Was Pastor McConnell of the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in Belfast right or wrong in his comments about Islam in his sermon on 21 May 2014? Should Christians follow the example of First Minister Peter Robinson and some other DUP politicians and agree with or support such comments? Or should they be critical like the leaders of the three main Protestant churches?
The moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Rev. Dr. Rob Craig commented “I would be deeply offended if someone were to brand either all Presbyterians or all Christians with some extreme act by someone who claimed to do it in the name of Christ.” He said, Pastor McConnell’s words “are not consistent with the Gospel of Christ and the love of God”.
My reason for writing on this topic is that in the last week or so I have seen far too little comment from Christians critiquing what was said, and far too much in support from Christians, either public support, or apparent tacit support through silence on the matter (although I know that there will be those who are upset who have been silent also). While I am not an expert on Islam, or an experienced commentator on current affairs, I felt compelled to put down some thoughts on this topic, for a few reasons; (i) to show that there are many Christians who do not take the same stance towards Muslims, even if they disagree strongly with some of the teachings of Islam and want Muslims like others to receive salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, and (ii) to provide some guidance on the topic for those in our own fellowship. Sometimes silence is not an option. Nevertheless, I do not sit in judgement of Pastor McConnell, since that role is God’s alone (Romans 14:10-13). But I offer these thoughts in the hope that they may not only help address this current issue in a positive and biblical manner, but help to think how to approach other similar matters in the future. While the sermon was followed up by the discussion on The Nolan Show on 28 May, and support by politicians in the media, especially Peter Robinson, I will restrict my comments to what was initially said in the sermon, as I feel it is more important for me to comment on what a Christian pastor has said, than comments made in the political arena, even though the latter have put more spotlight on the former.
The Christian approach to others
When preaching to a congregation about those of other religions, a Christian minister ought to encourage Christians to pray for others and to share the gospel of God’s love, grace and mercy through faith in Jesus Christ. A congregation ought to be left with the impression that no matter who they are engaging with, that they ought to have the same motivation as God who “so loved the world” (John 3:16, NIV). Love for others ought to clearly characterise the Christian response, even towards those who are their enemies. In response to what others were incorrectly saying, Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5:43–44, NIV).
If there are concerns for how a congregation will face the future in the light of, say, a creeping Islamisation of Britain/locally or extremist actions by Muslims elsewhere in the world, they ought to be encouraged:
- to remember that the Christian’s long term security and wellbeing are not in this world, but in the world to come (Philippians 3:20, Hebrews 11:8-10),
- that in the face of difficulty, even persecution if it came to that, Christians ought to persevere with good character, loving concern and prayer for others including their enemies (Matthew 5:43-44, Romans 5:3-5),
- that opposition to the cause of Christianity is sometimes primarily a spiritual matter (Ephesians 6:10-20),
- to understand that sometimes Christians themselves are the cause of problems by their ungodly behaviour in the world (1 Peter 4:12, 15, James 4:1-10),
- that critique of other religions ought to be clearly seen to be in both truth and love (Ephesians 4:15),
- to campaign for truth and justice where it is needed around the world,
- to support those who are suffering oppression and injustice, wherever they are, and
- to share the good news of the gospel of God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
Concerning issues in the sermon
Regarding what was said, to hear the sermon first-hand, see this three minute extract on YouTube (I could not find the full sermon anywhere on the internet so my comments are restricted to this extract alone). [Update 2/6/2014: the full 37 minute sermon can now be found here. The content relating to Islam is between 1:04 and 9:38, with the 3 minute extract mentioned at the end of this section.]
Within the sermon extract, there are a number of concerns:
- “In this land, in this land, Protestant Ulster, so-called Protestant Ulster, so called evangelical Ulster…” The cherished concept of ‘Protestant Ulster’ itself is concerning with respect to those of other religions. Such a designation implies that there is little room for those of other faiths or outlooks, whether Catholic, Nationalist, Muslim, atheist etc. The impression is that Ulster is for Protestants, and that others are an anomaly that should be resisted or opposed. Sadly, this is how many of us in the Nationalist community have often felt treated in the past. Now, it seems, Muslims are to be resisted because they are the most recent threat to ‘Protestant Ulster’.
- “Now people say there are good Moslems in Britain. That may be so. But I don’t trust them.” Like everyone else, Muslims should instead be considered innocent until proven guilty and not untrustworthy by default. It hardly even needs to be said that there are many really good Muslims, as there are those of other faiths and none, without whom the world would be much worse off. I praise God for good Muslims, from whom the milk of human kindness can so often be experienced. There are, of course, Muslims who are involved in extremist and terrorist activities, mainly in other parts of the world. But that is another matter – the point here was whether “good Moslems in Britain” could be trusted.
- “Today, we see that powerful evidence that more and more Moslems are putting the Quorums[?], hatred of Christians and Jews alike, into practice.” Apart from a brief history of the beginnings of Islam, Pastor McConnell does not offer facts or statistics in support of his assertions. There are indeed parts of the world where Christians suffer at the hands of Muslims, and this ought to be condemned and resisted. But the thrust of this sermon was not the proper way to do so. It is concerning that Pastor McConnell made little distinction between Islam in other countries and Islam as practised by the Muslim community locally or in Britain. With the predominant view of Muslims on the news media being linked with religious extremism or terrorism, along with the most objectionable parts of Sharia law enshrined in the legal system of ‘Islamic’ countries being rightly highlighted regularly in the media or Christian press, such a sweeping description of Islam only serves to stereotype all Muslims by the standard of the extremes. I’m sure that he and others would not be happy if Christianity or all Christians were stereotyped by its most difficult doctrines or the worst excesses by its followers.
- “Enoch Powell was right, and he lost his career because of it. Enoch Powell was a prophet, and he told us that blood would flow in the streets, and it happened.” To positively quote Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘rivers of blood’ speech and herald him as “a prophet”, seems to set the overall context of Pastor McConnell’s concern with Islam in Britain and locally. Just as Powell spoke against Commonwealth immigration as a threat to the British way of life, it seems that Pastor McConnell has identified Islam as the latest threat to Protestantism in Ulster, and/or the ‘British’ way of life. With Edward Heath being among those who noted at the time that Powell’s speech was “racialist in tone and liable to exacerbate racial tensions”, Pastor McConnell ought to have been aware that reference to Powell’s speech could easily be viewed in a similar way, especially with regard to the Muslim community locally and in Britain.
- “Fifteen years ago, Britain was concerned of [sic] IRA cells right throughout the nation. They done [sic] a deal with the IRA because they were frightened of being bombed. Today, a new evil has arisen. There are cells of Moslems right throughout Britain. And this nation is going to enter into a great tribulation and a great trial.” Comparing Muslims in Britain to the terrorist actions of IRA cells in Britain during the ‘Troubles’ comes close to stereotyping all Muslims as terrorists, which is untrue and therefore unacceptable. It would be like branding all Catholics or nationalists as members of the IRA, or all Protestants or Unionists as members of the UVF, which both clearly are not.
- “To judge by some of what I have heard in the past few months, you would think that Islam was a little more than a variation of Christianity and Judaism. Not so, Islam’s ideas about God, about humanity, about salvation, are vastly different from the teaching of the Holy Scriptures. Islam is heathen. Islam is Satanic. Islam is a doctrine spawned in Hell.” The final phrases to describe both Muslims and Islam are deeply concerning. Certainly, the teachings of Islam on salvation are very different to those of biblical Christianity. But describing Islam as “heathen” is to use an inappropriate word since according to the Oxford Concise Dictionary, it is used (i) chiefly in a derogatory sense, and (ii) to refer to followers of religions other than Christianity, Judaism or Islam. More importantly, to describe Islam as “Satanic” is inflammatory, since while it is bad enough to link it without qualification to Satan, that word is often also used in connection with Satanism, which has much more negative connotations. To describe Islam as the ‘spawn’ of Hell is to conflate the religion (Islam) with its followers (Muslims) by using a word normally used to describe offspring. Further, while some parts of Islam are completely incompatible with Christian teaching, to make such a broad, sweeping statement that it comes from Hell is not only unjustified, but it does not do justice to its more positive teachings on good moral living, and indeed the reverence that it has for the Old Testament law and the Gospel (Injil).
Like many religions, Islam recognises that people ought to live good, upright, moral lives. There is much common ground in this respect between Christianity and other religions, including Islam. The basics of the Ten Commandments are found in virtually all religions across the world, in some form or another. These aspects of other religions ought to be praised, even if other teachings can be critiqued. However, one major aspect where Christianity differs from Islam (and other religions) is how it deals with how people fail to live up to its moral standard – Islam requires submission to the will of Allah through obedience to the Sharia law with the prospect of eternity to come, while Christianity offers the guarantee of grace and mercy and eternal life, and the ability to live a holy life by the power of the Holy Spirit, here and now through faith in Jesus Christ.
Like followers of many religions, Muslims ought not to be considered first and foremost as adherents to their religion, but as people. Before getting into the doctrines or practices of any religion, we ought to realise that God has put the knowledge of right and wrong in everyone’s heart and mind (Romans 2:15). On that basis, and with some of the good moral teaching contained within Islam, I would prefer to be, for example, under the care of a morally upright Muslim doctor than one who calls themselves a Christian but whose attitude and behaviour brings disrepute to the name of Christ. I thank God for caring morally upright Muslims, as I do for those of other religions or none.
Muslims in the UK are not a homogenous group of extremists, but the vast majority are peace-loving ordinary citizens. While there is concern about radicalisation of youth, it must be remembered that the vast majority are not radicals. Indeed, some like Khalid Anis of The Islamic Society of Britain, as he explained on The Nolan Show, have even objected to extreme Sharia law as practised in other countries.
While many non-Muslims can with some justification object to Sharia law being increasingly, yet slowly, applied in the UK, with fears that it might lead to extreme laws being implemented in the long run, an attitude of demonization is not the right response. Faced with the fear of Islamisation of Britain, a preacher ought to motivate his hearers to mission and evangelism, perseverance, love and godly response, and legitimate campaigning in support of existing laws, not fear and opposition.
When some people say things which are objectionable, they are sometimes defended in the press by others on the basis that he is entitled to freedom of speech, as in this case. But there is no automatic right to freedom of speech on its own, without conditions. There is also the requirement to speak responsibly, and not provocatively. The old adage comes to mind; ‘with freedom comes responsibility’.
While I have significant concerns about it as a faith system and Sharia law as a legal framework across the world, as well as increasingly in Britain/UK, I nevertheless have to agree with the words of Khalid Anis on The Nolan Show: “I think it’s shocking, absolutely shocking. We should always remember from history; words of hatred always cause actions of hatred, and that’s where this is leading”.
Along the same line of thought as the Presbyterian moderator’s comments mentioned previously, I too am of the opinion that comments like those expressed in the sermon are not consistent with the Bible’s teaching of a loving and gracious Christian attitude towards those of other religions.
Christians ought not to be afraid of addressing contentious issues, but the manner in doing so is crucial. While Pastor McConnell seems to have been motivated by legitimate concerns over some of the extreme activities of some Muslims in Britain and in other parts of the world, he could have chosen a very different way to deal with this matter. It would have been better if he had motivated his congregation with love and concern for others, calling them to prayer and evangelism etc., instead of condemnation and fear.
Many people have said that they have been personally and positively blessed by Pastor McConnell’s ministry over the years. I accept that he did not mean to speak words of hatred. Nevertheless, by using intemperate language he did not give wise counsel or example to his congregation in how to respond to other faiths and their followers. Such words have caused unnecessary hurt and great unease among the local Muslim community, and others, and damaged the cause of the gospel both locally and further afield.
Yet, I am encouraged by the positive response of the local Muslim community towards Peter Robinson’s somewhat conciliatory public statement, and their subsequent meeting with him in which he is reported to have given them an apology in private. I hope that such gestures will begin a process of mutual understanding and respect between the Christian and Muslim communities here.
An alternative message
But most of all, I thank God that Christianity has a message of good news, which is found in the Bible. I praise God for the gospel of grace, mercy and forgiveness which is found in Jesus Christ for all who will turn to him for peace with God (Romans 5:1), when they realise that because of sin they cannot be as good as they ought to be: no-one is perfect, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 NIV). Instead of trying to be justified by our own efforts, there is another way of being right with God, which is received by placing our faith in Jesus Christ who perfectly submitted to God’s will by his atoning sacrifice on the cross for our sins; “But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law… We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are” (Romans 3:21–22, NLT). This faith leads to being able to walk in holiness in the power of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), since faith without holy living is not really faith at all (James 2:17-20).
I thank God that Christianity is the only religion in the world that offers a Saviour, someone who has taken our punishment for sin in our place, and who sets us free from the condemnation that we deserve (Romans 8:1).
The etymology of the word Sharia is ‘path’ or ‘way’. People all around the world are looking for the ‘way’. Thankfully there is one who is the true ‘way’, and in whom there is truth and grace; “Thomas said. “… how can we know the way?” Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:5–6, NLT).
I am grateful for a few people who have reviewed this article and made helpful suggestions, particularly the leaders of the Women’s Bible Group at Colin Glen Christian Fellowship.
Edit (16/6/2014): See also this response by global church leaders regarding interacting with Muslims:Grace and Truth: Toward Christlike Relationships with Muslims: An Affirmation