by Nate Irwin
The author addresses the issue of C5 contextualization
by focusing on three key areas.
Imagine Muslim missionaries come to your hometown to share their beliefs with your church members. Some of your friends from church actually become Muslims—that is, they come to believe that Mohammed was a prophet sent from God, and that Jesus was not God, nor did he die on the cross.
Now suppose these new followers of Islam continue to stay in your church, participating in church activities, worshiping with you, even taking communion. They also continue to call themselves “Christians.” What would your reaction be?
Both proponents and opponents of C5 evangelism (see Travis 1998) want to get to the top of the same mountain: a vibrant church (or communities of Christ followers, if the nomenclature is a problem) among Muslim peoples. But they want to take different paths, one primarily practical, the other theological.
Proponents tend to emphasize the practical side: what will bear the most fruit? How can a church movement ever start?, they ask, if converts are extracted from their communities? Opponents focus on theology: what is in line with scripture? Proponents, of course, want to remain biblical, and opponents want to see fruit. But the paths diverge on where priority is placed.1
Over the past three decades, as I have ministered in Muslim settings, I’ve come to anchor my own position in three key areas: the Judaistic base of Christianity, the perception of the local community, and scripture passages speaking of division.
The argument that “Muslim followers of Jesus” should be an equally valid category as “Messianic Jews” overlooks the fact that Judaism was the foundation for Christianity, whereas Islam is anti-Christian. Jesus Christ, being the true Messiah, was actually the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (see Eph. 2:20 and Rev. 21:12). Christianity is Judaism fulfilled.
Now consider Islam. Not only did Islam come after Christ—it is a re-interpretation of Christ and biblical teaching. Islam is clearly anti-Christian. It denies orthodox Christian doctrine and has distorted the teachings of scripture. This is not meant to be disparaging, but a simple look at the evidence. We must put political correctness aside and focus on biblical correctness.
Mohammed denied that Jesus was the Son of God2—in fact, such a belief is considered apostasy in Islam. Surah 5:73, 75 (Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation) states that,
They do blaspheme who say: God is one three in a Trinity: for there is no god except One God. If they desist not from their word (of blasphemy), verily a grievous penalty will befall the blasphemers among them…Christ the son of Mary was no more than an Apostle.
The greatest error in Islam is shirk, believing that God shares his divine attributes with a partner. So the doctrine that is at the very essence of the Christian faith—that Jesus was God come in the flesh—is anathema to a Muslim.
God makes it clear in 1 John 2:22-23 what he thinks about those who deny the deity of Christ: “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the anti-Christ, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father.” The logic is inescapable: if you deny the Son (i.e., that he is God), you are anti-Christ; Muslims deny the Son; therefore Muslims are anti-Christ. Second John 7 says, “Any such person is the deceiver and the anti-Christ” who denies the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh.
Mohammed did teach some good ethical principles, such as giving alms to the poor. He brought monotheism to the pagan, idolatrous society of Arabia. But was he a prophet from God? Not, for a biblical Christian, in any way imaginable, for when it comes to the doctrines that matter most—the person and work of Jesus—he was anti(against)Christ. If a prophet is wrong about anything, he must be rejected (Deut. 18:22). How much more so if he is wrong about the cardinal doctrines of the faith!
So how then could we have “Messianic Muslims,” “Christian mosques,” “Muslim followers of Jesus,” or “biblical Muslims?” Scripture says,
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. (2 Cor. 6:14-16)
This is not fundamentalist outrage or conservative parochialism—it is the word of God. The religion of Islam and biblical faith in Christ are fundamentally incompatible, and, like oil and water, they cannot mix. “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons (1 Cor. 10:21). Paul is saying that those who participate in the sacrifices (v. 18, i.e., the religious rituals of paganism) are participating with the spirit behind those sacrifices. You cannot have your feet in both boats. You must align yourself with the Christ of the Bible—or with those who are against Christ.
The Perception of the Local Community
Central to the argument of the proponents of C5 is that Islam is more than a religion; it is a culture. They, like all evangelicals, would be opposed to a follower of Christ drinking “the cup of demons.” So what they try to do is separate the cultural elements of Islam from the religious. Most of us would agree that a Christ-follower may legitimately continue to participate in the cultural elements of Muslim peoples. This is the basic principle of contextualization, and is a vital part of growing a truly indigenous church.
The rub comes when we begin talking specifics. Certainly, some elements of the practice of Islam are cultural: wearing a head covering, the division of the sexes in worship, and ceremonial ablutions, for example. But C5 advocates would press on and say that a follower of Christ may continue to worship in the mosque, say Friday prayers, and, even, some would go so far to say, continue to recite the Shahada, the creed, which says that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammed is his prophet.
With mention of the creed, we have reached the foundation of Islam. Islam, at its core, is a religion, not a culture. It is a set of beliefs about God and humanity and their relationship. It is agreement with theology, not adaptation to a certain culture, that makes one a Muslim. Islam is inextricably and undeniably religious.
A Muslim is not fundamentally someone who does certain things; he or she is someone who believes certain things, namely that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammed is his prophet.
This is in fact how you become a Muslim, by reciting that simple creed. Someone who says the creed would be considered a Muslim, even if he or she didn’t go to the mosque. Conversely, someone who goes to the mosque but does not believe the creed would not be considered a Muslim.
Someone who believes the creed will do certain things, but he or she does them from this belief base, not another. So when you go to a mosque to pray with the local ummah, the community of believers, they understand this to mean that you are identifying with that community in your common belief in the creed.
You are saying, “I am a Muslim—and that means I believe that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammed is his prophet.” And therefore, by extension, you are saying that you believe what Mohammed taught and what Muslims believe about Jesus—that he was just a human prophet and didn’t die on the cross.
If they ever have doubts about your faith, there is a very simple way for the community to clarify where you stand. A friend of mine in South Asia was taken to a mosque, surrounded by men, and told, “Recite the creed!” In that situation, if you recite the creed, well and good. If you don’t—well, you will bear the consequences. You see, you are either a Muslim who believes in Mohammad and the Qur’an, or you are not. They understand this clearly. Who do we think we are fooling?
We must let them define what a Muslim is, not define it for them as outsiders. A Muslim is in their understanding not simply one who “submits to God” (which is the lexical meaning of the word, as C5 advocates have pointed out). It is one who believes that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammed is his prophet.
And, as we have argued earlier, it is impossible for anyone who believes that Mohammed is a prophet sent from God to believe that Jesus is God come in the flesh, because that is precisely the doctrine that Mohammed denied. Likewise, it is impossible for anyone who believes that Jesus is God come in the flesh to believe that Mohammed is a prophet sent from God.
Biblical Texts on Division
The goal of C5 supporters is admirable: to allow a believer in Jesus to remain in his or her societal context in order to continue to impact others in the group for Christ.
But is this the biblical paradigm? Jesus himself was clear about what it would mean to follow him:
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. (Matt. 10:34-36)
A believer in Christ must take a stand for Christ (a public stand if required) and be willing to bear the consequences. “I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God. But he who disowns me before men will be disowned before the angels of God” (Luke 12:8-9).
Jesus also warned his disciples, “They will put you out of the synagogue” and even kill you (John 16:2). He told them this not so they would learn how to avoid excommunication by staying disguised as “Jews” in their society, but “so that you will not go astray” (John 16:1). They could not remain embedded in a community that denied the very thing which was at the heart of their newfound faith—that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah of God.
If Jesus had intended his followers to remain in their Jewish social circles as Old Testament Jews, surely he would rather have said, “Be careful that Jews don’t find out that you really do believe that I am the Messiah—or they will kick you out of the synagogue and you will lose your influence among them.”
This was the very thing that frightened the parents of the man born blind, for they understood that anyone “who acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ would be put out of the synagogue” (John 9:22). This was a risk inherent in becoming a genuine believer. If this was a risk for those of a pre-Christian faith (Judaism), consider how much greater the risk must be for those coming from an anti-Christian faith.
Jesus and the early apostles were not covert insiders; they were unabashed believers in and proclaimers of the divine person of Jesus (e.g., Acts 2:29-37 and 4:8-12), no matter the cost. Things turned out pretty well for the growth of the early Church as they remained true to their convictions, even though it cost certain individuals a great deal.
Now, we don’t want to do things that unnecessarily cause trouble and division. But the message of the cross is going to be a stumbling block (1 Cor. 1:18-25). When everything else is stripped away and laid bare, here is the great divide: who do you say Jesus is?
Back to the Beginning
So what would you think of Muslim converts continuing to worship with you as members of your church? They refer to themselves as “Christians” because they believe that Jesus was one of the prophets sent from Allah. They say they go to church since a “church” is where people worship God. They justify their participation in communion by reinterpreting the sacraments to mean that Mohammed was willing to sacrifice his life for the spread of Islam.3
Absurd, isn’t it? Even offensive. Once you understood what these converts to Islam really believed, you wouldn’t want them worshiping with you in church as “Christians,” and you certainly wouldn’t approve of them taking the Lord’s Supper. This is your faith, the faith of the Bible, the faith of your fathers—and you won’t have anyone hijacking it.
“Church” certainly has cultural elements to it. But fundamentally, church is about Jesus and following him according to the truths of the Bible. So for a Muslim to try to adopt only the cultural forms of church without the religious core is to neuter it completely and render it something altogether different.
This, I believe, is how Muslims view C5 once they understand it: Christians in sheep’s clothing trying to redefine their (Muslims’) terms and forms. The mosque is where people who believe the Shahada go to worship. It is where people go who think it is blasphemy to call Jesus “God.”
Is There a Way Forward?
So where does that leave us? For those of us who may seem like biblical sticklers, it is not that we are unsympathetic to the immense challenges facing a Muslim considering the claims of Christ. It is not that we are content with the status quo of missionary efforts in the Muslim world. Oh, that God would come in power and mercy and in a fresh outbreak of the revelation of his Son, so that new believers from among Muslims could be united in his body! But this must happen in a theologically orthodox way, one that is in tune with the core of the gospel and the teachings of scripture.
As D.A. Carson pointed out (2009), God is calling out a people for himself, both from Jews and Gentiles, from Hindus and Muslims, from Buddhists and atheists. No one can stay where he or she is—one must identify with Christ. In following Christ, you are joining the “Third Way,” Christ’s Church.
So what does this mean for our work in the trenches, one-on-one with seekers? I have talked to Muslims in Asia who have been drawn to the beauty and grace of Christ. They have evaluated the cost of following him, and have often moved forward hesitantly. I am not suggesting we tell them that they must immediately leave home, family, and friends. Perhaps they should even be cautious in sharing their newfound interest in Christ and the Bible, for fear of prematurely alienating those in their social circle.
And what about saying the creed or attendance at the mosque? I would suggest that we as outsiders not be the ones to bring the subject up. We can direct them to scripture. But then we ought to let the Spirit of God through his word continue his work in the hearts of those we are pointing to Christ.
At the proper time, when their faith has matured, they will know the right steps to take. When they have been truly born again and are fully assured in their faith, they will not, I believe, be able to present themselves as believers in Mohammed or to recite the creed, for they now have a new allegiance. Not to Mohammed, who denied Christ. But to Christ alone, the Son of God and the Savior of the world.
1. Comments such as Brian Armstrong’s seem to summarize many C5 proponents’ hermeneutic: “Those that will be involved in encouraging a movement for Jesus in Islam cannot be heresy-hunters or suspicious types…They cannot be the kind of people that can only see ‘black and white’” (see Swartley 2005, 396). Paul himself was a heresy-hunter and went after it with a vengeance (Gal. 1:8) when it touched on the core of gospel doctrine. Rick Brown presents the same kind of thinking: “It is hard for me to understand those who abhor the Shahada so much that they would rather see no movement to Christ at all among Muslims than see biblical Muslims following Christ without refusing to say the Shahada” (2007, 73). The priority is on practice rather than theology. If the Shahada is in fact heretical, it should be abhorred rather than tolerated in an effort to see some sort of a spiritual movement begun. Even John Travis says, “While we must be careful to guard against syncretism, we must also be mindful that ascent (sic) to perfect theological propositions is not the apex of the coming Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed” (2000, 59). If he’s speaking about theological minutiae, then fine. But the point at stake here is not trivial; it is the center of our Christian faith—the person and the work of Jesus Christ.
2. Christians understand this term to be a description of Jesus’ relationship with the Father, not that he is the product of a physical union between God and Mary.
3. When Brown says, “Personally I think the second half of the Shahada should be avoided whenever possible and said only under duress with an interpretation that is compatible with the Bible” (2007, 73), he is saying that we are free to re-interpret the Shahada to mean something that Muslims do not mean by it. This would be as repugnant to Muslims as their re-interpreting the Lord’s Supper would be to us.
Brown, Rick. 2007. “Biblical Muslims.” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 24(2):65-74.
Carson, D.A. 2009. “That by All Means I Might Win Some.” April 23. Accessed February 14, 2011 from http://thegospelcoalition.org/resources/a/That-By-All-Means-I-Might-Win-Some.
Swartley, Keith. 2005. Encountering the World of Islam. Tyrone, Ga.: Authentic Media.
Travis, John. 1998. “The C1 to C6 Spectrum.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 34(4):407-408.
_____. 2000. “Messianic Muslim Followers of Isa.” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 17(1):53-59
Nate Irwin was born and raised in South Asia and worked there as a missionary for fourteen years. He is married with three adult children and serves as the pastor of global outreach at College Park Church in Indianapolis.
EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 3, pp. 328-344. Copyright © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.