I recently saw an article in “Christianity Today” entitled, “Christians and Muslim Leaders Agree on Legitimacy of Evangelism.” I was intrigued. The article began with the statement, “The world’s largest Muslim organization accepts that Christians will try to convert its members. A new partnership with evangelicals seeks to ensure this does not lead to conflict.”
The article went on to explain that the World Evangelical Alliance had recently signed a statement of cooperation with “Nahdlatul Ulama”, an Indonesian Muslim association which claims some 90 million members. The outcome of the agreement acknowledged that both Evangelicals and Muslims will try to convert each other’s members. Both sides agreed that the truth claims made by both religions should not be downplayed. However, in the attempt to win each other, an agreement must be made not to weaponize such efforts. That is, while there is strong disagreement between Muslims and Christians, both sides will agree not to enact laws or to persecute the other side. Instead, they will learn to respect one another.
I must confess that I have not read the agreement. But if the agreement is as it appeared to be in the description CT gave of it, it is encouraging. It would condemn extremism, national blasphemy laws and other measures seeking to persecute religious converts. The agreement, said CT, would seek to create a model of “conciliatory Islam in opposition to trends immerging in the Middle East”. Of special interest is that this agreement is being signed in Indonesia, which is the world’s largest Muslim nation.
Will such an effort succeed? I fervently pray that it does. On the one hand, I don’t foresee the day when persecution for spreading the message of Christ will end. Persecution against Christians who evangelize is on the rise, and not on the decline. But on the other hand, laws can and do prevent evil behaviour. Furthermore, seeking to make agreements that we will not persecute each other is encouraging.
Forced conversions have been a very nasty part of both Christian and Muslim traditions. Islam’s beginnings were completely tied to military victories and forced conversions. Christianity began without any laws to protect it. Rather it gained traction entirely through voluntary conversions. In Christianity’s early days, there were no financial or social advantages to becoming a Christian. The advantages were entirely spiritual. New life was offered through the crucified and risen Saviour.
But in the post-Constantinian Roman world, the church and the state became closely aligned. Eventually, political power was used to advance the faith. In the west, Church and State were married in an unholy union. The faith in the crucified Christ was replaced by the religion of the state.
The lesson to be learned from our tragic history is two-fold. First, Christians must insist that we seek no advantage from the state. We do not look for laws that would ever give Christians an advantage over those who do not confess Christ. We do look for laws that protect the principles of righteousness, but not laws to assist us in evangelizing. Whenever we ask the state to do the business of the church, we end with tragic consequences. I would argue that Canada’s residential schools are just such a case.
But there is a second lesson we must learn. While we seek to live in harmony with all, we do not seek to downplay the truths of the Christian faith. We must confess the truths of Acts 4:12 with the apostles. “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” That is to say, while we seek to live in harmony with all men, we will always risk that harmony so that we might win as many as we can. Christ’s love compels us to do evangelism.