Respecting Muslims While Sharing Christ

I had just been treated to a wonderful dinner by a group of eight Muslim high school teachers and our conversations had been warm and engaging. However, when we returned to their apartment, things turned ugly. They had prepared objections to the gospel and studied the Injil (New Testament) to formulate questions designed to prove that Islam was superior to Christianity. It was a difficult evening. Fortunately, I did not lose my temper; I was gracious and patient with them as I attempted to answer their questions. I sympathized with their growing frustration until I left. Gone was the memory of the initial enjoyment of the evening. I felt battered as I took a bus back to my hotel. The evening had taken me through the tempest of warfare.

“Church-ianity” vs. Jesus Christ
Being a disciple of Christ is not meant to be like going to summer camp. The call of Christ is the boot camp preparation for war, not against Muslims, but against Satan. The role of the Church is in some ways like an elite hostage rescue team: we rescue some people from materialism and narcissism and others, including many Muslims, from the evil of suffering under poverty, disease, oppression, illiteracy and not knowing Jesus Christ.

Since the terrorist bombings on the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September 2001 and the tsunami in Southeast Asia in 2005 Muslims have intrigued us more than ever. With all the upheaval, we may have felt uncertain about the Islamic faith at times. However, Jesus is not apprehensive about today’s turmoil. His gracious love and willingness to quietly suffer indignation has not changed. He continues wooing Muslims to follow him.

Likewise, we must not fear or blame Muslims; they are victims of Satan’s global war of oppression. As such, Muslims and Christians are equals. Compared to Christ, neither meets God’s standard of perfection. We should not engage in raising walls which only lead to stereotypes based on ideology, politics and nationalism. Rather, with empathy we should tear down barriers by building lasting relationships, just as Jesus Christ unilaterally initiated relationship with us.

Speaking Out in Love
Yet, as an evangelical I have something I desire to share—the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. Sharing hope does not constitute proselytism or coercion. Forms of witness which are argumentative or disrespectful should be discouraged. However, I am obligated to share my faith in Christ. I choose to exercise my fundamental human right to share my faith in Christ even where not invited by speaking with love and not on condition of response. 1 Peter 3:15 says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” This must be our guide.

Sadly, too many Christians have preached fear in response to terrorism or have been uncritical of Western political and economic agendas. Others have disparaged Muhammad or Islam without recognizing the deep debt that all societies owe Islamic civilization. Muhammad was a great political leader and religious reformer who unified a pagan feudal society under monotheism and the rule of law. Deficiencies in his character are no different than many Christian leaders.

Likewise, Muslims have made huge contributions to our society today. Arabic words such as algebra, azimuth, zenith and zero permeate the English language. Personally, I am grateful that I do not balance my finances in roman numerals. Until the Renaissance, the gathering and advancement of knowledge was centered in Islamic Spain and the universities of the Middle East. Modern scientific methods, advancements in medicine, mathematics, architecture and law are all rooted in contributions made by Muslim scholars.

Through the Caleb Project's course, Encountering the World of Islam, Christians in a number of churches have responded constructively to the local and global community of Muslims. Students have heard Muslim leaders thoughtfully explain Islam without an aimless blurring of Muslim/Christian distinctions. Participants have read from the Qur’an and Muslim authors. Palestinian Christians have given these congregations a more balanced view of the Middle East and Christians have had open productive dialogue with Muslim acquaintances which have led to lasting friendships. 

Seeking to Understand Muslims
Christians can begin to immediately experience the honor and joy of befriending Muslims. It is important for Christians to understand their Muslim neighbors, co-workers and students. Regrettably, numerous Christians still hold prejudices against Muslims because they lack personal knowledge of Islam.

Even after feeling beat up in my interaction with the Muslim high school teachers (see opening paragraph), I decided to send general emails to say hello to many of them. However, when I did visit their country again, I was hesitant to call them for fear of being taken through another spiritual meat grinder. When I did call they said, “We have been waiting for your call. We have been discussing what you said for months, and we have a lot to talk about.” My heart sunk as all remaining energy drained away. When we met in a garden overlooking the sea, they began by apologizing! They regretted mistreating me with their superior attitude and had come to see me as a true believer in God. Relationship was key.

When we learn to ride a bicycle, we do not read a book. We get on our bicycle. When we want to fish, we do not go to a conference. We get out our fishing pole. So too, many books refer to the Bible as being better than the Qur’an, Christianity as being better than Islam and Jesus being better than Muhammad. Instead of starting with these types of books, how about if we start building relationships with Muslims? And the less capable we feel, the greater the opportunity we have to depend on Christ. This is called faith. Few people are persuaded or convinced by knowledge alone and debate more often than not entrenches each side within their own preconceptions. Willingness, however, to step off the [swimming pool’s] diving board is a prerequisite to getting wet.

I was amazed at what God had done in those relationships with my Muslim counterparts. Gone was any vestige of hostility between us. My jaw hit the floor as they told me that they had new questions; not questions to prove their beliefs were superior, but questions to learn and understand my beliefs so they could be closer friends and better believers in God. I would love to say they immediately believed in Jesus Christ. They did not. We continued to talk and share for more than three hours. There was excitement, interest and discovery in their faces. “It makes sense,” they would say. “We see it. The Bible’s message is consistent.” Jesus Christ had created unity and fellowship where I least expected it. These men heard the gospel again, this time without hostility. And they understood it.

God has affirmed the importance of relationship again and again with my Muslim friends in Turkey, Indonesia, South Korea and the United States. It has not been the strength of my words which God has used to demonstrate his power; rather, it has been my vulnerability, sharing how God has loved me quite in spite of myself. God’s word rings true, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Corinthians 1:17). 

Faith, Hope and Love
We must have faith that Christ is good news for both Christians and Muslims. Likewise, we must believe that Muslims will be attracted to Christ. Many people, including myself, were so loved by a Christian that we could not resist turning to faith. We cannot change another person’s mind; only the supernatural action of God can do this. Loving them is our goal, not because they are any more lovable than us or have petitioned us to love them, but because Christ first loved us and his love ought to overflow out of us to them. Unconditional, unmerited love cannot be bestowed by short bursts of information; it requires the intimacy of friendship. Muslim walls raised by a history of hurt and pain are lowered through trust built over meals and time spent praying with them for God’s intervention. Will you trust that God will use you powerfully to bring peace in relationships with Muslims? Let us follow Ephesians 2:14: “For he himself is our peace … and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”

(This article was originally published by Caleb Project.)

Keith Swartley is course editor and developer for Caleb ProjectÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s Encountering the World of Islam. Since 1983 he has been motivating Christians around the world to reverently and gently share the love of Christ with Muslims.