Should Christians Convert Others?

(Editor’s note: This edited article was first published in Graceworks on 25 July 2003.)

It was quite jarring to walk into bookstores in Malaysia to be confronted with the cover of the 30 June 2003 issue of TIME magazine. The headline screamed, “Should Christians Convert Muslims?” The fact is, there are state laws in Malaysia that penalize anyone caught “enticing” a Muslim to leave his or her faith. Therefore, the issue of how Christians should reach the Muslim community for Christ is hardly discussed in public in Malaysia.

My first response was that I would have framed the question differently. Scripture teaches that conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-11). A Christian may share the truths of the gospel and appeal to others to embrace those truths, but he or she cannot convert anyone.

Indeed, the Church has often gotten into trouble when it tries to do the work of the Holy Spirit, “helping” people to convert through the use of military or governmental powers, or enticing people to Christ through the giving of aid in times of need. (Note: Christians are called to show compassion to all in need, giving with a free hand and unconditionally. This indirectly reveals the heart of Christ. However, we cannot imply that in order to receive help, one must first embrace Christianity.)

We cannot convert anyone. Nevertheless, there are certain truths in scripture that are clear.

First, Jesus is the only solution to the root problem of humankind, that is, sin. “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Second, followers of Jesus are called to bring this message to all races and communities. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

The irony is that Islam and Christianity share a number of things in common. One is a common adherence to the concept of objective and absolute truth. Standing against the postmodern mood of many truths for many people, Islam and Christianity would say that if either were true, then other answers to the fundamental questions of humankind (Where did we come from? Why are we what we are? What is the ultimate solution for humankind's problems?) are wrong.

The temptation for Christians and Muslims is to jettison our commitment to absolute truth. We are told to “play nice”; that any position that takes truth as absolute will lead to fanaticism and violence since we are a pluralistic world of many faiths; and that every faith community should be able to do their own thing and not “convert” others. This position is appealing because there many conflicts around the world that appear to be rooted in religious differences.

Unfortunately, any backing away from a commitment to absolute truth undercuts the very basis of the truth of the gospel. If Christianity is not true for all, it is not true at all. Why should God come and die on the cross if there was another way? I am always amused when I hear people say that all religions are essentially the same. Such people betray the fact that they have not studied religions with any degree of depth.

 Of course, no one wants intercommunal violence. What this means for Christians is that we must take a long, hard look at how we share the gospel. I am particularly partial to Lesslie Newbigin's suggestion that the lives of Christians must be so different that we arouse the curiosity of those outside the faith (see The Gospel in a Pluralist Society).

When they ask why we are different, then we answer with the gospel. For example, I recall the enemies of Christ having to acknowledge “how they love one another” when they looked at the early Christian communities. I wonder if they would say the same today.

The whole question of Christian-Muslim relationships is complex. Christians follow a crucified Christ and have been warned that his followers would suffer the same fate (2 Timothy 3:12). Suffering is intertwined deep in the Christian DNA. We must never kill for Christ (Matthew 26:47-56), but we must always be ready to suffer and die for him.

Before we even think of such heroic possibilities, we must first ask: What is the quality of our life in Christ? Do Christians and churches reflect so jarringly the love and holiness of God that people pause to ask questions? Or are we qualitatively no different from those who do not follow Christ?

If there is no real difference, then there really is nothing for people to “convert” to, is there?

Rev. Dr. Soo-Inn Tan is director of Graceworks, a ministry he leads with his wife, Bernice. Graceworks is a training and publishing consultancy committed to promoting spiritual friendship in church and society. He is committed to connecting the word of God to the struggles of daily life through teaching, mentoring, and writing. He writes a weekly e-newsletter and his latest book is Thinking On The Run.