Are Christians Closing Doors With Muslims?
“I have more in common with my Muslim neighbors than I have in common with most of my unbelieving American neighbors.”
That was what one American Christian remarked during one of our recent ABWE training seminars teaching Christians in the U.S. to build redemptive relationships with Muslims. But was he correct?
The events of 9/11, the barrage of nightly cable newscasts, controversy about recent presidential policies on refugees, and ongoing tension between Islam and the West have deeply impacted the way many Christians view their Muslim neighbors. Many professing Christians are simply afraid of Muslims, and many Muslims are equally as suspicious of Christians.
But after 20 years of ministering to Muslims on four different continents, I’ve learned that genuine, Bible-believing Christians share far more in common with Muslims than they often realize. This discovery, even from my early days as a new missionary in West Africa, has radically reoriented the way I have sought to share the gospel with my Muslim neighbors.
I believe there’s a simpler way for Christians to make relationships with Muslims and spark spiritual conversation—one that can result in more Muslims coming to Christ, by God’s grace. And it begins not with addressing the fundamental worldview barriers holding so many in the Islamic world back from embracing Christ. Instead, it starts with common ground.
What do we have in common with Muslims?
Many Western Christians forget that our Muslim neighbors, unlike most of our secular friends, enjoy discussing spiritual topics. Moreover, the abundance of beliefs Christians share (in some form) with Muslims can spark friendly—yes, friendly—spiritual conversation.
“Our Muslim neighbors, unlike most of our secular friends, actually enjoy spiritual conversation.”
Note that similarity does not mean agreement. Islam and Christianity cannot both be true, nor can the two belief systems be reconciled without deadly theological compromise. Consider the basic beliefs Christians and Muslims both affirm in one way or another:
- One, true Creator God
- Angels and demons
- Prophets sent by God
- A literal heaven and hell
- Scripture revealed by God
- A real man named Jesus
- A final judgment
- Family values defined by God
- Societal values drawn from God’s standards
- Objective morality
Imagine looking over this list with your Muslim friend. Now imagine reading through it with your standard, secularized, unchurched American friend. Of the two, consider: whose beliefs are closer to yours?
These topics are door-openers. Muslims are often enthralled to discuss these topics with Christians, as Christians can spark interest by filling in details about creation, the Flood, and the prophets from the Old Testament that the Qur’an leaves out.
In my time as a missionary, many Muslims even tried to convince me that “we are the same” or at least “on the same road.” After all, they say, Islam is the third monotheistic religion from the tradition of Abraham, and Muslims are to regard what they call the Taurat (Torah), Zabur (Psalms), and Injil (Gospel) as true Scripture.
While it’s possible to overstate the similarities, common sense says that authentic friendships form in the seedbed of similarities rather than in areas of sharp disagreement. Not only do door-openers help Christians get to know their Muslim friends personally and lay the groundwork for future, gospel-oriented conversations, but just as importantly, they give Muslims the space to build trust with Christians too.
What about the differences between Christianity and Islam?
Of course, if you have discussed the gospel with many Muslims, you have probably experienced that familiar onslaught of questions that leaves you wondering whether you should argue, listen, or leave.
“Why do you believe in three gods?”
“Why do you believe that God had a wife and son?”
“Don’t you know that the Bible has been corrupted?”
“Don’t you believe Muhammad is the final prophet?”
It’s hard to enter a normal conversation, let alone a true friendship, when the relationship begins on such embattled grounds. If you’ve ever found yourself there, with palms sweating and pulse rising, you’ve probably found that these questions can be door-closers—topics that, though central to the gospel, can also halt relationship-building and render spiritual conversation “unsafe.”
Door-closing topics expose what missiologists call defeater beliefs—presuppositions that make Christian claims automatically seem implausible in the mind of the unbeliever.¹ Six major categories of Islamic teaching tend to automatically exclude the gospel for Muslims:
- God. The central affirmation of Islam is tawhid, God’s absolute oneness, while the Bible reveals God as both one being (as in Deuteronomy 6:4) and yet existing in three distinct persons (such as in Matthew 28:19)—summed up in the doctrine of the Trinity.
- Jesus and His deity. Islam asserts a Jesus who is virgin-born, miracle-working human prophet yet nothing more. In contrast, the biblical teaching of Christ’s two natures—divinity and humanity—enables Christ to bridge the gap between God and man. Many Muslims believe that to profess Christ as the Son of God is a form of shirk, the blasphemy of associating equal partners with God.
- The crucifixion. Although the Qur’an only addresses the crucifixion in one short verse (Sura 4:157), Muslims generally deny that Jesus was crucified, while for Christians the death of Jesus provides the only atoning sacrifice by which sinners can be reconciled to a holy God (Galatians 3:13).
- The authority of the Bible. While the Qur’an encourages people to test the message of Islam against the Bible (Sura 10:94), Muslims today generally hold that the Bible has been corrupted from its original form and that only the Qur’an has been flawlessly preserved.
- Sin: defilement vs. depravity. In Islam, one’s sin can be outweighed with faith and religious obedience, and to claim assurance of salvation is considered arrogant. God is free to simply excuse any violation of his law. By contrast, Christianity holds that man is completely dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1) and that God’s holiness demands a sacrifice for sin to satisfy God’s law. Man can be assured of his acceptance before God not on his merits but through faith in Christ as the perfect mediator (Romans 3:23-24).
- Muhammad’s identity. Along with absolute monotheism, the other doctrine most central to Islam is a recognition of Muhammad as the final prophet of God. By contrast, Christians believe that God’s ultimate revelation is through his Son Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-2) and that Muhammad was not a prophet.
Christians who love their Muslim neighbors and want to see them saved do not have the luxury of leaving the topics of Christ, his death, his resurrection, his deity, and the nature of saving faith unaddressed. Moreover, if Christians are not committed to preserving the gospel, it can quickly be lost in a desire to win trust. But to truly faithfully demonstrate the grace of God, Christians must address door-closers in a trusting atmosphere, on a shared foundation drawn from Scripture.
While the Apostle Paul resolved to only preach Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2), at other times, without compromising, he waited until he had patiently built common ground by unfolding God’s actions in history to set the stage for the Christ (Acts 14:15-17, 17:16-31).
So how, following the Holy Spirit’s leading, do we know when to move from door-openers on to more controversial topics?
Letting the Bible speak for itself
If you’ve ever tuned into a movie halfway through, you know the frustration of missing the setup of the plot. Yet if we jump into the gospel without biblical setup, we’re giving Muslims half the story and hoping they’ll grasp the plot.
“If we jump into the gospel without biblical setup, we’re giving Muslims half the story and hoping they’ll grasp the plot.”
When Christians and Muslims walk through the Bible chronologically together as a friends, the relationship embodies Christ’s love while the discovery process progressively unfolds a believable gospel.
Door-openers lay the foundation for door-closers. Only when one has reached full agreement that there is only one God will Christ’s claim of deity clearly be seen for what it is—and what it isn’t (blasphemy). Only once a Muslim embraces the holiness of God and the reality of judgment will they sense the need for a sin-bearing Savior.
In fact, the Bible itself is structured chronologically. Scripture deals with a Savior long after the the Old Testament defines sin, judgment, and the law. Muslims who study Scripture chronologically through creation, fall, and redemption can be attracted to what the Bible says on areas of commonality and challenged to form a worldview into which the gospel can fit.
We found while working on the mission field with Muslims that chronological Bible studies, such as Message of Hope, are more effective than starting with the possible door-closers encountered in early in the New Testament.² The Bible itself builds credibility for the gospel.
We gathered six illiterate men in The Gambia, a 90 percent Muslim West African nation. These men had agreed to listen to the Bible stories of Yoonu Njub (The Way of Righteousness produced by Paul Bramsen in Senegal). None of these men would have allowed us to use the title “Son of God” for Jesus when we started the study. But once we studied the Old Testament, when the New Testament introduced Jesus as the “Son of God,” no one argued. They were growing to understand the problem of sin and the prophecies of a Savior. We never hid biblical truth or compromised the gospel; we simply let Scripture make its own case.
Use door-openers to build relationships and lay the foundation for door-closers. This involves prayer, compassion, and gaining insight into your Muslim friend’s spiritual journey. Door-openers can spark meaningful relationships, and a chronological Bible study can let Scripture itself handle divisive gospel truths in the right timing and tone.
Like the man at our seminar, you may find your Muslims neighbors to be more fertile to the gospel than your secularized American neighbors. And most of all, in a cultural climate of suspicion and resentment, you’ll be forming a God-honoring friendship, loving your neighbor as yourself, and joining God’s mission to make disciples.
The author is an ABWE missionary with decades of experience working in the Islamic world in disciple-making, medical missions, church planting, and leading teams. With more than 100 missionaries on 14 teams working in Muslim contexts, ABWE offers vital expertise and over 50 years’ experience in Islamic ministry.
Deconstructing Defeater Beliefs: Leading the Secular to Christ, Tim Keller.
Trevor McIlwaine’s Firm Foundations: Creation to Christ Revised Set is a general chronological study. Other chronological studies aimed at Muslims include Good Soil’s The Story of Hope and The Message of Hope (ABWE); All the Prophets Have Spoken, John Cross; The Way of Righteousness, Paul Bramsen; and The People of the Book, David Shenk.