Marginal Controversies: Between Islam and Christianity
An intriguing missiological discussion taking place within Evangelical Christianity broke open in the pages of Christianity Today's "Global Conversation" section a couple of weeks ago (follow the link and scroll down the righthand side), the debatable issue being how closely a Muslim-Background Christian (MMB) could identify with Islam and still be considered "Christian."
Joseph Cumming opens the discussion in his article "Muslim Followers of Jesus?" by identifying six categories of MMBs:
C1: MBBs in churches radically different from their own culture, where worship is in a language other than their mother tongue.As Cumming notes, the serious debate is between C4 and C5 (and note that C6 is off the continuum, for individuals within C6 could take any of the C1 through C5 positions). Cumming empathizes with C5 individuals, noting the case of a certain 'Ibrahim':
C2: Same as C1, but worship is in the MBBs' mother tongue.
C3: MBBs in culturally indigenous Christian churches that avoid cultural forms seen as "Islamic."
C4: MBBs in culturally indigenous congregations that retain biblically permissible Islamic forms (e.g., prostrating in prayer), investing these with biblical meaning. They may call themselves something other than Christians (e.g., "followers of Jesus"), but do not see themselves as Muslims.
C5: Muslims who follow Jesus as Lord and Savior in fellowships of like-minded believers within the Muslim community, continuing to identify culturally and officially as Muslims.
C6: Secret/underground believers.
C5 believers like Ibrahim challenge assumptions about what it means to be Muslim or Christian. We all have more than one identity and community. For example, most American Christians assume one can be both a patriotic American (loyal to that community) and a faithful Christian, though they may disagree with some things their fellow-Americans do or teach. Believers like Ibrahim seek to be both authentic Muslims (loyal to the community of their birth) and faithful disciples of Jesus, critically evaluating what their fellow-Muslims do and teach in light of the teachings of Christ -- sometimes accepting, sometimes reinterpreting, sometimes disagreeing. Do such disagreements require American believers to repudiate American identity and community, or require C5 believers to repudiate the Muslim community and their Muslim identity? How can believers best be "critically loyal" to the community of their birth and to their family heritage, respectfully critiquing what is unscriptural, while upholding God’s Commandment to "Honor your father and mother"?Christian critics of this particular C5 argument would probably cite the words of Jesus in Luke 14:26:
If any [man] come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.Whether this is a valid retort to the C5 argument is merely for me to note, not to decide. Similarly, from the Muslim perspective, an objection to the C5 individuals -- who are "critically evaluating what their fellow-Muslims do and teach in light of the teachings of Christ" -- might be that Islam does not leave room for personal interpretation on such crucial issues, for Islam is a religion of laws that enforce particular beliefs, and if the consensus of Muslim scholars has agreed that belief in the 'deity' of Christ constitutes polytheism (shirk), then the individual has no freedom on this point. Those who would defend the C5 position are presupposing a sort of 'Protestant' Islam.
The debate over the C5 position isn't new. In "God Is Doing Something New," John Travis notes that the C5 issue has been around since at least the 1930s:
While the term C5 is relatively new, the basic concept is not. It was described in the late 1930s by missionaries working in the Middle East. Their reports mentioned that the term "Christian" in many Muslim lands had only an ethnic, political, or cultural association that was largely negative, with no implications of a spiritual rebirth. In addition, they noted that numbers of Muslims had become followers of Jesus Christ, yet refused to separate from the Islamic community, so that they could continue to live with their people and share their new life in Christ. In Lebanon in 1969, Baptist missionary Virginia Cobb emphasized that we are saved by Christ, not "religion." Cobb stated, "We are not trying to change anyone's religion. Religion consists of affiliation with a group . . . [a] dogma, structure of authority. . . . [T]he New Testament is quite clear that none of this saves. It is possible to change all of them without knowing God . . . our message is a person we've experienced, not a doctrine, system, [or] religion . . . ." In the following decade, mission leader John Anderson (1976) and missiologists Charles Kraft (1974, 1979) and Harvey Conn (1979) all encouraged the idea of groups of Muslim followers of Christ who would be salt and light to their own people. Each of these writings has engendered both enthusiasm and criticism.Again, this seems to presuppose that 'Ibrahim' has the right to interpret the Qur'an privately, a point already addressed above. But I'd also expect Christian critics to note that if the C5 position has been around since the 1930s, then where are the results? Christian percentages in the Middle East have declined precipitously since that time.
What these missionaries described is exemplified in the life of Ibrahim, the Qur'anic scholar mentioned by Cumming. Ibrahim closely examined verses commonly understood to deny Christ and the Bible, and found alternate interpretations in line with the Bible. He concluded that he could follow Jesus and remain inside the religious community of his birth. Soon members of his family and community came to share his faith in Jesus. While many Muslims would not take the bold step to reinterpret aspects of Islam for themselves, some do.
But what do C5 individuals have to say for themselves? In "A Muslim Follower of Jesus," Mazhar Mallouhi seems to place himself in the C5 category, and he poses some questions:
Muslim followers of Jesus are being transformed by the same Holy Spirit that transforms all followers of Jesus. We read the same Holy Bible that Christians throughout the centuries have read. Shouldn't we believe the Holy Spirit will show us if we need to re-learn how to pray or change our forms and customs? Shouldn't we be free to follow Christ without being forced to adopt 2,000 years of Western religious culture? How can an outsider know the impact of our customs on our hearts? If we say our religious customs do not negate what is in our hearts, how can others negate our faith?This would seem to radicalize even the extreme individualism sometimes found in American Protestantism, but also seems to constitute a thoroughgoing critique of Western Christianity, and likely also of Western civilization generally.
In "The Main Question Is Identity," John Azumah points to what he considers some problematic tendencies among the C5 advocates:
I believe C5 advocates bear some responsibility for the animated and sometimes acrimonious discourse. In his earlier writings, John Travis appealed to Christians that "much of our missiological energy should be devoted to seeking a path whereby Muslims can remain Muslims, yet live as true followers of the Lord Jesus." (See "Must All Muslims Leave Islam to Follow Jesus?" by John Travis, Evangelical Missions Quarterly, 34 (4), 1998, pp. 411-415.)Azumah goes on to sharpen some of these points, especially where Islamic radicalism forces one to choose between a Qur'anic Isa and a New Testament Jesus, for how can one affirm both?
Some C5ers speak of "encouraging" or "urging" MBBs to remain within the Muslim community as "Insiders." Others have urged and even required their missionaries to officially become Muslim in order to be effective. In several articles C5ers have devoted their missiological energy to demonstrating from the Bible that leaving one's religion of birth ("extraction") is unbiblical, and that Jesus and the apostles were all "Insiders," thereby suggesting that the existence of the church in its present diverse traditions (C1 to C4) is an aberration.
Cumming rightly states that "the prophethood of Muhammad is non-negotiably essential to Muslim identity." Yet when the question of Muhammad is raised, C5ers think it is "unimportant." It is true that "Muslim" means different things to different Muslims. In several communities in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, the term "Muslim" is a specifically and exclusively religious designation. Jesus is called "Muslim" in the Qur'an as part of Islamic replacement theology. The Muslim Jesus is deliberately set in opposition to the Jesus of the New Testament. To accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, as C5ers do, automatically puts one beyond the pale of such a Muslim community.Well, aside from the questions that I raised above, I'm more than willing to sit out this controversy and simply watch as a spectator from the sidelines, but I did want to at least note this interesting development at the interstice between Christian and Muslim civilizations.
I should also perhaps add that what really matters in the long run is the overall trajectory of populations -- the religion that is increasing in numbers will determine which direction the C5 'believers' will head, i.e., more deeply into resurgent Christianity or back into surgent Islam. Relevant to this point, recall that Islamization took place gradually in the conquered Christian lands, and some scholars have argued that Sufism encouraged Islamization by allowing Christians to maintain an identification with Jesus while adopting the forms of Islam, a process that over generations led to Islam supplanting Christianity.
For the C5 'Christians' to have any significant impact upon Muslims generally, Islam will have to loosen its restrictions on individuals, and that doesn't seem to be the current trend . . . but we shall see.