The city of God-10-Sing praises to the Lord (6 July 2014)

Nehemiah - The city of God - 10 - Sing praises to the Lord

In the film “The Blues Brothers”, when Elwood asks the wife of the owner of ‘Bob’s Country Bunker’;

“Er… what kind of music do you usually have here?”

She answers

“Oh, we got both kinds. We got Country, and Western.”

Click image for Sunday's service sheetWhat kind of music do you enjoy most?

For Christians, Christian music should form a big part of our music listening. There’s something wrong when we enjoy music and listen to lots of different types of music, if we don’t have a good proportion of that being Christian music that expresses our praise to God.  If we’re seeking joy from music, and we leave God out of that process, there is something imbalanced, wrong, dysfunctional.

Nehemiah celebrated the finishing of the walls and their dedication to God through music and song.  They celebrated:

“with gladness, with thanksgivings and with singing, rwith cymbals, harps, and lyres.”  (Nehemiah 12:27)

“God had made them rejoice with great joy… And the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away.”  (Nehemiah 12:43)

Christians have much to celebrate and thank God for.  We too should sing praises to God, with great joy, because of what he has done for us in Christ Jesus.

Following the Good Shepherd (20 July 2014)

Following the Good Shepherd

Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd:

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11, NLT)

This is in contrast to the other leaders of the people in the past who were bad leaders/shepherds (Ezekiel 34:2-4).

Click image for Sunday's service sheetHowever, while many people like to be comforted by the words of Psalm 23, the blessings outlined in it are conditional.  Just like the sheep follow their shepherd, so too those who want the blessings from the Good Shepherd must follow him.

Just like in Jesus’ time, so too today sheep respond to the voice of their shepherd.  One person recounts:

“…seeing many flocks mingled at a watering place. When one shepherd was ready to leave he simply walked away, making a certain sound. Immediately, his sheep separated themselves from the others and followed him. His sheep followed him because they knew his voice.” (Herschel H. Hobbs, My Favorite Illustrations (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1990), 157.)

The blessings of Psalm 23 are clear and comforting.  But in order to experience them, we need to be followers of Jesus:

“I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me,” (John 10:14, NLT)

To have that relationship with the Good Shepherd, to start to follow him, we need to place our trust in him for forgiveness of sins, and for eternal life.  Jesus gave up his life for us, and we ought to believe and trust in him.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11, NLT)

“For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NLT)

The city of God-11-Works without faith is doomed! (13 July 2014)

Nehemiah - The city of God - 11 - Works without faith is doomed

James teaches us that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20).

The message from Nehemiah 13 is that ‘works without faith is doomed’.

That is, we cannot keep up godly living, unless we have a living faith to sustain is.

Click image for Sunday's service sheetIf someone says that they have faith, but there is no evidence of godly living in their life, then James 2:20 tells us that that faith is useless, ineffective, dead.  There are many people who claim to be Christians, people who claim to have trusted in Jesus for forgiveness at some time in the past, but who show no practical difference in their daily lives.  While only the Lord truly knows the heart of each person, James tells us that as a generalisation we cannot have any confidence that someone who is living in this way is actually a Christian.  As the saying goes; if you were in court accused of being a Christian, would there be any evidence to convict you?  If there is no good evidence, then the only conclusion is that such a person isn’t really a believer after all, despite their experiences or claims.

But the last chapter of Nehemiah teaches the same thing in a different way.  The exiles had returned, and the city of Jerusalem had had its Temple and walls rebuilt.  However, no matter how many reforms Nehemiah had instutited, or how blessed the people were through the restoration of Jerusalem, they could not keep it up without faith.  After Nehemiah came back from working away from Jerusalem, he found that standards had slipped, sin had taken hold, and the people were not living as they ought to have before God.  The lesson is that, after returning from exile, just like before it, the Israelites would inevitably slip down into sin, no matter how much they were encouraged or commanded to obey the Lord.  Commands to go good works will fail, unless mixed with faith.

Since this chapter of Nehemiah describes the last state of Jerusalem and the Israelites, chronologically in the Old Testament, we can conclude that the Old Covenant had failed, and a better covenant was needed.  This was no surprise to God, as he was preparing the New Covenant already.  People can only please God when they have faith in Jesus Christ and walk by the Spirit (Romans 8:5-8).  Nehemiah 13 highlights the failure of the Israelites trying to live without faith, although some exceptions like Nehemiah nevertheless were living by faith even during the Old Covenant (like Abraham and others too, as described in Romans 4).

Faith without works is dead, but so too works without faith is dead.

 

The city of God-9-Two steps to blessing-confess and conform (29 June 2014)

Nehemiah - The city of God - 9 - Two steps to blessing - confess and conform

“If you obey my decrees and my regulations, you will find life through them. I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 18:5, NLT)

There is life and peace through following the righteous requirements of the law (Romans 8:4).  But how can a sinner please God and keep the heart of God’s law?  How can someone who is imperfect find life?

Click image for Sunday's service sheetThe answer is in two steps:

Firstly, confess your sins to God, trusting that Jesus died on the cross so that you can be forgiven.

“For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NLT)

Secondly, turn from sin and conform to God’s standard of holiness.  This is not possible for us naturally, but it is possible when we walk in the Spirit, trusting in the power of God to live the life that we ought to live, instead of trusting in our own feeble, fallible and futile strength of our natural but sinful character or nature.  Praise God that we can do all things through Christ Jesus who strengthens us (Phil. 4:13).  And that God does powerful things in us, through the power of his Spirit:

“Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. Glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20–21, NLT)

The ‘obedience of faith’ (Romans 1:5) is possible for those who confess their sins and trust in Jesus, and conform to God’s will in their lives.  Praise God!

The city of God-8-The joy of the Lord is your strength (22 June 2014)

Nehemiah - The city of God - 8 - The joy of the Lord is your strength

The law foretold of blessing if God’s people would obey him, but discipline in the form of exile if they disobeyed him.

The pattern of successive judges and then kings was sin, repentance, blessing, greater sin, until eventually their sin was so persistent that they were exiled.

Click image for Sunday's service sheetBut the law also promised for blessing after exile, so Nehemiah encouraged the people not to be sad.  They were to repent of their sins, and by joyful in the Lord.  The joy of the Lord was their strength, and can be ours too if we trust in him.

“The joy of the LORD is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10)

Habakkuk also found joy in the Lord, even if there should be little else to bring him joy:

“Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines; even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren; even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty, yet I will rejoice in the LORD! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation! The Sovereign LORD is my strength! He makes me as surefooted as a deer, able to tread upon the heights. (For the choir director: This prayer is to be accompanied by stringed instruments.)” (Habakkuk 3:17–19, NLT)

The city of God-7-Don’t give in to fear (15 June 2014)

Nehemiah - The city of God - 7 - Dont give in to fear

Have you ever been afraid of something?

When I first saw you, I was afraid to talk to you.
When I first talked to you, I was afraid to like you.
When I first liked you, I was afraid to love you.
Now that I love you, I’m afraid to lose you.

- Yesenia Ann Peralez

This person was afraid of one thing after another, living in fear instead of rejoicing.

Click image for Sunday's service sheetSometimes we too as Christians can live in fear instead of the living in the joy of the Lord.

Nehemiah could have lived in fear, because there was a lot to be afraid of, but instead he trusted in the Lord and persisted in doing his work for the Lord, despite constant opposition.

“Opposition is a fact: the Christian who is not conscious of being opposed had better watch himself for he is in danger.” (J. I. Packer, Knowing God)

“Yes, and everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” (2 Timothy 3:12, NLT)

Yet, Christians must persevere despite opposition:

“God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. “God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers.” (Matthew 5:10–11, NLT)

Be encouraged…

“We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation.” (Romans 5:3–4, NLT)

“So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.” (1 Corinthians 15:58, NLT)

“So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.” (Galatians 6:9, NLT)

The city of God-6-Bear each other’s burdens (8 June 2014)

Nehemiah - The city of God - 6 - Bearing each others burdensSocial injustices were just below the surface, like in many societies still today.  But a good leader like Nehemiah shouldaddress such issues head on, once they are alerted to them.

Nehemiah reformed the injustices that the people were suffering, generally from within their own community.  He reestablished justice and fairness, as well as continuing to work on the project of building the city walls.

Click image for Sunday's service sheetHowever, the main way that we can see social and other injustices put right is through entering into a new kingdom where truth, justice, peace, love and mercy dominate.  That can be experienced here and now through faith in Jesus Christ, but mostly in the future where there will be a kingdom under God where there will be no more sin, sorrow, pain, any longer.  Praise God!

The city of God-5-Persevering despite opposition (1 June 2014)

Nehemiah - The city of God - 5 - Persevering despite oppositionThere will be opposition in life.  We should not be surprised if trying to live a godly life experiences opposition from others, from the spiritual realm of darkness, but mostly from our own sinful nature.

But we must persevere.

 

Click image for Sunday's service sheet“Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12, NLT)

“I am warning you ahead of time, dear friends. Be on guard so that you will not be carried away by the errors of these wicked people and lose your own secure footing.” (2 Peter 3:17, NLT)

“We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments.” (2 Corinthians 10:4, NLT)

“Gently instruct those who oppose the truth. Perhaps God will change those people’s hearts, and they will learn the truth.” (2 Timothy 2:25, NLT)

“A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare.” (Proverbs 15:1, NLT)

“What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us?” (Romans 8:31, NLT)

“As soon as they were freed, Peter and John returned to the other believers and told them what the leading priests and elders had said. When they heard the report, all the believers lifted their voices together in prayer to God: “O Sovereign Lord, Creator of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them—” (Acts 4:23–24, NLT)

“Stand firm against him, and be strong in your faith. Remember that your Christian brothers and sisters all over the world are going through the same kind of suffering you are.” (1 Peter 5:9, NLT)

“Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ. Then, whether I come and see you again or only hear about you, I will know that you are standing together with one spirit and one purpose, fighting together for the faith, which is the Good News. Don’t be intimidated in any way by your enemies. This will be a sign to them that they are going to be destroyed, but that you are going to be saved, even by God himself.” (Philippians 1:27–28, NLT)

“So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.” (1 Corinthians 15:58, NLT)

Ministries of mercy

Ministries_of_mercy_coverIn his book, Ministries of Mercy, Timothy Keller exhorts believers not only to do good works to believers and non-believers alike, but also to actively seek out opportunities to help people. It is a challenging read.

He points to the example of the Good Samaritan recorded in Luke 10:30-37:

“The compassion which the good Samaritan showed was full-bodied, leading him to meet a variety of needs. It provided friendship and advocacy, emergency medical treatment, transportation, a hefty financial subsidy and even a follow-up visit… we have nothing less than an order from our Lord in the most categorical of terms, ‘go and do likewise.’ ”

Our primary duty after loving God is to love our neighbour, and this should not be just “something we get to if there is time or money in the budget, after we are satisfied with our educational and evangelistic ministries”. He argues that the good Samaritan parable “shatters that set of priorities”.

The question ‘who is my neighbour?’ is addressed early on his book. Jesus shows that anyone in need is our neighbour.  Keller looks at various case studies of different needy individuals and examines the social and economic reasons for their poverty. In his chapter A call to mercy he states quite clearly that “mercy is not optional”.

“We must meet the needs of others with all the speed, eagerness, energy and joy with which we meet our own.”

“Did Christ minister the word to unbelievers, but only confine His healing and miraculous ministry to the community of believers? No, He fed the multitude.” Jesus didn’t distinguish between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor and nor should we. “Our mercy must not only be given to those who reach some standard of worthiness.”

Furthermore, “the example of God’s grace indicates that we should not passively sit and wait for the needy to beg. Rather, we should study, find and meet basic human needs”, according to our resources and opportunity. While we should give our aid wisely, generously and graciously we also need to keep in mind that our help should be with the aim of getting the person/s back on their feet and able to provide for themselves. And also to ultimately help them spiritually. “Our mercy must have as its goal the rehabilitation of the whole person”.

He makes the point strongly that evangelism and social concern “constitute a whole that should not be divided…they are inseparable.”

In seeking to address peoples concerns that relief only go to the “deserving poor”, Keller talks about how completely undeserving of God’s grace we all were and how Jesus lavished His love on us.

“Christ knew that 1000s would trample His blood under their feet; that most would despise it….yet He gave His own blood…if you would be like Christ, give much, give often, give freely, to the vile and poor, the thankless and undeserving…Remember His own word, “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” ”

Furthermore, when we serve the poor God is honoured.

In the second part of his book, Timothy writes; “Every Christian family must develop its own ministry of mercy by looking at the needs closest to it and meeting them through loving deeds and a spirit of encouragement”. He’s speaking here of a duty of care to family members; “the family needs to ‘look in close’ before it ‘looks afar’ ”. Believers are to watch out for needs and to seek to meet them “out of their own pockets and out of their own hearts” not waiting for a formal church programme to be established before they act generously.

Also, Christians are to look out for opportunities for good deeds in the community.  Keller addresses the importance of motivating the congregation and how this should be achieved.  As people who are proactive in seeking to discover the needs of individuals and of the community we ought to:

“find out the existing services, speak to those with the finger on the pulse of a community, isolate the most important needs…now ask does your church have gifts, skills or other resources that seem to match up with certain needs?”

He reminds us “the church is the light of the world,” and has the power to transform a community. It must “think big” and not “shrink back from looking squarely at all the possibilities.”

He explores how mercy ministries often promotes church growth and how they are sometimes the only ‘bridge’ between church and the ‘unchurched’. He points out that mercy ministries must grow at the pace of the church. He shows how this can be achieved in practice.

Timothy writes;

“Most churches are surrounded by the growing needs of the unemployed, the underemployed, new immigration population, singles, divorced persons, unwed mothers, the elderly, prisoners, the dying, sick and disabled. Poverty is on the rise, the percentage of the elderly in our society is exploding…Do we want to reach these new neighbours with the gospel? Then we must give our faith active expression through deeds of compassion coupled with evangelism and discipleship.”

“The church of Jesus Christ must squarely face its responsibility for the neighbour lying in the road.”

A response to a sermon relating to Islam

nationSD2

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:

  1. 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),
  2. 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),
  3. that opposition to the cause of Christianity is sometimes primarily a spiritual matter (Ephesians 6:10-20),
  4. 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),
  5. that critique of other religions ought to be clearly seen to be in both truth and love (Ephesians 4:15),
  6. to campaign for truth and justice where it is needed around the world,
  7. to support those who are suffering oppression and injustice, wherever they are, and
  8. 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.

Other considerations

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”.

In response

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