All of a sudden, evangelism to Muslims has exploded onto the Christian stage.
What once was a topic for missionary experts and denominational seminars has surged past conventional (read: benign) cross-cultural awareness in North American churches to an anxious debate over evangelism theories, and more than a subtle threat to some basic orthodox theology.
Most notable have been an increasingly skeptical response to the disturbingly popular Insider Movement, and Wycliffe Bible Translators' controversy over "God the Father" and "God the Son." These dangerous conflicts derive most of their potency from questions that they raise about how important it is to believe in the Trinity.
In other words, is it vital that our theology never waiver from depicting God as Father, Son, and Spirit?
How much weight do cultural interpretations carry when it comes to describing Who God is? How much accuracy should we expect when the Bible is translated? Can a person be saved and not profess an orthodox belief in the divinity and paternity of Christ?
And as if all of these questions weren't enough, a new Islam-connected controversy has been brewing.
For a while now, e-mails, news stories, and Facebook notices have been circulating about the imminent martyrdom of Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani. During the past several months, we've been told that Nadarkhani could be killed at any moment, and then we hear that yet another reprieve has been granted. As far as we know, Nadarkhani is still alive, albeit still in an Iranian prison, and refusing to recant his faith in Christ.
But what is his faith in Christ? As evangelicals monitoring Nadarkhani's case are discovering, his faith may have been shaped in part by the Oneness Pentecostal movement.
Never heard of it? According to Watchman Fellowship, an evangelical ministry specializing in cult awareness issues, Oneness Pentecostals expressly deny the Trinity. They believe that God exists as one entity who reveals himself to humanity in various ways. It doesn't help matters that Nadarkhani himself has been videotaped admitting that he doesn't believe in the Trinity. In fact, he doesn't know who issued his theology diploma!
These revelations have caused some evangelicals who've been pressing for Nadarkhani's release to second-guess the whole situation. Is he really born-again? Is he an apostate, a wolf in sheep's clothing? Or might there be huge discrepancies in the translations of his faith? Might Western audiences simply be getting an inaccurate version of his beliefs?
Whether Nadarkhani genuinely believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God Who died for His sins is, of course, a vital question that needs to be addressed. However, it appears that the reason he's being held by Iranian authorities involves his refusal to deny that he believes in Jesus Christ at all. Surely that's reason enough to support his pleas for life, if for nothing else than basic religious freedom.
But on a broader scale, Nadarkhani's case helps expose an even bigger problem than religious persecution in Iran. What seems to have been happening is that, during the past couple of decades, a massive disconnect has been working its way between our evangelical North American church and a niche group of missionaries serving within Muslim communities around the globe. This disconnect has resulted in what appears to North American evangelicals to be sloppy doctrinal teaching and careless adaptations of theology at best, and shocking heresies at worst.
As Wycliffe scrambles to salvage its reputation in the light of its Trinity controversy, and as North American denominations begin reacting to the Insider Movement at the behest of indigenous - and indignant - converts from Islam (who mostly resent the way educated Westerners are patronizing them), those of us sounding alarm bells are told that we don't understand the complexities of evangelizing Muslims. People like me are belittled as being unsophisticated in the ways of cross-cultural missions work, and therefore in no position to render judgment. Sure, we have our ways of understanding the Scriptures, but we have to allow for cultural adaptations so that the Gospel works for other people groups. And it takes real experts to know what parts of the Bible to fudge, and what parts of the Bible Westerners shouldn't expect everybody else on the planet to understand.
Personally, I hope that Nadarkhani's life is spared, that he's released from prison, and that somebody with sound theology can witness to him. I hope that Wycliffe's controversy can be summed up as one easily-corrected misunderstanding. And I hope that the Insider Movement simply caves in on itself as the Holy Spirit reveals to its sincere yet misguided practitioners how heretical it is.
Then again, maybe I'm just a stupid American Christian. Maybe my faith really is woefully unsophisticated, but am I sinning against God when I expect other "believers" to believe that Jesus Christ is the literal Son of God Who died on the cross to satisfy His Father's wrath over our sins?
I believe in God the Father almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth. And I believe in His holy Son, our Lord, Who was conceived of the Holy Ghost. If that makes me stupid, then please - please - educate me on the parts of the Bible that contradict the reality of the Trinity!
Sure, the word "trinity" may not exist in the Bible. But that's no excuse for professing Christians to deny its reality. What we call the Trinity could be called by plenty of other words, and it would still mean the same thing: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.
And if it's taking Islam to force the utter validity of the Trinity out into the open air of Christianity's dialog, then I thank God for Islam! Indeed, sometimes darkness helps reveal the Light.