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by Justin Taylor

March 9, 2016

Blanchard-Hall

If I walk up to my office window at Crossway Books and look across the railroad tracks to the west, I can see the campus of Wheaton College, including the distinctive white spire above the center named after its most famous alumnus, Billy Graham. Founded by evangelical abolitionists in 1860 “for Christ and his kingdom,” the school has garnered a reputation over the years as the Evangelical Harvard, seeking to show that a liberal arts college can combine rigorous academic training and faithful piety.

As many readers will know, Wheaton was embroiled in controversy from December 2015 to February 2016, centered around statements by political science professor Larycia Hawkins. Announcing on Facebook her plan to wear the hijab during Advent, she explained: “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

A firestorm of controversy ensued, fanned into flame by forces both inside and outside of the school. Though it was in the same town in which I work, I mainly followed the developments at a distance (that is to say, online), even offering my own modest proposal on the same-God debate.

We have not heard, however, from many faculty members inside Wheaton regarding their perspective on what happened or what we can learn from this difficult season for Wheaton. I am grateful, therefore, to share the following essay by Daniel J. Treier, Blanchard Professor of Theology at Wheaton College. Suggesting that this may be a ”‘teachable moment,’ not just for Wheaton specifically but more generally for Christians in higher education,” Dr. Treier calls the Christian community to consider how “four key features of biblical wisdom might help us to understand how Dr. Hawkins, Dr. Jones, parents, and professors could act in reasonably good faith yet reach a tragic outcome.”

More could be said here, but not less. For anyone who watched or commented on this tragedy—both from within and from outside—this is a wise essay worth carefully considering.

Justin Taylor


The Wheaton Tragedy

Daniel J. Treier
March 9, 2016

Wheaton College (IL), where I have taught theology for fifteen years, recently endured a two-month media firestorm. Generally reliable details of the narrative are available via that bastion of truth, the Internet. In miniature: A tenured political science professor, Larycia Hawkins, was placed on administrative leave after asserting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. This assertion appeared in a Facebook post explaining her decision to wear a hijab during Advent, expressing “embodied solidarity” with Muslim women prominently facing discrimination. As controversy ensued, Wheaton’s provost Stanton Jones believed that Dr. Hawkins did not provide adequate theological clarification of how her statements were consistent with the college’s evangelical statement of faith.

Subsequent conversations reached a stalemate while media coverage escalated. Dr. Jones initiated formal termination procedures that would commence with a review by the Faculty Personnel Committee. Already an overwhelming majority of the faculty opposed Dr. Hawkins’s termination, especially after she posted online a statement of theological clarification. Wheaton’s Faculty Council unanimously formalized a recommendation for Dr. Hawkins’s reinstatement, grounded in critique of administrative procedures. Supporters of Dr. Hawkins intensified various private and public campaigns. Additional faculty members, who previously shared some of the administration’s theological concerns or were undecided, came to support Dr. Hawkins’s immediate reinstatement, believing that her clarifying statement precluded any violation of a particular tenet of the statement of faith.

Advocacy on both sides reached a fever pitch of Facebook and Twitter salvos from professors, alumni, and pundits. Media stories proliferated internationally, partly because three Wheaton alumnae report on religion for national outlets. One of them publicized multiple confidential materials leaked by faculty members. Few cultural elites or Wheaton professors sympathized publicly with the administration’s concerns. Younger and more progressive alumni joined the administration’s critics in vocal support for Dr. Hawkins.

The Faculty Diversity Committee issued a private report that raised significant concerns about administrative procedures as well as racial and gender inequity affecting the case. Shortly thereafter Dr. Jones sent a detailed written apology to Dr. Hawkins. He revoked the termination proceedings and left the decision about reinstating Dr. Hawkins in the hands of Wheaton’s president, Philip Ryken. The Diversity Committee’s report leaked while Dr. Hawkins and Dr. Ryken were addressing the possibility of her reinstatement. Dr. Hawkins and Dr. Ryken reached a confidential agreement to end her employment at the college, at which point Dr. Jones’s apology was made public. A joint worship service and a joint press conference ensued.

Of course the controversy is not really over, regardless of whether media interest waxes or wanes. Months, even years, of rebuilding lie ahead. The college is left sifting through the rubble of its latest firestorm while grieving the loss of a treasured professor, and Dr. Hawkins was left to find a new place of service. (By the way, Dr. Hawkins is a valued colleague and family friend, but in this essay I use her academic title rather than operating on a first-name basis. She deserves every indication of the respect that chummy students sometimes deny to female professors in my conservative circles.) Rebuilding requires time for lament and space for grief, even expressions of anger. Early commentary requires restraint, recognizing the risk of damaging relationships we hope to heal.

Both Tragedy and Wisdom: A Neglected Perspective

Yet I offer this essay to commend a neglected perspective, worth considering before views harden so thoroughly that our rebuilding efforts cannot incorporate any alternatives. Thus far public commentary from my Wheaton colleagues has been overwhelmingly one-sided, for understandable reasons. If, however, those who grieve over Dr. Hawkins’s departure but sympathize with our administration’s theological concerns remain entirely silent, then rebuilding efforts will produce lopsided results.

Indeed, perhaps we face a “teachable moment,” not just for Wheaton specifically but more generally for Christians in higher education. Wheaton is far from the only school navigating the challenges of a social media age, the dramas of faculty advocacy, the limits of academic freedom, or perceived tensions between genuine diversity and confessional identity. Moreover, Wheaton’s treatment as an icon—by the media, the broader academy, and various stakeholders from both left and right—could mean that the recent controversy has larger consequences for the accreditation, finances, and politics of Christian higher education.

Most pundits have taken clear sides dominated by political, theological, or academic agendas—not to mention suspicion and sheer speculation. To state my alternative succinctly: What if the dominant categories for assessing this controversy should be the pair of “tragedy” and “wisdom”? What if we tried to imagine how each major stakeholder in the controversy could act in reasonably good faith yet contribute to a tragic outcome? And what if we tried to learn our lessons for the future from both the fragmentary wisdom and the limitations displayed by each?

I have been pondering how biblical wisdom addresses our communal life because of James 1:19-20: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (NIV). These verses confronted my own slowness to listen (to certain people anyway), my speed in speaking (without adequate information), and my fiery self-righteousness. As a Christian liberal arts professor, I find it painful to be so unwise.

What if we listen—really listen, seeking the peaceable and teachable wisdom of James 3:17-18—to the perspectives of all the relevant stakeholders? Despite our differences, and the other relevant questions this essay brackets out, these stakeholders claim a shared commitment to Scripture’s authority. Thus four key features of biblical wisdom might help us to understand how Dr. Hawkins, Dr. Jones, parents, and professors could act in reasonably good faith yet reach a tragic outcome.

1. Listening and Speaking

Wisdom’s emphasis on the character of our listening and speaking especially helps us to examine Dr. Hawkins’s perspective. How many critics listened carefully to understand sympathetically what she sought to do? James, the New Testament’s Wisdom literature, prohibits self-righteous slander (4:11-12). Catechesis from the Ninth Commandment enjoins thinking and speaking as well of others as possible, even refraining from expressing justifiable criticism if we can. Dr. Hawkins’s critics frequently failed to honor God’s law in this way.

James 2 and 5 also apply, for they demonstrate that enduring wisdom and prophetic action are not automatically opposed. Hoping to demonstrate solidarity with a verbally, politically, and sometimes physically abused group, Dr. Hawkins championed marginalized persons that James prophetically defends. Unfortunately that solidarity resulted in verbal abuse of Dr. Hawkins, as some critics violated James 3 with particularly vile responses. If some of the concern was primarily political, then James 4:1-10 further applies: Were such critics really concerned for evangelical truth, or instead committing spiritual adultery with a cultural agenda?

Of course Dr. Hawkins was making a public statement in the first place, and she responded to the critics’ and administration’s publicity with more of her own. As the controversy ensued, some of her rhetoric about “Wheaton College,” while commendably avoiding personal attack by name, risked going beyond prophetic confrontation into casting many of the institution’s stakeholders in the worst possible light. Yet neither side backed down, each blaming the other for turning up the temperature. And it is important for those who cannot imagine responding as Dr. Hawkins did to attempt—however inadequately—to put ourselves in her shoes: a single, black female living in downtown Chicago, teaching at a white male-dominated suburban evangelical institution, confronting a post-Ferguson world. Before dismissing the rhetoric of “prophetic” response—about which I will express concerns below—we first should listen to the cries of the side James takes. Among reactions to Dr. Hawkins the partisan anger of worldly wisdom frequently trumped the listening ears, teachable heart, and peaceable spirit of Christian wisdom.

2. Prudence and Courage

Biblical wisdom prioritizes not only listening and speaking but also prudence and courage, helping us to examine the perspective of Wheaton’s administration. How many critics listened carefully to their concerns and imagined alternatives to their course of action? The challenges they faced highlight the necessity and limitations of prudence as well as its complex relation to courage.

For the rest of the post…

A lot of debate has swirled around the similarity (or dissimilarity) of Christianity and Islam lately. What do people think? |

Christianity and Islam: Evangelicals and Americans Are Not on the Same Page About the "Same God"

Just a few months ago, in October, LifeWay Research published a good amount of data on how Americans, pastors, self-identified evangelicals, and religious service attendees see Christianity and Islam. Today, I wanted to share just a bit of data with you regarding how similar or dissimilar these groups of people see the two most popular monotheistic faiths in the world.

Do Muslims and Christians Worship the “Same God?”

In the last week or so, the debate about whether or not Christians and Muslims worship the “same god” has been stirred up due to a controversial situation at Wheaton College, about which I wrote last week. (Full disclosure, I’ve written on several occasions that Muslims and Christians do not pray to the same god and saying so is not helpful.)

Perhaps the reason for the controversy around such “same god” issues is that the country is split, though you would think that country overwhelmingly believes they do worship the same god based on the responses.

But, the nation is actually split down the middle.

Forty-six percent of Americans agree Christians and Muslims pray to the same God, 47% disagree, 8% are not sure.

Of course, we look for statistically different sub-groups of people who believe differently about this issue. Interestingly, they include:

  • Northeasterners (56%) are more likely to Agree than Southerners (40%) and Westerners (44%)
  • Those age 25-34 (56%) are more likely to Agree than those 35-44 (42%), 45-54 (40%), 55-64 (44%), and 65+ (41%)
  • Those age 18-24 (52%) are more likely to Agree than those 45-54 (40%).
  • Nonreligious (56%) are more likely to Agree than Christians (41%).
  • Catholics (52%) are more likely to Agree than Protestants (38%).
  • Self-identified evangelical Protestants are less likely to Agree (35% v 50%).
  • Those attending a religious service at least about once a week (34%) are the least likely to Agree.

Hard times come with hard questions, and our cultural context exerts enormous pressure on Christians to affirm common ground at the expense of theological differences. But the cost of getting this question wrong is the loss of the Gospel.

Is this true?

The answer to that question depends upon a distinctly Christian and clearly biblical answer to yet another question: Can anyone truly worship the Father while rejecting the Son?

The Christian’s answer to that question must follow the example of Christ. Jesus himself settled the question when he responded to Jewish leaders who confronted him after he had said “I am the light of the world.” When they denied him, Jesus said, “If you knew me, you would know my Father also” (John 8:19). Later in that same chapter, Jesus used some of the strongest language of his earthly ministry in stating clearly that to deny him is to deny the Father.

Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God. Christians worship the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and no other god. We know the Father through the Son, and it is solely through Christ’s atonement for sin that salvation has come. Salvation comes to those who confess with their lips that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in their hearts that God has raised him from the dead (Romans 10:9). The New Testament leaves no margin for misunderstanding. To deny the Son is to deny the Father.

To affirm this truth is not to argue that non-Christians, our Muslim neighbors included, know nothing true about God or to deny that the three major monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — share some major theological beliefs. All three religions affirm that there is only one God and that he has spoken to us by divine revelation. All three religions point to what each claims to be revealed scriptures. Historically, Jews and Christians and Muslims have affirmed many points of agreement on moral teachings. All three theological worldviews hold to a linear view of history, unlike many Asian worldviews that believe in a circular view of history.

And yet, when we look more closely, even these points of agreement begin to break down. Christian trinitarianism is rejected by both Judaism and Islam. Muslims deny that Jesus Christ is the incarnate and eternal Son of God and go further to deny that God has a son.

For the rest of the post…

Recently, someone emailed me and asked how I thought Dietrich Bonhoeffer would respond to Donald Trump’s recent comments that there should be a ban on all Muslim refugees and immigrants. That was a good question…

How would he respond?

Any thoughts?

by Justin Taylor

John Piper’s August 2002 paper on “Tolerance, Truth-Telling, Violence, and Law: Principles for How Christians Should Relate to Those of Other Faiths” did not get a great deal of attention at the time (so far as I recall), but it remains just as relevant now as it did in the months following 9/11.

It was originally prompted by the question of how Christians and Muslims should relate to each other. “This question,” Piper explains, “is part of the larger issue of how Christians are called to live in a pluralistic world. More specifically, how shall we as American Christians think and act with regard to freedom of religion in a pluralistic context defined by the ideals of representative democracy? In particular, how shall we bear witness to the supremacy of Christ in a world where powerful cultures and religions do not share the love of freedom or the ideals of democracy?”

I’ve reproduced the principles below.


1. Whether approved or disapproved by others, we should thankfully and joyfully hold firmly to the true biblical understanding of God and the way of salvation he has provided and the life of love and purity and justice Christ has modeled and taught.

(1 Corinthians 15:2; Hebrews 3:6;4:14; 6:18; 10:23; Revelation 2:13, 25; 3:11)

2. Both in the church and the world we should make clear and explicit the whole counsel of God revealed in his inspired word, the Bible—both the parts that non-Christians approve and the parts that they don’t. We should not conceal aspects of our faith in order to avoid criticism or disapproval.

(Matthew 10:27-28; Ephesians 6:19-20; 2 Corinthians 4:2; Galatians 1:10)

3. It is loving to point out the error and harm of Christ-denying faiths. The harm consists not only in some temporal effects, but especially in the eternal pain caused by refusing the truth of Christ. This warning should be given with earnestness and longing for the good of those who are in danger of the consequences of not trusting Christ.

(Luke 6:31-32; Romans 13:10; 1 Timothy 4:8; 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9; 2 Corinthians 5:20)

4. We Christians should acknowledge our sin and desperate need of salvation by a crucified and risen Savior, so that we do not posture ourselves as worthy of salvation as if we had superior intellect or wisdom or goodness. We are beggars who have, by grace, found the life-giving bread of truth, forgiveness, and joy. We desire to offer it to all, so that they join us in admiring and enjoying the greatness of Christ forever.

(1 Corinthians 1:26-30; 4:7; 1 Peter 5:6;James 4:8-10; Luke 18:13-14; Matthew 10:8b)

5. We should present Christ not as the triumph of an argument among religions but as the most trustworthy, beautiful, important, and precious person in history, and as our desperately needed and loved substitute in two senses: (1) He absorbed, by his suffering and death, the wrath of God in our place; and (2) he became our righteousness before the all-holy God by living a sinless life which was imputed as righteousness to us when we believed on Jesus.

(1 Corinthians 2:1-2; 2 Corinthians 4:4; 1 Peter 2:6-7; Romans 3:24-26; 5:18-19; Galatians 3:13; 2 Corinthians 5:21)

6. We should make clear that Christian faith, which unites us to Christ and all his saving benefits, is a childlike, self-despairing trust in the worth and work of Christ, not a meritorious work of our own. Our call for others to be Christians is not a call to work for God or to earn his approval by doing deeds of righteousness or love. We are calling for people to renounce all self-reliance and rely entirely on the saving life and death of Jesus Christ.

(Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5;Romans 4:4-5; Romans 10:1-4; Philippians 3:9)

7. We believe it is a just and loving thing to publicly point out the errors of other faiths…

For the rest of the post…

Nov 13, 2015

How can we respond in a uniquely Christian way to the horror in Paris? |

We Are All Parisians: A Christian Response to Global Terror and Radical Islam
We are, it is hard to disagree, in what will be a decades long struggle with radical Islamists. Tonight, that stark reality is made clear again as the death toll continues to rise in Paris in what has been, if early reports are accurate, a series of multiple terror attacks. While no group has claimed responsibility thus far, this scenario is all too familiar, and France has previously experienced smaller attacks from radical groups. So while we wait for more details, we are beginning to process what we do know.

Others can opine on geopolitical realities, military strategies, and more. But I’m burdened to ask, how do we respond as Christians?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I can and will share some suggestions in this painful time. I believe there are things Christians can and must do to respond to this, and so many other, terrorist attacks.

Pray for France, Pray for Muslims. And pray for those who are our enemies.

First, pray. #PrayforParis. Pray for France, Pray for Muslims. And pray for those who are our enemies. That’s a uniquely Christian thing to do– to pray for all, including our enemies. It’s not easy, but it is our calling.

Second, love the hurting. Though most of us are not in Paris tonight, we know that Christians are there, along with others, loving those who have lost so many. And,even from where we sit, we can love the French and “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). It was the French newspaper LeMonde that said in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, “We are all Americans now.” Well, today, we are all Parisians.

Third, love our enemies. Again, that is what makes our faith unique. Most of us are watching this unfold from outside of France, but as the President of the United States said in his remarks, “this is an attack on all of humanity.” When we let that sink in, love isn’t our first natural feeling. But love is what we are called to anyway.

You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. –Matthew 5:43-45

But in moments like this, that response can be hard to come by. We have to consider our own tendencies, and be ready to flee from temptation. Fresh memories from 14 years ago come back for Americans tonight, and strong feelings rise to the surface.

Sometimes it’s not enough to just give lip service to what we should be doing. We also have to commit to what we should be resisting. And on a night like this, there are at least three things we should NOT do as Christians.

First, we should not hate. That’s what our human nature wants to do. We feel pain for those on the other side of the ocean. We feel anger toward an evil that we cannot control. We remember what it feels like to live in a nation under attack. And some of us may even worry about people we know who live in France. All these emotions, especially together, can lead our souls to some troubling places. But the truth is, we are people who live with hope and who live with a mission. We cannot hate a people and reach a people at the same time. As we pray, we must pray for our own hearts to be protected from hate.

Second, we should not take out anger on refugees.

For the rest of the post…

Not that long ago, most Americans didn’t know much or care to know much about Islam. It was just one more exotic but irrelevant religion that missionaries and National Geographicoccassionally talked about. One scholar noted, “Less than a year before September 11, 2001, the consensus of expert opinion was . . . that [Islam’s] impact had ended long before the Renaissance.” It took a massive terrorist attack on U.S. soil to abruptly bring Islam squarely into the center of the American consciousness.

Since that day, questions about violence and Islam have lingered in the American mind: do these violent terrorists truly represent Islam? Is violence intrinsic to the Muslim faith? Having once been a student at a boarding school for missionary kids that was attacked by Islamic terrorists in an effort to frighten Christian missionaries out of the country, these questions are not hackneyed abstractions for me.

As I observe Christians trying to come to grips with the Islamic world, violence in Islam remains a deeply important problem. As Christians, the issue is important to us not simply because we believe that Christianity is true and all other religions are false, but because we have the duty and privilege of proclaiming the gospel to all peoples, including Muslims. While others may have the option of keeping “those Muslims” out of sight and mind as much as possible, Christians must draw near them.

Better Question to Ask

The question at hand presupposes the possibility of determining the true Muslim faith, which is something not even settled within Islam itself. In fact, the recent upsurge in violence perpetrated by Muslim groups is related to the fact that multiple groups are contending for the undisputed title of the “true successors.” Much as Protestants and Catholics argue over the true successors of the apostles, Islam faces the question as to the identity of the true successors to Mohammed. But unlike the Bible, the Qur’an does not really provide enough footing on its own to resolve the question.

A better question to ask is whether or not there is a legitimate place for violence within Islamic tradition. The answer is yes. The primary means of determining this right in Islam is power. According to Islamic thinking, if you are in power and succeeding, then God is clearly blessing and supporting you. If you are not, then God has chosen not to bless you. Of the first four caliphs after Mohammed, three of them were violently murdered, either by assassination, mob, or in battle, all by “fellow” Muslims who supported other leaders. The first two Islamic dynasties came into power by slaughtering those who held power before them. Islam’s history only gets bloodier from there, since might makes right in a way that is foreign to the Judeo-Christian world. Despite the shocking number of Christians or secular Westerners being killed by Muslims, Muslims are killing even greater numbers of other Muslims.

Political leaders as well as terrorist groups use force to establish themselves as the rightful leaders of the Muslim world. Political leaders might portray themselves in a more civilized manner, but the governments of places like Saudi Arabia and Iran are just as willing to commit violent acts for the sake of gaining and maintain power, even if it means commiting them against their own citizens (or other people groups that happen to live within their borders). The Washington Post recently ran a story comparing the justice system of Saudi Arabia to that of ISIS. The only difference, basically, is that the Islamic State brags globally about their enforcement in an effort to prove their devotion.

Three Undergirding Principles 

Why else does violence broadly retain a position of legitimacy within the Islamic tradition? I think three theological and cultural issues undergird violence within Islam.

1. Coercion and Belief 

Christianity teaches that God does not desire mere outward obeisance. He wants heartfelt obedience and living faith. As Paul says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). Therefore, we cannot coerce someone into becoming a Christian. All we can make through coercion is hypocrites. However, you can force someone to become a Muslim (though probably not a truly devout one). All five pillars of Islam are behavioral. Each one can be fulfilled without heartfelt conviction.

Islam means “submission.” Christian means “little Christ.” Even in their labels, you can see a clear difference in priorities between the religions. One promotes discipleship—teaching others to follow. The other promotes conquest (internal and external). Shabbir Akhtar, who lectures at Old Dominion University, argues in D. A. Carson’s book The Intolerance of Tolerance, “Ultimately Islam will (and ought to) win worldwide dominion, because Islam alone, and certainly not Christianity, is internally constituted to be an imperial religion.” This kind of thinking has no place in biblical Christianity.

2. Land 

You can see Mohammed’s sword in Topkapi Palace, Istanbul. Of all the supposed relics of Christ, no one has ever claimed to have found his sword. Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my disciples would fight to keep me from being handed over” (John 18:36). Jesus rebuked Peter for “going to war” to prevent his arrest. There is no such thing as a Christian nation, because the new heavens and the new earth have not been fully inaugurated. There is such thing as a Muslim nation, because every piece of land that belongs to a Muslim nation belongs to Allah.

While Christians grieve the decline of Christianity in places like Europe, we cannot legitimately go to war to reclaim it for Christ. Instead, we pray and evangelize. Furthermore, Christ’s kingdom advances not in territory but in and through the people who claim him as their King. However, when Muslim lands become less Muslim, that is a direct affront to Islam that must be redresssed.

3. Honor and Shame 

The importance of honor is a key cultural difference between the West and most Muslim countries. Rejection or mockery of Mohammed or Islam is a personal attack on every Muslim. Every person who leaves Islam to become a Christian shames Islam because he communicates that it is unworthy of belief. Christ teaches us that to be shamed by the world for the sake of the Lord is honorable (1 Pet. 4:14). Muslims have no clear category for receiving that shame as a commendation of their faithfulness to Allah, since only success is a sign of God’s blessing. So when Islam is undermined, it must be fiercely defended.

Violence in the Human Heart

These factors contribute to violence in Islam, but more than anything else they condemn the human heart. Physical violence has been a distinguishing mark of all humanity ever since Genesis 4. Violence is not unique to Islam. It’s a distinctive of sinful human hearts. In other words, Islam does not make people violent. Sin does. As a man-made religion, Islam is just one more tool people use to harden the heart and embrace sin.

But common grace also extends to Muslims. Not all Muslims are given over to the violence that the system could potentially justify, just as your atheist/secular neighbors don’t fully embrace every sinful behavior that their non-theist worldview could justify.

Christian Response to Violent Persecutors

How should Christians respond to the reality of Islamic violence? The secular West is scrambling for an answer but coming up empty. Every time we see another attack by Muslim terrorists, public figures sprint to opposite sides of the ring. One side says the violence proves terrorism is the inevitable outworking of Islam, the other that beliefs had nothing to do with it.

The world around us struggles because they are unable to see Muslims as people whose value exists in their personhood, not their beliefs. The world thinks of people in binary terms. Either Muslims are “good people” or extremists who belong with the likes of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot.

But we know—or should know—that Muslims are humans created in God’s image and distorted by the fall. They need the same gospel as we do. Muslims are not the enemy, but they are in bondage to him.

For the rest of the post…

North American Christians are often confused about the relationship between the religion of Islam and the ethnic identity of Muslims. This confusion takes two forms. The first has to do with the relationship between Islamic religious identity and Arabic ethnic identity. The second relates to the depth to which Islamic religious identity has penetrated the ethnic identities of all Muslim people groups.

If Christians are to understand their Muslim neighbors (locally and globally), love them as Christ commanded, and share the gospel with them effectively, we must grasp how they understand themselves.

‘Arab’ vs. ‘Muslim’

“Arab” and “Muslim” are not synonymous terms. Muslims are followers of the religion of Islam. Arabs are an ethno-linguistic group of people, most of whom are Muslim in religion but many of whom are not. Their origins lie in the Arabian Peninsula, but they burst into the larger world in the 7th and 8th centuries with the dramatic conquests that followed the death of Muhammad in AD 632. Within 100 years they had spread west sw_asia_pol00across North Africa and Spain and had penetrated as far as southern France. To the east, they had conquered the Persian Empire and spread into modern-day Pakistan and Central Asia. They did so as followers of Islam, but they also did so as ethnic, linguistic, and cultural Arabs. Initially, these Arabic Muslims lived as a ruling minority over most of their empire. The majority of their subjects spoke some other language (such as Aramaic, Coptic, Berber, or Persian) and practiced some other religion (Christianity in the west and Zoroastrianism in the east).

Over time, however, the twin processes of Islamization and Arabization took place, unevenly from location to location. Egypt, North Africa, and the Aramaic-speaking Middle East became almost completely Arabized in language and largely Islamic in religion, but in places like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, substantial minorities held on to their historic Christian religious identities. Thus, to this day, there are communities in each of these countries that are regarded as ethnically and linguistically Arabic but adhere to one of the ancient Christian communions: the Coptic Orthodox in Egypt, the Maronite Catholic in Lebanon, the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic in Palestine, the Eastern and Syrian Orthodox in Syria, and the Chaldean Catholic and Assyrian Orthodox in Iraq. These groups have been caught in the crossfire of the conflicts that have plagued these countries in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The historically Christian population of the Middle East has plummeted in the last several decades as Christians have been killed or forced to flee. For example, a significant portion of the Palestinian population was historically Christian at the beginning of the 20th century, but Israel treats them the same as Muslim Palestinians, and many have fled. Similarly, the Assyrian and Chaldean Christians of Iraq were largely left alone under Saddam Hussein, but since he was deposed they have been targeted by Islamic groups, and many have been forced out of the country. A significant percentage of the Arabic population in the United States belongs to one of the ancient eastern churches (and therefore aren’t Muslim), and the Assyrian Orthodox patriarch now lives in Chicago.

On the other hand, many other peoples under Islamic rule became Muslim, but never became Arabic. In the Middle East itself, the Persians (Iranians), Kurds, and Turks are all majority-Muslim people groups, but they do not regard themselves as Arabs, and they do not speak Arabic. Likewise, the largest Muslim populations in the world are all in non-Arabic speaking countries: Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India, among others.

The majority of Muslims in the world are not Arabic in language or ethnic identity.

Arabic Center

However, the Arabic influence on these non-Arabic Muslims is significant. The Qur’an was composed in Arabic, and is regarded by Muslims as truly the Qur’an only in the Arabic language. The prayers recited by Muslims five times a day are recited in Arabic, whether the worshiper understands Arabic or not. The Hadith and all the authoritative source documents for Islamic jurisprudence were written in Arabic. Southeast Asian Muslims who cannot speak Arabic still give their children Arabic names. It is true that the major people groups who live closest to the Arab world (Turks, Persians, Kurds, Berbers) have something of a love-hate relationship with the Arabs, often expressing either superiority or resentment toward them. Still, the influence is strong, and the Muslim world is unbreakably connected to its Arabic center.

This is where the second common confusion comes into play. North Americans tend to regard religious identity as both private and personal. It is true that we still think in stereotypes: Poles and Italians are typically Roman Catholic, and Southerners are usually Protestant. Jewish families will sometimes disown a child who converts to Christianity. However, by and large, religion is regarded as a matter of choice, and it is kept out of public view. A person can have any religious identity and be an American. In much of the Muslim world, though, the opposite is true. Islam is part of their ethnic identity. To be a Turk, or a Persian, or a Malay, or a host of other Islamic people groups is to be a Muslim, and if you cease to be the latter you also cease to be the former. You don’t even have to be particularly observant as a Muslim, but you cannot leave Islam.

To join another religion is to commit ethnic and cultural treason and to cut yourself off from the family and community ties that are foundational to your identity. This is one of the greatest challenges facing Christians sharing the gospel with Muslims. Islam does not separate religion, culture, and politics into different spheres, but regards them as unbreakably united. For this reason, Christian evangelism and missions to Muslims are regarded as politically and culturally subversive as well as being religiously threatening.

Our Response

How should Christians respond with this knowledge?

(1) Don’t assume every Arab you meet is a Muslim. They might be, but they also might be a member of one of the ancient Middle Eastern Christian churches.

(2) Don’t assume every Muslim you meet is an Arab. The majority of all Muslims are not, and they will appreciate you knowing the difference.

For the rest of the post…

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