by Jeff Robinson
Opposing views on salvation and the authority of Scripture are at the heart of the debate over Christian mission efforts in postwar Iraq, as evidenced during a broadcast of National Public Radio’s Fresh Air program May 5.
Airing the opposite views in separate interviews were R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Charles Kimball, chairman of Wake Forest University’s religion department.
A number of Christian groups are planning to provide humanitarian relief for the citizens of Iraq following the war. The controversy centers on whether missionaries also should take the gospel into the predominately Muslim country.
During his interview with host Terry Gross, Mohler pointed out that Christ commanded His followers to make disciples of all nations. “[Evangelical Christians] believe He [Jesus] is the way, the truth, the life and that no one comes to the Father but by Him,” Mohler said. “Those who differ from us, from the Protestant left, for instance, have to explain how they will be faithful to the gospel in that way.
“We do not offer Christianity as one option among many, [with] any [option] as good as any other. The gospel tells us that Jesus is the only way.
“That’s why we are driven by a real compulsion to be obedient to the command of the Lord. And those who critique us, I wish they would be honest in telling the people in their own pews that they really do not believe that Jesus is the only way, because I think that they would find that most of the people in the pews of their churches really believe what we believe when we go into the world with the gospel.”
Kimball, a 1975 graduate of Southern Seminary, served as director of the Middle East office of the National Council of Churches in the 1980s. He told Fresh Air he is opposed to efforts to tie humanitarian relief to evangelization, because attempts to convert Muslims to the Christian faith might be viewed by the people of that country as Christian imperialism.
“In the first place, this is an area that is living with the history of the Crusades and in the shadow of colonialism,” Kimball said. “It’s an area where people are already suspicious….of what U.S. intentions and U.S. motives are. “To go into an area, especially to tie aid to some kind of proselytizing initiative, would be to fuel the worst sort of fears that this is a new kind of crusade or this really is kind of Christian imperialism.”
Following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Franklin Graham—founder of the Christian relief agency Samaritan’s Purse—found himself at the center of controversy when he was quoted by the national press as having called Islam a “wicked religion.”
Mohler was asked if he agrees with Graham’s statement. He pointed out that any religion or belief system that leads persons away from Christ and points them to salvation through other means is evil because it destroys the soul eternally. “I think we have to be careful because, of course, what we are not saying is that Muslims are evil or that all Muslims represent an ambition to be a terrorist or that kind of mode of life,” Mohler said. “But we have to be honest and say that [we] believe it is a horrible thing when one turns away from the gospel of Christ and turns to anything else.”
Mohler said it is important that the new Iraqi government establish religious liberty. Each person must have the freedom to follow his or her conscience in spiritual matters and to practice his faith of choice, he said. Such liberty includes the freedom for Christians to proclaim the Good News of Christ, Mohler said.
Kimball, who also is an ordained Baptist minister, said he grew up believing that Jesus was the only way to salvation but began to question this belief while in college. The former Southern Baptist said he began to have serious questions about the veracity of Scripture, particularly regarding the first three chapters in Genesis and the differences in the accounts of the resurrection as reported by the four Gospels.
Kimball said these questions helped him to “think outside the box” of historic Christianity and to seek meaning within other faiths. “I learned to ask questions and think for myself, to think critically and to keep asking questions and seeking out truth, both within my religious tradition and beyond,” Kimball said. “Why is it that there are 1.3 billion Muslims, who for 14-plus centuries have found meaning and been able to guide their lives on the basis of their understanding of religion?
“I think that is an important question to ask as opposed to simply saying, ‘They’re wrong because my experience is right.’ I find that to be a sort of silly and dangerous way to approach these matters.”
Mohler affirmed, “I would contend, as an American who believes in religious liberty, for the right of my Jewish neighbor to practice Judaism if that is his heartfelt belief and conviction and the same for every other citizen of this nation, regardless of his or her spiritual convictions…. As Christians, we have a responsibility to share the gospel, but we do not believe in evangelism by coercion, much less by legislation.”
Mohler said it is also important for Christians to communicate the message that missionaries are doing their work under the banner of Christ and not under the banner of the U.S. government.
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