Communicating the Gospel to Muslims


1. Should Muslims Break Completely from Islam?

It is with some trepidation and reserve that I tackle the subject of the place of the convert from Islam in the Christian Church. This is because there are so many problems facing those who have been grounded in Islam, both religiously and culturally, and there are very few Christian missionaries among Muslims who have not experienced considerable ~' difficulties in helping Muslim converts adapt to their new-found faith and the Christian Church.

The problems take many forms. On the one hand the convert, particularly in predominantly Muslim countries, faces rejection from his family, is likely to be ostracised from his community and pushed on to the fringe of his society, may well lose his employment opportunities, and even suffer the ultimate penalty for conversion from Islam, namely death itself. (I have covered the whole subject of the consequences of apostasy from Islam in the companion volume to this book, to which readers are referred, and shall not repeat myself here). On the other hand the convert is invariably steeped in Islamic culture and on becoming a Christian does not necessarily wish or intend to forsake his heritage. Christianity was always intended to be a universal faith which could express itself in any culture, but unfortunately it has become so synonymous with Western civilisation and culture that, to this day, conversion to Christianity seems to so many to involve an adoption of the Western way of life. This only exacerbates the problem, as does the fact that in Islam religion and culture are so intertwined that it is difficult at times to distinguish between them.

There is a general consensus among those working among Muslims today that every effort must be made to avoid wrenching Muslim converts out of their culture and to guard against attempts to Westernise them. In recent decades, however, this commendable objective has led to a widespread conviction that Muslim converts should be allowed to remain wholly within their societies and communities and keep their place in the universal Muslim ummah. It has even been suggested that they should not be called Christians at all but rather "Jesus Muslims" or "followers of Isa", and that they should exercise their faith in Jesus in an Islamic context, either by forming separate groups who nonetheless worship according to traditional Islamic forms, or by remaining in their own mosques and societies, expressing their faith in Jesus in more direct Islamic forms.

If anything, these ideas help to identify the problem - how to bring a Muslim to Christ without completely disorientating him culturally at the same time. From the outset I must confess to being able to offer no easy solutions to this problem and have much sympathy with those who are struggling to resolve these issues. It is with some reserve and caution, therefore, that I proceed. I do believe, however, that the Bible lays down certain guidelines that should be followed and that there are grave dangers of compromise in many of the theories being propagated these days which seem to take us from one extreme to the other. I will begin by stating what I believe must be the only safe and correct standpoint that we can take, but will then endeavour to analyse the difficulties that we experience in practice and offer some suggestions and comments.

I remain persuaded that Muslims who believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour and look to him for eternal life must break from Islam and become united as Christians to Christ's universal Church. This is an ideal that I do not believe we are entitled to compromise in any way. The great apostle to Islam, Samuel Zwemer, even in his day when suggestions very similar to those I have mentioned were first being put forward, stood his ground rigidly against them. He quotes an American professor who defined this new form of approach:

Zwemer summed up his immediate reaction to this idea in just one word - "No". He expressed himself against any form of evangelism that must inevitably lead to syncretism and at the same time reminded his readers that Jesus called on his followers to become fishers of men, saying:

It is in that last brief sentence that I believe we have at least the foundation on which our whole approach to this subject must be based. To what extent are we really trying to avoid disturbing the Muslim convert's culture and heritage, and to what are we actually trying to smoothen a path that Jesus said would ever be hard and stony (Matthew 7.14)? In the latter part of the twentieth century we, in the West, are reaping the fullest benefits of two centuries of progressive industrial revolution and civilisation. The one thing they have brought us is comfort on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Not only so but it is deceptively easy and comfortable to be a Christian in the West. The vast majority of Christians in Europe, North America and other parts of the Western/Christian world live in unbelievable comfort. The advent of heaters, electric blankets, motor cars, widespread wealth, solar heating, air conditioners, medical expertise and its ready availability, boreholes, sophisticated sanitation, processed foods, insurance, refrigeration, television, electric stoves, the airplane - we could go on and on - have all ensured that we are cushioned in on all sides against almost every form of adversity and the elements. It is not only in our homes that these things abound. They are also prevalent in those fine structures we erect "to the glory of God", at great cost, which we like to call churches.

The concepts of suffering, persecution, deprivation, rejection, exposure, hunger and the like are almost completely antithetical to and seem remote from the life of comfort and ease we have been so busy establishing for ourselves this century. The result is that it has become fashionable today even to preach that God wills these things for us - health, wealth and prosperity - and that it is almost a sin or a sign of God's displeasure to be sick or suffering. The remarkable thing is not that such preaching arises but that it goes so widely uncontested. Therein lies the evidence of our malady - we have all become soft and in our love of comfort shun all persecution, suffering and hardship for the Gospel. We have lost sight of our calling and are simultaneously losing sight of the implications of conversion from Islam.

Muslims will always have to pay a price for their faith in Jesus and their conversion may prove equally costly for those who seek to bring them to Christ. Yet we have a perfect example in Jesus himself who suffered and died that we may live. The apostle who could say so confidently of himself, "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (1 Corinthians 11.1), spoke often of his hardships for the Gospel. "To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are ill-clad and buffeted and homeless" he wrote to the Christians at Corinth (1 Corinthians 4.11), adding in a second letter that he was regularly "in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure" (2 Corinthians 11.27). Just as Jesus himself suffered not for his own sake but that others might be saved, so Paul spoke of his sufferings in the same way:

We must be prepared to endure much that Muslims may come to Christ and set them an example in our conduct, patience and perseverance. Likewise we must encourage them to make a complete commitment to Christ and come out from Islam, boldly declaring allegiance to him and his Church. If this involves much loss, hardship and suffering, so be it. Such must always be the course of those who would truly follow Jesus.

"What has a believer in common with an unbeliever"? asks the Church's greatest-ever missionary to the world (2 Corinthians 6.15). Many who have had the privilege of evangelising Muslims have spoken with one voice of the need of Muslim converts to break from Islam and join the Christian Church. One speaks from experience and says:

Another begins his reflection on the question of whether Muslim converts to Christianity can remain within Islam or fellowship outside the universal Christian Church by stating the issue plainly:

Proceeding from the principle itself to the subjective side, namely practice and experience, he comes automatically to the same conclusion:

As said already, I have great sympathy with those who work in predominantly Muslim societies and cultures and who grapple earnestly with the problem and seek to resolve the issue of leading Muslims to Christ without disrupting their lives and cultural heritage. This book, however, is being written primarily for those living in the West who have minority Muslim communities in their midst and I have already outlined some of the remarkable opportunities and advantages we have in this situation, in particular the fact that the Muslims among us have already adopted the Western culture to some extent and live in our own environment. Muslims who become Christians in the West can very much more easily identify with the Christian Church without foregoing their heritage. Churches predominate over mosques, employment opportunities are in no way affected by conversion, and the convert will find himself perhaps even identifying more meaningfully with the prevailing society rather than being ostracised onto its fringe as is the case in the overall Muslim world.

It is my own personal experience, too, that Muslims who become Christians and yet refuse to break with Islam and its practices and join a Christian church are invariably tempted after a while to revert to Islam, at least in form, and backslide and so lose their "first love" (Revelation 2.4). The joy of salvation evaporates, the scope for growth becomes stunted, and the convert often becomes unhappy, critical and envious of those who are well settled in the Church. We must at least be clear in our minds about the need to call Muslims out of Islam to Christ and his Church and cannot afford to compromise this principle.

2. Problems Encountered in Conversion from Islam.

What, then, of the Muslim who is willing to profess faith in Jesus Christ but who, notwithstanding counselling, expresses himself unwilling either to be baptised or to join a Christian church? On the question of baptism we must once again take a stand. The command to believers to be baptised as an outward sign of their unity with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection is set forth quite clearly in the New Testament. Jesus sent his disciples out to make further disciples of all nations with this command: "baptising them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28.19, so also Mark 16.16), and on the Day of Pentecost Peter declared that those present should repent and "be baptised every one of you" (Acts 2.38). The convert from Islam must therefore be encouraged to submit himself to baptism. In fact it is often true that when Muslims advise their families that they wish to become Christians the reaction is that, if they wish to believe in Jesus Christ, let them do so, but let them avoid baptism or church membership. As there is so much emphasis on ritual and form in Islam it appears that many Muslims feel that as long as the would-be-believer in Jesus has hitherto followed all the forms of Islam, he is still really a Muslim at heart. As long as he does not submit to baptism, the obvious initiatory rite of the Christian faith, he has not really become a Christian. Baptism is, therefore, the symbol of a Muslim's final break with Islam and his adoption of Christianity.

Converts from Islam must therefore be encouraged to be baptised in obedience to our Lord's command. This is not a matter of personal choice, it is one of open acknowledgement of the Gospel of Christ. When the first Gentiles became believers and received the Holy Spirit, Peter immediately "commanded them to be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 10.48). Baptism is not an optional extra, it is an obligatory confession of faith and one which will greatly strengthen all who submit to it.

We still have to reckon, however, with those who are prepared to become open believers but who do not wish to be baptised or join a local church. Do we reject them? By no means - we accept that salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ alone and if anyone displays such faith we must accept them as brethren. We must care for them as much as for any other convert and seek to build them up in whatever way we can and fellowship with them as often as possible. Nevertheless it should be made plain that the convert is not being true to Christ and is likely to suffer from a "maimed and halting religious experience if there is not complete association in these family and community affairs with the environment which has its source in Christ" (quoted from a 1938 "Report by the Inquiry on the Evangelization of Moslems" in Addison, The Christian Approach to the Moslem, p. 306). Our approach can only be to exhort, encourage and uphold those who are weak in the faith, always remembering that each is a "brother for whom Christ died" (1 Corinthians 8.11) and that he is greatly beloved of God.

All are agreed that unbaptized followers of Jesus exist in considerable numbers, a few of whom are ready to testify to their belief. All are likewise agreed in rejoicing at this fact and in recognizing that this degree of discipleship is vastly better than no discipleship at all, and that it constitutes a hopeful stage in Christian growth. (Addison, The Christian Approach to the Moslem, p. 307).

Perhaps the greatest temptation of all to hold back on complete commitment to Christ will come from the convert's own family. Here we need to be particularly sensitive, as very few of us have had to make family sacrifices in pursuit of our faith in Jesus Christ. Indeed it is my conviction that converts should be encouraged to maintain good family relationships as far as they can and, where we feel they are of their own choice leaning too far towards their families and thus compromising their faith, we must nonetheless avoid being judgmental and endeavour to be as sympathetic and as understanding as we can be, even if they refuse to heed admonition. One writer comments on the fact that some will even face the supreme penalty for their testimony more readily than a complete break from their families:

Blood is thicker than water, the true proverb says. So often, on becoming a Christian, a convert from Islam is immediately rejected by his family, disowned and cast out. At the same time he faces the consequence with great fortitude. The bonds of family ties, however, often lead the family to relinquish their hostility and even welcome him back as a member of the household, provided he does not endeavour to convert them to Christianity as well. It is here that Satan will find his "opportune time" (Luke 4.13) and the convert will find that his own reciprocal love for his family will possibly become a severe temptation to make appropriate compromises. We need to be both sensitive and watchful at such times and "to keep Satan from gaining the advantage over us, for we are not ignorant of his devices" (2 Corinthians 2.11).

It seems that the correct approach will always be to make plain to the hesitant convert that allegiance to Christ must be unflinching as his love for us duly was, but to be as gentle, compassionate and tolerant as we can be when our exhortations do not have the desired effect, remembering that we also have our own shortcomings and that we probably have not faced the same consequences for our faith in Christ.

3. The Receptiveness of the Christian Church.

Having said a few things about the possibility that a Muslim convert to Christianity might not be entirely faithful to his Lord, I cannot conclude without expressing a few gross misgivings in turn about the present state of the Church and the possibility that it may likewise fail in its duty to Christ by refusing to welcome the convert and care sufficiently for him.

Very often local Christian churches, especially in a predominantly or even partly Muslim environment, are unwilling to receive Muslim converts for fear of the consequences and the possible wrath of the Muslim community upon themselves. I believe such cowardliness and faithlessness are completely inexcusable. Muslims who become Christians will always have to pay a considerable price for their faith - shall we give them a cold shoulder because our own comfort and complacency may be simultaneously threatened? Unfortunately this is often the case in practice and many new Christians from Islam can tell of cases where they have been received unsympathetically by the Church. I cannot conceive of any justifiable circumstance where a local church could refuse the warm hand of fellowship to a brother from Islam and I have little doubt that wherever this does occur, it will be nothing less than the church's concern about its own vested interests that will be the root cause of it.

Another writer expresses the seriousness with which we must consider our willingness to receive those who have been willing to forsake family and heritage for Christ by saying that "there is urgent need that the church make the convert feel at home" (Christy Wilson, "Moslem Converts", The Muslim World, Vol. 34, p. 176). If the Church is the Body of Christ, it cannot refuse fellowship to any who are united to him and to all true believers in the one Spirit.

I fear that the Church lives in such untroubled comfort I in the West today that it will immediately shun any threat, not to its identity, but to its state of ease and self-sufficiency. In the New Testament we read often of sufferings, deprivations and persecutions, but of no such thing as a church building. In Western societies today we have a plethora of fine church buildings, cushioned pews and every form of modern luxury, but suffer no deprivation or persecution. The four walls of our hallowed structures both isolate and insulate us very effectively from the outside world which should be hostile but for obvious reasons is not. "Live and let live" is our policy, whether we care to admit it or not. We do not trouble the world and as long as our faith is expressed unnoticed within our four walls, the world will not trouble us. The circumstances are very unfavourable for promoting Muslim evangelism in the West and creating a beneficial climate for Muslim converts. Things will not be different here to the predominantly Muslim world. Conversions from Islam are going to involve troublesome consequences for us as well as the converts and we must face them.

This subject really requires a whole book on the need for the Church in the West to rise from its slumbers, to "sell its possessions and give alms" (Luke 12.33), to forego its comforts, to involve itself deeply in the world as the early Church did, and to prepare for the inevitable hostile consequences. At this point we can only survey the need for the Church to be willing to receive converts from Islam with open arms and to share in their trials. More than one writer with experience among Muslims has commented on the need to actually conduct programs among the churches to make them aware of Islam and receptive to those who are willing to join its fold.

This section has, I trust, to some measure identified the problems involved in acclimatising converts from Islam to their new-found faith and place in the Christian Church. They cannot, even if they remain unsolved inhibit the work of evangelism among Muslims and we must press on, both in hope and in confidence, with our eyes raised to the ultimate home in heaven of all who belong to Christ where the problems we canvass below will fade and pass like the morning mist.

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