For most of its 1,400 years, the House of Islam has been tightly locked against Christian witness. Muslim attitudes toward followers of Isa (Jesus) have ranged from brotherly affection (rare) to defensiveness, disdain, and even outright hostility. Christian response to the followers of Muhammad has ranged from the horrific (the Crusades) to the honorable (such as J. Christy Wilson’s spiritual and humanitarian work in pre-Taliban Afghanistan). One thing almost all Christians agree concerning Muslim evangelism is that there simply hasn’t been enough of it.
Islam, founded in the seventh century by Muhammad and his followers, spread rapidly over formerly Christian lands in North Africa and the Middle East via conquest and coercion. When the choice for conquered Christians was die or convert, many chose option two. The Crusades were an early, and sinfully misguided, attempt to win back both lost territory and lost self-esteem.
Ever since, Christians have fumbled for the proper response, with meager results. There have been some encouraging signs of Gospel progress among Muslims in recent years, sparked in part by the resurgence of radical Islam around the globe. Yet nearly all missions-minded Christians will agree that we have a long way to go.
Muslims account for more than one-seventh of the world’s population, but just over one-twentieth of the global missionary force is estimated to be focused on Muslims. Many Muslims, perhaps, just haven’t heard the Gospel often enough to make a decision for Christ, one way or another. That’s why all Great Commission Christians will agree that we need more missionaries.
The best missionaries, of course, will contextualize the good news—clothing it in terms Muslims can grasp—without falling into the dangers of syncretism and compromise. And they daily must face the fact that the barriers to Muslim understanding are immense.
Missionaries and local Christians must overcome the misperceptions and outright falsehoods about Christianity that many Muslims believe. One is that the Bible has been corrupted over the centuries and no longer contains the pure Word of God. Another is that describing Jesus as the “Son of God” implies that God the Father and Mary had sexual relations to produce Jesus—an abhorrent concept to Muslims and Christians alike.
Collin Hansen of Christianity Today has reported that some missionaries have seen fellowships of believing former Muslims spring up related to new Scripture translations that have dropped the “Son of God” phrase altogether. Instead, they are using substitutes without all the negative connotations, such as “the Beloved Son who comes (or originates) from God.” Several hundred new believers have resulted from these networks, Hansen says—not an insignificant development when it comes to Muslims. Missionaries are rejoicing.
Yet some other, equally faithful, Christians are concerned that when you soften the terms that the Bible uses, you risk losing theological meanings that God intends for his people to know. Scholar David Abernathy, for example, says “Word” and “Son” are inseparable terms for Christ.
“As much as Christian theologians have used the term and concept of 'Word' throughout the history of theology, they did so with the understanding that this eternal Word was also a person who was [the] eternal Son,” Abernathy says. “It is the eternal sonship that makes sense of calling him the eternal Word, but when that sonship is removed, the Trinity as we know it dramatically changes. There is no eternal Father-Son relationship, only an eternal God-Word relationship, which is conceptually very foreign to the doctrine of the Trinity as it has always been understood. The historic Christian understanding of the Trinity essentially collapses.”
Finding the right balance between pragmatism and purity in missions is a perennial challenge, arousing strong passions on both sides. In the current dispute, Christians of good will are struggling to work together for the mutual goal of winning Muslims to Christ.
Responding to critics, Wycliffe Bible Translators and its sister organization, the Summer Institute of Linguistics, have issued guidelines saying that the “Son of God” term ought to be retained, but that allow for some flexibility in specific situations. Some groups are not satisfied.
The conservative Presbyterian Church in America, for instance, has just advised its churches to stop supporting Wycliffe’s ongoing translation projects for Muslims. The Assemblies of God, meanwhile, is mulling similar action, pending a review of Wycliffe’s practices by the World Evangelical Alliance—due by year’s end.
We Christians need to talk lovingly and forthrightly to each other, keeping biblical fidelity and love for Muslims in constant balance. My own view is that Scripture must come first, because without a sure Word of God, ultimately we will have nothing to offer Muslims. No matter what we do, the Cross is offensive to the unsaved.
But this doesn’t mean that we shove offensive terms and concepts down their throats, heedless of the results. We don’t have to start out with the problematic words to be faithful to Christ. They could come later, after we win a hearing and introduce other important truths.
Jesus enticed and intrigued people with the Gospel, leading them gently along the path of salvation, using stories, parables, sermons, and pithy sayings. Yes, at times He threw down the theological gauntlet and saw potential followers walk away. Truth sometimes does that. But He didn’t do it every time, and neither should we.
Stan Guthrie is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century, and coauthor of The Sacrament of Evangelism. He blogs at http://stanguthrie.com.