Written by Andrew C. | Wednesday, June 26, 2013
The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) met in Greenville, South Carolina 17-20 June 2013 for its 41st General Assembly. Commissioners flying and driving into that growing and vibrant Southern city may have gotten more than they paid for. As a long-time observer to the GA, I can say that meetings are sometimes long-periods of boredom occasionally interrupted by moments of inconsequence. Doing things “decently and in good order” does not generally make for engaging theater.
This GA lacked nothing in the category of drama. One of the more anticipated events in the four days was the consideration of the PCA Study Committee on Insider Movements, which included both a majority report and minority report. This missiological creation referred to as the insider movement, teaches that people come to Jesus most effectively when they do not leave their families, communities, and (here is the rub) their birth religions. Translation for those who do not know “anthropology-speak”: Rather than going to Jesus outside the camp (Hebrews 13:13) in faith, and leaving behind their former way of life, including their religious practices, converts are urged to remain inside their former religious affiliations.
This idea, championed on the floor by some prominent church leaders: Mark Bates, pastor of Village Seven PCA in Colorado Springs, Rick Hivner, and Nelson Jennings, formerly of Covenant Theological Seminary (the denomination’s seminary), supported the minority report in adopting a taxonomy distinguishing absolutely between different degrees of “Muslim.”
I was confused. Having read both reports, it appeared to me that Dr. Nabeel Jabbour, the author of the minority report, was asserting that being a nominal Muslim was better than being a strict one. Perhaps I need to go back to school, but it seemed to me to imply that one kind of Muslim was further away from God than another. Two questions came to mind: Is there any such thing as a Muslim not fundamentally shaped by religion? And is there any such thing as an Islam closer to God than some other form of the same religion? Is not Islam a fallen religion, a structure like the Tower of Babel, erected by inherently religious humans to worship a false God?
It seemed that in the drama of the General Assembly that the church was perhaps sleepwalking away from its historical understanding of the relationship of Christ to the visible, historical church (equated to Christendom in the minority report) and to the religions of the nations. You could feel the beginnings of a change in the climate after the assembly boxed itself into a corner. Rather than choosing be either the majority or minority reports, it voted to follow the lead of Pastor Bates and vote to combine both reports into a single report, by appending the minority to the majority report. I wonder if the sense of the assembly mirrored the feeling of the designer of the Titanic when he descended below decks and discovered that the hole in his boat was a lot bigger than he thought.
Tensions rose when the commissioners engaged in an extended debate on the floor concerning the Arabic word for God, “Allah.” It was passionate and quite confusing. From my perspective as an observer, it tangled up two ideas: (1) That “Allah” is an Arabic word and (2) that the God of Muslims is or is not the same God worshiped by Christians (from my perspective, of course, he isn’t!).
While Dr. Jabbour carefully explained that Arabic Christians have historically called God the Father “Allah,” he disclosed what seemed to be two more problems with his ideas. First, the God of Muslims is monistic. It is only one and never three. It can never be the same God as the God of the Bible. It could also never be the God of either Christians or of the Christian church. In other words, the very idea of God irreducibly divides Muslims and Christians.
Jabbour and other’s use of Allah is not wrong because it is an Arabic word. It is wrong when it obscures the fact that a religion of light cannot also be a religion of darkness. Perhaps Jabbour has no choice. Maybe that is the only way he can justify keeping followers of Christ in the mosque. I am sure that he could not do so if he felt that Islam was inherently evil. It was self-evident that he does not, neither Hivner nor Jennings, believe that Islam is completely fallen. Rather, it has to be seen by them as in some way redeemable, transformable from the inside.
That brings to me a scoring of style not just content. On this basis, the advocates of the minority report clearly almost won the day. If the vote to recommit the reports back to the study committee had not been narrowly won, the PCA would have been on record of accepting radically different ideas concerning the nature of religion, the nature of the church, the nature of conversion, and the exclusive connection between Jesus and his church. How did such a state of mutually assured destruction (think of the day when Americans and Soviets came close to blowing up each other and our planet) almost win out? That one is easy. Style.
The advocates of the minority view were masters of style. They quickly promoted a wholly ambiguous, homey, emotional, and misleading report by presenting it as being eminently practical and compassionate. It rated high in emotional intelligence (EQ). It was the love report. The majority report, a masterful and balanced (perhaps over-balanced) treatment of truth, religion, a covenantal reading of Scripture came across as somewhat obscure and fussy. It needed to be more direct in its conclusions and recommendations. Finding bottom lines at times required a magnifying glass. Its introduction was erudite and profound but, in this reporter’s view may have sailed over the commissioners’ heads.
Well, the PCA received a reprieve this week. It came dangerously close to plummeting off a cliff it did not even see coming. The committee has another year to refine and resubmit its report. It is hard to see how the minority report can change unless it becomes even more indistinct and misleading. Perhaps it can apply more camouflage to hide the fact that it thinks that Muslims can remain Muslims and not leave the mosque. No amount of assurance that syncretism is avoided or that doctrinal standards required by the Bible are maintained can alter the fact that, at the end of the day, Islam remains but Christianity is not needed. With that said, the majority report needs its pencil point sharpened; it needs to make its points clearly and simply.
The constituencies behind each will also begin to mobilize for next June. In this GA, it was clear that advocates of the minority report were prepared. They crowded the microphones and set the pace. The advocates of the majority report were unprepared and late. They get one more chance to get it right.
Andrew C. lives and works East Asia in a sensitive country.
The original posting of this article can be found here.