by Robert Johnson
Four of the most contested issues associated with ministry to Muslims—and suggestions for greater harmony among those working in Muslim settings.
"May they [my followers] be brought to complete unity to let the
world know that you have sent me and have loved them
even as you have loved me." —Jesus (John 17:23)
Evangelicals are increasingly divided over how to conduct ministries among Muslims. Recently, the president of a leading seminary called the head of a major mission board a “liar” because he supported a certain way of engaging the Qur’an (Oppenheimer 2010). He later apologized for his language, but maintained that the approach was “deceitful.”
In the pages of EMQ and elsewhere, equally strong opinions and language have sometimes been aired. Issues surrounding ministry among Muslims have been discussed since the journal’s founding in the 1960s. The discussions, however, have become especially heated in recent years. Unfortunately, the debates are often framed in overly simplistic ways—for example, as a simple division between supporters of C4 (or C2 or C3) on the one side and supporters of C5 or “insider” movements on the other, or between those who want “less contextualization” and those who want “more contextualization.”
In reality, things are far more complex. The EMQ articles reprinted in Envisioning Effective Ministry (Nichols and Corwin 2010) and the workshop presentations available in The Gospel for Islam (Oksnevad and Welliver 2001) portray a range of proposals, perspectives, and situations—despite fundamental agreement on basic theology—that cannot easily be divided into neat “camps” or positions. The question is how to discuss that complexity while remaining in fellowship.
A New Kind of Dispute?
Differences of opinion can be expected at any point in ministry, even among the best of us. Here are a few examples from scripture:
• Peter and Paul disagreed at Antioch (Gal. 2:11-14).
• There was disagreement in Jerusalem over whether Paul’s Greek companion, Titus, should be circumcised (Gal. 2:3-5).1
• Paul and Barnabas split over Paul’s refusal to take Mark on their second journey, despite Paul’s apparently later warm personal opinion of him (Acts 15:37–40; compare 2 Tim. 4:11).2
• The Acts 15 Council in Jerusalem involved a “long debate” (v. 7) before the central questions were settled.
The levels of tension among Muslim ministries are at least as high today as any types of tensions we see in New Testament times. On questions of how to interact with local cultural and intellectual material, they go well beyond the level commonly found in other cultural and religious settings. Furthermore, the disputes seem to be rooted in more than ministerial issues. Although appearing as disputes over theology and practice, they may also be fueled by rising cultural and political fears of Islam and Muslims.
These fears may be shaped in turn by (1) the way Muslims are portrayed in popular media, (2) awareness of growing Muslim immigrant communities in the very countries that traditionally send Christian missionaries abroad, and (3) the increasing militancy of some Muslim movements. There is also ongoing awareness of the dangers faced by believers in some Muslim settings, and of the personal and institutional frustrations often attending Muslim-oriented work.
Complicating matters further, the conduct and supervision of missions have been rapidly devolving from specialist mission agencies to local American congregations and even to short-term and neighborhood missions (see discussions in Wuthnow 2009, chapter 5). Increasing numbers of mission pastors and congregational mission committees find themselves sorting through the competing claims while not always having the backgrounds that could help them do so judiciously.
Such situations normally call for calm explication on all sides, and for mission supporters to hear multiple perspectives from the field, just as was done in Acts 11, 14:26–27, and 15. Now, however, as mission support and control networks take new forms, the stakes for on-field practitioners rise, and this may be adding additional edge to the disputes.
It may be hard for the most committed disputants to temper their positions or rhetoric, but I think it is necessary to do so. I also hope this article will speak to the growing number of congregational leaders devoted to Muslim ministries at home and abroad, and to the many who are beginning or considering work in this area.
Toward this end, the middle portion of this article addresses four of the most contested issues. My hope is to mark out some middle ground. The final section proposes some biblical and practical bases for greater harmony even when working in different ways.
The following four issues are often heard among Americans considering work among Muslims.
Are “God” and “Allah” the same? Yes and no. The general concepts are the same, but some of the details differ. In Arabic, al-lah (meaning “THE God”) is not a name, but rather a word used by both Muslims and Christians to mean “the one and only God.” It is a concept shared by Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Furthermore, the very idea of a unitary, almighty God was, like much else in early Islam, borrowed rather explicitly from the Jewish and Christian traditions.
The Muslim concept is identical to the Jewish one (by this I mean Jews today, not necessarily the Old Testament prophets) in that it refers to the One God in a way that denies the Trinity. In addition, it shares Christians’ perspectives on many of God’s characteristics (e.g., understanding him to demand obedience, yet also being caring and forgiving).
At the same time there are important differences in our understandings, particularly about the divinity of Jesus and his relationship to the Father; about the place and provision of law and salvation; and about some of God’s other expectations. But this need not mean a different God. Treating him as the same not only properly recognizes the cultural-historical origins of the Muslim concept of God, but also makes for less complicated conversations, opens the possibility of praying for each other, and opens the way to discussing our similarities and differences in a non-antagonistic manner.
Similar issues pertain to the many characters who appear in both the Qur’an and the Bible, including Jesus, David, Solomon, Moses, and Abraham. Although the details often differ, they are clearly the same individuals, they usually have the same personalities, and the Qur’anic accounts often assume prior knowledge of the biblical stories.
In a way, it is odd that the Allah/God question should even be an issue, for theologically conservative missions have long valued what Don Richardson has called “redemptive analogies” such as the “high gods” of some African religions, the “lost book” of the Karen of eastern Burma, and the blood feuds in Richardson’s book, Peace Child (1974). The Muslim notion of God is much closer to ours than this, and also much closer than the terms for God that have had to be adopted in Buddhist or polytheistic settings (although in this case it is the Muslims and not the Christians who have done the borrowing).
Can Christians cite the Qur’an when conversing with Muslims? There are many parallels between the Qur’an, the Bible, and other early Christian literature. Some advocate engagement with those sections of the Qur’an that seem in line with Christian teachings, while others avoid such references, lest they offend local Muslim leaders, give the impression that the Qur’an is as authoritative as the Bible, or promote the development of non-orthodox doctrines.
Many of these concerns have merit, especially if the engagement is done insensitively or unskillfully. But the potentials are also great.
Consider, for example, a widely noted passage in sura 3:42–55, which deals with the announcement and birth of Jesus. Among other things, this passage refers to Jesus as “the messiah” (al-masih), a designation well-known among Muslims (a common Arabic Muslim term for Christians is masihi). Like Matthew and Luke, the passage also says that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born, and like John 1 it refers to Jesus as a “word” (kalimat) from God. Also, in an intriguing parallel to Luke 1:34–37, when Mary asks how she could have a child when “no man has touched me,” the passage says that when God “decrees a matter, He only says to it, ‘Be,’ and it is.”3
Some Christians have objected that this passage implies that Jesus is a created being, and that is also the understanding of the commentary posted at the quran.com website. However, both the Arabic and English grammar indicate (as does Luke 1:37) that the thing brought into being (or “made possible,” in Luke’s wording) is “the matter God decreed” (in this case, the virgin birth), rather than the “word” from God himself.
Whatever the case, in this and numerous other ways the passage suggests that Jesus is unique, as both Muslims and Christians recognize. The difference between us is whether that uniqueness includes divinity and oneness with Allah/God; ministerial conversations drawing on such passages normally try to nudge thinking in that direction.
There are many additional overlaps between the Qur’an and the Bible. The question is not whether there are grounds for conversation, but rather what kinds of conversations are ethical or appropriate. Some suggest merely raising questions while guiding the conversation toward Christian understandings. Others are more direct. Still others start from the Bible alone. Whatever the approach, the fruit tends to vary with time, place, and gifting.
Yet alongside the overlaps there are significant differences between the Bible and the Qur’an, especially as understood by our respective traditions. Thus, an evangelical minister among Palestinian Muslims writes that he has found the Qur’an useful for sparking conversations, but the Bible most useful for discipling and training believers (Register 2009). Most “high contextualization” practitioners seem to be taking a similar approach.
May Christians call themselves “Muslims” for the sake of the gospel? I personally would never call myself a “Muslim” in a way that suggests I am not Christian. I have also never taken up much Muslim practice. On the other hand, I have joined in Muslim prayers (while silently “bearing witness” to Christ), participated in the fast of Ramadan, and dressed in ways that are locally appropriate. This has often led to conversations and insights that otherwise would not have occurred.
The issues here are complex. Some would argue that the ethics of non-Muslim workers calling themselves “muslim” (i.e., one who has submitted to God) are neither more nor less debatable than the ethics of non-Jewish believers calling themselves “messianic Jews” for evangelistic purposes. As with “messianic Jews,” there is little in the core of Muslim law and practice that the Bible directly forbids (see Mallouhi 2009a, 5), so long as we remember (as do “messianic Jews”) that our salvation is in Christ, not in upholding “the law.”
The main issue is whether the intention is to deceive. If an outsider seeks to fool locals into thinking he or she is one of them, there are potentially major ethical and personal consequences. If, on the other hand, the purpose is to adapt, live, and speak in ways that are culturally appropriate, I see no reason to object, as long as the implications have been thought through carefully.
I think a stronger case can be made on behalf of “secret believers” of Muslim background who feel the need to be discreet about their commitment to Christ, and also for people who, like Mazhar Mallouhi (2009b), wish to retain ties to their family and culture.
In my view, critics of this option have been far too cavalier about the consequences of doing otherwise. Far too many have suggested that if Muslim believers are truly serious about their faith, they should be willing to “suffer for Christ” by means of a public break with their prior identities, and that to do otherwise means “denying Christ.”
But the notion of “secret believers”—and of believers retaining their prior public identities—has long been accepted elsewhere. The New Testament mentions Joseph of Arimathea and possibly Nicodemus as secret believers (John 19:38–39; cf. John 3:2), the early church often met in secret, and before 1990 there was much excitement about the possibility of secret believers in China and the Soviet Union. And many evangelicals are fond of figures like Pandita Ramabai and Sadhu Sundar Singh, who were noted Christ believers within their Indian traditions. There is no reason to hold Muslim background believers to a different standard, especially since many such people are reportedly active witnesses for Christ.
In my opinion, it is hardly ethical to order others to “suffer for Christ” unless one has already joined in their sufferings. Paul could do this because he had actually suffered to the same degree. Few Christian missionaries, let alone pastors and parishioners back home, are ever in the same position.
Do “highly contextualized” movements (such as C5 or “insider”) grow faster than less contextualized ones? If “contextualization” means practices and institutions looking or talking outwardly like the religion and cultures from which believers come or among which they still live, then the answer is “not always.” Fast-growing movements have been reported at all points of Travis’ (1998) C1 to C6 scale. For every one emphasizing its links to the surrounding culture, there are others emphasizing their differences.
I am not aware of any objectively replicable field studies that could settle this question one way or the other, and it is hard to conceive of a cross-culturally valid way of even framing the question. The real-world meanings of “contextualization” vary from case to case, church to church, and culture to culture. Furthermore, reports to date have typically been anecdotal and impressionistic, and claims from “creative access” situations are not normally open to independent verification. Finally, the potential influence of other factors—such as the personal charisma of local leaders, the effects of local inter-group dynamics, and so forth—have rarely been taken into account.
Contextualization is important, particularly in its potential for encouraging local believers to take the lead in their own discipleship. Such was the core of the “Three Self” approach that laid such a strong foundation for the Korean Church in the late nineteenth century. Such examples—including the suffering the Korean Church later endured—suggest the potential for locally grounded communities to be less dependent on foreigners, and to have a greater ability to endure hardships alone, than is sometimes the case today.
However, a more “contextualized” church, whatever the definition, is not necessarily a faster-growing church. Nor should we expect that a “strategy” that worked for one person or in one place will necessarily transfer well to a different person or place. There are diverse challenges, tools, and gifts. And the work of God’s Church requires them all.
Toward Greater Collegiality
Given these complexities, let me suggest some points that may promote greater collegiality:
1. All sides should remember that there are multiple callings and ways of working (Acts 15:7–11; Rom. 14:1–4; 1 Cor. 12:4–31; Eph. 4:1–16, 30–32).
2. There is biblical precedent for allowing practices in other cultural settings—and perhaps others’ ministries—that might not be allowed in one’s own (Acts 15; Gal. 1:11–14; Gal. 4–5).
3. Even as we stand for biblical orthodoxy, we must also avoid overly distancing ourselves from fellow believers because of missional or cultural differences, for Jesus himself cited our unity as one of the evidences to the world that God has sent him (John 17: 20–23; also see Acts 11:1-18; Rom. 13:8–10; Gal. 2:1–14; 1 Cor. 1:10–13; 1 John 1:9–11, 4:19–21).
4. When encountering books, articles, or presentations on approaches to ministry, avoid rushing to judgment. Rejoice in others’ successes, but do so in the light of points 1 and 2. I also suggest focusing not on the “methods” or “strategies” proposed, but rather on the new questions or possibilities they allow you to consider.
5. Beware of labels. New terms arise as people seek to express things they are still trying to understand. Focus not on the terms, but on the details of what is being explored, the reasons it is being explored, and the contexts in which it is happening. Ask questions and be diligent to learn from others.
6. Remember that ministry is a process whose fruits must be evaluated over time. It may be decades before we know the true fruit of particular ministries, and it may be wise to withhold judgment until then.
7. Remember that “strategy” may be just one of many factors contributing to outcomes, and that the Holy Spirit may empower approaches that we ourselves might not have chosen.
Finally, remember that the most important element of ministry is to be thoroughly grounded in Christ and Christianity. A former Buddhist monk I know had become a noted evangelist and pastor with renowned talent for expressing the gospel in locally relevant terms. Once an American visitor asked what Christians should know in order to minister effectively among Buddhists. He expected a highly contextualized response. But the pastor responded, “You need to know Christianity really well.”
Remembering this exhortation—to focus on the core doctrines, rather than the oft-debated details of practice and strategy—may be the most important aid to renewed unity among evangelical Christian workers.
1. Paul would later circumcise Timothy, whose mother was a Jew (Acts 16:1, 3), but he resisted in the case of Titus, who was considered “Greek” (Gal. 2:3).
2. A more common reading is to assume that Mark was guilty of a deep personal or moral flaw that was later corrected; however, the only issue mentioned in scripture is the one in Acts 15:38, and it is an issue that lacks elaboration.
3. Quotation from the “Sahih [Truth] International” translation as posted on- line at quran.com.
Mallouhi, Mazhar. 2009a. “Comments on the Insider Movement.” St. Francis Magazine 5(5):3–14.
_______. 2009b. “A Muslim Follower of Jesus: A Response to Joseph Cumming’s ‘Muslim Followers of Jesus?’” Christianity Today, December.
Nichols, Laurie Fortunak and Gary Corwin, eds. 2010. Envisioning Effective Ministry: Evangelism in a Muslim Context. Wheaton, Ill.: EMIS.
Oksnevad, Roy and Dotsey Welliver, eds. 2001. The Gospel for Islam: Reaching Muslims in North America. Wheaton, Ill.: EMIS.
Oppenheimer, Mark. 2010. “A Dispute on Using the Koran as a Path to Jesus.” New York Times, March 12.
Register, Ray. 2009. “Discipling Middle Eastern Believers.” St. Francis Magazine, April.
Richardson, Don. 1974. Peace Child. Glendale, Calif.: G/L Regal Books.
Travis, John. 1998. “The C1 to C6 Spectrum: A Practical Tool for Defining Six Types of ‘Christ-Centered Communities’ (‘C’) Found in the Muslim Context.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 34(4):407–408.
Wuthnow, Robert. 2009. Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Robert Johnson (pseudonym) is a professional scholar who has studied missions in Asia and the Middle East for many years. He is grateful for comments, encouragement, and critiques received from Abu Daoud, Robert Nordstrom, Phil Parshall, Rabban Sauma, the EMQ editorial staff, and several others who remain anonymous.
EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 1, pp. 50-56. 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.