The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship just finished their annual meeting. These are moderate Baptists that for the most part broke away from the Southern Baptist Convention after that entity surrendered to fundamentalism.
They met in Houston just ahead of the Fourth of July weekend. Attendees adopted a mission budget, worshipped and shared communion, sang some hymns and did some serious reflection on what it means to love a neighbor. I mean serious reflection.
Rob Sellers, professor of missions at Hardin-Simmons University School of Theology in Abilene, Texas, and Michael McCullar, executive pastor of Johns Creek Baptist Church in Alpharetta, Ga., co-led a workshop on how Baptists should relate to Muslims. According to the two, Baptists should approach Muslims with compassion and friendship.
This is more than mere tolerance, according to Sellers. The problem with toleration is the danger that it will lead to indifference. He believes that Jesus practiced a kind of active compassion and intentional friendship. This, according to Sellers, is the model we should follow in interfaith relationships.
Sellers and McCullar believe that Muslims are part of our extended family. They admit that to assert a family relationship may seem strange but the fact is Christians and Muslims claim a common ancestor — Abraham. They worship a common God. Allah is merely the Arabic word for God, not the name of a different deity. And the Quran rests on the foundation of prophets from Moses to Jesus. Islam is thus in the family that links Judaism and Christianity.
Citing a recent dialogue with an imam in Boston, Sellers offered four active principles for positive engagement.
- Empty your cup. Don’t be so full of yourself. Dialogue with humility.
- Know the right sources. Rely on firsthand information about Muslims rather than stereotypes and false mythologies.
- Think the best, not the worst about your neighbor. There are millions of Muslims whose only desire is to live in peace in the world. They are not our enemy.
- Be realistic. Know both the ideals and the realities of the Islamic world. Just as is true for Christians, sometimes there are discrepancies between what we say we believe and what we actually do.
It’s rare to encounter this side of Baptist theology – and refreshing. Those who believe that a confrontational conversion approach is the only way to relate to people of other faiths seem to have forgotten what Jesus said about loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. The first step in showing genuine love for another person is to accept them as they are. After all, that’s how God approaches all of us.
We don’t earn God’s love by our good deeds, by our orthodox theology or even notches on our evangelism belt. God meets us where we are as we are. We are given standing with God freely through God’s grace. From there our calling is, at least according to Jesus, to be compassionate as God in heaven is compassionate.
For more than 50,000 years human beings have resorted to violence and narrow tribalism as a way to deal with the differences between us. We have practiced an eye for an eye, hate your enemy and do unto others as they do unto you.
But Jesus has offered us a better way. He calls us to eliminate our enemies by refusing to have any. He calls us to live a life of peace with all those with whom we share this planet. In this way we overcome whatever evil there is in the world with good and thus fulfill the great commandment.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.