"Political correctness" in Muslim evangelism?

The pros and cons of over- or underadapting the Christian faith to a given Muslim setting.

Borge Schantz, Ph.D., professor emeritus and retired from Newbold College, lives in Denmark.

During recess at a Scandinavian elementary school, immigrant Muslim boys attacked a little girl who wore a cross necklace. They tore it off and threw it on the ground while cursing and shouting obscenities. When approached by the girl's parents about the matter, school authorities—afraid of not being "politically correct"—did nothing.

In the same school district, some Muslim parents claimed that a teacher had not shown sufficient respect to Mohammed and the Koran, an accusation that made problems for the teacher.

In my home country, we are almost in a situation where newspapers, radio, and television can voice obscene, debasing, vulgar, and malicious sentiments about the church, Christianity, the Bible, even Jesus Christ—and no one lifts a finger. At the same time, minor negative comments, criticisms, and evaluations of Islam made public are immediately brought to the notice of the courts, which want to stamp out such "racism."

What's wrong with this picture?

Compromise or confrontations

The spirit of today is compromise, not confrontation. This "political correctness" is also creeping into Adventist approaches to other non-Christian traditions. Adventists talk about "building bridges," "cultivating under standing," "commitment to reflect brother hood," and "being sensitive to the heart needs of Muslims" and other religious groups.

I get quite a few messages by which Adventists express their concern over a "dumbing down" of the Christian message in general, and the Advent message in particular. We are told that in our outreach programs we should emphasize "things we have in common" with other religions.

Respect for an individual Muslim, or some one of any belief, is an essential expression of biblical love. No one should deny that. But when the Christian witness meets erroneous doctrines or beliefs, be it Islamic, secular or whatever, our call is to enlighten and correct, no matter how "politically incorrect" our words might be deemed. To minimize this call is to be unfaithful to our gospel commission.

Commonalities or misinterpretations

Besides, personal experience has shown me the fallacies in this let's-talk-about-what-we-have-in-common approach. In my years working in Muslim areas, I have often stressed the few points where there seemed to be agreements between their beliefs and my faith. The reply has been: "If we have these things in common, why should I change my religion?" In fact, a good Muslim friend once said to me: "You ought to be a Muslim. You speak like one."

Attempts have been made to equate the Allah of the Koran with the God in the Bible. Despite some superficial commonalities, the comparison is invalid. When Christians talk about God, we talk about a Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To the Muslim, that is blasphemy—and polytheism.

Allah's attributes and character are revealed in his 99 names. He is called holy, merciful, gracious, forgiving, and protecting. However, some names also indicate that Allah forces, diminishes, humiliates, and causes damage. Three very significant attributes that Christians ascribe to God are absent in Islam. Allah is never called Father, never called Love, never called Spirit.

That Arab Christians use the word Allah for God is irrelevant to the point under discussion. J. H. Bavinck, a Dutch missiologist puts it this way: "... In nearly all religions, God, or the gods, occupy a position (that) can ... be called a moment or element of truth. That they believe in God is an element of truth, but what they say and think of him is entirely different from what God has revealed of himself in his word. The words found in the sacred books of other religions which are nearly identical with the words of the Bible ought also not to lead us into error."1

Another interesting but revealing case is when Adventists try to establish common ground by claiming that both Muslims and Adventists believe in the second coming of Christ. Muslims believe that Messiah will descend to the earth and will destroy anti-christ and then establish the true religion of Islam.

This is interpreted to mean, among other things, that Christ will return to prepare the way for Mohammed, who will then inaugurate an eternal kingdom based on the Koran. In such a scenario, Christ is demoted to a kind of end-time John the Baptist, a view that cannot be squared with our understanding of the Second Coming in any way.

Space will not allow us to draw attention to other seeming commonalities such as heaven and hell, angels, the Scriptures, day of judgment. Yet, in reality, almost the only thing in common is the names for the various doctrines. The deeper theological meaning, the reason for the beliefs and the purpose of the specific doctrine, is often different, if not contradictory.

Honesty while witnessing to truth

Thus, is it really "depersonalization"— as some would claim it to be—to point out wrong doctrine, abuse, and even dangerous heresy in other religions, if this is done with Christian courtesy? After all, in the Bible we find examples where humor (Matt. 7:34 f), irony (Rom. 6:1, 2), even a species of ridicule (Isa. 44:13-20) are used. Jesus called the Pharisees "white washed tombs" (Matt 23:27). Was Peter's speech on Pentecost "politically correct" (Acts 2:36, 37)?

Among the commands that Christ gave after His resurrection were com mands to preach, teach, train, disciple, observe, command, enlighten, cause to understand, repent, make known, instruct, demonstrate, dis cuss, and charge. These cannot be obeyed unless one is prepared to warn against heresies and point those of other faiths to a better way.

Church or mosque?

In an attempt to be sensitive, a well-meaning evangelical pastor once decided to build a church in a style similar to a mosque. He also programmed services to somewhat reflect the programs Muslims follow for their prayers. The new church looked like a mosque; it even pointed toward Mecca. For the services, shoes were left outside, men covered their heads, the genders were separated, and no hymns were used.

After some time the local police officer asked the pastor if he was Christian or Muslim. Surprised, the good evangelist confirmed his calling as a minister of the gospel. The officer then told him to act, behave, and talk like a Christian. He was advised not to deceive people. The policeman's advice was for the evangelist to be honest in his approach.

Some in among the charismatic movements who are working on the "halfway house" concepts—where Muslim converts are almost left in a semi-Christian state—are beginning to experience difficulties. They are accused of underground work among Muslims, a "crime" in some Islamic societies that comes with heavy punishment. An honest, tactful witness to the gospel will definitely be resisted; it will not, however, be misunderstood or misinterpreted.

Today there are more than 12 million Seventh-day Adventists; more than 5 million of them originally came from Roman Catholic back grounds. We have been successful in winning Catholics. Several missiological reasons could be hypothesized for this success, but political correctness, emphasizing "things we have in common," is not foremost among them.

No doubt concerned evangelists and laypersons with a loving spirit have initiated their witness by stressing beliefs we have in common. And we have a few more commonalities with Catholics than we do with Muslims. Yet evangelistic success is not a result of stressing commonalities. Success among Catholics has come largely because, after mutual trust had been built up, we could point out fallacies in their doctrine and point them to something better. Those won were generally those who already were dissatisfied with their church and who found a better way through what we have had to offer.

Dissatisfied Muslims

Today a growing number of Muslims are perplexed—even embarrassed—by what is happening in the name of Islam: suicide bombing, honor-killings of young girls, and so on. This embarrassment is fueled by the fact that few Muslim leaders and theologians speak out against these acts.

These displeased Muslims are looking for solutions. Many contemporary Muslims, discouraged by what the extremists are doing, are winnable for Christ. However, they are not looking for a church that overemphasizes the few doctrines the two religions superficially agree upon. They are looking for a church with a message that will give their life meaning, a message that preaches love to one's neighbors, a message that gives them hope and the promise of a better future. In short, they are looking for the gospel.

These Muslims are the ones we seek to evangelize now. Our lectures, literature, radio and television pro grams, and other activities should be geared toward these. The message should be one of hope, but also of warning, of theological and doctrinal correction, and most importantly of a better way—no matter how "politically incorrect" that way might be.

1 J. H. Bavinick, Introduction to the Sciences of Mission (Philadelphia-. The Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., 1960), 228.


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Borge Schantz, Ph.D., professor emeritus and retired from Newbold College, lives in Denmark.

June 2004

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