By Toby Jepson
Our approach to Islam can say a lot about us. It can also communicate very different things to the Muslims with whom we are speaking. In the following essay I would like to look at a couple of the options available and consider the pros and cons of each. Then I shall look at situations in the Bible that throw light on the subject and conclude by summarising my own view.
In the first section I shall examine the relational and confrontational approaches. It should be borne in mind that rarely will any one person rely exclusively on either of the two. My own view, seen later, is that the biblical model is an excellent example for us today, combining both elements as is appropriate to each situation.
The Relational Approach
If it is possible to condense this approach down to one phrase, I would say that it is concerned primarily with the person being spoken to, their own needs, culture and sensitivities.
People who rely mainly on this approach tend to shy away from dwelling on issues such as the reliability of the Bible or the Qur’an, the trinity, the divinity of Jesus and the prophethood of Muhammad. It is often said that subjects such as these will only inflame a discussion and lead to a fruitless war of words that benefits neither party. Much emphasis is placed on friendship, showing the love of Christ to a Muslim so that they will be drawn to the Christian life. Should a Muslim wish to question certain aspects of the Christian faith, answers will often be given, but again shying away from the more controversial aspects.
The Confrontational Approach
To summarise this approach in turn, it is concerned primarily with the propositional truth of Islam and Christianity. Ultimately, it is up to the person concerned whether or not they accept the implications, but the aim is to persuade them that the gospel is objectively true and then invite them to live in accordance with it. In this context, the very issues that the relational approach may avoid come to the forefront. Right at the heart are questions such as, ‘which is more reliable – the Bible or the Qur’an?’ Leading on from that, the divinity of Jesus or the trinity, issues that so often confuse Muslims and lead them to reject Christianity, may be examined and discussed.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Clearly these two different approaches are broad ones that will be used differently by different people, with varying degrees of combination of the two. It could be said that they represent two opposing ends of the spectrum and that rarely is a person operating solely at one end or the other. However, it is useful to consider them in isolation and to look at the respective advantages and disadvantages of both.
The great strength of this approach is that it considers each person as an individual and is concerned that discussion and dialogue proceed at the pace of that person. Much use can be made of material that is common to both religions, for instance the sacrifice of Abraham’s son. This may be used as a bridge to talk about the sacrifice of God’s unique son, Jesus, with all the reasons for and implications of this. It is easily usable in Muslim countries, where a more confrontational approach may quickly lead to deportation and the end of any effective ministry in that place.
Its weaknesses tend to be simply the other side of the coin. When we are too concerned about the sensitivities of the individual and a desire to proceed at their own pace, we may never get to the crucial issues that they need to face. Is it not inevitable, after all, that at some point we will need to deal with issues that Muslims find uncomfortable? They cannot come to believe in the crucifixion, resurrection and divinity of Jesus (the heart of the gospel) without denying the infallibility of the Qur’an and the prophetic authority of Muhammad. At least, if they can, something has gone wrong somewhere! If we become more concerned with a pleasant relationship with our Muslim friends than with their eternal destinies, we are wasting our time and toying with their souls. The friendliest and most loving thing we can do in this situation is to challenge them to change.
We serve a God who has touched history, who has come down in the person of Jesus Christ and walked among us. We learn of that revelation through the Bible, the most valuable book in all human history. Unfortunately, Muslims consistently deny the authority of that Bible and so many of its most crucial teachings. It is vital that at some point they be urged to consider the claims of Christ and the validity of the Bible with fresh eyes. This is the chief value of this approach. Confrontation can be defined as meeting face to face or as comparison. The confrontation is primarily that between the key conflicting teachings of Islam and Christianity. At its root it is simply looking at the fundamental issues side by side and asking where the truth lies. It does not necessarily imply aggression, insult, arrogance or violence.
Unfortunately, our human natures can often distort this approach so that it takes on just those ugly features. Our inbuilt xenophobia and insecurity constantly tempts us repel those who oppose us or our beliefs with little regard for their intrinsic value as humans. This is the weakness of confrontation, that so often it leads to fruitless disputations where each side is more concerned with scoring points and bolstering their own sense of security than actually meeting the other person in dialogue.
I shall take as my examples the two greatest biblical evangelists, Jesus and Paul. As we shall see, they used both approaches flexibly, as they saw fit in each individual situation.
Jesus was no stranger to a relational approach. He shared his whole life with the twelve apostles, especially his ‘inner circle’ of Peter, James and John. Very often it was his life and actions that convinced them of who he was, such as the stilling of the storm in Matthew 14:22-33. In these situations he did not use rational argument to prove that he was the Messiah – he simply got on with the business of showing it, so the disciples were forced to ask themselves what other option there was. Yet even with his closest friends, he was not afraid to call a spade a spade and lovingly point out their error when necessary. His strong rebuke of Peter in Matthew 16:21-23 show that he was far more interested in his soul than in simply having a pleasant and cordial relationship.
In other situations he challenged the assumptions of those he met. The rich young ruler thought he was complimenting Jesus by calling him ‘good rabbi’, but Jesus threw it right back at him. Without denying his own goodness, he forced the ruler to reconsider what he was saying – only God was truly good, so did Jesus fit the bill…? Then he cut straight to the heart of the man’s problem – his love of wealth, showing him that he needed to change drastically in order to be a disciple (Luke 18:18-25).
With the Samaritan woman he gently led her on by provoking questions, but he was not afraid to challenge her immorality or to point out her erroneous beliefs: ‘you Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews’ (John 4:22).
Finally, when confronting the arrogance and hypocrisy of certain Pharisees, he did not mince his words: ‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!…woe to you, blind guides!…you blind fools!…you snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? (Matthew 23:13-33). Nor was he particularly empathetic to the money changers in the temple (Luke 19:45,46). As Jay Smith points out:
He did not seek to discuss their position in an atmosphere of mutual understanding. Rather, he stormed in and upturned their tables. 1
As was the master, so the disciple. Paul shows good evidence of mixing his approach as the need arose. In Philippi, the conversion of Lydia seemed to proceed naturally from a friendly discussion by the riverside. Here there is no evidence of antagonism or heated debate (Acts 16:13-15).
Yet Paul was a master of reasoned argument and used it extensively in his ministry. We are told that he made a habit in each new town of going first to the synagogue and reasoning with the local Jewish population. In Pisidian Antioch he entered the synagogue with Barnabas in cordial circumstances and began to show from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah. This stimulated much interest and it was only later that opposition arose (Acts 13:14-48). In Iconium the pair ‘spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed’ (Acts 14:1). At Thessalonica Paul ‘reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead’ (Acts 17:2,3).
In the face of opposition we see that Paul ‘preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus’ (Acts 9:27). In the Areopagus at Athens he took the people from where they were and used their own beliefs as an effective bridge to preach the gospel in a way they could understand (Acts 17:19-34), with a measure of success as well as much derision. Paul’s desire to persuade his hearers of the truth of his message even led him to hold ‘discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.’ (Acts 19:9,10) He preached before angry mobs (Acts 21:40-22:22), a hostile Sanhedrin (Acts 22:30-23:9), Roman governors (Acts 24:1-21; 25:7,8), a king (Acts 25:23-26:29) and perhaps even Caesar himself (Acts 25:12). In all these situations he clearly set out his gospel in order to persuade his hearers, answering their challenges as necessary. His own methodology is clear (2 Cor 10:5):
We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
Even when it was his opponent was obviously evil and closed to the truth, Paul spoke out without fear (Acts 13:10):
You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?
Putting the Pieces Together
We have seen above some of the many and varied ways in which Jesus and Paul approached their hearers in the course of spreading the gospel. Although often gentle, they were never afraid to reason and to show where necessary that people’s beliefs were deficient. With this in mind I would like to put forward some principles for use in Muslim evangelism.
Firstly and perhaps most importantly, there is no need for an artificial separation between the relational and confrontational styles of evangelism. Both are necessary and were used to good effect in varying degrees and combinations by both Jesus and Paul. We must crave divine discernment to determine what each situation requires.
When using more relational principles, we must be never be more concerned with platitudes than truth. Bearing in mind all the principles of good friendship, we must lovingly point out error when necessary in order to lead our friends to a saving knowledge of Christ. Ultimately the kingdom of darkness is being illuminated by the kingdom of light. We cannot avoid an element of confrontation, no matter how pleasant we are, or mindful of the need to proceed ‘with gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:15).
In more confrontational situations we must never give way to arrogance or unnecessary humiliation of others (if anything humiliates a Muslim it should be the truth and not our delivery of it). We should never resort to a simple slanging match where we are simply concerned with sounding impressive. Even when confronting pure evil, as demonstrated above by both Jesus and Paul, we must speak out of a simple love for the truth and not a misplaced self-righteouness. If we find ourselves having no concern for the dignity of the individual, we need to ruthlessly question our motives for engaging Muslims.
My own experience has been largely gained at Speakers’ Corner, Hyde Park. This is admittedly an unusual situation, perhaps not unlike the Areopagus in Athens, but it gives a whole variety of opportunity, requiring many different approaches.
At times there people who come asking good questions and not being belligerent or unnecessarily argumentative. With these it is possible to proceed pleasantly through important issues in a friendly manner, even though I am challenging the very foundation of their faith.
Then there are those who are less responsive and more aggressive. Particularly with Asian Muslims, it is easy to misinterpret their passion as hatred or anger. In this situation, to be timid and placating, declining to offer evidence for my beliefs, will show in their eyes that I do not really believe what I am saying, or that it is indefensible. I attempt to give a robust answer in such situations, without resorting to insult or simple put-downs.
As a speaker on a ladder, it is easy to be drowned out by a sea of hecklers shouting irrelevant statements or insults. Shouting is often necessary to be heard, yet this in no way needs to be angry ranting. Many hecklers may need to be ignored, simply so that the message can be heard, answering appropriate challenges when they are made.
Also testing is heckling a Muslim speaker from the crowd. It is often necessary to speak out, as rarely will a Muslim conclude his talk without some false jibe against Christianity. Those listening who know no better must hear that there are answers, yet it can be hard to be heard. The speaker is at an advantage, controlling the crowd from the ladder and often attempting to humiliate any opposition.
Perhaps the most difficult and trying situations occur when faced with someone who is aggressive, abusive, insulting and has no desire to dialogue or to listen to anything I may have to say. Their aim is simply to humiliate me in public and to look good to the onlookers. Should I simply walk away, convinced that there is no benefit in talking to them? Should I fight fire with fire and throw back abuse at them? Though they may be closed, they need to be warned, and it must be clear to onlookers, Muslim and non-Muslim, that Christianity can stand up to attack. My own approach here is often to appeal to the onlookers and ask them if the person is being reasonable. I may demand evidence for any accusations that are being thrown (usually at a mind-boggling rate) and point out what an obnoxious fool they are being. It certainly is hard to maintain respect for such people, but we must do our best with God’s help.
As mentioned already, we must take our example from Jesus and Paul, mixing our approach as the situation demands, yet not forgetting either the person or the message. The love we must have for Muslims should not be confused for the sloppy emotionalism that avoids upsetting at all costs. Love must often be tough and false beliefs that blind people to the truth must be confronted, in as creative and godly a manner as possible.
- Lang, and Walker, The Armenians, p. 8. ↩