Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Christianity & The Islamic Challenge

In my last post I shared some reflections on the Islamic situation in the West. I’d like to now share some ideas from my reading of scripture on how Christians ought to respond to this challenge.

First, we must understand that our fight against Islam is a spiritual battle.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians that we are at war with anything that exalts itself against the knowledge of God (2 Cor. 10:3-5). This, of course, include Islam. While Islam will fight the war for worldwide dominion with carnal weapons – terrorism, bloodshed and brutality - the weapons of our warfare are spiritual rather than carnal. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 6:12) It is by learning to wield spiritual weapons under the direction of the Holy Spirit that Christians will succeed in achieving worldwide dominion for Christ. And we should want to take over the world for Christ, and we should not be embarrassed to let people know that we have worldwide dominion as a goal just as much as any Muslim. After all, Jesus commanded us to go out and make disciples of all nations.

So what are some of our spiritual weapons? Obviously prayer is the most important. In addition to praying, however, we are also told to demolish any pretension or argument that sets itself in opposition to the knowledge of God. At a minimum, this mandate includes the need for Christians to contradict and oppose all the falsehood of Islam. The Old Testament gives us some clues on how to do this effectively, as we consider how some of the prophets opposed the false religions of their time.

In the Old Testament, Jewish monotheism was always used as a polemical doctrine over and against the false gods of paganism. Moses set himself directly against the false gods of Egypt when he pronounced the ten plagues. At the end of his life when Moses addressed the people, he spoke against the gods of the Canaanites, Edomites, Moabites, etc. Isaiah prophesied against the Babylonian gods, just as Elijah had set himself against Baal and Baal’s prophets. We could go on and on because throughout the Old Testament, belief in the God of Israel functioned as a combative doctrine against all other false gods and idols. If we were to look at some of these passages specifically, we would find that the prophets do not just dismiss the false gods as non-existent entities. Rather, the prophets acknowledged the existence of other gods, but then proclaimed that Yahweh was superior to them. The God of Israel ruled in the heavens above the gods of the other nations. Thus, in Exodus 15:11 we read Who is like thee, O Lord, among the gods?” In Psalm 82:1 we read, “God stands in the congregation of the mighty; He judges among the gods.” In Psalm 86:8 we read “Among the gods there is none like You, O Lord…” In Psalm 89:6 we read, “For who in the heavens can be compared to the Lord.” In Psalm 95:3 we read, “For the Lord is the great God, and the great King above all gods.” In Psalm 96:4 we read, “For the Lord is great and greatly to be praised; He is to be feared above all gods.” In Psalm 97:9, we read “For you, Lord, are most high above all the earth; You are exalted far above all gods.” In Psalm 135:5 we read, “For I know that the Lord is great, and our Lord is above all gods.”

We could carry on and on. The point is that Jewish monotheism affirmed that the gods of other nations existed, but maintained that the Lord was exalted above them.

The New Testament carries on this tradition. When Paul announced the gospel of Jesus Christ, this was a clear message against the religion of Caesar. Caesar portrayed himself as the world’s saviour, one who brought peace, stability and justice to the entire civilized world. Classical scholars have shown that the religion of emperor worship was the fastest growing religion of the time, and that it was this religion that Christianity was in competition with, not the various mystery cults scattered throughout the empire. Though Paul taught that Christians were to submit to the ruling government, he made it very clear in Romans 13 that even Caesar derived his rule from the superior authority of Jesus Christ. It was Paul’s way of saying to Caesar, “yes, you have authority, but even Jesus is above you.” There can be no mistaking the fact that this would have been heard as fighting talk. Even Paul’s use of the term ‘gospel’ would have been seen as a direct challenge to Caesar’s pretentious claims. In Greco-Roman culture, the term ‘gospel’ was a phrase used for the ascension of a new emperor to power. It was because of this competition between the religion of Christ and the religion of Caesar that later emperors made such a point of murdering any Christian who refused to say ‘Caesar is Lord.’ (For more about the interplay between Christianity and the imperial religion of Caesar, listen to Stephen Perks’ talk ‘Christianity as a Cult
. See also N. T. Wright ‘Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empireand ‘Paul and Caesar: A New Reading of Romans’.)

I want to suggest that this should also be our approach as we come against Islam. We should acknowledge that Allah is real, but then say that Jesus is exalted above him. Like the Psalm I read at the beginning of this talk, we should proclaim that our God is above all the other gods – there is none like Him. Though Allah claims to be the God of Abraham, he is nothing more than one of the principalities and powers that Paul spoke about, and God rules over him. Like Paul and the prophets in the Old Testament, we should have the courage to say this sort of thing publicly and say it so that Muslims will hear it. Jesus is greater than Allah; Jesus is above Allah; Jesus has authority over Allah.

In the Ancient Near East, each nation believed that their god wanted to demonstrate his superiority over the gods of other nations through the earthly superiority of his favoured nation. (For more information on the outworking of this principle in Ancient Near Eastern culture, see my article ‘Seeing is Believing.'
The Bible assumes this principle, and thus we read in the Psalms how all the earth will know that Yahweh is God when His people are victorious in the earth. That is still true today. The way Allah wants to demonstrate his superiority is through the earthly dominion of his people, and the way the Lord wants to demonstrate His superiority is through the earthly dominion of His people. That is why Jesus told us to go and make disciples of all nations – it is only when all the nations are disciples of Christ that the Lord’s supremacy over all other gods will have been fully established. This is itself merely an outworking of the original dominion mandate given to Adam in Genesis 1.

Discipling the nations involves more than merely getting the individuals in the nations saved. You can have a lot of redeemed eggs and still not have a redeemed omelet. Discipling the nations involves bringing the corporate institutions and structures that make up the nations under Christ’s Lordship. Islam, the great parody of Christianity, has this same totalizing vision. But while most Muslims understand the totalizing nature of their religion, many Christians do not. They talk as if Jesus is the Lord of their hearts but Satan is the Lord of this world. Christians are unconsciously the heirs of the Enlightenment idea that religion should be confined to personal private matters, while the public world is left in the hands of secularists. (On the influence of the Enlightenment in privatizing contemporary Christianity, see my article ‘The Divided Field of Truth and Wright's article God and Caesar, Then and Now
) How many Christians are able to say about their religion what Khurshid Ahmed said about the Islamic faith in the following quote? "The organization of action in this world implies the organization of all facets of human existence, individual and collective, hence educational, economic, political and social. Shari'ah provides the guidelines, the rules of external conduct." (This quote was taken from Steve Hayhow’s blog. See his entry for the 27th of October.)

As a boy there was once a Muslim woman who stayed in our home with a group of students. We got talking about our faiths and she said that it’s hard to explain about Islam because its not just a religion but a whole way of life. That kind of statement ought to be able to be said about Christianity. In the verse directly prior to the one where Jesus commanded His followers to make disciples of all nations, Jesus said “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” (Mt: 28:18) All of heaven and all of earth includes just about every that is relevant to us. Unless Christians are prepared to proclaim Christ’s Lordship in every area of the world and life, our faith will not function effectively as a rival system to Islam. The reason that Christianity in the first century was seen as a rival to the religion of emperor worship was because it was a totalizing socio-political system. If first century Christianity had been like modern evangelicalism, where each individual has their own private relationship with God and that’s about it, then it would really just have been another one of the many private mystery cults that co-existed easily with the public religion of Rome.

Christianity needs to proclaim itself as a public religion with a message to the corporate nations. One of the Psalms says “say to the nations ‘the Lord reigns.’” This means that we can say to Iraq that Jesus is its leader; we can say to China that Jesus is the leader of China; we can say to Saudi Arabia that Jesus is its leader. Jesus is king over all the nations now, because His kingdom was inaugurated at the resurrection. The fact that He is not yet being acknowledged as the true king doesn’t change the fact that He is. Therefore, Islam is based on a massive mistake: it thinks it has a right to rule the world because it believes Allah rules in the heavens. I believe there will be a lot of spiritual power unleashed if Christians simply go around telling Muslims otherwise, saying to them that because Jesus rules in the heavens and the earth, Allah is nothing more than an inferior, second best imposter.

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