A few week’s back, I posted about an article released by Fox News. These opening lines give a window into the thrust of the whole article:
They see it as their Christian duty. But others disagree, saying it extends the hand of fellowship where it was never intended to go.
Two Protestant churches are taking some heat from critics for opening their church buildings to Muslims needing places to worship because their own facilities were either too small, or under construction.
With this post, I received quite a few comments on both my blog and Facebook, different folk heralding different sides of the issue for varying reasons. At the time, I reserved most of my thoughts for a later date, wanting to take some time to read the comments of others.
Hence, this article is my response to the issue. So, what are my personal thoughts?
Well, let me start out by trying to settle somewhere in the middle, at least for now. Therefore, I would say – It all depends.
The answers to these questions are not always black and white, though we would like them to be, and try and make them seem so. Even quoting a couple of Bible passages does not necessarily settle an issue. Think about the centuries of theological discussion and debate.
What I do note is that, in the current and forthcoming generation, many practical and theological questions are being re-looked at once again. None of these issues are new in and of themselves. To think so is a little naive. As one wise man said, ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’
But, as with each generation and culture, there is a call to consider how to live as followers of Christ in our particular culture and generation. Truly, there are solid, eternal truths. The kingdom of God is unshakable (Heb 12:28). But we as finite human beings are not, noting that we have not yet reached the goal expressed in passages like Eph 4:13 – unity in the faith and knowledge of Jesus and maturity.
And so, as with gender roles or positions on justification or any other assortment of issues, we find ourselves trying to grasp how we can faithfully follow Jesus as we engage with and interact with those of other faiths and religions. This is not just for the theologically unsound. Faithful followers of Jesus like you and I are constantly engaged with such. And I think that, as we do so with humility and relational accountability, this is a very noble aspiration.
To ask such a question, to even ponder allowing Muslims or Mormons or Hindus to utilise our buildings, well, that can truly be a bit daunting for some. Putting myself in such a position, if I am honest, it can feel that way for me as well. But I don’t think it has to be. One thing I have learned from Scripture, especially in the wisdom and poetic portions of the Old Testament, is that questions are ok. We will never have all the answers, and we should expect such knowing this walk with Christ is a walk of faith.
So, my answer still stands as this – It all depends.
But let me first share two points as to why I don’t believe that allowing Muslims to utilise our buildings is wrong in and of itself, and then I will come back to why I believe it all depends.
1) The nature of church
I adamantly believe that a proper foundation of understanding church is that it is first and foremost about the people of God. When we say the word church, at least from a biblical background (Greek ekklesia), the overwhelming evidence is that this is about God’s people, the body of Christ. It is not foremost about an institution, day of the week, or place we go. Thus, in its essence, church is not about the building. Christ did not give himself up for a building, but rather for a bride (Eph 5:25-27).
True, most of us meet in buildings. And to have such is a blessing. Whether we are part of a more structured, liturgical background or a more free, open background (none of these terms are used negatively-positively), to have a building can be a blessing.
My local church has one. It is a blessing to have a large meeting hall with four classrooms and two offices. I am glad I can have a place of study, prayer, and base from which our local church can outwork the ministry God has given us. But it is by no means essential. Sometimes I wonder if we need to become more mobile, not to mention the prospect of redirecting some funds towards mission rather than a larger rental sum. But at this point, we are convinced it is good to have the building, blue carpet and all.
But if the building goes up in flames or simply vanishes, the church can and should get on with being the church regardless. And that is why I also ponder becoming more mobile – to see the church truly have to rise up and be the church without a base of operation.
I do recognise that some church traditions strongly emphasise the importance of sacred space. I respect that. I have no problems with high-church, liturgical focus. Such can call us to a deeper, more thoughtful and enriched walk in life.
But to allow Muslims to utilise our buildings does not necessarily bring spiritual cooties to invade our building, nor the reality of demons. It could. But, as a whole, this is few and far between. And this is where leadership needs to be discerning, wise, prayerful and give space to listen to God. And a team of leaders will also provide the relational accountability needed.
So, let us not get so wrapped up in arguing, ‘This is a church. It is not to be used for non-believers.’ The reality is that you cannot go to church – it’s impossible. Buildings are not churches, at least if we want to look at this from the foundation of Scriptural teaching. Jesus gave his life for a bride, for people, not a building.
And let us not forget about all the people who use community centres, town halls, school gymnasiums, community theatres, etc, to gather in. How many Muslims, or agnostics and atheists, head through those doors during the week?
For quite a few decades now, the church has understood that we can meet ‘out there’. And that might just be the best call in reaching our community. This leads me to my second and final point.
2) The salt and light aspect
No Christian denies the fact that we are called to salt and light. But many times, we can enclose ourselves in our buildings, which leaves us losing some of our saltiness and putting some of our light under the proverbial bushel. That is very far from the church Jesus imagined and gave himself for.
But the idea of our buildings being open to the community at large, what an amazing opportunity. Now because they are marked as ‘churches’, many of the people in our communities will not come through the doors. And that is definitely my experience in western Europe. But I won’t walk down rethinking this question, as to not get too far off focus.
But opening our buildings could be a very profitable decision. Of course, this is again where wisdom is called for, wisely inquiring of the group’s intentions and activities, but definitely not from a fearful state of paranoia. Shepherds are called to care for and protect, but not out of fear.
Still, the interaction that could follow in the months and years to come, the conversations, the dialogue, the testimony of Jesus, living as new creations as we interact with the people. What an opportunity!!
But here is the kicker for me – When have we ever heard of Muslims asking to use church buildings?!!
Are you kidding me?!! I don’t think this has ever happened in the history of the human race. NEVER!! And all of a sudden, the inquiry happens. Could this be history in the making, Christians and Muslims utilising the same building in peace and harmony?
Listen, I am not advocating watering down anything. I am not advocating that we open up to the possibility that Mohammed is the true prophet of God. But I also don’t advocate being gospel gun-slingers, ready to pounce on everyone as our evangelism project.
I believe that, if we enter the situation with the correct perspective of being salt and light, sharing the love of Jesus, looking for opportunities to build relationships that we might share the good news of Jesus, then this could be a healthy opportunity. If all somebody really wants is to be nice, well, I will personally allow them to simply be nice. But I would hope we would see it as an opportunity to heal centuries of animosity and anger, hear one another, share conversations and possibly meals with one another. Who knows? No, not necessarily having a joint service where it’s all mish-mash and we pray to a vague God. But real, purposeful, authentic relationship.
I cannot even imagine how this happened. I’m still kind of hit in the stomach that a couple of Muslim groups asked to use the buildings of these two churches. Could God be doing something, something scandalous here, to open the door to move past a veil that has existed now for a millennium and a half? I’d be spending a lot of time asking God, listening to Him, for this is not your usual interaction between Muslims and Christians.
For those who want to play the conspiracy card that these Muslims might be trying to slowly work their way in to bring about sharia law – Well, again, it could be. And this is why we need discerning, prayerful, accountable leaders. But I would suppose the secret motive thing is few and far between. Again, let us also guard against fear and paranoia.
So, this is where I sign-off with my main answer that I began with – It all depends. It really does all depend.
I think each situation has to be considered individually. Though, as I recognised earlier that we would like there to be a pat answer to every situation, there really isn’t. Each local church needs to consider different things in different contexts. What might be good for my local church in Brussels, Belgium, will not be good for someone else’s in Dakar, Senegal. What might be good for a church in Chicago, Illinois, might not be good for one in Budapest, Hungary.
And so each church, led by its local leadership, needs to be in prayer, with wisdom, seeking God, in authentic relationship with one another, and with those leaders in the wider body of Christ. And as we do, I believe God will lead us, communicate to us, and guide us into what needs to take place, all that His kingdom might come and His will might be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Therefore, though I am not actually dead-centre in the middle on this issue, I would still say that it all depends. But I cannot stand up saying an all out, ‘No,’ to this opportunity. Nor can I simply say, ‘Yes,’ and be done with it. But I can say that this could truly be an opportunity of God Himself, but we need to listen to Him and to those in the church with whom we walk.
To be honest I have been chewing this over for a while since I saw your original post. In the end, for me it came down to the distinction between the way we are called to respond to sinners versus our response to sin itself. As Christians, and therefore the Church, we are called to go into the world and display Christ. I absolutely agree that Christians should be active in the life of the community, in the workplace and in the homes of unbelievers. We should be salt and light in the darkest and most exposed places.
I also believe the local expression of the church, whether it meets in an owned building or a rented one should welcome everyone to see the way believers interact with their Saviour. They should have the chance to join in the meeting, hear worship, hear the Word preached and have fellowship with believers. Whether a prostitute, a Muslim, an atheist or a homosexual. All have sinned, all need Christ just as we did. No sinner should be rejected by the Church simply for being a sinner, or else Christ’s commission was for nothing.
However, the Church is not called to facilitate, or advocate sin. For me there is a distinct difference between inviting a Muslim or group of Muslims into your Church to talk or have a meal, and allowing a group of Muslims into your building to worship Allah. This is to facilitate the worship of a false God, to facilitate sin. We are using the resources of God, which we have been called to steward wisely, to support this idol worship. In the same way, surely any group of people, that desired to participate in any collective act of deliberate sin, would not be encouraged to do so in a church building.
Imagine a swingers group from the local community approached the pastor of a church to ask for the use of the Church building for an evening. The building would be empty at that time and the church had been looking to build relationships with members of the community that would not usually enter a church. Does he agree for the same reasons given in support of Muslims using the building? The sin is different for sure, but both are sin none the less.
This raises my second concern, which is the call to be salt and light. Allowing Muslims to worship in church has the possibility of opening dialogue; this may allow us to demonstrate our light and saltiness, but what about the rest of the community? If they see the Christian worshipping side by side with the Muslim, do they understand the distinction we have drawn between the church (people) and church (building)? Or do they see the Church legitimising an alternative route to God?
I am not sure I have the answer, and I look forward to hearing people thoughts on it. Unfortunately, the Church has a track record of alienating whole cross-sections of the community by being judgemental, insular and inflexible. I want to see Muslims touched by the grace of God as much as anyone else and hiding in our churches will never achieve it. However, I believe we must find a way to love sinners without legitimising their sin.
Thanks for the thoughtful comment. No doubt this is a difficult issue. Even as I personally say I would be open to considering such, it does not become easy to think through it all.
This is why I say I don’t believe we can lay out a flat, black and white answer to every issue, even this one. I believe that doing so would alienate us from possibly hearing God. What I have learned is that, at times, following Jesus calls us past what we think might be beneficial in following Jesus, past the set norm. Remember Jesus sat and ate an intimate meal with prostitutes and tax collectors. The idea of tax collectors loses its ‘severity’ in our culture. So maybe we should think of it as Jesus sitting down and having a meal with prostitutes and known pedophiles. That is mind-boggling. Can you imagine church leaders doing that today? But Jesus found no problem in doing so. And he had the harshest comments towards those who judged such actions of his.
I think that, by allowing Muslims to utilise our buildings, this shouldn’t necessarily be seen as legitimising their sin. Again, if we meet in a cultural centre, are we legitimising the sin of those who enter the building regularly during the week? Or what about a Muslim family that comes to one of our gatherings, are we legitimising their sin?
I think it isn’t so black and white, and thus I believe we need to keep this open as a possible stirring of God Himself to reach Muslims (or other groups) and heal centuries of animosity and bitterness from past actions towards Muslims, and even our own actions today. But I cannot say let’s all jump in and do it. It calls for wisdom within each situation.
It is undoubtedly a challenge and I have no desire to see the church continue patterns of behaviour that are counter to the work of the Holy Spirit.
Just a couple of points on your reply:
“Remember Jesus sat and ate an intimate meal with prostitutes and tax collectors. The idea of tax collectors loses its ‘severity’ in our culture. So maybe we should think of it as Jesus sitting down and having a meal with prostitutes and known pedophiles. That is mind-boggling. Can you imagine church leaders doing that today? But Jesus found no problem in doing so.”
I totally agree and my post advocated the christian getting into fellowship with sinners, whether it be sharing life at work, sharing meals at home or serving with them in the community. We are absolutely called to love and engage with sinners.
However, I do not believe Christ would have allowed his home (if he had one) or the temple (not equal to the church but illustrates the point) to be used by prostitutes to sin in. Nor do I think he would have allowed tax collectors to over-charge and steal from people in the temple courts. He loved the sinner, but I cannot think of a situation where he facilitated others to sin.
“I think that, by allowing Muslims to utilise our buildings, this shouldn’t necessarily be seen as legitimising their sin. Again, if we meet in a cultural centre, are we legitimising the sin of those who enter the building regularly during the week? Or what about a Muslim family that comes to one of our gatherings, are we legitimising their sin?”
Again, in the original reply I entirely support the invitation to all sinners, Muslims included, to participate in Church and have fellowship with believers. But for me these is a difference between inviting sinners to join with us, and allow sinners the facilities to sin. Would be allow Muslims to come along on a sunday morning and praise allah, and read the Koran in our meetings?
Perhaps the issue for me is whether for a sinner, there is a difference between them simply being in a place or sinning in that place. If all sinners are entirely sinful, and nothing they do makes them any more or less sinful, then maybe whether the Muslim is eating a meal with us, or praising Allah beside us, makes no difference. In that case I can see support for allowing Muslims to use churches for their worship.
However, I do not believe Christ would have allowed his home (if he had one) or the temple (not equal to the church but illustrates the point) to be used by prostitutes to sin in.
The first comparison between Christ’s example and this example is the ‘shock factor’. What I mean is that Jesus shocked the snot out of the religious folk by doing that. As I said, following Jesus sometimes calls for us to go past what we believe is beneficial in following Christ. I have had to consider this at times in pastoral situations. I know the ‘rules’. But Jesus has, at times, asked me to look past the rules. And that is what he did with the prostitutes and tax collectors (pedophiles).
So, with the questions of allowing Muslims to utilise our buildings, the first thing to think about is the pure ‘shock factor’ associated with this. Most are very shocked. And something in us wants to put up all the guards and declare it wrong. But such was done 2000 years ago as Jesus sat down with sexual tramps. It was shocking.
Don’t think of the details first. Think of the broader thing of Jesus calling us to step out beyond the borders of our own conceptions of what is godly and acceptable. It is a shock that God became man, born in a very nasty and smelly trough. It is a shock that God asked Isaiah to walk around naked for a few years. It is a shock that Ezekiel baked bread over poop. It is a shock that Jesus healed people by spitting on them. It is a shock that Jesus opened the doors of the kingdom to prostitutes over those following the rules.
This is the bigger issue – God shocking us beyond our expectations. The details become secondary as we consider God’s shocking passion and pursuit of sinners.
I still find myself struggling with the idea, but perhaps that is more of a reflection on my insecurities than anything else. I remember once hearing a preacher (I think it was Malcolm Magee actually) talking about Christians engaging with culture and pointing out that often those with the least secure faith are the least willing to question what they believe.
Do know it’s not an easy topic-discussion for me either. I am espousing one thing with my lips. Walking it out will be a challenge if God brings this about into our local church community. I trust He will speak and guide if it comes about.
And don’t trust anything from Malcolm Magee. 🙂
I guess it all depends on whether you view the church as a sacred, sanctified space, or just a building where Christians happen to meet.
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Having talked with you about this in the last couple of days, I have a ccouple of questions along the same lines
Would we allow someone to sleep with their girlfriend boyfriend whilst staying with us?
Would we allow a smoker to smoke in our home?
Would we allow a muslim staying with us the space or freedom to pray in his or her room?
Would we alow a son or daughter friend or partner, to watch a clearly unsuitable film on out TV even if we were not with them?
I don’t have answers, I wanted to place this altogether as it shows that it is not the kind of easy boogeyman answer that we would all asume it to be. With this set of questions I think my current position would be No, No, possibly, No.
These are good questions. I also got into some good discussion with Chris and others at Hothorpe this week. I think our usual reaction is to step up quickly and say No to each. And I am not even sure No is a ‘wrong’ answer from a general and biblical perspective. But what I have found is that, at times, truly following Jesus might call us into uncharted waters at times, that which is usually identified as wrong, but is right because God is saying such.
I, too, would answer the 4 questions you posed similarly – though I might say possibly to the last 3. But what we tend to do is respond like Peter in so many situations – Lord, I have never put such unholy things in me (Acts 11:8). Yet God keeps trying to communicate that it is ok to move out into these uncharted waters. But we end up putting on more restrictions than God himself does.
I do believe there are clear cut principles in Scripture. I am not looking to allow for same-sex relations, adultery, etc, etc. But I also know that the church has struggled for 2000 years saying that it will not do X or Y because, lo and behold, the Bible says we shouldn’t. But sometimes God calls us beyond what our religious prescriptions say about what the Bible says. Imagine Jesus eating with prostitutes! Imagine Peter stepping out and befriending Gentiles and making the good news known to them! Imagine a follower of Christ not getting circumcised! We look back retrospectively and say, ‘Ah, it’s ok. The Bible makes it ok.’ But they didn’t have the Bible text that said it was ok. They were really and truly and actually walking through this stuff, and it was difficult to process. But God was calling them into these situations. And we find ourselves in similar situations with the questions you ask above.
So there are general principles to take from Scripture. And these are quite important. But I have found, as I am sure you have, that Jesus does call us past the ‘general prescriptions’ at times, all to follow Him and see His work accomplished. There is no easy answer to allow for this, and we need strong relational accountability (such as we have). But the fruit of following Christ in such is much more sweet than always sticking to the prescribed religious reactions of our evangelical culture.