Published also on Lausanne Blog HERE on February 15, 2011
The cover story of the February 2011 issue of Christianity Today, “The Son and the Crescent,” is about new Bible translations geared toward Muslims that avoid the phrase “Son of God” which according to Wycliffe/SIL linguist and missiologist Dr. Richard Brown are effective because many Muslims become “quite open and interested in knowing more about Jesus” when they read these Bible translations, some have even embraced Jesus, who to them is not the Son of God.
I really appreciate Christianity Today and Collin Hansen for bringing this discussion to the fore, making it mainstream. Christian outreach to Muslims already grapples with issues ranging from new Muslim background believers facing severe persecutions to difficulties adjusting to their new identity. Now this. Here are a few pitfalls this article reveals.
First, the article mentions how “representatives from several prominent mission agencies, both national and expatriate, met to compare notes about the progress of their respective ministries in one Muslim-majority country.” [Emphasis mine.] These representatives were concerned about the numbers. They cared about how their organizations fared in the field, comparing notes, using each other as yardsticks. When has a mission organization’s progress deemed successful based on number of new “converts?” Christian Missions have become business enterprises. The success of a Christian ministry is now judged based on how many souls are “saved.”
This notion puts missionaries serving among Muslims under immense pressure to deliver. A pastor once asked a missionary why the fruits (converts) had not been realized even after 20 plus years of his denomination’s ministry among Muslims in Kenya. This pastor was asking for the returns of his church’s investment. Missionaries among Muslims face immense pressure. There is no doubt some of them end up feeling the effects of convert drought fatigue thus employing these unbiblical tactics to gain converts.
Second, there is confusion when it comes to Islam and Muslim in one of these countries this cover story addresses. I have wondered how can a “closed” Muslim country allow a movie about Jesus and even allow it to be “aired on national television” when Islamic teachings ban depiction of any prophet—Jesus is considered a prophet—in a movie? A friend of mine is a missionary in one of these countries. He told me local Muslims he encountered were not knowledgeable of Islam. Islam he knew before he came to this country was foreign to the locals. He had to relearn their type of Islam. For example, local Muslims did not take seriously the fast during the Islamic month of Ramadhan. Discussions about basic tenets of Islam failed. Why should Christian missionaries risk the integrity of Bible translations trying to overcome these so-called Muslims misconceptions?
Muslim scholars are aware of new Christian missionary efforts at gaining converts. When they find out about this particular case in these countries, they will establish dawa (Muslim missionary efforts) and these Christian missionaries’ tactics will backfire. In case these missionaries get kicked out, they would leave behind adulterated translations of the Bible, which Muslim scholars might use to further undermine the Bible. Fellow Muslims would also dismiss these converts as not to have been true Muslims before they became “Christians.” They might even ask them to convert to the Islam they never practiced. Why take this risk?
Third, there is no problem with a Christian missionary using the term “Allah” in reference to God provided the Muslims end up understanding the Judeo-Christian concept of God as radically different from Allah who Prophet Muhammad preached. [I am not opposed to Arab Christians using "Allah" for "God." Allah and Muhammad in some cases in the Qur’an were one and the same. You can read it here.
Fourth, these Christian missionaries who advocate for change in Bible translations to cater to Muslims seem ignorant of Islamic teachings. It is possible since they reach out to Muslims who are just traditional Muslims not knowledgeable of Islam, these missionaries don’t understand what Islam teaches. Using “the Beloved Son who comes (or originates) from God” is not the same as the “Son of God” even to a Muslim who practices Islam. The Qur’an already has references to Jesus and when it shows he is “from” Allah, it doesn’t mean he is any different from other human beings. His virgin birth in Islam is unique but he is not divine in any way.
Suratul An-Nisa verse 171 states:
O People of the Scripture! Do not exaggerate in your religion nor utter aught concerning Allah save the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a messenger of Allah, and His word which He conveyed unto Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers, and say not “Three” …
The meaning of this verse, which even some Christians use when witnessing to Muslims, embodies what a practicing Muslim believes about Jesus and is summed up best in this Tafsir (commentary of the Qur’an):
O People of the Scripture, the Gospel, do not go to extremes, do not go beyond the bounds, in your religion and do not say about God except, the saying of, the truth, such as exalting Him above any associations with a partner or a child: the Messiah, Jesus the son of Mary, was only the Messenger of God, and His Word which He cast to, [which] He conveyed to, Mary, and a spirit, that is, one whose spirit is, from Him: he [Jesus] is here attached to God, exalted be He, as an honouring for him, and not as you claim, that he is the son of God, or a god alongside Him, or one of three, because one that possesses a spirit is compound, while God transcends being compound and the attribution of compounds to Him. So believe in God and His messengers, and do not say, that the gods are, ‘Three’, God, Jesus and his mother.
Muslims are confused about the Trinity because the Qur’an erroneously claims the Trinity is Mary, Jesus, and God. The Allah Muhammad preached got it wrong. Ancient Christian creeds (Nicene Creed and Athanasian Creed) even addressed this issue a few hundred years before Prophet Muhammad’s revelations. This confusion about the Trinity is the heart of matter. Christian missionaries need to debunk this myth and not come up with new terms that further exacerbate this confusion.
Last, I don’t deny that missionaries who use this flawed and heretical method would lead some Muslims to Christ. Even when the push for this mode of outreach was spurred by impatience and ignorance, those who the Father draws will come to Him. The unashamed Son of God says:
All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Let us tread biblically.