British Christians and Muslims have tackled a thorny theological problem for both faiths — how to be faithful to the missionary impulse in one’s own tradition while respecting the other tradition.
Launched in January 2006, the Christian Muslim Forum builds on an initiative of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Forum leaders represent different Christian bodies in the United Kingdom, including the Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Baptists. The Baptist leader is Nicholas Wood, who teaches at Regent’s Park College at the University of Oxford.
The British Muslim leaders represent the diversity within Islam — Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Deobandi and Barelwi traditions.
Published in late June 2009, the Forum statement on witnessing began: “As members of the Christian Muslim Forum we are deeply committed to our own faiths (Christianity and Islam) and wish to bear faithful witness to them.”
“[W]e are committed to working together for the common good. We recognize that both communities actively invite others to share their faith and acknowledge that all faiths have the same right to share their faith with others,” said the document. “There are diverse attitudes and approaches amongst us which can be controversial and raise questions. This paper is not a theology of Christian evangelism or mission or Da’wah (invitation to Islam), rather it offers guidelines for good practice.”
These guidelines are available in both English and Arabic.
Here are their 10 points for Christians and Muslims who want to share their faiths with integrity:
- We bear witness to and proclaim our faith not only through words but through our attitudes, actions and lifestyles.
- We cannot convert people, only God can do that. In our language and methods we should recognize that people’s choice of faith is primarily a matter between themselves and God.
- Sharing our faith should never be coercive; this is especially important when working with children, young people and vulnerable adults. Everyone should have the choice to accept or reject the message we proclaim and we will accept people’s choices without resentment.
- Whilst we might care for people in need or who are facing personal crises, we should never manipulate these situations in order to gain a convert.
- An invitation to convert should never be linked with financial, material or other inducements. It should be a decision of the heart and mind alone.
- We will speak of our faith without demeaning or ridiculing the faiths of others.
- We will speak clearly and honestly about our faith, even when that is uncomfortable or controversial.
- We will be honest about our motivations for activities and we will inform people when events will include the sharing of faith.
- Whilst recognizing that either community will naturally rejoice with and support those who have chosen to join them, we will be sensitive to the loss that others may feel.
- Whilst we may feel hurt when someone we know and love chooses to leave our faith, we will respect their decision and will not force them to stay or harass them afterwards.
When the statement was published, Christian and Muslim leaders spoke supportively of it.
Andrew Smith, a leader of Scripture Union, a non-denominational, evangelistic society, said that the group’s “concern is to help your average Muslim or Christian who isn’t undertaking academic study but does want to share their faith with those around them. So we’ve deliberately kept it easy to read for anyone.”
Steve Bell, national director for Interserve, an interdenominational mission agency working in Asia, Europe and the Arab world, said, “By our behavior we earn the right to speak. Witness with integrity is surely as much about how we say what we say and how we do what we do. I particularly like the transparency being espoused here.”
Noting the stereotypes about Christian evangelism and the charges of deception, Bell said that the statement offered an alternative approach “where the invitation is not to convert to ‘Christianity’ but to Christ, not to join the church but to gain access to the Kingdom of God, not to become a ‘Christian’ but to discover the
blessings offered by Jesus Christ. The way is prepared for an invitation to become an ‘eastern follower’ of Christ.”
While Shamshad Khan, director of the Islamic Presentation Centre in Birmingham, expressed his wholehearted support for the initiative, he did question the final point. He suggested that it should either be left off the list or amended to reflect the Muslim attitude toward conversion to Christianity.
He proposed the following language: “Whilst we may feel hurt when someone we know and love chooses to leave our faith, where as we may discuss at length the matter with them, we will not force them to stay or harass them afterwards.”
The Christian Muslim Forum deserves applause for their initiative. For Christians, the document has simplicity and profundity. It is easy to understand and challenges readers to rethink traditional approaches to evangelism. Churches would deepen theological reflection in congregations and improve best practices — if they studied and talked about these 10 points.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.