Christian-Muslim Unity?

Unless we’re prejudiced like Jonah, every Christian should have a heart that beats with love for Muslims. Unless we’re consumed with Joab’s appetite for perpetual warfare, every Christian should long for and pray for more harmonious relations between Muslims and Christians. Unless we’re disobedient to the Lord Jesus and the Apostle Paul, every Christian should think through strategies for pursuing peace with all men, including Muslims. On the other hand, unless we’re as perpetually gullible as Samson, every true Christian should have serious concerns regarding the recent well-publicized dialogue between Muslims and Christians.

Four significant stages of Christian-Muslim dialogue have taken place between September 2006 and November 2007. Before one can rightly respond to the situation, it is essential to have a fair understanding of what is actually happening.

Understanding the Recent Christian-Muslim Dialogue
On September 12, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI gave a lecture at the University of Regensburg (Germany) on the relationship between faith and reason. In his introduction, Benedict argued that Islam has little concern for harmonizing faith and reason. He offered two primary proofs: (1) that Allah is allowed to act outside the boundaries of rationality, and (2) that Islam has been advanced by “forced conversions” which compel people to convert apart from their rational consent. In his conclusion, Benedict invited Islamic leaders to a reasonable “dialogue of cultures.” (For a helpful overview, see Wikipedia, “Pope Benedict XVI Islam Controversy.”)

Needless to say, Muslim leaders did not appreciate the Pope’s description of Islam and responded one month later, on October 13, 2006, with “An Open Letter to the Pope.” This letter was signed by 38 Islamic authorities who represented each of the eight sectors of Islamic thought, an action which Islamica Magazine called “an unprecedented move…in the history of interfaith relations.” This four-page letter sought to correct the Pope’s understanding of faith and reason within Islamic thought and ended with this:

“Christianity and Islam are the largest and second largest religions in the world and in history. Christians and Muslims reportedly make up over a third and over a fifth of humanity respectively. Together they make up more than 55% of the world’s population, making the relationship between these two religious communities the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace around the world. As the leader of over a billion Catholics and moral example for many others around the globe, yours is arguably the single most influential voice in continuing to move this relationship forward in the direction of mutual understanding. We share your desire for frank and sincere dialogue, and recognize its importance in an increasingly interconnected world. Upon this sincere and frank dialogue we hope to continue to build peaceful and friendly relationships based upon mutual respect, justice, and what is common in essence in our shared Abrahamic tradition, particularly ‘the two greatest commandments’ in Mark 12:29–31 (and, in varying form, in Matthew 22:37–40).”

Exactly one year later, on October 13, 2007, 138 Islamic authorities continued this dialogue with another letter entitled, “A Common Word Between Us” (www.acommonword.com) which was intended not only for the Pope, but for the entire Christian world. This 29-page document proposed that peaceful relations between Muslims and Christians are vitally important for the future of the world and that this pursuit of harmony should begin with an understanding that both systems of faith have the same “foundational principles”—love for God and love for neighbor. “A Common Word” ends with this invitation:

“As Muslims, we say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them—so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes….

“Is Christianity necessarily against Muslims? In the Gospel Jesus Christ says: He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters abroad (Matthew 12:30). …Muslims recognize Jesus Christ as the Messiah, not in the same way Christians do (but Christians themselves anyway have never all agreed with each other on Jesus Christ’s nature), but in the following way: …. the Messiah Jesus son of Mary is a Messenger of God and His Word which he cast unto Mary and a Spirit from Him…. (Al-Nisa’, 4:171). We therefore invite Christians to consider Muslims not against and thus with them, in accordance with Jesus Christ’s words here.

“Finally, as Muslims, and in obedience to the Holy Qur’an, we ask Christians to come together with us on the common essentials of our two religions…. Let this common ground be the basis of all future interfaith dialogue between us, for our common ground is that on which hangs all the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:40).”

Under the leadership of Miroslav Volf, the highly respected founder and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, more than 300 Christian leaders responded to “A Common Word” with an open letter to Muslims entitled “Loving God and Neighbor Together” (www.yale.edu/faith) which was published as a full-page advertisement in The New York Times on November 18, 2007. Among the signers were several leaders who are well-known in the evangelical world (e.g., Leith Anderson, Timothy George, Bill Hybels, Brian McLaren, Richard Mouw, Robert Schuller, John Stott, and Rick Warren). At the heart of this letter was the following statement:

“Surprisingly for many Christians, your letter [“A Common Word”] considers the dual command of love to be the foundational principle not just of the Christian faith, but of Islam as well. That so much common ground exists—common ground in some of the fundamentals of faith—gives hope that undeniable differences and even the very real external pressures that bear down upon us can not overshadow the common ground upon which we stand together. That this common ground consists in love of God and of neighbor gives hope that deep cooperation between us can be a hallmark of the relations between our two communities.”

Since the publication of “Loving God and Neighbor Together,” the drafters from the Yale Center for Faith and Culture have rearticulated both what they want to accomplish and how they hope to accomplish it. Their primary goal is “peaceful relations between Muslims and Christians,” and they hope to accomplish this through religious dialogue. To succinctly and memorably state their end and means, they quote Hans Küng, a Catholic professor of Ecumenical Theology at the University of Tübingen:

“There can be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions. There can be no peace among the religions without dialogue.” (See the FAQs section at http://www.yale.edu/faith/abou-commonword.htm.)

Responding to the Recent Christian-Muslim Dialogue
To the extent that this dialogue involves “peace among the nations”—political strategy—it is beyond this author’s ability and calling to offer meaningful comment. (I am no politician, and I have no clue how to cultivate healthy international relations.) But to the extent that the recent dialogue involves “peace among the religions”—religious ecumenism—it is a pastor’s obligation to offer an appropriate biblical response for the health and protection of Christ’s sheep (Titus 1:9; Eph 4:11–16). That response should include at least these three truths:

Peaceful relations between Muslims and Christians should never be threatened by Christians.

  • “Jesus answered [Pilate], ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting…” (John 18:36).
  • “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom 12:18).
  • “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life…” (1 Thess 4:11).
  • “Pursue peace with all men…” (Heb 12:14).

Christians are not called to physically fight against those who have a different religious persuasion. While Christians are often called to endure verbal and physical persecution at the hands of unbelievers, Christians are never called to inflict persecution. Failure to recognize these truths has led to the blight of the Crusades in history and to the blight of religious persecution by Christians even today. As far as Christian-Muslim relations depend on Christians, there should never be anything but civil peace. According to the Bible, true Christians should be able to peaceably associate with, peaceably work with, peaceably live next to, and even peaceably be married to a Muslim (1 Cor 7:12–13—although this passage forbids a believer to marry an unbeliever, it insists that a “mixed marriage” never be abandoned by the believing spouse).

Permanent civil peace among the nations will not ultimately be realized until the return of Jesus Christ.
A certain measure of peace is possible now, and we should pray for it. However, lasting and universal peace awaits the coming reign of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.

  • “Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance, And the very ends of the earth as Your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, You shall shatter them like earthenware” (Ps 2:8–9).
  • “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders…. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace” (Isa 9:6–7).
  • “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever” (Rev 19:15).

At His glorious return, the Lord Jesus Christ will establish His throne on this earth. He will forcefully subdue every enemy and rule over His redeemed people and His redeemed creation in an absolute theocracy. This is the only civil peace that will be rooted in genuine religious peace. (In this sense, Küng’s first statement is true.) In that day, there will be only one religion: the worship of the risen Lamb from those who have been graciously justified by faith in Him. For that day, every true believer yearns. And until that day, every true believer should faithfully advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ, seeking the eternal salvation of the lost (2 Pet 3:15).

Religious conversation between Muslims and Christians should always include loving controversy from the Christians involved.
Despite the attempts to identify core similarities, Islam and Biblical Christianity are vastly different, especially at their cores. Because the person and work of Jesus Christ stand at the center of Biblical Christianity, even the apparent similarity in the Christian-Muslim commands to love God and neighbor is highly superficial:

  • Jesus issued the commands to love God and neighbor as a demonstration of His unique wisdom and authority as the Lord, Savior and Messiah (Mark 12:34; Matt 22:46; cf. 7:28–29).
  • Jesus was the only person who actually fulfilled these commands to love God and neighbor (Rom 3:19–20; cf. 13:10). And Jesus imputes this perfect “alien righteousness” to those who believe in Him (Phil 3:8–9; 2 Cor 5:21).
  • Jesus paid the penalty for every person’s natural and continual self-centered disobedience to these central commands (Isa 53:4–6).
  • Jesus’ death on Calvary was the ultimate display of love for God and love for others (John 10:11; 15:13; 8:29; cf. Isa 53:10).
  • Jesus is the only one who can inspire and empower obedience to these foundational commands to love (Gal 5:13–26; Rom 8:3–4; 1 John 4:9–11).
  • Love for God and neighbor are impossible apart from faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (1 John 3:23; 5:1).

In other words, a truly Christian understanding of love for God and love for others is radically different from that of Islam. The Christian obligation to love God and neighbors must be understood in the context of Jesus’ person and work which is even more fundamental to Christianity than the two greatest commandments. “The foundational principle” of Christianity is the display of divine love through the crucifixion of Jesus the Messiah. He is so central to biblical Christianity that the only way our “common ground” could “overshadow” our “undeniable differences” would be if Christians ignored the Lord Jesus and His glorious cross. That we cannot do.

Christians must courageously articulate the centrality of Jesus and His cross in any “interfaith discussions.” This was something that Jesus and His apostles always did. Whether he was relating to Jews or pagans, Paul’s “interfaith dialogue” consistently included the boldly controversial and evangelistically persuasive assertions of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul never tried to conciliate and identify an “overshadowing common ground.” For Paul, to speak anything less than the uniqueness of Jesus’ person and work would have been irresponsible and unloving. So with Paul, every Christian should respond to people of different religious persuasions—whether Muslims or otherwise—by winsomely and fearlessly articulating the necessity of repentant faith in the slaughtered and resurrected Lamb of God.

“Peace among the nations” is an objective which Christians pursue, pray for, and long. “Peace among the religions” is a strategy with which true Christians cannot align themselves without depreciating their Savior’s gloriously unique person and work.

April/May 2008

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