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Issues of Identity in a Muslim Context: Common Ground?

by Gary Corwin

For the last decade there has been an ongoing debate in mission circles on appropriate limits to contextualization among various socio-religious groups—Muslim peoples in particular.

For the last decade there has been an ongoing debate in mission circles on appropriate limits to contextualization among various socio-religious groups—Muslim peoples in particular. Our comments will speak to those Muslim contexts where in the last two years the focus of the debate has become more vigorous and public. The crux of the issue has to do with the identity of new believers. On the one hand, if belief means anything, it seems obvious that followers of Jesus Christ are Christians and not Muslims. On the other hand, it seems perfectly logical that those born in a Muslim land and following the social dictates of their Muslim community are not “Christian” (“one who walks in the degenerate and depraved ways of the West”), whatever they may believe about Jesus Christ. Hence the confusion and debate about identity.

As I have engaged publicly in this debate recently, it has struck me that there are certain things on which most followers of Christ should be able to agree. Furthermore, some of these things may open up paths that lead to greater understanding and unity. Here are seven:

1. All believers must answer to the Lord for their own decisions regarding what is biblically permissible in their own personal conduct. It is not the role of a follower of Christ to judge issues of conscience for his or her fellow servants (Rom. 14:4). This would seem particularly so where issues of life, death and persecution are involved.

2. At the same time, new believers are by no means the only party cross-cultural workers and local believers must have in view. With regard to contextualization, it is the opinions of non-believing Muslims that matter most in determining whether an act is viewed as having either appropriate respect for one’s community or having disgraceful deception.

3. The acceptability of followers of Jesus Christ engaging in some Muslim practices will vary greatly depending on the local context. The greater the distance from Mecca, the more “wiggle room” there will be for reinterpreting certain practices without charges of defilement or deception being leveled.

4. While all Christians agree that “biblically permissible” is the standard by which all actions must be assessed, there is significant difference of opinion concerning what meets that standard. It is that high and peculiar standard, however, and not personal comfort levels, that must be normative.

5. Both self-identity and community-assigned identity are at the center of the current debate, and while inter-related, both must be addressed on their own terms. Individual believers are obviously in the driver’s seat when it comes to self-identity—they determine how they will describe themselves. This is not the case with their community-assigned identity which will be determined more than anything else by the theological sophistication of the community and its history of interaction with both Islamic and biblical teaching. An unsophisticated community, for example, might define a “good Muslim” simply as anyone who does not eat pork or drink alcohol. Conforming to that definition would certainly seem a biblically permissible accommodation of “becoming all things to all men.” Likewise, being known as a “Muslim” in that context would offer few risks to the testimony of a true believer in Christ as long as there was clarity that confidence of salvation did not rest on following those proscriptions.

6. Defining terms is essential. In some contexts, it may be possible and desirable to be considered a “Muslim” in the eyes of a community. The chief obstacle to be overcome is to make clear that one is not a Muslim in terms of faith commitment (as that has been historically and theologically defined), because too much is denied about Christ and the authority of the Bible. Where being a Muslim is understood as (1) affirming that Muhammad is the “seal of the prophets” (the final authoritative word), (2) affirming the “law of abrogation” (asserting that the most recent prophecy supercedes what came before) or (3) assuming the corruption of our current Bible, it is hard to imagine how one could affirm all that without also denying Jesus Christ.

7. In situations where behavior is indeed biblically permissible, there is no need of transition. For many believers in Christ within Muslim communities, however, there are behaviors which are not biblically permissible that will continue for a time. Both the conversion process and sanctification take time, and evangelistic opportunity is fertile in such a period. The transition that will come, however, may take several forms: (1) believers will win over enough hearts (through respect for their character, life and love) to become an accepted part of the community even though they have ceased to be believing Muslims, (2) believers will be thrown out or killed or (3) the community itself will transition to Christ. What will actually happen depends at least as much on the nature of Muslim belief in the community as it does on what the new believer does and how he or she lives. Ultimately, of course, it all depends on what the Spirit of God does in the hearts of people. Perhaps that is also true in the hearts of debaters.

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Gary Corwin is associate editor of EMQ and a missiological advisor to the leadership of SIM and Arab World Ministries.

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