"Can One Follow Christ While Remaining Within a Muslim Culture?" by P. J. ("Flip") Buys
The World Reformed Fellowship is facilitating networks of partnerships in reaching out to Muslim Background Christians. The article of Gene Daniels in the January/February 2013 of Christianity Today on Following Christ in Embedded Muslim Culture puts important points for consideration on our agenda.
These points are sufficiently important that, in Reformed Means Missional, the volume the WRF will publish in August, we have devoted two full chapters to it, written by John Leonard and John Nicholls.
The interview in Christianity Today, of the author with a Muslim Background Christian Evangelist portrays a realistic picture of the typical struggles of a missionary who wants to apply the message of the gospel in a Muslim context, without selling our doctrinal birthright for the sake of cultural relevance, and maintain that the gospel can bloom in the unlikeliest of places.
The article provides some typical strengths of good and valid evangelical contextualization in the following aspects:
It acknowledges the imago Dei of Muslims and a corollary truth of common grace and Gods general revelation that there are connecting points for the gospel in the Muslim culture as in all other cultures.
It illustrates the passion of the Christian messenger to understand and use the connecting points in the target Muslim culture as a point of departure is the proclamation of the gospel.
As good and valid contextualization always does, it describes the process of helping the messenger to assess his own values and priorities and to discern between core issues of the gospel and cultural traditions that do not really have a biblical foundation and may not be imposed on people of another culture.
It also portrays how the struggle for valid contextualization forces one again and again to stress in detail the interrelationships between the absolute authority and dynamic usefulness of God’s Word in every culture.
Discipleship always a process of growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ
As a cross cultural missionary working in an animistic African context or many years I grew into a deeper experiential understanding of the narratives of Acts 17 and 19. Paul used aspects of truth in the background of unbelievers to lead them to an eventual understanding of the gospel.
He also sometimes found some disciples (= followers of Christ) who only had a vague knowledge of Christ as they were baptized only with the baptism of John the Baptist. Only after more teaching and discipleship, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
I also experienced similar incidents of how the fear of God fell on people who have already been members of indigenous syncretistic churches for some years and then the Name of the Lord Jesus was magnified when some who had practiced magic became convicted and brought their witchcraft fetishes together and burned them in the sight of all.
I also know several pastors in Africa who had significant dreams that turned out to be a life changing event in their lives.
One student at the Bible college where I taught, openly and spontaneously confessed in a class one day: “When I came to this college I thought I was a Christian but now I see, I was actually only a church goer. I continued to regularly also worship my ancestral spirits. Once a month my family and I would put on clothes and beads that I got from a witch doctor and stood around a specific tree in my backyard, slaughtered a white chicken, poured out the blood on the ground, some homemade beer and snuff and addressed my ancestral spirits. I had so little understanding and Bible knowledge that I thought this practice was also part of my obedience to honor my father and mother as we are commanded to do according to the fifth commandment.
During our classes, where African and Christian worldviews were compared, I became convicted that these ancestral worship rituals are actually a form of idolatry, placing my trust on someone besides Christ as the only Mediator between God and us. I stopped the rituals but was still afraid of destroying the fetishes because we believed there are spirits attached to those objects that could come out and harm you if you do not handle the objects with care. On the other hand I was also afraid that more mature Christians will look down on me if they know I still possess such fetishes used in witchcraft and ancestral worship. So I took it and hid it under a mattress in my bedroom.
Then one day I was studying several passages in the Bible in preparing a small assignment for the college on the omniscience of God. As I was sitting on that very bed on the very mattress where I was hiding the ancestral worship fetishes, I was reading the story in Joshua 7 of how the anger of God was provoked over his people when Achan took some of the cursed stuff from Jericho and was hiding it in the earth in the midst of his tent. That day the penny dropped: I called my wife and we put all the fetishes outside, poured fuel on it and burnt it and I also took an axe and chopped down that specific tree in my backyard.”
This is just one example of many more I witnessed of new believers who gradually, through teaching and a whole process of discipleship, only after a period of time, made a clean and radical break with pagan belief systems.
But sad to say, I also experienced people (actually HIV infected patients) who were so deeply enslaved in syncretistic beliefs that they actually literally died of HIV AIDS because they used the witchcraft potions of wizards and witchdoctors as a hopeful cure for their disease. They did not come to a full conversion and a change of mindset while they received treatment at the clinic and hospice that we established. Those patients on the contrary, who did make a radical break with old belief systems and its accompanying worldviews did not default on their antiretroviral medicines accompanied with a healthy diet and lifestyle.
Because they made a total break with ancestral beliefs and developed a Christian worldview, they could live normal healthy productive lives, although they were infected with the HI virus.
What these experiences taught me
This brings me to express some critique on Gene Daniels’ article in Christianity Today. Discipleship has to eventually lead to a transformation of worldviews.
Culture is never detached from a worldview. Worldviews determines cultures and lifestyles. Therefore it is of the utmost importance that new believers should be helped to develop a whole new Christian worldview and lifestyle and a healthy assessment of inherited culture.
Paul expressed it in Romans 12:2 when he said: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
There are destructive aspects in the underlying worldview of Muslims that is the deepest source of their culture and lifestyle. Here are some considerations that ought to be considered:
Their acceptance of polygamy flows from their view of the value of females in God’s eyes.
Muslims lack an understanding of humanity rooted in the imago Dei. As such, they have difficulty making sense of the inherent dignity and worth of every human being, and this is probably seen most clearly in the Qur’anic teaching that men are ontologically superior to women. The outworking of this doctrine can be seen in such practices as wife-beating, disdain for female babies, male polygamy, and female circumcision.
The question arises: If followers of Isa remain in a predominantly Muslim culture, how will they be helped to embrace a new Christian worldview that leads to a God honoring lifestyle?
In a blog resently posted by Hasanul Arifin (an Islamic scholar) on understanding Islam culture he wrote: “The Muslim mind has its own unique way of looking at things. As such, it has its own vision of what is true, and what is real, and what really exists out there.”
Homogeneous Unit Churches for Muslim Background Christians?
When reading the article of Gene Daniels in Christianity Today the question comes to my mind: Is he actually pleading for a Muslim homogeneous unit church?
The whole issue of homogeneous unit churches has been debated extensively in Missiology since the days of Donald McGavran and the Church Growth Movement. It has its pro’s and con’s.
The most challenging question to come to grips with is the issue of how members of such churches actually miss opportunities for spiritual growth and discipleship because of their lack of fellowship with Christians from a non Muslim background.
In my personal life and the lives of other Christians from all kinds of cultural backgrounds, I have experienced how exposure to and Christian fellowship with Christians from other cultural backgrounds may be an unique instrument of the Holy Spirit to add new strength to your life, to develop with all the saints a deeper insight the breadth and length and height and know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, and progress in your pilgrimage to be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:18–19).
Therefore a homogeneous Muslim church that separate MBC’s from other Christians might actually hinder spiritual growth of young Muslim converts to be followers of Jesus. It will also prevent Christians from other backgrounds to grow in their amazement about how God works in the lives of Muslims to draw them to himself.
WRF wants to connect Muslim Background Christians with other Christians and consider how we can assist each other to serve Christ more effectively by understanding each other better embracing each other as one family of God and reaching out in love together to enrich the lives of Muslims.