by Jay Smith
Many have questioned the method that I and others are using in England to evangelize Muslims. They say it is wrong, perhaps even dangerous.
Many have questioned the method that I and others are using in England to evangelize Muslims. They say it is wrong, perhaps even dangerous. They tell us that standing on a ladder at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park challenging Islam openly, or taking on invitations to oppose Muslim apologists in highly publicized, public debates on the authority of the Qur’an is much too confrontational. What’s more, they say it is detrimental to the gospel because it “does not honor God or call people to faith in Jesus Christ.”
These people fear that these methods set one side against the other rather than engineer substantive communication. They say each is trying to publicly humiliate the other, which leads to building even higher the walls of difference between the two communities. A more likely avenue, they say, is dialogue—defined as an exercise in which two opposing parties come together and discuss their differences in an atmosphere of cordiality and mutual understanding, with the hope that a consensus would then come about.
There are probably many who agree with this premise. That is inevitable, because what I and others like me are doing is not widely practiced, is controversial, and is not entirely thought out. So how should I answer the accusations?
A REDEFINITION OF DIALOGUE
It might be helpful first to examine what we mean by dialogue. In the book of Acts, the apostle Paul used the word “dialogue” a number of times, and exemplified it in his own methodology. He first went to the Jews, and entered the synagogues, where he engaged in dialego, which is translated “to think different things, ponder, and then dispute.”1
Paul’s premise for dialoguing was not simply to learn from others, and from there to compromise his beliefs in order to evolve another set of beliefs. He knew this would bring about syncretism—a condition plaguing the worldwide church today. He used dialogue as a two-way flow of ideas. It was not limited to the pursuit of clear communication, as many modern missiologists define it. Rather, he sought to prove what he said (Acts 17:3). He marshaled arguments to support his case, provided evidence, and therefore engaged in argument.
By argument I do not mean belligerent, rude, or aggressive behavior. Arguments can and do come about whenever there is a difference of opinion. Aggressive behavior enters in when one party runs out of good ideas. When arguments are weak, shouting gets louder. We must make sure our arguments are not weak. As Paul said, “What I am saying is true and reasonable” (Acts 26:25).
Paul’s intention was not for his hearers to be converted, but to be persuaded (Acts 17:4). His job was to persuade them of the truth of the gospel. What they did with that truth was then their own responsibility.
Should we use this definition of dialogue in our work in London? Our primary intent is and always has been to defend the gospel, and to preach Christ crucified, while standing firm against those who choose to castigate these beliefs. That doesn’t mean the truth will not humiliate. But the perceived humiliation evidenced by Muslims today has little to do with my tactics and everything to do with the content of my material. If what we say is true, it does not dishonor God when we speak it even if it may humiliate the people to whom it is directed.
Christ himself publicly humiliated his adversaries and discredited elements of their faith. In Matthew 23:13-33 he called the Pharisees “hypocrites, blind guides, snakes and a brood of vipers!” Would we not say that he also humiliated the money changers in Luke 19:45? It was because of these actions that the leaders of the Jews sought to kill him (Luke19:47).Why, then, are we being castigated for doing likewise?
THE OLD PARADIGM
I have studied in four seminaries, and was taught by individuals who created their missiology while on the field as missionaries. They did so within the hostile environment of the Muslim world. In the Islamic world you cannot criticize the Qur’an nor the prophet or you would find yourself on the nextplane home. Missionaries return home with the same missiological principles and strategies that were formed in this hostile environment. Consequently, these principles have permeated the missiological teaching in our seminaries and churches today, and have influenced all of us.
Yet, England and the U.S. are not hostile environments. There is no longer a need to protect ourselves or our ministry from civil or religious authorities. The criteria needed for communicating the gospel in the Muslim world are not relevant for England or for the West.
In fact, the limits we place upon ourselves—to not be critical or confrontational—are not practiced by our Muslim friends. It is rare that a Muslim, while in dialogue with a Christian, fails to remind us that our Bible is not only corrupt but that our Lord is nothing more than a man. We do not castigate him for speaking his mind, because we live in an environment where the freedom of speech is cherished and practiced. Then why do we choose to censor ourselves? Is this not a double standard? The freedoms we allow our Muslim friends we refuse for ourselves. Consequently we are fighting the battle with one hand tied behind our backs. I believe we need to rethink our missiology, which will in turn change our methodology, to reflect this new environment.
Many believe the only credible way to do evangelism among Muslims is by a “witness to Christ (in us) and by showing how that witness changes everything.” Few would quarrel that we must be a witness to Christ in us. But is that all we are to do? Muslims say it is a corrupt witness, authenticated by an even more corrupted scripture. They compare the witness of “Christians” in the West with those in Islam. One of the primary reasons people in the U.S. give for converting to Islam is because of the witness of other Muslims. The vast majority of those in the U.S. who have converted to Islam came from Christian circles. There are many Muslims who use friendship evangelism far more effectively than we do.
The battle is much greater then simply outperforming our neighbors in kindness. The battle has to do with truth. It has to do with whether the Creator communicated his revelation to his creation, and whether we can know and recognize the difference between the communicated truth and that which is counterfeit.
Some say that a person won by an argument is at the mercy of a better argument. Similar claims can be made for the alternatives. A person won by an experience is at the mercy of a better experience. Or a person won by charity is at the mercy of a better charity. This is how cults grow.
The danger of looking for experience to validate one’s faith (or being dependent on signs and wonders) is that a vacuum is created in the area of persuasion. How do we know the evangelist or healer is speaking the truth? Miracles are required to give him or her validity. The deeds become the argument. One quickly gets disillusioned if the deeds do not match the promises.
Most evangelism training is centered in how to win people to Christ. But before people give their lives to Christ, they want to know whether Christianity is true. They want to know whether it can be held up to objective verification.
We need to show that our faith does not rest solely on personal experience. It is credible because it is backed by propositional truth. It is based on criteria which can be understood (i.e. historical verification). Rendle Short tells us, “We are not concerned to argue that natural science, archaeology or any other branch of learningprovesthe facts of the Christian religion, but rather that they do not necessarily disprove them.”2
I strongly disagree with those who say the Muslim world has seen far too little of a loving witness among Christians in the West. That is, providing the Muslims have the correct definition of what a Christian is—versus simply anyone living in the West, which I believe is all they really see and know. Ask Muslims what their impression is of Bible-believing Christians andyou will find few who would criticize us for the way we act. What they say is that we have no credibility for the way we act because the authority for what we believe has been invalidated by the truth of Islam. That is the bad news.
The good news is that we do have evidence for what we believe. That is where our apologetics come in. We also have evidence to dispute their contention “that the Qur’an invalidates the revelation which preceded it since it is the purest and final revelation from God.” New historical evidence points to many impurities in the Qur’an. It brings into question whether the Qur’an was written or even existed at the time of Muhammad. News like this must be communicated. In fact, I consider it unloving not to do so.
This brings up the question of how we define a loving witness, as exemplified by Christ and the apostles. We may need to redefine what “loving” means. I love my sons. Because I love them I discipline them when they step out of line. To do otherwise would not be loving. We often correct friends and loved ones when we feel they are incorrect. To do otherwise would not be friendly. Why, then, is it not acceptable to do the same with our Muslim friends, particularly when to keep quiet will have eternal repercussions?
THE MUSLIM AGENDA
We need to take a closer look at who we are communicating the gospel to. It is they, not we, who have taken on the more confrontational, polemical agenda. Look at the literature on their book tables. Go to Muslim meetings on campus and listen to their speakers. Peruse the Muslim Web pages on the Internet. There are over 200 Muslim Web sites which challenge Christianity. Yet we have only seven to counter them.
These Muslims are not seeking to “dialogue” with us—as defined by current missiological thinking. I would be surprised if they ever intended to follow the rules we set, because it ill reflects their own cultural forms for communicating ideas. Instead, they have chosen a tack which better reflects who they are.
And who are they? The vast majority are not from the Middle East, but from Asia. More specifically they are from the Indian subcontinent (Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh), which, along with Indonesia, now makes up almost half the Muslim world—over 500 million Muslims. They have taken on the polemical agenda, because it fits their own historical environment, as minorities among a much greater Hindu majority.
From this background, they have come up with the following three agendas: (1) the West is in decline (morally, socially, economically, spiritually); (2) Christianity is at fault, because of a corrupted scripture, and; (3) Islam must and will replace it, as the final and more complete revelation.
I was born and raised in India. I had Muslim roommates and classmates. More recently I have been to numerous Muslim student meetings on campus. I have also attended Friday sermons at a number of mosques in India, France, Senegal, the U.S., and England. The overarching impression I get is that the method Muslims use the world over to communicate their beliefs is drastically different from what we use in our European, Western settings. I rarely find a Muslim who is not ready to actively and vociferously defend his faith. When it comes to aggressive evangelism, they put us to shame. When we fail to do the same they assume we have little to say, and even less to impart to them. I find that sad.
THE EARLY CHURCH
Ironically, this proactive and confrontational methodis whatJesus and his disciples used. Defense or apologia against an accuser is mentioned five times in the New Testament (Acts 22:1; Acts 25:16; 1 Cor. 9:3;2 Cor. 7:11; and 2 Tim. 4:16). Twice we are asked to defend the gospel (Phil. 1:7,16; and 1 Peter 3:15). A strong defense of our beliefs is not foreign to New Testament teaching.
Jesus, a Jew from the Mediterranean world, was in an environment similar to that which gave birth to Islam. Jesus confronted the Pharisees. He called them hypocrites, blind fools, whitewashed tombs, as well as snakes and vipers(Matt. 23:13-33). He was equally confrontational with the money-changers at the temple (Luke 19:45). He did not seek to discuss their position in an atmosphere of mutual understanding. Rather, he stormed in and upturned their tables.
Paul, for his part, went to the synagogues and marketplaces to reason with those who were there (Acts 17:17). He went to the synagogues and announced that this Jesus, whom they had crucified, was the promised messiah for whom they had been waiting. Paul was thrown out of the synagogues. But that didn’t stop him. He continued preaching in the market squares. From there he was thrown into prison. That didn’t shut him up. Paul continued on even in jail, preaching and singing to the people responsible for keeping him there. Uppermost in his mind was the need to persuade people of the truth of the gospel. He sought to, “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). If that isn’t proactive and forthright I don’t know what is.
Paul not only went to the Jews on their home ground, the synagogues, and reasoned with them using their Scriptures (Acts 17:1-2), but he went outside his community to the Greeks in their territory as well. He reasoned with them from within their traditions (v. 17). In Ephesus, a pagan city, he began by “arguing persuasively” at the synagogue for three months (Acts 19:8). When he was forced to leave, he went to the lecture hall of Tyrannus, a secular institution, where he continued his discussions with both Jews and Greeks for two years (Acts 19:9- 10). In Rome from morning until evening for two years he boldly “tried to convince” those who came to him about Jesus” (Acts 28:23-31).
When Paul went to the people, he didn’t go with religious platitudes. Instead, he learned to speak to them on their level. While in Athens he learned about the Greeks’ beliefs. He studied the objects of their worship (Acts 17:22-23). He knew their philosophies, both Epicurean (remote God) and Stoic (pantheistic). He even quoted their writers, Epimenedes of Crete and the poet Aratus (v. 28). After understanding them on their level, he demonstrated the inadequacy of their ideas (v. 29).
Some say Paul’s method in Athens was unsuccessful, and so he chose a more spiritual strategy in Corinth. Yet we find that some of the gentiles in Athens were converted. Two are listed by Luke: Dionysius (a member of the Areopagus—possibly the same Dionysius whom Eusebius later records as the first bishop of Athens—and the woman named Damaris (Acts 17:34).
Other apostles went outside their community and used dialogue to reach those outside the Christian community. When confronted by members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen, the Jews of Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia, Stephen did not return to his own. Instead, he held his ground and returned their arguments, so much so that “they could not stand up against his wisdom” (Acts 6:9-10). They finally reverted to executing him (Acts 7:57-8:1). Philip was equally comfortable in dialogue with the Ethiopian (Acts 8:26-40).
Jesus also involved himself in dialogue with outsiders. Consider his encounter with the rich young ruler (Matt. 19:16), his confrontation with the Pharisees and Herodians (Mark 12:13); the dispute with his Pharisee host at a dinner party (Luke 7:36-50); hiscontactwith Nicodemus (John 3); and his meeting with the Samaritan woman (John 4).
Just as those who gave us the gospel engaged the leaders and thinkers from the surrounding world, we must do likewise in our own environment, be it London, the U.S., or wherever the Lord chooses to put us. The atmosphere has changed little since the first century, and has perhaps become increasingly vociferous.
What has been our response to the newly aggressive evangelistic stance taken by Islam? Here in England there are few Christians standing up to defend themselves against these attacks. Whether it is through fear, ignorance, a misguided missiological position, orsimple lethargy, the church has refused to defend its beliefs. I find my job increasingly an isolated and lonely affair (2 Tim. 4:16-18). This is sad and debilitating, because I strongly believe it is giving Muslims the wrong message.
A NEW PARADIGM
We need to ask ourselves what Muslims are hearing from us. When we fail to stand up for the authority of our Scriptures, when we refrain from speaking about the lordship or divine nature of Jesus Christ, or are reluctant to define, let alone defend, the Trinity, and when we continually apologize for what we believe to be true, the message the Muslims hear is that we not only misunderstand our beliefs, but we are unsure whether they are accurate. How can we convince them of the truth of the gospel when we look and talk as if we are doubtful ourselves?
Take the example of the Muslim imam, Maulvi Sahib. He is forthright, dynamic, stalwart, and triumphant in his conviction that the Qur’an is the final word of God, and that Islam is the faith for today.
Those who listen to him are convicted as much by his presentation as by what he says. This has been brought home to us as we watch our television screens and wonder at the mass hysteria evidenced at many of the Friday rallies across the Muslim world. The closest parallel we have are our evangelistic crusades. Yet, the very vehicle which works so well for those coming to Christ in our own communities, we refuse to use with Muslims for fear of hurting their sensibilities. Attempting to be “Christ-like,” we come across as elusive, docile, subdued, and timid.
We think we are communicating the gospel as Christ had intended, yet we fail to look at his example, an example the Muslims emulate better than we do. Meanwhile the Muslims raise up leaders in their communities who look at the model of dialogue as not an exercise for mutual understanding but as an excuse to score points and “win the day.”
Have any of us wondered why so few Muslims convert to Christianity, when we know that we speak for truth? Why is it that we are so convinced of the gospel, yet the vast majority of Muslims with whom we speak walk away believing our message is wrong? Could it be our methodology is wrong? Furthermore, is it not curious that those who do come through are not the opinion-makers or leaders within their community?
Certainly, one can blame the small numbers of converts on social factors. But could it not also be that our paradigm is inadequate? Could it be that we need to get away from our own ethnocentric European and American way of communicating the gospel, which reflects more our own sensibilities, and take a look at how they do it? I think we must.
Let’s be honest. The battle is engaged, and for too long we have been losing it big time. Yet we have been given one of the key weapons with which to fight the battle—historically corroborated evidence which not only authenticates our Scriptures but eradicates the authority for the Qur’an. I feel this will bring about a real disillusionment within Islam in the West, as it strikes at the very foundation of all they believe. We welcome criticism of our Scriptures, which is proper, as it keeps open the door for a real exchange of ideas and dialogue. We castigate those who seek to do the same with the Qur’an.
We have raised a generation of students ill-equipped to define what they believe, and even less equipped to defend it in public. We expend energy creating a plethora of worn-out excuses as to why we must not hurt the sensibilities of our Muslims friends. At the same time we send our youth to take on the challenge of Islam on the campuses. They are given few rebuttals and even fewer models to emulate.
Instead of running from a healthy exchange with our Muslim friends, we must take on their challenge and begin finding answers. Let us go to those who dispute us and respond to their claims resolutely, showing them that we do have answers to their questions. But let us do it with a conviction born out of honest debate. This will help strengthen the church. Because itforces us to go back to our apologetics and find answers which we know exist. Like Peter we must be “prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks (us) to give the reason for the hope that (we) have” (1 Pet. 3:15).
Inevitably our convictions will engender a response in kind, particularly where it involves refuting what Islam believes. We must be prepared to not only defend against their attacks, but take the same questions to them.
Those who have gone before us were prepared to die for what they believed. History tells us that all of the disciples bar one gave their lives for the gospel. Are we likewise prepared? I think it is only right that we take the challenge before us and follow their example. Then maybe we will see not just ones and twos coming to the Lord, but entire families, communities, and nations. That is my prayer. I would like to believe it is yours as well.
FOR TWO RESPONSES TO THIS ARTICLE IN THIS ISSUE OF EMQ SEE:
"History Reveals Questions about This Approach," anonymous author, EMQ, January 1998.
"Other Options for Muslim Evangelism," by Phil Parshall, EMQ, January, 1998.
1. Taken from Peter May’s Dialogue in Evangelism, Grove Books Ltd., Bramcote, Nottingham, 1990.
2. Rendle Short, Modern Discovery and the Bible 4th ed., Downer’s Grove, Ill., IVP, 1954.
3. With help from material presented in Peter May’s Dialogue in Evangelism, Grove Books Ltd., Bramcote, Nottingham, 1990.
Jay Smith is an American missionary with Brethren in Christ World Missions. Formerly a missionary in a North African country, he has participated in debates with Muslims throughout England.
EMQ, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 28-35. Copyright © 1998 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.