A recent USA Today article highlighted professing Christians — most notably Brian McLaren, the “godfather of the emerging church” — who spent much of the last month fasting in observance of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The idea behind this fasting was, in McLaren’s words, “to come close to our Muslim neighbors and to share this important part of life with them.” Christians who participated were encouraged to find a Muslim fasting partner, leading to a greater respect and understanding between adherents of faiths which have rarely meshed.
While I am certainly in agreement that Christians must be respectful of all people, we must also be careful to distinguish between respecting and condoning. McLaren is correct in that Americans in general — and Christians in particular — have become increasingly anti-Muslim, especially post-9/11. We have a duty to share the gospel with people of every tribe, tongue, people, and nation, including Muslims, and in order to do that there must be a dialogue between Christians and Muslims.
The problem is that, in this instance, this dialogue has come at the expense of Christ. No effort is made to preach the Truth of God that leads to repentance and salvation. The quote from Akbar Ahmed, the chairman of the Islamic studies department at American University, is the most telling part of the USA Today article: “Here is a pastor (McLaren) who wants to understand us, who does not want to convert us…”
If understanding and respect are the sole objectives, why bother? We can understand and respect people all the way to Hell, but if we truly love them we MUST introduce them to the God who IS love! The message of love is the good news of God’s Son Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected to provide the only way for us to live eternally in the presence of a Holy God. It’s a message that brands Christians “intolerant” in the eyes of an increasingly pluralistic world. It’s a message that is not proclaimed through the religious rituals of false religions.
Some Christians who practice these rituals for the sake of “understanding” — whether it be Ramadan, the contemplative meditation of Eastern religions, the Catholic Stations of the Cross, etc — will cite 1 Corinthians 9:22 as their justification, when Paul wrote: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” The context behind this verse is that Paul lived according to the customs of the people he was trying to reach, in order that he might be able to contextualize the Gospel in a way that they might understand. In Jerusalem, Paul — a Jew — went to the temple for purification (Acts 21:26). In Asia, Greece and Italy, Paul told the Gentiles that foods the Jews had considered unclean were permissible (Romans 14:14), and that circumcision was unnecessary (Galatians 5:6).
Paul did NOT, however, participate in the worship of pagan idols or in the sacrifices offered at the Jewish temple. He preached the Cross at the Jewish temple and in the synagogues. He preached the Cross at Mars Hill in Athens, and before Caesar himself in Rome. He was beaten by the Jews. He was imprisoned by the Romans. He was mocked and rejected by the Greeks. Even other Christian leaders like Peter, James, and John, “who seemed to be pillars” (Galatians 2:9), struggled to accept his radical (but God-breathed) teaching of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone.
The true Gospel message still elicits strong negative reactions from zealous proponents of other religions, from philosophers and those who think themselves wise, from the unbelieving masses, and even from some within the Church, just as it did in Paul’s day. We ought not be surprised by this, for Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8), and the ruler of this world (John 12:31) still blinds the minds of unbelievers (2 Corinthians 4:4). However, this same Gospel also still calls sinners to repentance and sets captives free!
When men who claimed to represent Christ went before the Church in Corinth, convincing the believers there that it was okay to act just like the pagans, the church became guilty of all sorts of corruption: Sexual immorality, lawsuits among believers, divisions within the church, and questionable worship practices, just to name a few. Paul wrote a series of letters to the Corinthians correcting this false teaching. He pulled no punches, calling these “super apostles” deceitful workmen disguising themselves in the same manner as Satan (2 Corinthians 11:13-14)! To Timothy, Paul described these sorts of false teachers as prideful and ignorant (1 Timothy 6:3-4). To Titus: “They are detestable, disobedient, and unfit for any good work” (Titus 1:16).
How might Paul address those in today’s churches who condone rather condemn worldliness? I imagine he’d have some harsh words for those who are celebrating Ramadan, fellowshipping with Muslims yet having no intention or desire to lead them to Christ. Paul wrote that it is to our shame that there remain some who have no knowledge of God (1 Corinthians 15:34). He would certainly rebuke those who use his own words from 2 Corinthians 9:22 to justify themselves! After all, the very next verse reads: “I do it all for the sake of the gospel“, which is the qualification for being “all things to all people”.
Unfortunately, this is just the latest example of a troubling trend in the 21st Century Christian Church. McLaren and other “emergent” church leaders have introduced into evangelical churches much of the same spirit of ecumenism that has pervaded many “mainline” Protestant denominations (for example, many Episcopals, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians) for decades. I want to be clear, however, that this is not a blanket condemnation of any of these denominations, or of “emergent” churches in general. All of these terms (especially “emerging” or “emergent”) have been used so much that they have different meanings in different situations, just as Stevens Street Baptist Church has very little to do with many other churches also bearing the name “Baptist”. This is why it is important to examine specific doctrines, rather than to make overarching generalizations.
In my next post, we’ll examine further this trend toward “interspirituality” and “interfaith cooperation”. Is this simply another method of sharing the gospel, or is it apostasy?
See you then. Grace and peace be with you all.