John W. Wilder, Missiology: An International Review (http://www.asmweb.org/missiology.htm), Jul 01, 1977, Volume 5:3, pp. 301-320. Used by permission of Missiology: An International Review. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, printed for distribution or mirrored at other sites without written permission from the copyright owner(s). For hardcopy reprints, please contact their website.
These reflections have arisen from the author’s study of early Hebrew Christianity, on the one hand, and the contemporary Messianic Jewish Movement on the other. The result is no mere collection of miscellaneous thoughts, for missionary
MUSLIMS have always been considered unusually resistant to Christian evangelization. Historically, resistance has evidenced itself at each of two consecutive stages: first, at the presentation of the Christian message itself; and second, at the stage of formal transition from the Muslim community into the Christian Church. We can describe the first level of resistance as chiefly religious or theological, and the second as chiefly sociological and cultural.
This distinction is important in recognizing what is happening in a number of Muslim lands today.1 In significant areas of the Muslim world in recent decades there has been a very notable advance perhaps a breakthrough at the first stage. Muslims are listening to the Gospel message with unprecedented openness and interest. For example, for a number of years just prior to the recent political upheaval in Beirut, a Christian agency in that city’ was mailing Bible teaching materials to thousands of Arab Muslims in a number of Near Eastern and North African countries. Over a period of years contact had been established, and a biblically-oriented devotional life nourished, in large numbers of correspondents. Many showed themselves quick to volunteer to distribute literature to others in their neighborhoods and put them in contact with the Beirut center. Teams from the center which toured from time to time found an open and cordial welcome awaiting them from their local contacts.
Another evidence of this new openness is Muslim response to Bible correspondence school ministries. The enrollment in one correspondence school in a large non-Arab land has increased sharply in the last dozen years. In the first six months of 1976 almost 7000 new students enrolled, of whom 3900 were Muslims; over 10,000 lessons were being marked per month. Relatively high percentages of students in this school continue, course by course, to the more advanced courses, and significant numbers each year are evidencing their newfound faith in Christ and commitment to him in the questions, letters and testimonies they send in.
Muslims, then, are clearly responding to the Gospel. But at the second stage mentioned above, that of formal transition into the Christian Church, we see no great change over previous missionary experience. Baptisms, the time-honored test of evangelism’s success, are as few as ever.
Reasons for the second stage barrier are well-known. Islam has erected formidable religious, social and psychological barriers before anyone wishing to leave its fold. Apostasy is considered the supreme act of betrayal, and although the Quranic punishment of death is no longer often enforced and usually not even defended, the social and economic sanctions and the public obloquy effectively bar most believing Muslims from baptism, and force most of even those who do undergo baptism to renounce Christ eventually and return to Islam.
The second stage problem becomes more acute, and its solution more urgent, precisely because of the breakthrough at the first stage.
At the same time another factor has entered the picture: new missiological concepts have been influencing many to rethink the problems of cultural accommodation.. Some Christian workers are responding with radically innovating ideas. A year ago, for instance, a veteran medical missionary in Muslim lands, now a home executive in Britain, presented a paper to a missionary gathering in England, in which he said, “Perhaps our greatest sin has been that of trying to persuade Christian disciples to come out of Islam when we should have told them to witness for Jesus Christ within the culture in which God had placed them.” By taking a cultic approach, he continued, the Christian unnecessarily raises in the Muslim’s mind the apprehension of dangers which every Muslim has been taught to fear, such as blasphemy of Allah’s Name, and treason to one’s people and family. He asks whether “the concept of a ‘Christian Muslim’ could ever be valid. Or, to put it another way, whether it is possible for a man to be a child of God, a worshipper of Christ, and yet still to fall under the broad national and cultural category of being a Muslim.“3
This mission executive was speaking, no doubt, from his experience in a particularly restrictive nation, where it is next to impossible for an inquirer even to show interest in the Christian message. But the opposite situation is just as frustrating: when considerable numbers show open interest and even commitment to Christ but stop short of that incorporation into Christ’s Body which is such a necessary step in Christian growth.
The Messianic Jewish Movement
As missionaries ponder the situation, another important phenomenon cannot fail to grip their interest: the recent movement of large numbers of Jews into commitment to Christ, in a movement known as Messianic Judaism. This movement has special interest because traditionally Judaism, like Islam, has been considered a resistant religion. A chief hallmark of Messianic Judaism has been its emphasis upon retaining Jewishness. Its names and slogans underline this emphasis: “Jews for Jesus”, “Messianic Judaism”, “completed Jew”. Jewish names, festivals, liturgy and patriotism are revived, preachers become “rabbis”, and certain’ Jewish legal and ceremonial observances are maintained. The message to Jews is: you can have Jesus Christ (often called in Hebrew, Yeshua ha Meshiach) and still be a Jew in fact, a better Jew than before!
There is not space here to outline the development of this movement or describe its various forms. For our purposes it is important to note that within this movement are wide differences of viewpoint, despite its very recent origin. A sharp gulf exists between the radicals and the moderates. The radicals actually seek to establish themselves as the fourth main group within Judaism, alongside Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism. They organize synagogues, not churches, worship on the Sabbath, and generally go farther than moderates in observing Jewish customs, ritual and holidays.4
The moderates, too, speak of themselves as “completed Jews” rather than “converted Jews”, and seek to retain their Jewishness. Their churches and fellowship halls, liturgy, language and literature are all designed to make the Jew feel he is in a Jewish environment and that he will not have to surrender his Jewishness when he accepts Christ. But moderates tend to view their Christian associations as equally important with their Jewish identity. They join mainline Christian churches, are more likely to use the name “Jesus Christ” than its Hebrew form, and have no desire to see the creation of a new branch of Christianity outside the bounds of nominal Christendom.5
Can the example of the Jewish movement be instructive for Muslim evangelism? We have already noted that Jews and Muslims resemble each other more than superficially. Not only in their unitary tradition of ethical monotheism, but more particularly in their concepts of social solidarity and national identity, and their comon abhorrence of the apostate, the resemblance appears. The religions are sister-faiths with Christianity, and are branches of the same historical tradition. Above all, for our purposes, both have been resistant to the Christian message.
In one important respect, however, the parallel breaks down. Crucial to the Messianic Jewish movement’s existence is the fact that the Jewish nation has a unique relation to Christianity and a unique, authentic place in biblical theology. In Christian eyes, Judaism was established by God. It was the religion of the Chosen People of God, of the Old Testament, and of Jesus.
Early Hebrew Christianity
Christians are also aware that the earliest Christians were Jews who saw no reason to renounce either their religion or their community: in fact, in the Jerusalem Council of 50 A.D. (Acts 15) the shoe was on the other foot, and the issue was whether Gentile believers could remain non-observers of Jewish Law and still remain in the Church.
Furthermore, the decision of that council led inevitably to the later establishment of two equal but separate church fellowships: one, in Jerusalem and the Jewish homelands, was exclusively for the circumcised;6 the other, in the main Gentile cities and districts, consisted mainly of Gentiles but also included Jews who, while maintaining their legal observances as far as possible, were still willing to mix and worship with Gentiles.? The Jerusalem Church made a real attempt for an entire century8 to maintain its Jewish identity and status in the larger Jewish community an attempt which would have been necessarily linked to maintaining a certain social and ceremonial distance from Christians maintaining Gentile identity.
The Jewish Christians of Jerusalem and neighboring cities were called Nazarenes, and continued to be, like the thousands of Jewish believers mentioned in Acts 21:20, “all zealous for the Law.” Thus, the early precedent of a separate, authentic Jewish Christianity had been set. Today’s Messianic Jews rightly claim not only to be within their Jewish national tradition but also in accord with early Christian tradition. Further, they can point to the promises of Scripture for the glorious future of a redeemed Israel in the last days.
Thus, both because of its deep theological variance from Christianity, and because it lacks any historic Christian authentication such as the Jewish nation has, an Islamic parallel to Messianic Judaism would be lacking very important legitimizing factors.
If it is difficult to conceive of a Christ-honoring group voluntarily remaining within Islam, what can we say about individual believers who remain Muslims, as suggested by the mission executive quoted earlier? Let us consider some of the problems such a believer would face. He would be able to profess only the first half of the all-important Muslim creed:
“There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet.”
He could hardly continue regarding the Quran as God’s final revelation. He would be at odds with Islamic teaching about Christ, for while Muslims call Jesus “the Spirit of God” and acknowledge his prophethood, they emphatically deny his divine Sonship, his Saviorhood, and even the fact of his physical death on the cross. In view of these and innumerable other differences of belief it would seem hardly possible, theoretically, for a “Christian Muslim” to exist.9
Yet, in point of fact, most missionaries who deal with inquirers do encounter such believers. The present writer knows several. One, an open believer for at least eight years, who has suffered considerably because of his faith, continues to postpone baptism for himself and his family. Another, a former naval officer, writes the word “Masihi” (Christian) after his name, has been well known for his belief for the past ten years, has independent means, but objects to much Christian doctrine and has never joined a Christian church. Both these men consider themselves true believers in Christ and at the same time members of the Muslim community.
An interesting group of such believers10 has existed in Turkey for some forty-five years. This group is one of the only two instances” to come to the present writer’s attention, of self-sustaining groups of followers of Jesus remaining within the folds of Islam. The group was established by a young man who had studied the Bible under the guidance of a missionary in Istanbul, spent years in medical training in the United States, and come to faith and open profession of Christ, but not baptism. Upon his return to Turkey he continued to meet with a like-minded circle of friends, and out of these meetings a group emerged which came to call itself “Jesus-ists”. The group is considered by other Muslims to be one of many Sufi or “dervish”-like mystical orders. They maintain separation from the local Christians. They welcome the fellowship of visiting missionary friends known to their group, but are under their own leadership. In the two or three cities where the group exists, their members meet together weekly on Sundays for family worship and Bible study. In their Bible study they use the Gospels only, and their theological beliefs are in some important respects at considerable variance from orthodoxy; yet devotion to Jesus Christ is at the center of their existence. 12
Relating to Muslim Believers
How should Christian workers regard “Christian Muslim” individuals and groups?
First, we need to take a charitable attitude toward them, and attend to their particular needs in a spirit of love. They need to be advised or guided if possible, befriended at least. One of the tragedies of early Jewish Christianity was that as Gentile Christianity grew and Jewish Christianity shrank into insignificance, the Gentile Christians generally adopted an attitude of scornful superiority,13 which was no help to a besieged group already hated and disowned by the Jews.
Second, let missionaries learn a lesson from them. We need to ask ourselves why these believers are not feeling impelled to accept baptism and formally join the Christian Church. Let us take up some of the possible answers to this question.
The church may be making unrealistic and unnecessary demands, requiring submission to special legalisms,14 cultural idiosyncrasies, and minute points of theology. Joining God’s People should not usually require denial of life-style or cultural suicide. The church needs to be exceedingly sensitive at this point, and not add to the “offence of the cross.”
Another reason predisposing Muslims not to make a formal religious leap is their deep-seated sense of the heinousness of apostasy. Muslims have a profound sense of community. They are a People. Apostasy is the ultimate betrayal, a stab in the back to family, clan and nation. Judaism shares this concept with Islam, and this fact gives special significance to the Messianic Judaism Movement, since within its framework a believing Jew can feel he is still. a Jew. The same would be true for Muslims if only a parallel “Christian Islam” could be conceived. Unfortunately, careful consideration makes this alternative increasingly difficult to approve. A hopeful alternative does exist, however, which will be considered later.
A further hindrance to Muslim baptisms is that the Church may be psychologically or physically so far removed from the inquirer that joining it does not even constitute a conscious option to him. Naaman the Syrian did not even consider becoming a Hebrew proselyte if such had even been possible.15 Similarly, the question of joining a Christian community does not even arise for the geographically isolated person who receives a tract or Bible, or completes a Bible correspondence course. It probably seldom arises for girls or women in Muslim cultures. This condition may also pertain when an–inquirer of a tribe or culture other than that of local Christians responds to a foreign missionary’s call. In such a situation it might not even occur to an inquirer that the local Christians he may have heard about are of the same Christian community as the missionary much less that it might be his duty to Christ to approach the Christians and request initiation. Culture-based psychological obstacles of this sort which may dominate an inquirer’s thinking are likely to completely escape the thinking of the Westerner, who is culture-oriented to be conscious of language and national barriers only, and overlook tribal and cultural ones.
More usual than the third alternative is that an inquirer may contemplate leaving Islam and joining the Christian community, but resist because the social or cultural trauma is feared and found unacceptable. This problem, though much written about by missiologists today, is still not well enough understood by those in the field, and especially by local Christians. It is so easy for Christians to be blind to their own cultural distinctives, and assume that to join the church would involve only theological or “spiritual” problems for a convert. A convert who hesitates is regarded as obstinate, unspiritual, and unreasonable.
This problem applies in a special way in Muslim lands, for the Christian minorities which exist in most of them are usually quite distinct ethnically from their Muslim neighbors. Consider, for instance, the “Jesusists” of Turkey. Turkey does have tiny Christian minorities, but the founder of the Jesusists probably did not consider joining them, for they are Greeks and Armenians, and the term “Christian” is a 99% racial term in Turkey.16 A language barrier is also present. The Turkish believer saw no reason to attempt to join the Greeks or Armenians. The option he chose was to make a clear profession of Christ and organize his small community of worshipping Christians, while remaining within the mainstream Muslim community.
The importance of cultural, ethnic and linguistic barriers, and their persistence even long after conversion, may be shown by another example. In Teheran, Iran, in the late 19th and early 20th century, people were coming to Christ from several backgrounds: Armenian, Nestorian, Muslim, Jewish. The early missionaries spoke with satisfaction of how believers from the various communities demonstrated their oneness in Christ, worshipping together in one organized church. This seemed to be good ecumenics, but it proved to be bad anthropology: in later decades the Teheran Christian community gradually differentiated itself along ethnic and linguistic lines and remains so today. There are now four separate churches worshipping in three languages: Persian (the Jewish- and Muslim-origin churches), Syriac (the Nestorian-oriented church) and Armenian. In retrospect, we cannot help wondering whether early missionary work might not have been even more successful than it was had the different groups been encouraged from the outset to establish separate churches.17
A Look into the Future
Having completed our brief survey of the new situation prevailing in Muslim fields today, it remains to try to look ahead. Much of what is now said is based upon the writer’s experience in one country, and may not apply in other situations, but it is hoped that some of it may be helpful in stimulating thought. Although prophecy is necessarily a risky business, it is essential for missionaries -finding themselves in a fast-changing atmosphere to take stock of their situation and prepare for the future.
A breakthrough in Muslim response to the Gospel is already upon us. However, of the many who are hearing and seemingly responding to the Gospel, only the tiniest trickle are joining the local church, which is usually of different ethnic origin. At present almost all of these believers are being lost.
It may be that this will continue despite all efforts. However, where unprecedented openness and opportunity prevail, it is also possible that a people movement to Christ might emerge. If such a movement should begin, a new social entity would come into existence, in which followers of Christ would feel at home. When this occurred, believers would cease to be lost, and the movement would gain further momentum.
If such a movement should occur, it would probably take one of two forms:
A people movement to Christ which remains within Islam.
A people movement constituting a new church of Muslim cultural orientation.
Let us consider these in turn.
A People Movement to Christ Within Islam
It is entirely possible that a people movement to Christ might start suddenly within the fold of Islam somewhere, and face Christians both with great opportunities and with great problems and potential tragedy. Such an occurrence would have been very unlikely even fifty years ago - just as a Messianic Jewish Movement would have been unthinkable in the anti-Semitic atmosphere of medieval Europe. But there is a tide in the affairs of men, and it is the story of people movements that when. a new faith or ideology is widely enough known, and the climate of public opinion has moved, for whatever reason, from hate and fear to approbation and trust, a small impulse can sweep through a whole people, change their entire outlook, and move them into new ideologies and commitments.
If such a thing happened what form would the movement take? Here is one of several possible scenarios: Out of a small group of friends studying the Bible together, one or two might be vitalized by Christ and gripped with zeal for winning others. Like Paul, they would visit contacts and -groups in this city or that, write letters, preach, and organize. They might consciously organize as a separate group, or they might be labelled and have a separate identity forced upon them by their opponents. If a group remained insignificant, it might avoid opposition, like the Jesusists of Turkey. But if it grew or exerted influence, opposition would start. Yet and this is important it would be likely to be the opposition which a strange new sect attracts, not the utter rejection awarded the apostate. For the movement would be within Islam. Its defenders would say something like, “We’re the real Muslims. We have rediscovered Jesus. Our own Quran honors him as Prophet, and we have found in our earlier Scriptures that he is also divine Savior. He says so himself. Can a Prophet lie?”
The crucial questions asked by other Muslims would be to ascertain the positions the new sect took toward Muhammad and the Quran. The sect might deny Muhammad’s prophethood, but it seems far more likely that it would only redefine it or even accept it. It is doubtful if the all-important Creed, “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is .his Prophet,” could be amended by any group claiming to be Muslims.
It is an observed fact that, once well established, even the most heretical sect has remarkable staying power. Witness, in recent Christianity, the Mormons, Unitarians and Christian Scientists. Some Muslims would remain outraged at the emergence of a “Christian Muslim” sect, but most, at least in the more open Muslim societies, might soon look on the new group as just one more of the many strange sects under the umbrella of Islam. For staying power, consider the Ahmadiyya sect of Indo-Pakistan. Founded in the last century by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who claimed to be the returned Messiah, the sect holds several doctrines which are just as irreconcilable to orthodox belief as our hypothetical Christ-honoring sect would hold; but this did not prevent it from growing large and prosperous, and propagating its views in many lands. Other Muslims may deny that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s followers are true Muslims,18 but they cannot make their denial stick. After all, the important thing to a sect is not what others say about it but what its members themselves hold to be true.
Thus, once established and having reached viable size, our hypothetical sect might attain full stability and permanence. They would build their own mosques, train their own leaders of congregational prayers and Scripture reciters, and amend their worship liturgy to bring in their new beliefs and excise what had been discarded or seemed inappropriate. They might but probably would not retain Arabic as their language of worship, unless it was also their mother-tongue. They would keep most of their previous Muslim customs, such as ceremonial washings, the month of fasting, prayer five times daily, circumcision, observance of festivals, and possibly (probably?) the reading of the Quran.
As to doctrine, the movement’s Muslim orientation might lead it, among the more likely possibilities, to some form of retreat from the doctrine of the Trinity; a de-emphasizing or “explaining” of Christ’s Sonship, perhaps through a device such as Adoptionism; a denial of Christ’s true death; an acceptance of the inspiration of only those parts of Scripture they found most acceptable, such as the Pentateuch, the Psalms and the Gospels; and the discarding of one or both sacraments, retaining circumcision, possibly as a substitute for baptism.
How would local Christians react to such a sect? Most would naturally feel that if those involved were really sincere in their belief they would have joined the existing church. They would also, of course, be scandalized at the unscripturalness, the theological errors, and the “Muslim” practices they would see. (It is because of such expectable aberrations, of course, that such a movement could not and should not be designed or led by local missionaries or Christian workers.) But a few of the more thoughtful Christians would probably remember that theological consistency and impeccability have never been a hallmark of the Christian Church. They would distinguish the essential theological centralities from the non-essential cultural accretions, and be not too greatly disturbed by the new movement’s changed modes of worship, etc. And even if the movement retained belief in Muhammad’s prophethood, for instance, or held adoptionist views of Christ’s Person, they would recall many worse heresies which have characterized this or that branch of Christ’s Church in this or that age or place, and try to maintain a charitable, open and accepting spirit. While in all probability the local church and the sect would have no relations with each other, and the question of common worship, fellowship, or intercommunion would not even arise from either side, yet missionaries and concerned nationals might have opportunities through personal contacts of forming links of fellowship, understanding and dialogue. The value of such contacts would depend heavily on the maturity of the parties and an understanding, at least on the missionary’s side, of the relation of Christianity to culture.”
By keeping the new movement in some sort of contact with the Church Universal, missionaries and concerned national leaders could do much to prevent it from becoming isolated and gradually drifting into the suspicion, self-righteousness, inversion of perspective, and increasing heresy, which have historically been the fate of isolation. To make themselves available to serve in a friendly spirit, to maintain warm personal contacts despite differences, may lay the groundwork of trust which will later open doors for providing untendentious Bible teaching and counsel. With this kind of ministry there would be hope that in time the new movement might be drawn gradually out of its errors and into a fuller understanding of its place in the worldwide Body of Christ.
A People Movement Constituting a New Christian Church of Muslim Cultural Orientation
The same prevailing societal conditions which can give rise to a movement which remains within Islam can give rise to one which breaks away. So the scenario for the origin of the latter need not further concern us here. It will be profitable here, however, to address ourselves to two questions. First: what can be done to encourage a Muslim people’s movement, whether it terminates within or without the Christian Church? Second: since, from a missionary perspective, a movement terminating in the Church and bearing a clear-cut Christian identity is so far preferable to a movement within Islam, what can be done to help point any emerging movement in the direction of a distinctly Christian identity?
(Of course, it is possible that a movement’s direction will be beyond any possible control or influence. We repeat, that in this essay we are only hypothecating a realistically possible situation, in order to be better prepared for it if it should materialize.)
In answer to these two questions we offer three suggestions, which are related to three stages in the evolution of any such movement. The first suggestion is mainly in response to the first question above, while the second and third relate chiefly to the second question.
- In the present atmosphere of opportunity, with wide receptivity to the Gospel message, missionaries must give much more attention to the effectiveness of Gospel proclamation. Many doors of opportunity are open through the mass media of radio and literature, but in many cases we are taking less than full advantage of them because we have not learned the missiological lessons of cultural accommodation. Now that Muslims in large numbers are listening and reading with interest, we need to give them the best we have or can produce.
For example, Christian radio programs are coming into the Indian sub-continent with excellent reception from Ceylon, the Seychelles and other locations. But only a small part of the programming is in the language and cultural garb in which the listener feels at home. This is not the fault of the broadcasting societies: high quality programming written in terms of the listeners’ background and world-view is only available in small trickles. They are just not being produced. So we have the strange experience abroad of turning on our radios and hearing, say, an English-language rebroadcast of a program prepared in the United States for American Christians: perhaps Beverly Shea or a Gospel quartet singing in a distinctly foreign musical tradition quite out of keeping with that of the vast majority of the listeners. There follows, perhaps, a prayer phrased in King James English, and a sermon heavy with theological terms and Western thought patterns.
Some Christian broadcasting, however, is pointing the way. At a conference held seven years ago in Beirut a Christian broadcaster named Fred Acord said he had received a great deal of positive response when he started broadcasting Arabic Scripture in the same chanting style as Muslims are used to hearing in the traditional recitations of the Quran. He admits that the meaning cannot be carried as effectively, but cites the very positive listener response, and points out that much is gained if Muslims find themselves enjoying hearing Scripture, and identify it with their concept of a holy book (Joyce 1969:45, 48ff}.
As in radio, so in literature, a great deal more can be done to make readers feel more at home with the atmosphere of a tract or book. For instance, much Christian literature for Muslims is still confrontational in nature. Islam is not all false: probably, 80% of Muslim doctrine and ethics, and 60% of Muslim prayer and worship, is parallel to or compatible with Christian doctrine and worship. Although what Islam lacks is to us crucial, yet it is in what Islam possesses that Christian dialogue and proclamation can often make their effective point of contact.
One reason given by a Bible correspondence school worker for the friendly and trustful response from his school’s students is the irenic, friendly tone of the Bible lessons they use. Although the lessons cannot present Islam as true, yet they can overlook Islam as such. They can present the Gospel as though it can be accepted by a person of Muslim background. They can deal with people, not with the religion. They can assume the goodwill, integrity and openness of the student. After all, readers who do not possess these qualities are not too likely to continue reading after the first few lines or pages anyway! It is the experience of the same correspondence school worker that the students most attracted to this school and the most open to its message are not the ones most Westernized, secularized and “liberated” from their own religion. Rather, they are the most faithful and conservative Muslims, the ones most concerned with the loss of moral values in the world around them, the ones most earnest in their own religious lives, the ones seeking not a new religion but more light for their own paths.
Conversely, some Bible correspondence courses still widely used in the Muslim world are arranged topically to cover those points in which the teachings of Islam are regarded as either defective or different from the teaching of the New Testament.
Even the form of language is important. Pakistani Muslims, for instance, are used to hearing the plural form of pronouns and verbs used when reference is made to any prophet, including Jesus, and report a sense of shock when they read Christian literature using the singular form. In the same country there is a problem with the Bible translation. It is popular with the Christian minority, who come mostly from a Hindu cultural background, but its Hindi-tinged religious words are not the normal ones used by Muslims, and the words used for Jesus and God (Yisu and Khuda) are not the normal ones Muslims use (Isa and Allah). A new Bible for Muslims is needed (Khair-Ullah 1976).
- Missionaries and national Christians should be doing more to bring the few and isolated Muslim believers together in fellowship. They must know that they are not alone, and have a chance to exchange thoughts with others who are on the same road.
This was the experience of Hebrew Christians in the last century. In 1813 in London a group of forty-one met together to constitute themselves an association, adopting the name Beni Abraham. Significantly, -their aim was not evangelism, but fellowship. They undertook to support each other in a pastoral way, and pray and worship together regularly (Schonfield 1936:219ff). Later, more ambitious associations developed, and evangelism became a central object. But it is clear that the main need felt by the original group was just to be together in fellowship with people of the same mind and tradition, since they did not feel completely welcome, at ease, and at home in Gentile Christian surroundings.
Another interesting point emerges from the history of the early Hebrew Christians of London. When the International Hebrew Christian Alliance was formed in London in 1925, the fact was noted widely in the press, with the result that immediately the Alliance leaders began to hear from many secret Jewish believers, from widely scattered parts of Europe (ibid:242). The existence of a movement tends to draw in numbers of people who would not have taken a stand as individuals.
Bringing Muslim inquirers together is not easy, as any who have tried it will testify. A Bible correspondence school in Pakistan has repeatedly planned student rallies in cities where the numbers of responsive students seemed to warrant it. But even though the program is low-keyed and friendly, ending with refreshments and fellowship, the students tend to come with a sense of fear and tension. Their distrust is not directed toward the staff workers who are present, but toward other students, one of whom, they fear, might reveal their presence to family or friends. But in spite of difficulties, efforts should be continued, for without the gathering of Muslim believers into a continuing fellowship, further progress toward our goal cannot be made.
We cannot predict how the bringing of believers into stable association with each other can be achieved, but once it is achieved, it is possible to foresee the next step: the organization of a more formal society or a church. In this process the missionary or church leader would probably play little or no part, except to encourage from the sidelines. He should also urge caution and patience until the obvious requirements for such a step have become evident. These requirements would include capable leadership; a group large and cohesive enough to sustain itself, including at least several families; an established and stable worship and study program; and a certain amount of Bible teaching.
- After a stable association or church has come into existence, the missionary or local leader can function in the same way as has been suggested for a group which remains within Islam: through friendship, counsel and mediation seeking to help them to remain in mutual trust and fellowship with local churches and the Church worldwide. This would be easier than with a Christian Muslim sect, but would still be an exceedingly challenging task fraught with risks and frustrations.
Whatever is possible should be done to ensure a sound Biblical tradition developing in the church’s midst. The group might be persuaded to send a leader or two for formal Bible training: better still, in some mission lands today it would be possible for the Bible school to come to the leader, by means of an extension department. It is very important that most if not all of the leaders be respected members of the group itself, not from other local churches or from among foreigners. There will inevitably be errors in the group’s thinking and practice as it develops and responds to new teaching, but the missionary may still be able to do much from the sidelines to help it avoid false doctrine and unwise practice.
A crucial task would be to work out in full detail the implications of the group’s new-found faith for all the customs and practices of their everyday life and worship. If their ethics, liturgical acts, social customs, and personal or family mores are not systematically examined and either “baptised” or discarded, some deleterious ones will remain to cause trouble later. Since the unthinking attitude of other Christian groups will be to condemn any practices which differ from their own, the incoming group is in a much better position if it has thought through its practices as a group and can justify them to itself, if not fully to others.
For a missionary or local Christian leader to take part in this job, of course, would depend entirely on the deep trust and goodwill of the group. If he can marshall such trust he can even take the initiative in suggesting the study of this or that custom. The task of separating cultural “baggage” from essential Christian thought and practice would require not only a keen theological mind and a sympathetic attitude, but anthropological insights and attitudes which could best be acquired by formal training. Here is an area in which qualified missionaries can render a service which few local Christians would be qualified (and detached enough from their culture) to render, unless specially trained. Merely listing a few topics will illustrate some of the complexities involved: the proper day for weekly worship; the place of the maulawi (preacher and leader of congregational worship); the propriety of retaining ritual circumcision; necessary adaptations to the Muslim marriage customs; the necessity and method of baptism; the seclusion of women; the way of choosing religious leaders; the form of church government.
If a mass movement should occur, a great test of the maturity and Christian grace of the existing Christian community would take place. Would the right hand of fellowship be generously extended despite the vast differences and the new group’s insistence on separate existence? Or would the existing church see the differences and refuse fellowship until the new group conformed to their thought and ways? Many churches in Muslim lands, just like many in Christian countries, tend to be defensive of their special distinctives, some of which they may have preserved over centuries at considerable cost.
The same situation existed in New Testament days, when Gentiles first began knocking on the Church’s doors. One of the greatest proofs of the Holy Spirit’s presence in that church was the way the Jerusalem Council willingly lifted the burden of Jewish observances from the newcomers and allowed them into full fellowship and equality on terms they could easily accept. In its eventual outcome this was truly a heroic decision, and John the Baptist’s words became true of the Jewish Church which made it: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” So might well be the. lot of the more mature leadership, or even of the whole church in any Muslim land where a people movement took place. The problem of a foreign missionary associated with a national church, who showed too active a love or sympathy for an emerging Muslim-origin church, can also be well imagined by any who work in Muslim lands where a church is present.
We have looked ahead at some of the possibilities the future holds for people movements in Islam. As workers in God’s harvest field, let us pray that God may both restrain us from unwarranted optimism, and keep us from blindness to a harvest ready for reaping. At a time like this when old patterns are changing we need both balance and vision. Many have sown before us, and we are also sowing but if it is to be given to us to reap where many others have sown, may we not be found blind or unprepared!
The mass conversions of Indonesian Muslims in the 1960’s are an exception, and may have taken place under special conditions.
The quotation is from a reproduction of the address, which was circulated to members of the mission. See also the report of a call for a “Muslims for Jesus” movement, at a recent conference in England on “New Approaches to Islam,” in Missions Update, V:2 for March-April, 1976. (Missions Update is published by the United Presbyterian Center for Mission Studies, Pasadena, CA.)
Prominent radical figures include Martin Chernoff, Manny Brotman, Rachmiel Frydland and Joseph Finkelstein, all of whom are leaders of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America. A unique radical approach is taken by James Hutchens, of The Watchman Association, Highland Park, Illinois, a former Gentile who has formally converted to Judaism and is presently seeking Israeli citizenship. A book presenting the radical viewpoint (although it does not go nearly as far as the M.J.A.A. position) is Goble 1974.
Moderate leaders include Moishe Rosen, of Jews for Jesus, San Raphael, CA, and leaders of the American Board of Missions to the Jews, such as Daniel Fuchs and Arnold Fruchtenbaum. The moderate point of view is well expressed in Fruchtenbaum. See, interalia, pp. 50-51, 93-98.
Historians are generally agreed that the Jerusalem Church and its surrounding dependent churches observed the Law and regarded themselves as Jewish in a national sense. This would mean that if any Gentile Christians in these areas adhered to the Christian synagogues, they either held some sort of second-class status such as “Godfearers”, or else were required to be circumcised and formally proselytize to Judaism. It is unlikely that the latter was common, for where Gentile population centers existed in Palestine, there grew up Gentile Christian bishoprics and local churches. See Schoeps 1964:31.
We see the beginnings of this accommodation indicated in Paul’s report of Peter’s actions in Antioch, Gal 2:11 ff.
The Jerusalem Church as a Jewish entity was finally terminated after the defeat of the Bar Cochba rebellion in 135 A.D., and a Gentile Christian church took its place in that city. Even before this date, the strongholds of Jewish Christianity were to the east of the Jordan and to the north in Syria and Mesopotamia, where it continued for some centuries in the form of sects disowned by both Jews and Christians (Schoeps 1964:133, also Danielou 1964:56). Jewish Christian sects may have survived to the days of Muhammad (Schonfield 1936:119). If they did not survive that long, their influence certainly did. Examples of such influence would seem to include the Ebionite tendency of the Muslim view of Christ’s person and work, and the. practice of facing Jerusalem for prayer (later Muhammad substituted Mecca as the qibla). Schoeps has a very interesting presentation of the debt of Islam to the Jewish Christians (1964:136-140).
We speak here not mainly of believing children, purdah-restricted women, and others who would receive baptism if it were realistically possible. Such “secret” believers have always existed. Rather, we speak of the financially independent, professionals, etc., who could take baptism but prefer not to.
We cannot, of course, enter the question of whether this or that group are “believers” in a sense acceptable to Christians. For the purposes of this study it is enough that the members of a group consider themselves believers or followers. This is not in any way to minimize the question’s importance, however. It deserves more study than some missiological studies are inclined to give it. The Church has always insisted on objective tests of believerhood, and we have only to reflect on the claims of Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses to realize the importance of such tests.
The other instance, only very recently come to this writer’s attention, is an Iranian community of what appears to be a formerly Christian group rooted in the pre-Muslim past, which went underground due to persecution. This community has long forgotten the name of Jesus Christ, but revere an “Al-Mansur” (or “Al-Manzur”?) who had many of the characteristics of Christ, including having offered salvation to his followers at great cost to himself. The person who informed the writer of this group is Dr. Frederick R. Wilson, of the staff of the Program Agency, UPUSA, New York, who served for some years as a missionary in Iran.
Rev. Merrill N. Isely’s hitherto unpublished paper on the Jesusists, from which most of my information was obtained, was kindly lent to me by Dr. Fred Field Goodsell of Waban, MA, former head of the United Church Board of World Ministries. Dr. Goodsell also supplied information from his own knowledge and long-term contact with this group, and his correspondence with its founder.
Jerome’s famous remark regarding the Jewish Christians of his day was, “But as long as they desire to be both Jews and Christians, they are neither Jews nor Christians” (Schoeps 1964:133, citing Jerome, MPL 22, 924). Gentile Christians scorned them, among other reasons, for practicing the Mosaic law, though this right had been assumed by the Apostles and early church at the Council of Jerusalem.
Fruchtenbaum, a convert from Judaism himself, speaks of the frustration converts experience in many churches at the prohibition of movies, cards, dice and alcohol. “Wine is part of Jewish culture” (1974:122).
Instead, he promised to worship only Israel’s God, after returning to his own land, and asked pardon in advance that he would have to participate in worship of Syria’s god Rimmon as part of his civic duties - in effect taking a position similar in some ways to that of the unbaptised Muslim believer today.
Isely, see note 12, above.
The source for this example and the concluding comment is Dr. J. Christy Wilson, Jr., until recently a missionary in Afghanistan, and now of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Wenham, MA.
In 1974 in Pakistan, the home of the sect, it was finally ruled a non-Muslim minority, after widespread communal disturbances.
A very valuable book on this subject is Donald McGavran 1974.
- Danielou, Jean 1964 The Theology of Jewish Christianity London: Darton, Longman & Todd
- Fruchtenbaum, Arnold 1974 Hebrew Christianity, Its Theology, History and Philosophy Washington: Canon Press Goble, Phil 1974 Everything You Need to Grow a Messianic Synagogue South Pasadena: William Carey Library
- Joyce, Raymond H. (ed.) 1969 Message to Islam, Report of Study Conference on Literature, Correspondence Courses and Broadcasting in the Arab World Beirut: Muslim World Evangelical Literature Service
- Khair-Ullah, F.S. 1976 “Linguistic Hang-Ups in Communicating with Muslims” Missiology 4:301-316 McGavran, Donald 1974 The Clash Between Christianity and Cultures Washington: Canon Press
- Schoeps, Hans Joachim 1964 Jewish Christianity Philadelphia: Fortress Press
- Schonfield, Hugh J. 1936 The History of Jewish Christianity London: Duckworth
John W. Wilder is a missionary of the United Presbyterian Church and has served in the non-Arab Muslim world for 20 years. He holds the Th.M. from Princeton Seminary and the M.A. from the Hartford Seminary Foundation.