by Bradford Greer
I meant well. My heart was filled with love for my Muslim friends and I wanted them to know how liberating salvation in Christ was. The more acquainted I became with my friends’ religion, the more I realized how bound they were to the plethora of futile rituals.
I meant well. My heart was filled with love for my Muslim friends and I wanted them to know how liberating salvation in Christ was. The more acquainted I became with my friends’ religion, the more I realized how bound they were to the plethora of futile rituals. Their rituals appeared to have a numbing effect on their spiritual condition. By performing rituals they mistakenly thought that God would weigh those good deeds against the sins they committed. They figured that by following their religious practices they could work their way into heaven.
I wanted my friends to know the freedom from empty rituals that followers of Jesus have. So when the opportunity arose to discuss my faith, I shared how I was free from the law. Jesus had earned salvation for me; therefore, I no longer had to try to earn salvation by my works. Salvation is received by faith in what the Messiah had done. All who followed Jesus were no longer expected to perform empty religious laws, but were the recipients of the mighty grace of God.
As I spoke I saw that they listened intently. On my way home I was elated at the anointing I experienced while speaking. I felt that God had finally opened the door for me to share and my friends had heard what I had said. I was certain my words had made a permanent impression on their minds.
The next time I was together with my friends they gave me a cool reception. They had no interest in talking with me about religion. I wondered what the reason was for their response. I thought that maybe our talk together had brought too much conviction on them and they had to retreat into the safety of their religion for a while.
After a few days I discovered the reason for the ongoing coolness in our relationship. The discussion had indeed made a profound impression on my friends, but the impact was not what I had anticipated. I discovered that my friends had no respect for my religion and they questioned my character. When I had said that I was free from the law I unknowingly used a term that had been redefined in their minds. When I was speaking about freedom from vain ritual they thought that I was speaking about freedom from morality. They understood my words to mean what they had been taught, that Christians believe that they have permission to get drunk and commit adultery. *
This narrative is a consolidation of a number of incidents that occurred during my initial years on the field. Through my experiences I discovered that my understanding of "freedom from the law" did not translate well into my host, Muslim culture. "Freedom from the Law" was a culturally loaded phrase. I used it while not understanding the implications it held for Muslims. Each time I had used it I was setting off "red flags" for my friends who could not understand what I meant.
As I realized how difficult it was to communicate about the freedom that we Christians have in Christ, I sought for an alternative. I am not sure that the alternative I have found is valid. It is for this reason I am writing this article. I hope to stimulate discussion in the mission circles as to how to effectively communicate the truths of the gospel to Muslim communities. Second, I hope to spare others from being misinterpreted as I have been. This is not a misunderstanding that is limited to the area in which I have worked for seventeen years. My wife and I have seen how widespread this perception is in the Muslim world. Just recently my wife was visiting with a group of Muslim women in a major city in the US. One of them, the only one who grew up and was educated in the US, exclaimed that Christians think it is permissible to commit adultery. How did that woman, a Muslim from birth, raised in the US, get such a preposterous idea? It appears that this perception is endemic in the Muslim Ummah. We only reinforce it when we declare our freedom in Christ.
What is an alternative to such a declaration? First, gospel communicators must ask themselves what they mean by this terminology. What did Paul really mean when he said that believers were no longer "under the Law" (Gal. 4:21 NASB)? Does freedom from the law mean that Christians are no longer bound by the moral restrictions of the law? Second, Western evangelicals are fundamentally anti-ritual. Many missionaries I know are strongly opposed to religious rituals. Initially I was too; however, I have softened in my stance over the years. Is it right for us to be opposed to religious rituals?
These are important questions. The way we answer them will have great impact on how we communicate our faith in a Muslim context, a context immersed in law and ritual. Do the Scriptures give us insight in how to proceed? Is the declaration of our freedom the only declaration we have as followers of Jesus?
Interestingly, the apostle who gave us the theological paradigm of "Freedom from the Law" also gave us an alternative missiological paradigm useful for rigorous legalistic contexts in which we can incarnate the gospel message. Even though Paul declared the Gentiles were no longer under the Law as we read in the Book of Acts, Paul continued to live as if he was (see Richard Longnecker’s Paul, Apostle of Liberty, pp. 245-63). Therefore, I propose that "Living under the Law" is a more viable Pauline missiological model for incarnating the gospel message in an Islamic contest than "Living Free from the Law." A demonstration of this model is provided in the pericope of Acts 24:10-16 (NASB), where Paul makes his defense before the governor, Felix:
"When the governor had nodded for him to speak, Paul responded: "Knowing that for many years you have been a judge to this nation, I cheerfully make my defense, since you can take note of the fact that no more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship. Neither in the temple, nor in the synagogues, nor in the city itself did they find me carrying on a discussion with anyone or causing a riot. Nor can they prove to you the charges of which they now accuse me. But this I admit to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect I do serve the God of our fathers, believing everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets; having a hope in God, which these men cherish themselves, that there shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. In view of this, I also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men."
The context of this pericope centers around Paul’s trip to Jerusalem to present the financial gift he had collected from the Gentile congregations in Southern Europe and Asia at the end of his third missionary journey (Acts 21:15-17). In Paul’s mind this was a good opportunity to offer a love offering from the primarily Gentile churches who desired to show their love and solidarity with the Jewish churches in Judea. After arriving in Jerusalem and being given a warm reception by the church, the elders asked Paul to publicly show the Jewish community that he was not against the Law. They asked Paul to purify himself along with some men who were under a vow and cover their expenses, so that Paul could publicly show that he walked "orderly, keeping the law" (Acts 21:23-24 NASB).
While nearing the completion of the seven-day ritual, some Jews from Asia stirred up the crowd against Paul and he was arrested. As the narrative proceeds Paul must defend himself before the governor, Felix.
In Paul’s defense before Felix, Luke gives us a portrait of Paul’s self-identity and his missiological methodology. Both offer solid biblical justification for viewing "Living under the Law" as a viable missiological paradigm.
Paul begins his defense with the rhetorical device, captatio benevolentia: "Knowing that for many years you have been a judge to this nation, I cheerfully make my defense,…" Paul refers to the longevity of Felix’s term as governor, which was from 52-60 A.D., longer than any other since Pontius Pilate (Fitzmeyer 1998, 735). Paul says nothing about the character of Felix’s rule, though his admission of cheerfully making his defense was meant to appeal to the positive sensibilities of the governor.
Paul does not spend much time flattering Felix. He gets right into his defense. He denies the charge by Tertullus that he was forging a conspiracy (Acts 24:5-8). Paul points out that he was only a very short time in Jerusalem and this fact was easily verifiable. Paul says: "…you can take note of the fact that no more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship" (Acts 24:11 NASB). Since he was there only a short time it was inconceivable that he was maliciously intent on causing any disturbance. Paul declares that his purpose in going to Jerusalem was to worship God.
A key word in this verse is "worship." By his own words Paul validates the use of ritualistic forms of worship which he considered no longer necessary. He did not simply sponsor those Jewish believers; he was in the temple with these men, participating with them in fulfilling their purification rites and in worship. Evidently Paul was not troubled by the use of these rituals. He experienced no internal conflict in paying for the men to have their heads shaved to be purified. In fact, Paul himself did a similar thing after he had left Corinth (Acts 18:18). Also, Paul defined his performance of these rituals as "worship," an unusually strong word.
Paul’s personal behavior and methodology appear to conflict with his theology. Paul dogmatically states that believers are no longer under the Law, and no one should resubmit to it (Gal. 4:21-5:1). Though Paul theologically had an aversion to people seeking to be accepted by God on the basis of law (Gal. 5:4), he had no aversion to living under the law. He was free to conform his lifestyle to the law to win those under the law (1 Cor. 9:19-23). He also appears to have used rituals of the Law when he personally felt a need or was in times of duress. Paul is shown using the rituals of the Nazirite vow to psychologically support himself as he went through a very dangerous time in Corinth (Acts 18:18; 2 Cor. 1: 8-10). Barnabas and he tore their clothes in Lystra when the people were trying to sacrifice animals to them, misperceiving that they were Zeus and Hermes. Tearing clothes was a Jewish form of grief and repentance, a form that apparently was not understood by their Gentile audience. It took a considerable amount of effort for them to stop the people from making the sacrifices (Acts 14:8-18).
From this biographical data Paul is shown to be fundamentally Jewish in disposition. He could live free from the Law when he was with Gentiles, but he also couldn’t deny who he intrinsically was. He is seen freely living under the Law, using his Jewish rituals in meaningful ways to support his faith. Due to his methodological flexibility and Jewish heritage he was able to positively respond to the Jerusalem elders and go to the Temple to worship. It was while he was worshipping God with traditional rituals that he was arrested.
Denying any wrongdoing to Felix, Paul interestingly admits to part of the charges against him. He confesses that he is a member of the Way (Greek: hodos), which the Jewish leaders pejoratively called a sect (Greek: haireses). However Paul draws an important distinction here. By differentiating the Way from the term "sect" Paul implies that the Way is normative and binding for all the people of Israel (Barrett 1994, 1104).
No information is given in Acts on how the term developed among the Christian community but according to Isaiah 40:3 and 43:16-19, the Way of the Lord can "refer to God’s provision of deliverance from enslavement or exile" (Freedman 2000, 1371). This eschatological freedom from exile, referred to in Isaiah, is one of Luke’s defining characteristics of the self-understanding of the Jewish Messianic community. At the transfiguration, Moses and Elijah speak of the "exodus" Jesus was "to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem" (Luke 9:30-31). Peter in his first speeches in Acts quoted a prophecy from Amos, an eschatological passage, and spoke of its fulfillment. Paul develops the theme of Israel’s eschatological deliverance through a promise-fulfillment motif in his sermon at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:16-41). Paul concludes that sermon with a message of hope and liberation:"…and by him every one that believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses" (Acts 13:39 RSV). According to N.T. Wright it was on the basis of this eschatological deliverance of Israel that Paul engaged in his ministry to the Gentiles (Wright 1997, 37).
Such an eschatological understanding seems to make sense out of Paul’s next four statements in Acts 24. Paul says that he: 1) serves the God of his ancestors; 2) believes everything in the Law and Prophets; 3) has the same hope in God that the Jewish leaders do, which is the resurrection of the righteous and the wicked; and 4) seeks to always keep a clear conscience before God and humankind.
These four declarations substantiate that Paul understood himself to be fundamentally a Jew, a Pharisee, and a disciple of Jesus. By saying he serves the God of his ancestors and that he believes everything in the Law and Prophets, Paul is declaring his continuity with the faith his ancestors had. He is not a member of a sect; his faith is an expression of true Judaism (Wright 1997, 39). By declaring he has the same hope that the Jewish leaders have, he was declaring that he was a Pharisee-he believed in the resurrection of the righteous. However, Paul goes on to add an extra element that (according to Josephus) the Pharisees did not believe in, the resurrection of the wicked (Haenchen 1971,655).
Since this continuity with Judaism existed in his faith and although being Jewish and performing Jewish rituals did not justify Paul before God, being a follower of Jesus did not compel him to deny who he was and discontinue practicing the Law.
Understanding Paul’s self-identity and his flexible methodology is important as Western missionaries seek to minister to people who live under legalistic religious systems. In the Muslim context the central issues presented are their misunderstanding of what Christians mean by freedom, the centrality of morality in the Christian faith and the function of ritual in believers’ lives.
All too often missionaries seek to free their friends from rituals that have brought meaning and stability into their fairly unstable lives. Paul theologically established the way Gentiles could live free from such forms and be assured that God would accept them in the same way as he accepted the Jewish people, by their faith. As we have seen, even though Paul articulated the way of freedom for the Gentiles, he still utilized his religious-cultural forms for worship and prayer. Becoming a Christian for Paul did not mean that he was no longer to practice the rituals of his Jewish faith. He used those rituals for personal reasons because he was a Jew and they were meaningful for him, and he used them as a missiological strategy to reach out to other Jews.
Paul’s freedom to "live under the law" provides those missionaries who are theologically uncomfortable with legalistic rituals with the liberty to expand the parameters of their thinking in developing ways to more adequately contextualize their message. If Paul could comfortably live under the law for personal and missiological reasons, surely missionaries should be able to also, especially in those contexts where rituals are integral to the people’s lives. In addition to that, missionaries need to seriously consider the implications of removing rituals. The rituals that appear to an outsider to function oppressively may actually provide a community with a framework of stability at the social and psychological levels. Their removal may have harmful repercussions.
I must say that I personally will never feel comfortable creating or establishing rituals that are meant to enhance another person’s faith. I think that believers can themselves individually and corporately determine what rituals are meaningful for them. However, I am now more ready to encourage the development of such rituals than I was seventeen years ago.
How are we to cope with the antinomian charge against us? How can we contextualize our message in our specific Islamic contexts to counter it? I did find something in the culture I could use. Conservative Muslims have a strong allegiance to their Shariat (Islamic Law). Their antinomian perception of Christians, that we are free from the healthy restrictions of law, is a gross misunderstanding of the Christian faith. From what I see in the New Testament there is plenty of Shariat or Law. Jesus proclaimed the Law in the Sermon on the Mount; Paul did as well in Romans 12-15, Galatians 5-6, Ephesians 4-6, and Colossians 3-4. These passages highlight the role of Law as a standard for morality in the Christian life. My understanding is that, no matter how Christians perceive Jesus’ teachings on the Law, whether they are seen as deeper or fuller explanations of the Mosaic Law, or whether they are presentations of a new Law, almost all believers agree that Christians are expected to live in accordance with their moral standards, empowered to do so by the Holy Spirit. The covenant promised by God in Jeremiah 31:33 and Ezekiel 36:25-27, that God would write his Law on the hearts of his people, was fulfilled in Christ’s death, resurrection and Pentecost. Therefore, as a Christian, I am not free from living up to these standards. I may fall short in specific instances, but the Spirit is working to conform my overall lifestyle to these standards (Rom. 8:12-14).
When communicating the Good News, I tell my Muslim friends that followers of Jesus are people who "live under God’s Shariat," redefining the concept of Shariat by focusing on moral excellence. Such an approach seems to challenge my friends’ misconceptions with a new image. I stress Romans chapters six and eight, demonstrating that under the "Law of the Spirit of Life" a Christian is empowered to fulfill the righteous requirement(s) of the law (Rom. 8:2, 4). Christian freedom is freedom from the tyranny and dominion of sin (Rom. 6:6-7); it is not an antinomian freedom (Rom. 6:1-2).
The Muslim community in my area seems to have a concept that, while not equivalent to the sinful nature, seems to function well as a substitute. It is an Arabic term: nafs. It is because of the internal conflict between the good and bad nafs that a person cannot live as s/he would like. So in my communication I declare that the Messiah is one who has set me free from the dominion of the bad nafs. Followers of the Messiah have been set free to obey the Law of God, not set free from it.
Does this sound like I am advocating sinless perfection? I don’t think so. It is simply the vocalization of truths that Paul wrote under inspiration, but which some of us American evangelicals are at times reluctant to verbalize.
"Living under the Law" seems to be a biblically viable, missiological paradigm that contradicts the antinomian stereotype of Christians and can inspire a Muslim to learn more about the gospel. By presenting an admirable image different from the one expected, missionaries can soften the hardened resistance to the gospel and open "closed" Islamic communities to the gospel.
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Bradford Greer is a missionary who has been working in a strategic access country for seventeen years.
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