In advance of the Teheran Conference of June 1969, fellow missionaries in Lebanon asked Missionary Virginia Cobb to prepare their position paper on missionary methods for work among Muslims. (See The Commission, November 1969, for a conference report and related stories.)
Detained in Beirut, Lebanon, by illness, Miss Cobb did not reach Teheran in time to present her paper to the conference. It was read for her by Missionary J.W. (Bill) Trimble and by conference consensus was named “the” paper of the meeting. The hope was expressed by all present that Miss Cobb’s paper could be given wide circulation among Baptists and other Christians.
This paper might well be called a part of the legacy of the late Miss Cobb. Its message is by no means limited to missionaries among Muslims, or just to missionaries, for that matter. Its advice is so scripturally basic that it can apply to Christian witness anywhere. At the same time, because it seeks to avoid traditions in order to major on the Person of the gospel, it may be adversely criticized or even rejected by some.
Often where we have no answer we can have an attitude that will lead us as we search for the answers. This is the view of Dr. Kenneth Cragg, a missionary teacher and writer.
What should be our attitude as Christians toward Muslims?
We are not warring with Islam. If we were, we couldn’t afford to give any quarter, to let anything go unchallenged, to admit any good or truth. We would be happy to damage it as much as possible, to show every weakness or inconsistency. But this is contrary to the spirit of Christ. And a major error in any struggle is to pursue the wrong enemy. Our enemy is evil, God’s enemy. Islam teaches love of God, supreme loyalty to him, great reverence, and high principles of character.
One strong criticism of Christian missions has been that they have destroyed men’s faith in Islam without winning those men to Christ, leaving them much worse off. It cannot be God’s will that we leave men in worse condition than we found them! And it should not be necessary. A sincere Muslim is nearer to God and to Christ than a man with no faith. Christianity, like Islam, has produced wars, persecutions, bigotry, and empty forms; we do not, therefore, war against it, but seek a truer understanding of it.
We are not debating with Islam to prove that our views are correct and theirs incorrect. Were we, we might rely on polemics, logical proofs, etc. But no one is won by this method or convinced against his will. This approach makes the basic mistake of acting as if Christian faith were credence rather than commitment to a Person, an act of the intellect rather than of the whole person. It ignores the fact that our doctrines came about as an attempt to explain in comprehensible terms our experience, i.e., they follow, rather than precede, experience.
We are not trying to change anyone’s religion. Religion consists of affiliation with a group, cult, ethic, dogma, and structure of authority — clergy, book, orthodoxy. The New Testament is quite clear that none of these saves. It is possible to change all of them without knowing God. If we stress these we may give the impression that these things are the Christian faith.
Our attitude should be one of love and acceptance. God accepts and loves them as they are. He is already reconciled to them, “not counting their trespasses against them.” If we, the ministers of his reconciliation, are “reconciled” to them, we will accept them as persons as able as ourselves and as deserving of respect and a hearing for their views. We will not go to straighten them out or tell them all the answers. If we are reconciled to them we will be able to appreciate all that is true, good, commendable, and worthy in their lives as individuals and in their culture and religion.
We need stronger faith in the power of the truth. It is in no danger from the fullest, best possible expression of contrary views, from the teaching of the Qur’an [Koran], or from comparison, scrutiny, or the honest admission of the failures of historic Christianity or of Christian people. Nor is it in danger if we forego the temptation to defend the non-essential, secondary parts of our beliefs and practices in order to keep the door open for discussion and emphasis on the (very few) essentials. Our insecurity and defensive attitude only hinder.
We need stronger faith in the reality of the living Christ. Everything does not depend on us. We do not have to present and gain assent to a complete system of theology and ethic. Some early disciples were content to say: Come and see. If we introduce them to a living Person, he will draw them, reveal himself to them, and teach them directly.
Identification. Christ in his incarnation came to dwell in the midst of those he came to save, and became like them in everything but sin. This meant a full entering into the life of the people. It meant speaking their language, using terms and concepts they understood, dealing with problems they faced and values they held.
This principle cannot be applied by setting up a meeting place and inviting people to come. It cannot be applied by living in relative isolation from them, in a separate quarter, or with little day-to-day contact. It cannot be applied by using the terminology Christians have grown accustomed to and others do not know (Holy Spirit, rebirth, etc.).
It means close association, sharing in everything possible, and an awareness of their concerns, problems, hopes, value system. Speaking their language means not just grammar and syntax but studying their culture and religion to learn the terms and values they comprehend. (Suggestions: newspaper article by the mufti at Ramadan, Adha, etc., Jurji Zaidan’s novels, any religious writings.)
Love. Christ’s love was a genuine concern for the total welfare of those he came to save. It was demonstrated, not spoken. It was not limited to salvation from judgment but included healing, moral teaching, crossing of social barriers, comforting, calming, freeing, touching the untouchables, and befriending sinners. He did these things not merely as bait, but in many instances where no mention is made of “evangelism.”
To love as he did means seeking the good of others in every sphere, actively and without reciprocation, without even appreciation, without conversions. It means accepting the inconvenience or hurt they may cause us without lessening our positive efforts on their behalf. Perhaps the only way we can prove — to ourselves or others — that we love in this way is to be really concerned about the “this-worldly” welfare of some who reject the message, to feel real friendship for some outside the circle of believers, to keep on serving those we feel will not be won.
How can we expect a Muslim to accept a bare statement of a belief so different, against which he is already conditioned, with no demonstration of its power or meaning? What would be required to make you give serious consideration to another religion? God won us by coming to us and outloving our enmity. We can only present his gospel by going to them and outloving their suspicion, enmity, and rejection.
Therefore, there must be some concrete demonstration of love. It can be personal, in the relationship between friends, or institutional — schools, hospitals, English classes, reading rooms, community centers (manned by the right people), radio programs, and publications that are directed to real human needs.
We have seen in two different types of Muslim neighborhoods in Beirut that community service projects will draw overwhelming numbers, open to friendship and understanding, willing to listen to whatever is said tactfully. The services rendered must be a sincere expression of concern, with no other motive. Active, unselfish service in the name of Christ is more likely to win converts than zealous “preaching for results,” which often turns persons away.
Law of reciprocity. Jesus clearly taught that we are in some measure able to control, and therefore responsible for, the type response we elicit (Luke 6:37-38). If we give genuine friendship, openness to all that is good, respect and sensitivity for all that is dear to others, we may expect the same. If we go with closed minds, rejection of their ideas, suspicion, fear, or superiority, we may expect the same. If we refuse to listen in the truest sense, can we expect them to listen?
The example of our attitude toward Islam may set the pattern for their attitude toward Christianity.
Here attitude is all-important. For if we make contact or have Muslims in our institutions or services, and then show an attitude of superiority or condemnation or enmity, or show disrespect to what is sacred to them, we not only lose them but create further animosity. Our relationship with them should be such as to inspire confidence in our sincere desire to serve them, our fair-mindedness, sensitivity, and appreciation of all that is good.
We should emphasize every point of agreement, encourage every true direction, praise all that is praiseworthy, put the best possible interpretation on every teaching or practice.
Our message is a Person we’ve experienced, not a doctrine, system, religion, book, church, ethic.
Christ is extremely attractive to Muslims. They have the highest respect for him and yearn to know more about him. We can present the person Jesus and his teachings as our supreme and only emphasis, the only thing we have to add to the foundation of reverence for God and moral emphasis already found in Islam.
Our faith in him is that once we lead a person to him, he will, in direct contact with that person, transform and guide in all else.
What of doctrines related to Christ himself? Jesus didn’t insist on a certain view of himself as prerequisite to discipleship. He called men to follow him unconditionally and after two years of living with them asked what their conclusion was. He used the same method of induction with John the Baptist.
It is safe to leave people to draw their own conclusions after sincerely seeking to know Christ and experience him.
“Seek ye first the kingdom” means that all else can be and must be sacrificed for the highest goal. We have many valued truths and emphases that may have to be left out of our efforts with others until long after they have come to know Christ for themselves, “laying upon them no greater burden than these necessary things” (Acts 15:28).
Many of our institutional forms as well as the details of doctrine hinder more than they help people coming from a different way of life, while Christ and his teachings attract with power. We must lay aside the weight of non-essentials for the sake of the essential.
Christ presented the truth, the call, but never persuaded. He let men come to decision in personal freedom, and even discouraged some who misunderstood what was involved. We teach the competence and responsibility of every individual and, therefore, must urge each person to do only and exactly what he is convinced in his own heart he must do. We can only emphasize his responsibility before God to obey his best light. If he feels he should be a more faithful Muslim, we should encourage him to do so to the best of his ability, and to try to understand what that means in the fullest sense. If he feels he should try to follow Christ’s teachings, we should encourage that, and wait until he feels the need for something more. When he feels he should commit himself to Christ regardless of the cost, we should encourage that and stand by him in facing the dangers that may follow.
The convert and the seeker need real fellowship. They have severe “culture shock” and need dependable, understanding friends. Since the national churches at present are very slow to provide this, and the Muslim often remains a relative outsider even if baptized, there may need to be other arrangements for fellowship — small groups or personal contacts.
Some converts may feel they can do more good by remaining within their own community, although in informal contact and fellowship with Christians. Jesus called no one to leave Judaism, and the first Christians remained in synagogue and temple for some time. Our responsibility is to maintain the ties of fellowship and personal support.
Who? The national believers are now showing a little more interest in reaching non-Christians. However, their attitude is usually more likely to alienate than win. Therefore, we must take the lead in the approach described here, even in opposition to national Christian opinion.
However, a secondary aim and effect of our ministry to Muslims will be helping national believers to overcome prejudice by personal acquaintance with others. When they really know some Muslims, many are wise enough and kind enough to change those things in their approach and attitude that offend. They will then develop their own methods of presenting Christ to Muslims.
The effectiveness of the truth and the drawing-power of Christ are sufficient to guarantee that some will be won in these ways. However, we have centuries of Christian enmity and harshness and rejection of Islam to atone for and undo; we have walls of prejudice built up through the centuries to break down; we have deeply ingrained attitudes in both Christians and Muslims to change.
Many years of friendship, love, service, with reciprocation and without much fruit, may be required before there exists a better atmosphere for the open sharing of views and open commitment to Christ. We must be willing to pay this price also.
We must have an attitude of love and acceptance, and strong faith in the power of the truth.
We must get into the midst of people, identify with them, and love them in deed, not word, in some concrete ways.
We must emphasize Christ as a living person, and leave all else in a secondary position.
We must talk openly, freely, and respectfully of religious matters, whether in regard to our religion or theirs, and emphasize the responsibility of the individual to God, to act according to his own best light.
We must do these things patiently for many years, regardless of the immediate results.
Virginia Cobb served as a Southern Baptist Missionary in Lebanon from 1955 until her death in January 1970.
Copied by permission from The Commission, September 1970.
From the research files of
The Interfaith Witness Department Home Mission Board, SBC
1350 Spring St., NW
Atlanta, GA 30367-5601