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Loving Muslim Neighbors

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IMPORTANT UPDATE: Rick Warren responded yesterday to the Orange County Register story with a helpful clarification.

"Who is my neighbor?", the rich young ruler asked Jesus. The query was an attempt to deflect responsibility. Of course, I have a responsibility for my family, kinsmen, and fellow Jews, but surely not for the outcasts, the morally unclean, or the Gentile. No loophole, Jesus replied. Your neighbor is the one right under your nose, whomever God created in his image. Like the rich young ruler, we all have ways of defining "neighbor" as someone who is like us. It's group narcissism: not really loving my neighbor, but loving myself and what I see of myself in others.

Who Is My Neighbor?


We recognize our responsibilities to our own families, church, and perhaps various voluntary associations. There are school ties: fraternity/sorority mates, secret societies, and alumni associations, where belonging gives advantages in climbing the corporate ladder or getting your kids into Harvard. In a less mobile era, churches reflected the demographics of their neighborhood, as it was often divided between the farm and the town, or along racial and socio-economic lines (different sides of the tracks). Even in many cases where blacks and whites worshipped together, the former sat in the loft—never in the main gallery—and certainly did not drink from a common cup in Communion. (Paul says something about this in 1 Corinthians.) In our mobile society today, churches are more divided than ever into ever-smaller niche demographics defined by the marketplace.

In all of these cases, we choose our neighbors. They are people who are like us. We share similar playlists on our iPod, shop at the same stores, drive similar cars, and even dress alike. When we move to a new city or suburb, we find a neighborhood, church, and school that most closely fits our own self-chosen identity. (Of course, some people have more freedom to choose than others.)

However, our closest neighbors are not those we choose; they are the ones who are chosen for us, by God, either in his common grace (providence) or special grace (salvation). The most obvious example is our nuclear and extended family. The church is another place designed by God rather than the market. At least in principle. Ideally, based on biblical principles, a local church should reflect the unity of faith and diversity of culture that belongs to its particular time and place. When the defining location is "in Christ"—"one Lord, one faith, one baptism," then all sorts of people show up who are different from you. They are not only your neighbors, but your brothers and sisters. You didn't choose them; God did. Who is my brother or sister? Those whom God has given to his Son and therefore to me as someone to love in a concrete yet mysterious depth of mutual affection.

But who is my neighbor? As far as our neighborhoods are concerned, increasingly, socio-economic demographics are more definitive than other factors, such as race or religion, which cut across income-levels.

Our family lives in a typical middle-class track home. Two doors down from us is a family of Muslim immigrants. How do I embrace them as a gift from God—as neighbors rather than aliens? It is interesting to see how our children more naturally interact with this family than my wife and I. The children play together regularly, either at our house or theirs. Sometimes there is tension, especially when they get into a theological conversation! Sometimes the kids get into lively discussions and our children have developed a genuine love for their friends, praying that they will come to know Christ and offering witness where they are able. For the most part, they simply accept each other as neighbors.

My wife and I do our best to remember not to offer treats during Ramadan. I've tried to help get one of the kids a job, my wife gave them a stroller, and we sign up for their school contests. But surely we are not loving our neighbors if we have not shared the gospel with them ourselves. I have done so with the oldest son from time to time, but I confess that it's difficult. Faith is so bound up with culture—not only in Islam, but in their perception (too often the reality) of Christianity in America. Where do you begin? Yet we're neighbors. In Jesus' book, that word means a lot more than it ordinarily would in my own. Especially when it comes to the parents, heir difference from me intrigues me, but it also allows me to justify a certain distance, even unavailability. I walk into their home, surrounded by framed texts in illuminated Arabic script and swords, and they too sense the dance of the porcupines. Yet I want to be their neighbor and I suspect that they might want to be mine. I want to see them from God's perspective, as a gift the he has chosen for me, rather than as a resource that I choose or don't choose for myself.

Building Bridges


A recent article in the Orange County Register reports that Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren has stepped out into the choppy water by building bridges to the Islamic community. He has spoken in a number of mosques and to large groups of Muslim clerics. It's part of a new initiative, called the King's Way, which is, according to the report, "proposing a set of theological principles that include acknowledging that Christians and Muslims worship the same God." Here are a few highlights from the article:


    • On one occasion, Saddleback Church hosted an "interfaith" soccer game with pastors and imams taking on the teens. "At the dinner, Abraham Meulenberg, a Saddleback pastor in charge of interfaith outreach, and Jihad Turk, director of religious affairs at a mosque in Los Angeles, introduced King's Way as 'a path to end the 1,400 years of misunderstanding between Muslims and Christians.'" Then a document was presented, affirming common belief in "one God" and "two central commandments: 'love of God' and 'love of neighbor.'" It expressed the goal of making friends, building peace, and working together on social service projects. "We agreed we wouldn't try to evangelize each other," said Turk. "We'd witness to each other but it would be out of 'Love Thy Neighbor,' not focused on conversion."

    • One of Warren's neighbors, Yasser Barakat—a Muslim from Syria, befriended the Orange County pastor and they have been fast friends ever since. In fact, "'He calls me his Muslim brother,' Barakat said. 'It all started with a friendship.'"

    • According to this article, Gwynne Guibord, an Episcopal priest said that when she and Muslim leader Jihad Turk co-founded the Christian-Muslim Consultative Group in 2006, they left evangelicals out of the invitations—fearing that the desire to convert Muslims would threaten the project. Now, however, both are convinced that the worries are unjustified. In these gatherings, people weep as they realize how many misconceptions they had of each other.



Reaching Out Without Watering Down


Rick Warren's initiative on this, as on other fronts, is admirable for its motivation. I don't question the sincerity of his neighbor-love or of his concern to create greater friendship, understanding, and social cooperation. As a recent Newsweek cover-story documents, this is extremely rare in Islamic countries, where persecution of Christians is alarming. So wherever bridges of friendship and understanding can be built, so much the better.

However, I have some concerns on two fronts. The more important concern touches the ultimate mission and identity of believers and the church. Do we in fact worship the same God? It is true that there is widespread misunderstanding among Muslims concerning the Christian view of God—that the Trinity implies three separate gods and that the incarnation was the result of God the Father's sexual relations with Mary, for example. Nevertheless, even when these misconceptions are resolved, the fact remains that Christians worship the Triune God revealed in Scripture and Muslims believe that this is blasphemy. We are not simple monotheists, but Trinitarians: God's identity as three persons is just as basic to our faith as the one essence that they share. With respect to the latter, we disagree sharply over who this God is: his attributes, character, purposes, and relation to the world.

Out of respect for our neighbors, we have to allow them to register their own "No!" to our creed and out of faith we have to confess and witness to the revelation of God's Word. Rick Warren categorically denies that he is trying to merge Christianity and Islam. "My life and ministry are built on the truth that Jesus is the only way, and our inerrant Bible is our only true authority," he said on his site (Pastors.com). Given that, though, doesn't love require that we extend neighborly friendship and seek to bring them the gospel? Is this not the way it should be with all of our neighbors? Surely not every social event has to be an evangelistic opportunity, but then it also should not be a religious one either—as if churches and mosques could find some common ground of faith for their charity towards each other. The bridge-building between neighbors should happen in neighborhoods, not in "interfaith" quasi-religious gatherings.

The "King's Way" statement acknowledges common belief in the law of love. However, even this is interpreted in radically different ways in the authoritative texts of both religions. The "love" of Allah is radically different in definition than love as it is manifested by God and commanded in Scripture. More importantly, there is no gospel in Islam. It is a religion of works-righteousness from start to finish, with no rescue operation of God incarnate for sinners. The God we worship is known in Jesus Christ and any god who could be known apart from this Savior, dying and rising for us, is an idol. To separate belief in God from the gospel is to vitiate biblical faith at its core. The Allah of the Qur'an and Hadith is the archetype of terror and I have witnessed the overwhelming relief of those who have been freed from the fearful resignation to Allah by embracing the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ.

I do not for that reason wish to deprive my Muslim neighbors of the free expression of their religion. In fact, I would defend their right to it with life and limb. Nevertheless, our faith is missionary not in the jihadist sense but as the inherent impulse of the gospel itself as good news that must be proclaimed to the ends of the earth. The above-cited Register article reports, "'I don't know if you have noticed this, but God likes variety,' Warren told an audience of 8,000 Muslims at a Washington, D.C. convention in 2009, according to a transcript published by the religion news website beliefnet. 'People of all beliefs (can) be, and discuss, and, yes, even disagree, without demeaning or debasing each other.'"

Certainly it is true that we should engage in civil conversation. It is not merely democratic values, but the New Testament, that requires Christians to love their neighbors regardless of the response. However, to tell Muslim friends, "I don't know if you have noticed this, but God likes variety," is to imply that God approves idolatry as if it were equivalent to the diversity that God does in fact like—indeed, creates—when he saves people "from every tribe, kindred, language, and people" by his blood (Rev 5:9).

Neighbor-Love without Illusions


My second misgiving is subordinate to the first, but perhaps worth mentioning. I do not doubt that there are many Muslims who embrace democratic values, but it is naïve for Christians to assume that Islam is simply a religion, much less one that is freely embraced. Ask any devout Muslim.

Until we come to understand, respect, and respond to Islam in all of its difference, we will not prepared to love our neighbors properly. Islam does not proclaim good news to the world, which is freely embraced by faith apart from political coercion. Islam makes no distinction between mosque and state. In fact, the nation that matters ultimately is Islam: the ummah or community of Muslims around the world. This is not only an international kingdom of those who are joined spiritually to each other in a common faith, but a political state. Islam is a totally-encompassing geo-political, social, legal and cultural system. Whatever divergences may be allowed by specific rulers, Islam itself does not recognize, much less tolerate, any idea of a state that permits the free exercise of religion. Believing that all people are by nature Muslim, Islam divides the world sharply not into believers and unbelievers, Muslims and non-Muslims, but rather into believers and apostates ("infidels"). The latter are called Dhimmis—literally, "one whose responsibility has been taken." If they are allowed to live within the Dar al-Islam (House of Islam), it is only as apostates who may not practice their faith (at least openly), much less seek to convert others to it. The non-Muslim world is Dar al-Harb ("House of War").

Now, it doesn't take much research to show that Christians have failed gravely in their discipleship. Our hands are stained with the blood of "Christendom," which in many ways was indistinguishable from Islam in its "one-kingdom" confusion. The difference, though, is that when we have confused Christ and culture, we have acted in clear violation of the teaching of the New Testament. However, Islamic states are only inconsistent with their sacred texts when they do not impose sharia, declare holy war, and extend the universal caliphate of Allah to the ends of the earth as a political empire. Whether through patient moderation or radical extremism, Islam remains a worldwide culture that is only secondarily religious. One may endure a liberal democratic compromise for a time, but only for a time.

For example, it was reported last week that Muslims in Switzerland are setting up their own "parallel parliament," called the Ummah Schweiz, based on sharia law rather than the common laws of Switzerland (http://www.stonegateinstitute.org/2863/muslim-parliament-switzerland). It is becoming increasingly clear that Islam is fundamentally committed to an absolute and all-encompassing control of territories and nations even where its adherents are a minority.

Love and War


The holy wars that God commanded in the old covenant were types, a mere foretaste of the final judgment when Christ returns. Yet we are now living in the period between Christ's two advents when the kingdoms of this age are ruled by God's common grace while his church grows and expands by his gospel. In Matthew 5, Jesus makes it clear that the era of a holy land, with holy war, is suspended. Instead of driving the idolaters out of his land, we are to proclaim the good news, endure persecution without retaliation, and pray for our enemies. No matter how Islam continues to expand its reign of terror across the globe, focusing especially on Christ's co-heirs, believers everywhere must resist any appeal to political coercion to defend the faith. Like Paul, who appealed his case to Caesar on the basis of his Roman citizenship, we may invoke our Constitutional liberties, but we must not claim any political privileges beyond the freedom to practice the Christian faith, including the freedom to evangelize which is at the heart of that faith.

There are at least three easy ways of avoiding the command to love our Muslim neighbors. The first is to ignore them, to pretend that America is a "Christian nation" and that the "other" does not really exist. That's a version of the group narcissism I referred to above. The second is to demonize them, as if they were not fellow image-bearers of God whom we are called to love and serve and to whom we are called to bring the gospel. The third way is to try to establish some religious common ground that can make them seem less "other" and more like us, so that we can love them. The hardest thing is to love them simply because they are our neighbors and, as such, make a claim on us in all of their difference from us, a claim that we cannot ignore precisely because God's law and his gospel are true—and savingly true—for them as well as for us. May we all pray for more of this kind of love.
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  • Guest - Alberto

    One more from the the story of the woman at the well.

    The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

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  • Guest - Mark Borofsky

    Brother Michael,

    Reading your book Christless Christianity... WOW! Dead on spot and have recommended it to many people. As to Mr. Warren and your comments, please allow me a moment if I may, to comment.

    I do agree that whether one is a Muslim, an Atheists, Buddhist, or Jew (I am a messianic Jew by the way)they have they have the right freely practice what it is they believe. Where I take exception, and I am in no way a biblical scholar, is the notion that Islam for some means they are not radicalized. I say they are not radicalized yet. I think that many Muslims in the U.S. are not radicalized because they are not fully understanding of the Koran. just as many so-called Christians accept abortion as being okay, or homosexuality, because they do not understand the scriptures. Once they start to understand the Koran like their radical counterparts, that is when your neighbors who are Muslim, will turn against you and others.

    As for Mr. warren, his approach is very lacking of discernment and biblical truth. I believe it is in I John where he said that you don't even let unbelievers in your home or church (my understanding)and I don't take that to mean that you ignore them, treat them poorly or argue with them. It does mean that you stand for truth at all times and that we never waiver from that truth and that we stand firm in the truth. If we do that, the very fact of the truth will either help to open their eyes, or they will ignore us.

    At this point in my life, I do believe that we have shirked our responsibility to be bold in our proclamation of Christ and to emphasize what our Lord and savior said "I am the way the truth and the Life, no one comes to the Father accept through me". I am one who believes that we are elected and predestined therefore I believe in sharing the gospel and faith in Jesus Christ, but that He will call His elect to Himself and taking that approach and accepting this on faith, I am less likely to warm up to those that are not Christians. Paul said that we are not to cast our pearls before swine, I think he meant it.

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  • Guest - Alberto

    Mark,

    Maybe they all won't become radicalized, even after becoming more knowledgeable of their religion. Maybe some will reject Islam, or perhaps, as has sadly occurred with Christianity, they will modify it to suit their tastes, time, location, and culture. I think that Muslims have already done many of these things.

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  • [...] Loving Muslim Neighbors (The White Horse Inn) [...]

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  • [...] 5, 2012 Brooke MintunWHI-1091 | The Commands of the New Society (Part 2) March 4, 2012 WHI AdminLoving Muslim Neighbors March 3, 2012 Michael Horton“Would You Mind Answering A Few Questions?” March 2, 2012 Brooke [...]

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  • Guest - rick

    I liked your post about Rick Warren and Muslims. You made some fantastic points. Thanks for the "how to". It's very obvious by your writing that you have personal experience of building bridges with Muslims over the years. Have you had the opportunity to work with Rick Warren or speak with him concerning your persnal bridge building experience, in order to share your experience, strength, and hope?

    Isn't it interesting that Jesus made the "hero" of the story
    one who was despised by the dominant "social/religious" group
    to whom he was speaking?

    Thanks!

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  • [...] Horton gives Christians the proper perspective in his fine article Loving Muslim Neighbors. What a contrast! Some in this day of not taking the holiness of God seriously may want to excuse [...]

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  • Guest - Michael Hamrin

    Excellent and balanced discussion on how to relate to Muslims. In the providence of God many Iranians in Temecula have my phone number; some are Muslims and some are converted Christians (not converted by me). I assist them with resumes, legal assistance and other forms of writing. We enjoy each other's company and respect one another. Sometimes I quote scriptural passages in response to an ethical question. They are amazed that there is a correspondence between the bible and the Koran. Sometimes they ask me to pray for them. There is no discernable tension in our interaction. No pressure or confrontation. Obviously, because Iranians now come to me on referral as a trustworthy Word-smith I am plugged into their community, not by design, but circumstance. Eventually, they will ask questions about my biblical faith. I think this approach is the best way (for me) to share knowledge of the truth with them. It grates on me to hear professing Christians who want to attack, deport, or exterminate Muslim neighbors. They have shared their hurt when they are mistreated by professing Christians. Surely, it is better if they can see Christ in their Christian neighbors than to fear irrational hatred.

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  • Guest - Paula

    Not sure Rick's clarification is not that helpful. Once again HE has been misrepresented by those who heard him. He has this penchant for saying what the crowd wants to hear, (depending who he is speaking to) then when he is 'misunderstood' by those with an opposite view, he wonders why.

    This is what they call speaking with forked tongue. Please don't call his clarification 'helpful' - if he is such a good communicator why is there always so much misunderstanding and why does he always have to go spin doctoring? I don't see you guys doing that.

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  • Guest - Paula

    in other words all he's done is to accuse the reporter of lying (which means the Muslims who heard him also lied, despite the fact that he said the same thing and gave the same impression that all the video of himself at ISNA and MPAC gives). Does he really want to say that all those people are lying?

    His teaching, if taken seriously and deceived into thinking it's Biblical, is enough to drive even the most well balanced person, who understands their penchant to sin, to despair and depression. Those who don't understand their sin are encouraged to be pharisees by such teaching. What a great recipe for growing the church. :-(

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