Foundations and Priorities for Christian Engagement with Muslims and Islam

Accra Statement and Working Document on Islam

The gathering of Christian leaders from all over the world at the Third Lausanne Congress, in Cape Town in October 2010, produced The Cape Town Commitment. As a framework for Christian engagement with Islam and Muslims, the Lausanne Islam Network affirms the Commitment section IIC in its entirety and calls attention to the following under section IIC-1:

(a) We commit ourselves to be scrupulously ethical in all our evangelism. Our witness is to be marked by ‘gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience’ (1 Peter 3:15-16). We therefore reject any form of witness that is coercive, unethical, deceptive, or disrespectful.

(b) In the name of the God of love, we repent of our failure to seek friendships with people of other religious backgrounds. In the spirit of Jesus, we will take initiatives to show love, goodwill, and hospitality to them.

(c) In the name of the God of truth, we (i) refuse to promote lies and caricatures about other religions, and (ii) denounce and resist the racist prejudice, hatred, and fear incited in popular media and political rhetoric.

(d) In the name of the God of peace, we reject the path of violence and revenge in all our dealings with people of other faiths, even when violently attacked.

In light of the above commitments, the Lausanne Islam Network adopts and recommends the following as a mission statement and working document. We trust that, having a clear vision of what is involved in Christian mission in the world of Islam and responding to realistic proposals for carrying out this vision, Christians will be challenged and stimulated to work out how to implement these action points in their own country and region and be enriched and supported by working with Christians in other parts of the world.

I. Biblical and Theological Foundations for Christian Engagement with Muslims and Islam

Muslims and Islam present challenges to Christians and Christianity, and these need to be reflected in the way we articulate our understanding of Christian mission today. We are dealing with a religion which historically came into existence six centuries after Christ and which owes a great deal both to Judaism and to Christianity and defines itself both in continuity and in discontinuity to these religions. Our starting point, therefore, must be to appreciate all the common ground between Christian and Muslim beliefs and at the same time to understand the significance of the differences in the ways we think about God and seek to serve him.

Muslims and Christians believe in the oneness or unity of God, although they have different understandings of what this means. Christians affirm the oneness of God, since ‘the Lord our God, the Lord is one’ (Deuteronomy 6:4), but have a trinitarian understanding of the oneness. It is this that enables us to declare that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:16); and it must mean that, since he is love in his eternal nature, there has always been a relationship of love between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit within the godhead. Out of love he created humankind in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27), and in response to their rebellion against him, set in motion his plan of salvation to win back their love: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son . . . ’ (John 3:16). Followers of Jesus see themselves as being involved in God’s loving purposes for the world because after his resurrection he commissioned his followers with the words: ‘As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you’ (John 20:21). The Christian understanding of mission is therefore deeply rooted in our understanding of the character of God as a God of love.

As Christians we see Muslims as our fellow human beings amongst whom Jesus, the eternal Word, is at work as ‘the true light, which enlightens everyone’ (John 1:9, NRSV). We also see Muslims as neighbours whom we are called to love, since the second of the great commandments in the teaching of Jesus tells us, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourselves’ (Matthew 22:39). Loving Muslims as our neighbours must include building genuine relationships with them based on respect, understanding, and openness, as well as working for social justice and the common good in all the different societies in which we live alongside them as fellow citizens. We teach Christians to follow the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12), treating those in the other community as we ourselves would wish to be treated.

We are only too aware of the ways in which Muslims have for centuries been challenging Christian beliefs, many of which centre round the authenticity of Scripture and our understanding of who Jesus really is. We want to respond to their questions and objections in the spirit of the Apostle Peter who wrote, ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:15). We see our Scriptures as the inspired Word of God which comes to us in and through the writings of human beings who were guided by the Holy Spirit: ‘because prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.’ We see Jesus, as do Muslims, as a prophet (Luke 24:19), but as very much more than a prophet—as the eternal Word of God who, in becoming man, has given us the clearest and fullest possible revelation of the nature and character of God. ‘ . . . The Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us . . . No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known’ (John 1:1, 14, 18). ‘He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high’ (Hebrews 1:3).

Since this is what we believe about Jesus, we want to bear witness to him. While we listen to Muslims explaining their beliefs about Jesus, we want to present him through our lives and words as Scripture reveals him and as we experience him. We bear witness to Jesus in response to his command in the Great Commission (‘Go and make disciples of all nations’ Matthew 28:19), but we also want to share with others what is most precious to us. Our motivation therefore is that ‘Christ’s love compels us’ (2 Corinthians 5:14). In the words of the first apostles, ‘We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard’ (Acts 4:20). We want Muslims to have the opportunity to know God as we believe he has revealed himself in Christ.

While Christians and Muslims agree that God is merciful and forgiving, we differ in our understanding of how divine forgiveness is demonstrated and communicated. For Christians the supreme demonstration of God’s love and his forgiveness is seen in the incarnation of the eternal Word, Jesus, his faithful and self-giving life, his death on the cross and his resurrection. ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them’ (2 Corinthians 5:19). ‘God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8). It is because of the uniqueness of Jesus and what he achieved that the Apostle Peter can claim: ‘There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12, NRSV).

In Christian-Muslim relations a great deal often depends on the power equation in the specific context. Approximately one-third of all Muslims live in situations where they are a minority, but in many Muslim-majority countries, Christians form the minority community. While Muslims have their own varying ideas about the ideal relationship between religion and state, Christians are more cautious about bringing together the authority of God and Caesar. While we could not, and would not wish to, recreate Christendom, Scripture gives us a vision of a peaceful and just society in which the values of the kingdom of God are upheld and honoured for the benefit of all.

In all our relations with Muslims our responsibility is to love them as neighbors and to bear witness to Jesus as we understand and experience him. We believe that it is for the Holy Spirit to work in people’s hearts and open their lives to respond to the God who reveals himself and his love in Jesus (Matthew 16.17; 1 Corinthians 12.3). In the practice of Christian witness there can be no place for any kind of inducement, pressure, or compulsion to persuade people to believe. The outcome of our mission is entirely in the hands of God. He knows the secrets of all our hearts, and all people—Muslims, Christians, and others—will one day stand before him on the Day of Judgment.

Mindful of the fact that Christian witness is carried out in a divided and broken world, we are called to take the ministry of reconciliation as a key pillar of our witness. In the words of the Apostle Paul, ‘all this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5:18). Paul’s teaching relative to the broken world is instructive: ‘Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer . . . Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse . . . If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ (Romans 12:9-21).

II. Major Priorities for the Coming Years in Christian Engagement with Muslims and Islam

We are grateful to God for the global church’s uninterrupted witness in life and word throughout the fourteen centuries since the rise of Islam. In continuation with this living witness, we encourage the whole church wherever it exists in the world to continue to engage in Christian mission to Muslims. We believe that these are the major priorities on which we need to focus at the present time. All of our activities in these areas need to be undergirded by persistent prayer:

  1. Motivating and mobilizing the churches
    Every individual church fellowship and denomination throughout the world needs to find ways of enabling Christians to be awake to the challenges of Islam and to opportunities for witness to Muslims. Where Christians are held back by fear, they need to be encouraged to build genuine, natural relationships with their Muslim neighbours, practising hospitality, and taking bold initiatives. Where they are held back by ignorance, they need to learn more about Muslims and Islam and prayerfully explore some of the new opportunities that have opened up in recent years for communicating the gospel. Where they are held back by prejudice, they need to be reminded of the ways in which Jesus enabled his disciples to overcome their racial and religious prejudices.
  1. Demonstrating membership of the body of Christ
    There are two specific challenges presented by the growing number of Muslims in many parts of the world who have become followers of Jesus in recent years. Firstly, Christians in existing churches need to understand the difficulties that these new believers face, and do all they can to help them to discover their identity within the body of Christ. Secondly, it is important to appreciate the variety and complexity of the contexts in which Muslims are coming to faith. It is therefore vital that they are given the freedom and responsibility to find the most appropriate ways of expressing their commitment to Jesus within their context.
  1. Acknowledging the importance of social and political issues
    The Lausanne Covenant has, since 1974, encouraged Christians to take social and political issues seriously. We believe that there are special reasons why we need to take these seriously in our engagement with Muslims. In most situations where Christians and Muslims are living side by side, there are social and political issues which affect both communities. Certain Christian responses to some of these have created a major stumbling block in the minds of Muslims and often made them resistant to the gospel. Christians need to be willing to listen to Muslim perceptions of these issues and know how to engage with Muslims in addressing them. One such issue is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We call upon the global church to devote more time and energy to seeking ways of addressing this issue in a manner that advances justice and reconciliation and addresses the deep biblical and theological issues.
  1. Working for justice and reconciliation
    Christians frequently raise their voices on the issue of religious liberty, drawing attention to the discrimination and persecution experienced by Christians in many Muslim-majority countries. They are also deeply concerned about the harsh treatment in many situations of Muslims who want to change their religion. This kind of advocacy needs to be pursued vigorously in light of Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights which affirms the basic human rights of people to ‘practise, propagate, and change their religion’. At the same time Christians need to be as insistent on defending the rights of Muslims and of any minorities who experience discrimination and persecution, even when this occurs at the hands of Muslim governments. There are also a number of situations in different parts of the world where Christians and Muslims can work together for a just society. Issues like the environment and world trade raise questions about justice which are of concern to all people of faith, including Christians and Muslims.
  1. Discerning ethical issues in mission and discipleship
    How can Christians develop holistic mission practices without having hidden agendas? How do we help enquirers to think through sensitive ethical questions (eg about family and culture) without imposing foreign cultural values on them? Criticism from Muslims and from the secular world of the way some humanitarian work has been used by Christians as an inducement to conversion should be seriously examined and make us much more aware of moral issues involved in the way we carry out our mission. In this ministry, we need to listen to and understand the Islamic perspectives so that our relationships with the Muslim community are not only based on biblical principles, but also culturally appropriate and contextually relevant. We hope Muslims too will be willing to take the same self-critical approach with regard to their practice of relief and development and of da‘wa.
  1. Encouraging deeper biblical and theological reflection
    While many of the dilemmas Christians face in mission are no different from those which they have faced in the past, the contexts in which we face them today are constantly changing. Many, for example, are asking questions like these: How are Christians to cope with the feeling of being a powerless minority? How do we distinguish between persecution for the sake of the gospel and suffering caused by a variety of factors which have nothing to do with the gospel? How will Christian reflection on the theology of the cross influence their political theology? What if Christians, having turned the other cheek, feel compelled to resort to violence to defend themselves? How can Christians overcome the ghetto mentality and believe that they can play a positive role in nation-building? Is there a place for polemics, and what is the difference between polemics and apologetics? How are we to understand the place of Islam in the purposes of God in history? There is a need for sustained and creative theological reflection on questions like these.
  1. Engaging in dialogue with Muslims
    Some Christians may need to overcome their fears and reservations associated with the word ‘dialogue’, and see that there need be no contradiction between mission and dialogue. If dialogue simply means a conversation between two people or parties and can lead to a real meeting of hearts and minds, there’s no reason why Christians should not grasp every opportunity for exchanges of this kind, at every level of society. Serious dialogue needs not only to address questions of belief and personal experience but also social and political issues. There need be no fear of compromise or simply seeking the lowest common denominator, since both sides will be able to ask all the hard questions they want and agree to disagree. There is a special need for leaders and scholars of the two communities to engage in honest, open, and sustained dialogue where there is a potential for conflict between the two communities. The Lausanne Issue Network on Islam will initiate and facilitate such conversations at the global and regional levels.
  1. Teaching and training the teachers
    If Christians in our churches are to receive the kind of guidance and encouragement they need for relating to Muslims, it is vital that pastors and teachers of every kind are equipped to know what and how to teach at every level from children to adults in order to dispel fear and stereotypes and instill confidence. All seminaries and Bible and mission colleges need to make adequate provision in their curricula for teaching on Islam and Muslim people groups, so that all Christian workers know enough to teach and train the whole church for its mission.
  1. Pursuing appropriate scholarship on Islam
    Christians can never be content with the scholarship of the past but must seek to build on it, using a variety of disciplines in order to understand Islam in all its forms and manifestations. In addition to the study of Christian-Muslim relations (including the history of Christian-Muslim relations and the history of ministry among particular Muslim peoples), the Qur’an and Hadith, Islamic Law and theology, we need the insights we can gain from anthropology, sociology, and political science. In recent years scholars and practitioners have engaged particularly in rigorous analysis of different approaches to mission and witness, reflecting for example on questions concerning contextualization and Bible translation. Our scholarship needs to be scrupulously fair and engage with the full diversity of Islam and its changing faces today, and where appropriate, it needs to be pursued in open and frank dialogue with Muslims.
  1. Establishing networks
    We can be thankful that there are a number of Christian study centres, networks, and think tanks which have been established in different parts of the world focusing on the issues of Christian engagement with Muslims and Islam. Where they exist, these centres need to be supported to provide Christians with the highest standards of academic studies possible in Islamics and mission in Muslim contexts. Where these centres are not already communicating with each other, there may be a need for networks to be developed to facilitate greater cross-fertilization and cooperation. New centres need to be set up to serve the needs of the churches especially in different regions of the Majority World and to become part of this wider network.

John Azumah
Chair of the Lausanne Global Consultation on Islam
Columbia Theological Seminary
Lausanne Global Consultation on Islam

6-11 April 2014
Accra, Ghana

Editor’s Note: See also the Lausanne Occasional Papers (LOP) on Islam