Living the Christian life in a non-Christian world is always tricky business. We must navigate our way through life, avoiding various extremes. We are called to confront the world, while we are also called to interact with the world. We are called to remain unspotted from the world, yet called to make an impact on the world.
How the people of God live in relation to other religions is also ambiguous and a bit of a juggling act. Two clear teachings run throughout the Bible concerning this relationship. On the one hand God’s people are to withstand and reject false religions and gods, and proclaim the one true God.
On the other hand, God’s people are always called to be a missional people. It is our job to reach our pagan and unbelieving neighbours with the truth claims of our faith. Trying to confront other religious traditions while seeking to reach people in those religions is always a complex and difficult task.
Yet we are called to do this very thing. How it works out in detail and in practice is not so easily come by. Indeed, it is somewhat amiss of me to seek to explain all this in a short article. Plenty of book-length studies on this topic have appeared, and even they cannot readily cover all the necessary ground to properly treat this issue.
I raise this topic because of a recent news item which has caused a bit of a stir. It seems that a church in Florida wants to have a ‘Burn a Koran Day’ on September 11 in remembrance of all those who died at the hands of Muslim terrorists in 2001. It is also doing this, its website says, to stand against the evil of Islam.
So what are Christians to make of this effort? One way to respond is to place this activity within the dual framework I have just outlined: to confront non-Christian religions while seeking to win individuals within those faith traditions.
Certainly in regard to the second biblical emphasis of reaching out to non-believers, this book-burning approach is unwise and unnecessary. It will alienate those we are seeking to reach. To desecrate the Koran is probably far more serious amongst Muslims than is desecrating the Bible amongst Christians.
Sure, there were many biblical confrontations between God’s people and false prophets and those who worshipped false gods that can be appealed to, chief of which being found in 1 Kings 18 (the confrontation between Elijah and the Baalists). That was a real power encounter indeed, with quite severe consequences for the false prophets.
And one might even find a biblical precedent for book burnings. In Acts 19:19-20 we read of one such public book burning. But in this case it was the book owners themselves (recent converts who came to see the evil of sorcery and magic) who burned their own books in Ephesus.
And with memory of recent activities in Nazi Germany, it is certainly not a good image to convey to the watching world. But concern about political Islam is a legitimate thing. Indeed, this is another balancing act which believers need to negotiate.
As I have written in other places on this site, when it comes to Islam, believers need to be doing at least two things simultaneously, as difficult as that might be. On the one hand, none of us should be ignorant or uninformed about the truth that Islam is not only a false religion which denies the very heart of Christian truth claims, but it is also an expansionist faith as well.
The ultimate goal of the Islamic faith is to see everyone submit to Allah, to see a universal caliphate installed, with everyone under sharia law. And military and political means to achieve this are fully condoned by the Koran, the Sira and the hadith.
This of course must be resisted. The free West has every reason to defend itself against the spread of totalitarian Islam, and to reject moves to see the West come under further sharia compliance. We have an obligation to see this threat for what it is, and resist it accordingly.
But on the other hand, Christians know that Christ came to die for the sins of everyone, including our Muslim neighbours. Jesus loves the Muslim, just as he loves the atheist, or the Hindu, or the Buddhist. But God’s love for them means wanting to see them set free from the false gods and idolatry which they are enslaved to.
We are called to share God’s love to everyone, Muslims included. They need to hear the gospel message just as much as anyone else. We need to pray for our Muslim contacts, love them, and show them the liberating power of Christ’s love. This of course may well seem to conflict with the first duty of resisting Islamist tyranny.
Indeed, it will always be a bit of a juggling act. Thus I can share with an individual Muslim the good news of the Christian faith, but also affirm political measures to prevent Islamists from overtly or covertly undermining the God-given gifts of liberty, democracy and religious freedom.
Indeed, even if one decided to become completely non-political, and never even speak out about things like 9/11, or the threat of Islamist expansionism, one will still find that simply standing up for the claims of Christ will cause offense.
A Muslim regards the Christian teaching that Jesus is God’s son as blasphemous. Yet no decent Christian would ever stop proclaiming that truth simply in the name of being tolerant or inclusive. To proclaim the truth of Christianity is in fact to be exclusive, and will result in people of other faiths getting upset and going on the defensive.
That cannot be helped. Indeed, Paul often speaks about the offense of the gospel. Simply telling a Muslim that he needs to repent and receive Christ as saviour will seem offensive and insensitive. But the proclamation of the gospel will always offend sinners and always appear restrictive to those who reject Christian truth claims.
While we cannot avoid the offence of the gospel, we can avoid unnecessary offence. Thus the Koran-burning exercise seems to be one of those things we should forego, in the interest of reaching Muslims for Christ. And to say that does not mean for a moment that we minimise the horror and evil which occurred nine years ago.
Islamist terrorism and expansionism needs to be resisted, and that I shall continue to do. But I will also continue to pray for Muslims, and seek out opportunities to share with them about my Saviour. As in all these matters, we need to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.
Getting the balance right will not be easy. But we must seek to reflect who God is in all these situations. That means we will fearlessly and unflinchingly proclaim Christ as the one and only saviour. And it may mean we will also work politically, even militarily, to seek to stop jihadist violence.
But it also means seeking to love our Muslim neighbours, properly representing the living Lord to them. This is true in plenty of other situations of course. For example, we can and should love the alcoholic, and seek to set him free, while hating and working against the alcoholism which is destroying his life.
As I said earlier, living a Christian life in a non-Christian world is never going to be easy. And at times tensions and conflicts may be unavoidable, as we seek to pursue a number of important goods at the same time. This is certainly true here: opposing Islamist jihad while loving Muslim neighbours.
A tough ask you might say, but one which we must seek to get the right mix on.