Sunday, October 22, 2006

Muslims for Isa?

Last year, in mid-September, I attended a conference on "Churchless Christianity." And there were several people present who described what it was like to live in a Muslim country and talk with Muslims about faith in Christ.

They described how their behavior changed over time as they had the privilege of being present when a Muslim would occasionally declare his faith in Jesus or Isa as he is known in many Muslim countries.

One man said that, at first, when a Muslim said he wanted to follow Isa, he (the speaker) responded with great joy and invited this new Muslim-background believer/follower to come to church. [Note: in order to reduce confusion, I will now refer to Muslim-background believers in/followers of Isa as MBBs--short for Muslim-background believers. And for the sake of full disclosure, I should also note that the speakers seemed, universally, to believe that the correct Muslim term for Jesus is Isa . . . just as the "correct" Jewish term for Jesus is Yeshua or Yehoshua. I should also note, as I have since discovered, many Christians who work with Muslims say that Isa is wholly inappropriate. On this last point, s
ee the Discussion of the use of the name 'Isa' for Jesus. . . . But let us return to our discussion.]

As the number of MBBs increased, these Western Christians eventually became aware of some fascinating and disturbing questions.

* What clothes should MBBs wear to church?
The Christians who have traditionally lived alongside these MBBs are of a different racial and cultural background. And for various reasons, these Christians wear clothing of a decidedly different character than that which the Muslims wear--Western style shirts that you tuck into your pants, rather than more flowing robe-style coverings, for example.

Now, if a new believer in and follower of Jesus is going to walk into church, he's going to cause a stir simply by being there. So wouldn't it be wise for him to blend in as much as possible by engaging in certain practices that may put the Christians at ease a bit? For example, how about if he adopts a manner of
dress familiar to the Christians? . . .

But—the Western Christians eventually began to ask themselves—if the new believer adopts that kind of clothing, what does
his behavior "say" to his family, friends and neighbors--all the members of his own ethnic group? Doesn't it say he has "crossed over"; he is no longer one of "us"; he is one of "them"; a traitor? And over what? Over Jesus/Isa? . . . Or over clothes?

Then other issues slowly came to our speaker's attention.

* What word to use for "God." Muslims everywhere speak of the one true God as "Allah" (from the equivalent to the Hebrew word El or Elohim used in the Old Testament). But the Arabic translation of the Bible in this particular country used the word for God used by the Christian ethnic group of that nation. . . .

* For Muslims, the mosque is the community center--if you don't show up, you've removed yourself from the community.

* For Christians, marriages and burials are the personal responsibilities of the families involved; for Muslims, these "rites of passage," as it were, are facilitated by the local Muslim community.

* Muslims' weekly Sabbath is on Friday. But Christians worship on Sunday.

* Muslims take off their shoes or sandals before entering the mosque; Christians don't take off their shoes or sandals before entering a church building. . . .

* Muslims engage in ablutions before entering the mosque; Christians don't engage in any such ceremonies before entering the church building.

* Muslims, as a sign of reverence and respect, will not place the Q'uran on the floor; Christians, however, place the Bible on the floor!

* Muslims don't eat pork; Christians do.

* Devout Muslims pray 5 times a day—even in public; Christians . . . what do they do? Do they pray? (Not in the obvious/recognizable manner that Muslims do!) . . .

* Muslims celebrate Ramadan; Christians commonly celebrate Easter and Christmas. . . .

And then the real kicker:

* In order for a Muslim man to become married--at least in this particular culture--he must recite the Creed ("There is no god but Allah and Muhammed is His prophet."), at least that once, at his wedding. Can a MBB recite the creed? If not, how can he marry within his culture and people?

So the question became: Can a person remain a Muslim and follow Jesus/Isa? Or must he abandon his culture and his people in order to become a follower of Jesus/Isa?


I'd like to note some things that various speakers at the conference brought to our attention.

1) The difference between "identity" and "practice."

As an evangelical Protestant, "group" identity has always been way less important to me than—I don't want to say "religious" practice, but how about . . . —diligent devotion, observance, obedience.

I have always looked with amazement at—first, those in my "Christian" sphere who declared themselves Catholic or Protestant or whatever, but they never attended church, they swore, they lied, they cheated. . . . –There was no apparent devotion to any higher principles than . . . I have no idea what. They wore a "name," but there seemed to be no real "life" to it.

And then I looked at my Jewish relatives (of whom I have a bunch). And I realized that they, too, wore the name "Jewish," but they never went to synagogue; they didn't believe in God. . . .

But/and I became aware of Jews for Jesus. –Whoa! My atheistic/agnostic Jewish relatives were infuriated by the idea! Why???? Why would that infuriate them since religous issues seemed so unimportant to them???

When I was young,
at least, I knew that (even) a (nominal) Catholic could not marry (even) a (nominal) Protestant. –Neither you nor your intended might actually care a whole lot about the religious practices or beliefs that your (nominal) titles suggested, but, WOW! You'd better not dare cross that line!

For people who held such attitudes, it seemed, "You're born a Catholic (Christian, Jew, whatever)." But according to my upbringing, you became one. Becoming a Christian required a specific commitment, a transformation of heart and mind. . . .

And what I've just remarked upon speaks to the difference between "identity" and "practice."

The person who is born Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or whatever has a Jewish, Christian, Muslim or whatever identity. But s/he may not practice the religion.

If you wouldn't marry outside your sociological/"faith" community, then you have a "high identity" with that community. But you may still not practice the nominal religion of that community.

Others may practice the religion, but may not identify as strongly as members of the sociological/"faith" community.

And, of course, there are all sorts of other combinations in between.

So suppose you've been "born" a Muslim; you’ve got a high "identity"; but you've never really "practiced" . . . or if you've practiced, you've not been devout. . . . Can you remain Muslim (in that sense of the term) but follow Jesus/Isa?

Suppose you were "born" a Jew; you've got a high "identity" but you've never "practiced" . . . of if you've practiced (you actually went as far as to be bat or bar mitzvah'd)--can you remain a Jew (in that sense of the term) but follow Jesus/Yehoshuah?

. . . Same questions down the line . . . and then back up again.

What happened in the early church?

What does 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 have to teach us? "Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings."

What about 1 Corinthians 7:17-24? "Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God's commands is what counts. Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him. Were you a slave when you were called? Don't let it trouble you-although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord's freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ's slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. Brothers, each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to."

Several of the speakers at the convention I attended said they eventually concluded that, not only should they become like their Muslim neighbors sociologically (in the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 9, "so as to win" them; but they needed to encourage MBBs to maintain their Muslim identity--i.e., they had to remain like their neighbors--so that they could remain "insiders" and "win" some as well.

"Jesus lived in a law-based society very similar to Islam," said one of the speakers. "He used much that was in his society. He changed some of it. And he threw some of it away."

The question we (devout Christians) face is how much of Islamic society can God use? How much does He need to change? How much (or, perhaps I should use the opposite term—how little!) does He need to throw away?


I want to deal with that last question/observation I made above . . . about the recitation of the Creed.

At least one of the speakers at the conference noted that he utilized the Qur'an as a stepping stone to Christ. After all, the Qur'an places Jesus/Isa in a very high position. He is a prophet. He is the anointed one ("al-Masiah"—Messiah). He was without sin, born of a virgin, the "word of God" (Q 4:171) and also a "word from God" (Q 3:55). He was an apostle, powerful, a miracle-worker. . . .

We could go on.

Oh, yes! The Qur'an also fails to teach much of what we believe from the Bible—for example, that Jesus died for our sins and was raised to life once more. Moreover, I am given to understand, it positively does teach some other things with which we, who call ourselves Christians, absolutely disagree.

—and this is a major observation: these Western Christians have used the Qur'an to show many Muslims that they need to consider Jesus/Isa in a very different light than what they have been brought up to believe (whether their beliefs came from the Qur'an or not). These Christians say they have used the Qur'an to help lead Muslims to the Jesus/Isa as Lord . . .

Now, wait a minute! Galatians 3:24 says, concerning the Old Testament (KJV): "the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ." Is it possible that the Qur'an could be, for Muslims, what the Old Testament has been for many Jews and non-Jews who have come to Christ?

And . . .
wait another minute! To whom are the words of the Qur'an attributed? To the prophet Muhammed. What are these Western Christians saying the Qur'an has done for many Muslims? They say the Qur'an has led Muslims to the Lord . . .

If the Qur'an itself can be a schoolmaster to bring Muslims to Jesus, and if the prophet Muhammed caused it to be written . . . cannot a Muslim-background believer say, in full honesty, with glory to God: "There is no god but Allah [God; the one god—Allah/El/Elohim] and Muhammed is His prophet"?

A very strange and terrifying concept. But . . .


How does the leaven of the gospel work its way through the dough? How does the Kingdom of God grow?

I am unwilling to stick my neck out and suggest that these Christian speakers have it all right. But it sure seems to me that they may be pursuing more truth than I would at first be inclined to grant them.

It is certainly something worth thinking and praying about, it seems to me!