Acts of terrorism done in the name of Islam, against both Muslims and non-Muslims, can tempt us to respond in ways that are neither wise nor virtuous. If people have never had Muslim friends, their only impressions come from news and social media, which tend to build a distorted picture. Even among Christians, heated debates break out about the very language we use on issues relating to Islam. In politics we debate whether or not terrorists should be called “radical Muslims.” Christians argue about whether or not Muslim and Christians “worship the same God.” Bible translators can lose financial support over whether or not to render the phrase “the son of God” literally or in a Muslim-sensitive way as “the one sent from God.”
Is it any wonder that Christians struggle to think about Islam with intellectual virtue or to engage Muslim people in a way that is Christ-like?
The early church was born in a time of unrest and violence; much of this was targeted against Christians. The Apostle Peter told the church to seek peace, to always do good, to rejoice in sufferings, and to not give in to fear. Echoing the teachings of Jesus, Peter encouraged Christians to repay evil not with more evil, but with love.
1 Peter 3:15 is especially helpful for our engagement with Muslims: “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience.”
In a time of conflict and misunderstanding, this verse provides three mandates to help us relate to non-Christians: first, make sure you are being faithful to Christ; second, learn to intelligently explain the gospel; and finally, be gentle and respectful.
Set apart Christ as Lord
Peter tells the church that we should “set apart Christ as Lord.” Whenever patriotism, ethnicity, and politics demand our allegiance, the Christian must remember that our ultimate loyalty belongs to Christ. As our Lord, he determines how we are to think and act. Our first priority should be to think about Muslims and engage them in a way that pleases Christ.
We cannot be motivated by fear. We must speak the truth in love and not be captured by exaggeration and inflammatory rhetoric. We must be informed in a godly way, being careful of our thoughts and feelings. We must use objective and reliable sources.
Muslims are very diverse. We should not succumb to essentialism, that unfair and sinful practice of prejudging a person based on a reductionist or misinformed stereotype. Here is where the Muslim friend can be an important resource. Find out first hand from the person. What does he believe? How does she live? What is important to him? While general knowledge about Islam and the Muslim world is helpful and important, nothing is as important as listening to your friend. If Christ is Lord over our interactions with others, including adherents of Islam, then we must be honest, fair, and compassionate.
Be prepared to give an answer
Paul also exhorts us to “always be prepared to give an answer.” This includes answering the many questions that adherents of Islam have about the gospel. Sometimes we can be very inconsistent. We send missionaries all around the world, even our sons and daughters, to sacrificially reach Muslims for Christ. Yet we do relatively little here at home to understand and engage Muslims living all around us.
The belief systems of Islam and Christianity are like partially overlapping circles; some beliefs we have in common, and some are very different. So we need to learn how to intelligently explain the gospel. This means being honest and forthright in sharing our faith. We need to know how to carefully explain the biblical view of sin and salvation, the person and work of Jesus, and the nature of God and the Bible. Peter tells us to be prepared to do this. We cannot engage Muslims intelligently and virtuously if we do not know our own faith, and if we do not accurately know what they believe and practice.
Practice gentleness and respect
Finally, Peter exhorts us to “do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience.” We are always to be gentle and respectful.
A proper engagement with Muslims can only come from a heart moved by God’s love. For the Christian there is a more important question than the political one about terrorism and “radical Islam.” It is a missional question: does God love Muslims? The answer is a resounding “yes.” The Father manifests his infinite love for all people in the redemptive work of Christ, in the ministry of the Spirit, and then in the mission of the Church.
David Bosch put it this way, “Mission has its origin in the heart of God. God is the fountain of sending love. This is the deepest source of mission. It is impossible to penetrate deeper still; there is mission because God loves people.” But we must ask ourselves; do we love our Muslim neighbors and friends? The answer ought to be an unqualified, self-sacrificing “yes.”
Samuel Zwemer was an exemplary missionary of the last century who faithfully sought to reflect God’s love for Muslims. He wrote, “After forty years of experience, I am convinced that the nearest way to the Muslim heart is the way of the love of God, the way of the cross.”
In these trying times, we must engage Muslims with wisdom, virtue, and love, because God’s calls us, as his children, to reflect his missional heart.
Daniel J. Ebert IV, PhD, is Director of Graduate Programs and Affiliate Professor of NT at Trinity International University (Kendall) he can be reached at [email protected]