Raising the Par in the Parley
Does any task loom larger in world missions than reaching the Muslim world? The war in the Persian Gulf has accentuated this challenge – and, of course, made it all the more difficult. For example, our missionaries in Cyprus have received angry letters from Muslim listeners to our broadcasts.
It is not easy to share the gospel with Muslims, but we must do so. As we have more and more opportunities for direct, one-on-one contact with them, we need to examine ourselves and try to cross the historical, cultural, ideological, religious, and personal barriers that separate us from them. We must watch out for misconceptions, different mindsets, and even prejudices. For we are "ambassadors of the court of heaven, for him upon the throne" in every exchange – and tragically low is the par in the usual parley!
The Socio-Cultural Contact
We need to have some understanding of the culture and society of the person we meet. We also need a sympathetic attitude toward different customs and beliefs that are not in themselves against God's natural and moral laws. For example, Muslims have dietary restrictions (similar to Jews), veil their women, observe feast days, and pray five times daily. We can adjust to strange customs without compromising biblical principles, just as the strict Jews of Old Testament times – Joseph and Daniel, for example – successfully did.
Americans are often ignorant and even intolerant of whatever is not American. Recent surveys have shown how little we know of geography, history, and foreign languages. The Gulf war demonstrated the great distance between typical Arab Muslim and Euro-American cultures, and the American ability to learn, adjust and work in such a context was limited. Missionaries, unfortunately, for all their genuine concern, often fail in real contact with members of other cultures and faiths.
Christian minorities in Muslim lands today are often treated surprisingly well. Traditionally, Jews and Christians have been treated better than other groups because they have been considered "people of the book" (Bible).
At the same time, we must remember that friendly, ongoing contact is often impeded by the fact that many Muslim lands have been subject to colonial government – French and English, in particular. We are not many decades away from European imperialism and colonialism. And the relative lack of education and travel by Muslims in most lands makes it all the harder for them to understand our culture or believe that we are friendly!
The Ideological Confrontation
Muslim conquests of "Christian lands" in the early Middle Ages and the efforts of the Crusaders to "free" the "Holy Land" help to explain why there has been so little diplomatic and ideological interchange between Christians and Muslims for centuries. We must realize how little we ourselves know about the intellectual attainments of certain Muslim cultures. What Muslim literature have we read, except perhaps the Thousand and One Nights or poetic lines of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam?
The Muslims have many impressive works on law, philosophy, and religion, and great works of literature. It is a serious mistake to equate cultural rigidity and traditionalism with ignorance, lack of thought, or pride. The issue is not which one of us is the barbarian!
This is not to say that fluency in Arabic and intimate knowledge of Muslim literature will by itself make many converts for the missionary. Knowledgeable missionaries like Samuel Zwemer worked for decades without making any converts. Nonetheless, merely casual or infrequent contact by those who know so little considerably limits the prospect, humanly speaking, of gaining converts.
The Religious Confrontation
I wish I had a better word than "confrontation," since it is more a matter of meeting those of other religions. With this in view, then, we must be careful to view every opportunity to share God's Word from the following three perspectives:
Every approach, whether expected or unexpected, is important. The Christian wants all men to turn from false gods and to know, love and obey the true God. He wants everyone to receive the good news of God's saving work. Anyone whom the Christian meets may be brought by God's Spirit into faith and redemption.
The contact is not only religious, as we have said. The nonreligious aspects of the contact (if we may so speak) are to be used as best we can to make contact with others.
As Cornelius Van Til shows so well, there is but one real point of contact. Both the Christian and the non-Christian are conscious of the true God, although one loves him and the other fears and hates him. Any other point of contact brings us together only in our creature-lines and image bearing, both of which are marred.
The nature of our meeting should directly affect the manner of our approach. Consider the following four points:
As a kind of pre-evangelism, we talk with people of other faiths about one another's deepest convictions, fears, hopes, etc., or even about seemingly unrelated matters. Jesus, for example, asked the woman at the well for water before he showed her the way of salvation. At Athens, Paul first commented on the religiosity of the Greeks there (Acts 17:22). Philip said to the Ethiopian eunuch who was reading Isaiah (chapter 53): "Do you understand what you are reading?" These examples illustrate the value of preliminary communication before one person lays religious claims upon another.
A vulnerable stance was taken by Jesus when he asked for water, by Paul when he made a judgment on the religiosity of the Greeks, and by Philip when he joined the high-ranking Ethiopian in his chariot. Here is no encounter from behind church walls, in cultic garb, or in pulpit posture. Here is openness – standing on the same level as another person, without a shield to hide behind or attack from. Similarly, Stephen defended himself before the Sanhedrin with frankness, openness, humanity, and love. The same love that one has for the lost soul of the other must also be love that is not self-protective, unkind, insulting, demeaning, arrogant, or demanding.
The Christian must know what he believes, he must truly believe what he professes, and he must live in accordance with his profession. Effective witness bearing requires credibility, integrity, consistency, holiness, and fruit of the Spirit – in a word, Christ-likeness. This we all know. What a shameful travesty it is when the Muslim comes across with more credibility, consistency, and integrity than the Christian!
Love for the other person's well-being is essential, and so is love above all for God's honour and truth.
Therefore, we must speak the truth in love, avoiding all unnecessary offense. For example, since the Hindu is a vegetarian and nearly worships cows, he cannot appreciate at the outset the parable of the prodigal son, where the climax involves killing the fatted calf.
Similarly, the doctrine of the Trinity need not always be pressed at the early stages of evangelism. That God is one, and that he is our Creator. Lawgiver and Saviour are truths that do not offend Muslims, unlike the doctrines of the son-ship of Christ and his atoning death on the cross. Paul spoke to the Athenians about Christ being God's appointed judge of mankind (Acts 17:31), without calling him the Messiah or a sin offering. His message was arrested; it appears, when he brought up the resurrection.
Is this not related to what Christ said about not casting our pearls before swine? Certainly he could not be forbidding us to offer the great pearl of the gospel to sinners, but is he not saying that we must not present truths that men will most likely mock and sneer at? If we do, we may thwart the very goal of winning hearers and believers! Remember what Paul said to Festus.
I am not insane, most excellent Festus, Paul replied. What I am saying is true and reasonable.Acts 26:25
Let us likewise speak words that are true and reasonable with credibility, sincerity, and wisdom – in order to be winsome.
Finally, we can further improve the effectiveness of our ministry to Muslims by taking certain practical steps:
Help and support the Christians who are in close contact with Muslims, so they can better do their work. This means prayer, perhaps financial help, and also learning from their wisdom and experience to make our own contacts more meaningful and effective.
Improve our position by reading, thinking, and learning in every way possible. Then make contacts with keen interest, sympathy, and concern.
Analyze ourselves objectively. Evaluate what cultural and ideological baggage we are carrying into the Christian fold. True Christians belong to different races, nations, and cultures, hold different economic views, prefer different types of art and music, and read different kinds of books. How close do we get to those of different nationalities and skin colours, different tastes in aesthetics, liturgy, and music – all within the "universal catholic church"? So it behoves us to get to the person, and this is sometimes via culture and ideology and sometimes in spite of it (ours, for example!). We need to be flexible Christians with a worldwide outlook, not narrow-minded people who are bound by own our culture.
Remember, in many ways the culture and mindset of the Muslim are closer than the modem Westerner's are to those of the biblical Jew or early Christian. They had the same climate and similar government (in some cases). They herded sheep, rode donkeys and camels, used the veil, ate similar foods, used cognate languages, and had similar laws and customs regarding marriage, education, crime, and punishment. They had similar attitudes as to the keeping of feast days, fasts, and public worship.
Speaking freely (Acts 26:26), Paul could say in love, "Short time or long – I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains" (v. 29).
May it be so with us!