On witnessing to Canadian Muslims

Bearing witness to Christ is an obligation that weighed heavily on the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 9:16). He did not shirk the responsibility but considered it a divine appointment and a holy calling (2 Timothy 1: 8-11). His obedience to that heavenly vision (Acts 26:19) meant that the gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ broke free from the boundaries of Jerusalem and Judaism to impact the whole world.

The Christian faith, at its core, is missional. Christianity must never be content to expand only by biological growth. And, while we do not employ militaristic strategies in evangelism, we nonetheless expect the Church to grow through the active, and not just passive, witness of believers.

Christians are salt and light but we must not be silenced from proclamation in word and deed. Social justice has no distinctive label which identifies itself as Christian. Without the word of the gospel, without the announcement about Jesus Christ, our philanthropic initiatives are indistinguishable from the care-giving work of other religious and non-religious groups.

A Christian witness to Canadian Muslims

In major urban centres, an ever-growing challenge exists in how to witness to Muslims. Long gone are the days when pastor and parishioners could focus their evangelistic concerns on wayward sons and daughters of church goers. No longer can we console ourselves that sending missionaries to the Middle East fulfills our part in the ministry to Muslims.

In many of our cities, Muslims form the fastest growing people group. Many come here seeking a more peaceful life than the one offered in their country of origin. Many are born and raised here having never experienced the horror so commonly seen in reports from Canadian media.

By far most Canadian Muslims are as concerned about the extremist elements in their religion as non-Muslims. Muslims are often the target of prejudice and injustice and deserve the freedom to be Muslim without harassment. Muslims and Islam itself ought to be treated with respect, especially by Christians.

Building relational bridges

Christians can, of course, be so tolerant that they refuse to bear witness to Christ at all. Some prefer not to engage personally but are virulent armchair champions of faith from the safety of their Facebook pages.

Some are so intolerant of Islam and Muslims that they are ineffective in witness, or so belligerent that they hinder the witness of others. They preach Christ without the Spirit of Christ.

In their zeal to "give an answer" they overlook respect and gentleness. (1 Peter 3:15).

In actuality, many Christians never get to "give an answer" because they have not built a relational bridge strong enough to get asked "the reason for the hope."

The keys to ministry to Muslims are respect and gentleness. The opportunity to fit the keys to the lock will only come with relational bridge-building. The groundwork involves dialogue and hospitality. And, may I risk saying, not as a manipulative technique! If we wish to show them Christ, we had better let them see Christ in us.

This twin key approach to Muslim ministry will help the church engage them with grace. The existing tension between Muslims and Christians is growing. Right wing fundamentalists on both sides view the other as arch enemies. Gentle and respectful engagement can lower the blood pressure all around.

Coffee shop theology

Personal contact with Muslims will give opportunities to dialogue about our distinctive perspective on Jesus and the Trinity. In conversations with Muslims, it is easy to affirm common personal ethics and social justice, but as soon as conversation turns to belief structures and truth claims Christians are exposed to the dogma of Islam and the Qur'an.

Christians will not recognize their own religion in what Muslims affirm about Jesus and the Trinity. The version of Christian belief that an evangelical encounters in the Qur'an and in interaction with Muslims will seem unlike any doctrine ever heard in Sunday school, sermons, or books of Systematic Theology.

My first serious encounter was with a group of Muslim graduate students I met at a coffee shop. We had, earlier that day, met briefly on a beach where I was photographing a family. We said hello and chatted briefly about the weather and I welcomed them to Canada. They were new foreign students at university.

They later recognized me at a coffee shop and invited me to sit with them. I told them I was a pastor, explaining my duties as something like a Christian Imam. It was a highly educated and friendly group.

Their first comment was a question about why, if Canada is a Christian country, are there so few Canadians who actually go to church? So, at that moment, a door opened and I spoke about Paul in Romans 9:6 who said that not all descended from Israel belonged to Israel. And, some who are not of Israel are really still children of Abraham if they have the faith of Abraham (Romans 4:16; Galatians 3:6-9). It was a short step to explain about the meaning of the word Christian.

It was a long chat. When they offered their view of Jesus and the Trinity, I was rather stunned. They were claiming that I believed certain things that I most certainly did not believe. I responded that what they were saying was not what Christians believed at all! Their views of what I believed did not represent what I, in fact, believed. They were stunned.

Islam, Christianity, Jesus and the Trinity

Muslims honour Jesus as a prophet and a messenger of God, but they do not believe in his deity or that he is part of the Trinity as Son of God. They also do not believe he was crucified.

The Qur'an (4:157-158) expresses it this way:

The Jews killed him not, nor crucified him, but the resemblance of Jesus was put on another man (and they killed that man), and those who differ therein are full of doubts. They have no (certain) knowledge, they follow nothing but conjecture. For surely they killed him not: but Allah raised him (Jesus) up (with his body and soul) unto Himself. And Allah is Ever All-Powerful, All-Wise.

According to the Qur'an, to argue for the Trinity is to risk punishment:

And do not say, Three [God is part of a trinity.]; desist--it is better for you. Indeed Allah is but one God. Exalted is He above having a Son" (4:171). Also, "And of they do not desist from what they are saying, there will surely afflict the disbelievers among them a painful punishment (5:73).

This implies the justification of violence in order to prevent the idea of Trinity from being expressed. This is very troubling for Christians. To further complicate the matter, the concept of Trinity to which the Qur'an is opposed is an idea which, at the time of our conversation, I had never even heard. Apparently Muslims think that the Trinity consists of God, Jesus, and Mary!

This is the point being made by Alister McGrath in Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth. If the Muslim's holy book is really focused on heretical versions of the Trinity, then Christians have common ground to affirm that they don't believe in that view of the Trinity either.

No doctrinally sound Christian believes in a Trinity of God, Jesus and Mary. So, the Qur'an is not opposed to the orthodox view, but to an heretical view. In the early days of the Church there was a small group that considered Mary a goddess. That position was, long ago, deemed heretical.

Other heretical sects such as Gnostics and Docetics did not affirm the incarnation nor the physical reality of Jesus. They considered him a purely spiritual being who could not leave footprints if he walked on a sandy beach. These groups also did not believe Jesus actually died on the cross.

So, the teaching of the Qur'an that Jesus was not crucified may indicate that Muhammad was in contact with and was influenced by these heretical groups. Islam's view of Christian beliefs may reflect knowledge of heretical groups only.

A bridge for hospitable dialogue may exist if Christians affirm that the Qur'an rightly rejects aberrant forms of Christianity. If we do this gently and respectfully a wide door for effective ministry may spring open (1 Corinthians 16:9). In time, hospitable dialogue will elicit two questions from our new Muslim friends: "What do Christians really believe about the Trinity?" and "How do mainstream orthodox Christians view the crucifixion?"

Moving on from generalizations

If Muslims can entertain that the Qur'an is opposed to aberrant Christian beliefs, if Muslims can be persuaded to reject generalizations about Christian teachings, then they may be receptive to a gentle and respectful presentation of the gospel.

In the same way, if Christians can refuse to generalize about Islam and all Muslims from selected verses from the Qur'an and the gruel from unlearned and prejudiced bloggers, we may succeed in establishing a bridge to speak with "gentleness and respect" about "the hope that lies within."

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Dr. Garry E. Milley is an ordained PAOC minister, author, and speaker.

About the author