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Inside the Dome of the Rock, Caliph Abd al-Malik’s seventh-century Muslim shrine in Old City Jerusalem, if you crane your neck and study the ceiling, you will read a circular 730-foot-long ribbon of Arabic words with a message to Christians: “The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a messenger of God. … So believe in God and his messengers, and say not ‘Three’. … God is only One God. Far be it removed from his transcendent majesty that he should have a son.”
I don’t hear wiggle room in that declaration: God has no son. Period, end of discussion. Muslims know their “gospel” and stick to it.
I did hear wiggle room in Philadelphia recently at the Christian conference on hospitality to Muslims. Not at first. The morning session was OK. (My journal entry from the missionary speaker: A woman’s peculiar power in Muslim lands is the power of weakness—her under-the-radar access to various social spheres, and her capacity to be nonthreatening. Good stuff.)
The afternoon session was a very lengthy exegetical Bible study on the parable of the good Samaritan. I felt I already knew that: God enjoins hospitality. But the conference was winding down, and we had spent all day setting the table and never getting around to serving the dish I had come for: Granted that we should be hospitable to Muslims, what exactly should we say to them once they’re over for dinner?
‘The doctrine of Jesus as Son of God is a necessary, not unnecessary, doctrine.’
Or another way of putting it might be this: The Apostle Paul made himself all things to all men in order to save some (1 Corinthians 9:22). Though hospitality is good in its own right, I see a means-to-an-end goal in Paul: Since the salvation of souls is paramount, and God’s heart is to enfold more and more people into His kingdom, let us use any means we can toward that end—neighborliness, English tutoring, line cook, surgical technologist. A physical therapist I know of in Morocco didn’t go there because he liked kebabs and calamari but to “save some.” A hospitality seminar without speaking of gospel could almost be a Unitarian affair.
Finally, in the last half-hour of the conference, as I was starting to wonder how much the parking garage damage would be (it was $35), the missionary whipped out a list of dos and don’ts for evangelizing. Some were good, if intuitive: Dress modestly, don’t introduce someone as your “girlfriend” because your Muslim interlocutor will assume you’re sleeping with her.
But then there were also these bits of advice on his list: “Avoid talking about ‘being free from the law.’” “Avoid using the parable of the prodigal son.” And, finally, the one that most stuck in my throat: “Avoid using the term ‘Son of God’ for Jesus. Robust explanations typically do not resolve the deep misunderstandings Muslims have of this title.”
Nabeel Qureshi, the late Pakistani-American convert to Christianity and author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus and No God But One, graciously cautioned against this approach, a methodology of Muslim evangelism known as the Insider Movement. Its practitioners’ hearts are in the right place, he said. Their desire is to spread the gospel faster by removing all unnecessary stumbling blocks. But the doctrine of Jesus as Son of God is a necessary, not unnecessary, doctrine. If some stumble over it, the fact is that some have always stumbled over hard teachings about Jesus (John 6:60-66; 1 Peter 2:8).
At what point does contextualization become another gospel (Galatians 1:8)? This is the question that must be wrestled with. Qureshi responded in a blog to someone who asked it: “Where I draw the line is when we compromise the gospel. Which is why we must be absolutely clear what the gospel message is: God incarnate, Jesus, died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead on the third day as the firstborn of the resurrection that God may be glorified through our eternal salvation. … The moment Jesus’ deity is compromised … then we are preaching a false gospel.”
Muslims do not compromise their gospel. The inscription on the ceiling of the Dome is non-negotiable. Why should the bearers of the true and holy gospel sell the store?