm returning to it here. It seems to be one of the most misunderstood chapters in the New Testament, in particularly in relation to how we treat other faiths.

Let us first admit there is some truth in this opinion of Acts 17: Paul does attempt to speak to the Athenians from their context, their mindset, and quotes largely from their poets and philosophers. He begins by making reference to the Athenian temple of the "unknown god" (17:23) and moves on to discuss who that "unknown god" is. He compares the true traits of this known God to the opinion of philosophers and poets regarding the relationship between mankind and the deity (17:27-28).

However, to what extent is this carried? Paul certainly doesn't tell them to keep worshiping in their pagan temples (remember the "unknown god" was an add-on to the other twelve gods of Greek polytheism). He tells them that idolatry and the worship of idols - which the Athenians did - was incorrect (17:29). Perhaps most of all, Paul tells the Greeks that these times of ignorance God had in the past overlooked, but now God commands all men to repent from these ways, for the day is coming when He will judge the world through the righteousness of Jesus Christ (17:30-31).

There is much to learn from Acts 17 when taken in the proper context. When I speak to Muslims, I often begin entirely from the Quran, the ahadith, and their historical commentators. This is partially out of respect for them, and partially so that I can, by the grace of God alone, bring them in a direction towards Christ. For example, I speak of how the Quran refers to the books that came before, and talk of how the New Testament looks to the Old Testament through citations, and speak of the relationship Christ has with us in the gospel versus His relationship with us in the Quran. There is absolutely no reason why a Christian should not research the beliefs of a non-Christian faith - in fact, if they wish to reach out to people of another religion, it would have to be mandatory. It is likewise no fault on a Christian for going into non-Christian places of worship if their goal is to deliver God's message, just as Paul did to the Jews in unbelieving synagogues or the pagans in their secular meeting places.

Yet however far we may dive into their scripture, or whenever we might begin to point them towards Christ, what should be our driving message? Should it be "Transform your current religion to be more appealing to ours," or should it be, "Repent of your sins and turn to Christ"? Judging from the true context of the words of the apostle Paul in Acts 17, it would seem that the latter message is far more biblical and apostolic.

#4: Regarding Acts 15

The argument made in relation to Acts 15 is that it was a matter of one culture forcing itself on another. The Jews, adhering to the Law, believed that the Gentiles should adhere to Judaism before becoming Christian. Likewise, non-Christians are being told to conform to Christianity before coming to Christ.

What was the real issue in Acts 15? That men from Judea (the Jewish-centered churches) were going to the Gentile-centered churches abroad in Asia and telling them, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved" (15:1; ESV). After sparring with Paul and Barnabas, the apostles meet in Jerusalem to discuss this issue (15:2). There, Peter recounts the vision he received in Acts 10 to the brothers present (15:7-11), followed by Paul and Barnabas recounting the grace given to the Gentiles (15:12) and James telling the entire council that they should not impose the Law upon the Gentile Christians (15:13-21).

The fine point of the council was that some believed the Gentiles had to comply with the works of the Law, circumcision and all. The theological struggle of justification by works versus justification by faith would be a struggle for the apostle Paul, and would continue to be so for much of his ministry. In much of the opening chapters of Romans he takes great pains to illustrate that both Jews and Gentiles are under equal judgment from God, and that it is not works but faith that makes a man righteous.

Those who turn to Acts 15 to justify the mission-minded position often leave out an important part of the story - namely, what the council wrote to the churches abroad.
The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell. [Acts 15:23, 28-29; ESV]
We've already discussed that the command "remain as you are" should not be taken in a completely literal sense, and we see it confirmed further here. Even though the Gentiles were not bound by the Jewish Law and customs, they were still bound under some regulation (if we may call it that).

The real definition of what "becoming Christian" means has been outlined. On the same token, we can identify that any non-Christian title means adhering to the beliefs of that faith. However, one cannot hold beliefs in one faith and another. Therefore, if a person calls themselves a "Muslim" in the sense that they adhere to the tenets of Islam, then they must conform to Christianity. One cannot hold to the beliefs of two religions that contradict one another any more than a servant could serve two masters.

Part of the problem here may be that we are assuming "Muslim" is an ethnicity or race, which it is not - in fact, Islam has a plethora of races, in particular Arabic, African, and southeast Asian. If we are talking about enforcing a culture on another, then I would agree that it is the wrong thing to do. If, however, we are calling "Muslim" an ethnicity and demanding a person not be removed of that title, then I must fully disagree.

Let me make something clear: if an Arabic man converted from Islam to Christianity, I would never, ever tell him to deny his Arabic heritage. I would never tell him to act European, or to immediately adopt western customs and dress. I would never tell him he had to pray in English. I would never tell him to do away with everything in his life that was Arabic for the sake of another culture. As this post is being written, there are Arabic Christians right now - some meeting in Christian churches and some meeting in private under penalty of death - who are worshiping their Lord as Arabs.

However, I would never tell a man leaving Islam to return to the mosque to worship any more than I would tell a man saved from a burning building to walk back into the flames. The only reason a man would run back into a burning building would be to save the lives of those also in danger - so too should that be the only goal of a person going back into from whence they came. Do not go into a mosque to worship as Mohammad instructed, but go into a mosque to save by the grace of God those who live under the spell of Mohammad's error.

One thing that might be painstakingly clear: althoug there is no moment in the New Testament where anyone is told, "You need to become Christian," neither do we see pagans remaining pagan in any way, shape or form.

Final Notes

Perhaps the strangest part of this argument is the suggestion that non-Christians can be told their scripture doesn't mean what they think it means. The orthodox understanding by Mormons and Muslims in regards to their theology, for example, is often shrugged off as, "Well those are their traditions, and we just need to get past those." I'm sorry, but...such a statement is greatly insulting to the non-Christian.

I heard this excuse made in regards to S. 4:157, the famous Quranic verse which denies the death of Christ on the cross. The excuse was that it simply says they thought they killed Jesus, but they didn't, and that it was later Muslim "tradition" that denied the crucifixion outright. I hope the discerning reader will understand that it has been "tradition" that the passage referred to a denial of a true crucifixion death since the advent of Islam. Yes, there are varying traditions regarding what the passage means (some say Judas replaced Jesus, some say Jesus fainted, etc), however every single orthodox Muslim believes that this passage refers to a denial of the crucifixion as Christians understand it. To throw this out as irrelevant is an insult to Muslims who know their own religion as well as anyone who has given any semi-serious time to a study of the Quran and its interpretation.

In a similar vein, I have heard attacks made against the translations. Some have said that translations of the Quran emphasize division, and that when you really study the Arabic it becomes more Christian in tone. While I know many Muslims would agree that a person needs to know Arabic to understand the real clarity of some Quranic verses, I think many would also be shocked that every single English translation of the Quran cannot be trusted. I've read Muslim reviews of translations on internet forums, and (much like Christians do with the Bible) if a translation does a shoddy job or doesn't handle certain subjects or grammar well, they bring it up. Thus far, I have yet to hear any Muslims say that all translations emphasize division and that essentially no translation can be trusted. One would almost imagine that the reason Quranic translations emphasize division is because a book which condemns Christian theology (S. 5:73-74) throughout and declares its own religion to be the true one (S. 3:85; 9:33) would naturally cause some level of division.

Imagine, for a moment, these arguments made in reverse. Imagine Muslims going to Christians and saying, "Oh, you see, your Bible actually confirms the Quran." Imagine Muslims going to Christians and saying, "Oh, your interpretation of the Bible is just tradition, we know what it really means." Imagine Muslims going to Christians and saying, "Actually, every single translation of the Bible is wrong, we know what those passages really mean."

Wait, doesn't this sound familiar? Ah's because this is what many Muslim apologists do. Now it seems that many Christians are trying to adopt the same strategies in regards to other faiths. It is just as dishonest and shameful when Christians do it as when Muslims do it. In fact, for Christians - who worship He who is Truth and are called to be truthful - it is an abomination to perform such practices.

On a final note, I have heard many respond to criticism of the mission-minded thinking with, "Well, what about if your heart is in the right place?" Ah, and what was the lament of the prophet Jeremiah? "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jer 17:9; ESV) By what judgment is this thinking but human judgment? Do we dare give ourselves the freedom to meddle in the worship of those who reject our Lord and God? Do we dare to allow others to remain in the ways of false prophets and religions because of a loose interpretation of a handful of scriptural passages?

Let me reiterate one more time that a Christian should be respectful of another person's religious beliefs, and - if he or she wishes to discuss another person's beliefs - have some foundational knowledge of another religion. However, as we who are called ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor 5:20) are expected to deliver His message untainted and unchanged to the world, let us not forsake part of the gospel for the glorification of a man-made interpretation. No, we are not trying to conform other men to the commands of men, but allowing God to transform them into the image of God that they were before the fall.