The Justifications of Polygamists

“Now that I have have this comprehensive power of attorney for you, I can legally get you a second wife – even without you knowing. Better watch out, when you come back from out of the country you may have a second wife, ha!”

Mr. Talent* conveniently dropped this news after several of us on the team had finished the POA process with him, meaning that he could now hold this over each of our heads. Thankfully, being a believer, Mr. Talent understands now that polygamy is a sin, despite his joking. Even before coming to faith, his first marriage had been difficult and had fallen apart, and he is also of the local demographic that would resonate with the ancestral proverb that “a man with two wives has a liver full of holes,” i.e. become a polygamist and embrace a life of pain.

And yet polygamy continues in our corner of Central Asia as a relatively normal thing among a sizeable minority of the population. Why does it still happen when polygamy is technically illegal in our area and when the culture itself has proverbs that speak to its danger? For something that is so foreign to us in the West (at least for now), it’s helpful to understand the justifications used by other societies for polygamy so that we can more skillfully oppose it with biblical truth.

The overwhelming majority of locals in our area are Muslims, and this means that a religious motivation is ready at hand for anyone who desires to marry an additional wife – even if this religious reason serves as a thin veneer for the true motivation. After all, the founding figure of Islam, Muhammad, had around twelve wives (there’s some disagreement about the actual number, and our local imams say thirteen). Being the supposed prophet and founder, Muhammad is held up as the ideal Muslim. So if a Muslim man wants to live like the prophet, and thereby be blessed, he will traditionally consider polygamy as a logical way to do this. However, only the prophet is allowed a dozen wives. Normal Muslims are limited to four.

Justifications in Islam for this polygamy in Muhammad’s life vary, but the most common one that I’ve heard is that it was an act of social justice, since so many wives had become widows in the holy wars that led to Islam’s founding. This doesn’t explain why Muhammad married seven-year-old Aisha, his favorite wife. Nor does it explain why he took his adopted son’s wife to be his own, conveniently receiving a divine revelation declaring adoption an un-Islamic concept in order to make it seem like he was not actually marrying his son’s wife (thereby making adoption among most Muslims a shameful thing to this day). But I digress, the logic for this first reason for polygamy among Muslims skirts these issues and simply maintains that Allah has blessed polygamy in the life of the prophet, and thereby in the life of faithful Muslims who commit to caring for each wife equally.

This Islamic sanctioning of polygamy means it often takes place in spite of the laws of the country where the couple resides – laws often viewed as Western and infidel-influenced. Polygamy is illegal only in the region of the country where we’ve been residing, but it is legal in other regions. So, local men who desire an additional wife will travel down south and work things out there, often with a wink from their local Islamic authorities, who are supposed to be abiding by the law and not encouraging polygamy at all. This dynamic is also present among some Islamic refugees in the West, where a man might fill out his paperwork as having one wife and one “sister” in order to bring both his wives with him to the West. He’ll set up two households in his new country, and live as a polygamist under the radar.

Another very common reason for polygamy among the Muslims in our area is infertility. Similar to stories of the Old Testament patriarchs, a man will often take a second wife if his first wife has proven unable to conceive after a given length of time. This is because children, and male heirs specifically, are so highly prized in the culture. We knew a village family in this situation, where a new wife had recently been acquired because the first wife seemed to be infertile. Again, similar to the stories of Rachel or Hannah, the public shame the first wife experiences in this kind of situation is almost unbearable. The presence of the second wife would serve as an excruciating daily reminder of her shame and and failure. If the medical issue resides with the man, he may keep taking on new wives, blaming each one in turn for what is actually his biological problem. Thankfully, modern medicine is making this kind of situation less common, as long as the man isn’t too proud to accept what the doctors are saying.

Surprisingly, it can sometimes be the first wife who pushes for the husband to take a second. This is because the first wife is often given a promotion of sorts when a second wife is taken on. The veteran wife will often get to hand off the more difficult housework and cooking to the second wife. Or the first and second wives give the hard labor to the third, etc. This could be viewed as compensation of sorts for the embarrassment of the husband taking on another wife, but can also be pursued in a sadly practical way for a marriage that’s unhealthy anyway. If the relationship is already cold and practical, why not get some help around the house? Similarly, one of my wife’s close friends desires her husband to take on a second wife primarily so that she can be free of his sexual demands. Having an additional wife might even provide some relational connection for a lonely wife who is disliked by her husband and his extended family. Just as the wives of a polygamist can often be bitter rivals, they can also become friends who support one another when both are stuck in the same situation, married to a bad man.

Polygamy can also be pursued by extended families in order to increase the standing of each. A poorer family might want one of their daughters to marry a wealthy or powerful patron. The patron’s standing as a holy, powerful, and apparently desirable man is thus increased, and the family of the girl gets a boost in honor and the brideprice money, which would be considerably more in this situation than if she were the sole wife of a man with less status. For example, one aged mullah in our country recently took on a third wife who is thirty-four years his junior. This kind of family status arrangement is likely what is going on here.

A final category of justification for polygamy is often simply the whims and desires of the man. If he is unhappy with how things are going sexually, or in terms of the cooking, or even if he just wants to flaunt his power as the domestic strongman, he might take on another wife. The first wife (or wives) cannot stop him from doing this, though in their own ways they can make him pay for it, hence the proverb about having a liver full of holes. Sadly, much polygamy takes place for no other reason than an already-married man takes a liking to another woman he has seen and decides that he simply must have her. I had to cut off contact with one village friend because he kept calling me, insisting that I translate for him as he flirted with a migrant worker, trying make her his second wife without the knowledge of the rest of his family.

The Bible is not silent on polygamy, though the case made against it is an indirect one. The first polygamist we see in Genesis is Lamech, a domineering and violent man. Then, in the stories of the patriarchs, both Abraham and Jacob become polygamists because of sin – Abraham’s doubting God’s promise and Laban’s deception of the inebriated Jacob. What ensues is a terrific mess, with rival wives, warring children, and men who must repeatedly eat the bitter fruit of their polygamous households. The kings of Israel are then expressly forbidden from taking on many wives in the style of the harems of the other nations, and we see the destruction of polygamy in both David’s and Solomon’s stories, even turning their hearts away from God. As the Old Testament period winds on, it becomes clear that God shows grace to polygamous households in spite of the institution, not because of it. The narratives of scripture are all consistent in their painting polygamy in a negative, worldly light.

At last, in the New Testament, Jesus calls the religious leaders back to God’s creation pattern for marriage – a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. Two become one, just like Adam and Eve in the beginning. In this passage as well as Paul’s insistence upon leaders being one-women men, monogamy is clearly assumed and polygamy thereby understood to be out of bounds. It may have been tolerated under the Old Covenant, but the New Covenant has come, where Christ has one holy bride, not multiple. And this relationship now serves as the pattern for all Christian marriages.

Whatever the justifications of polygamists, God’s word has come to silence them with its indirect yet forceful case. To have multiple wives is to lie about the nature of God’s covenant-keeping love, to lie about the nature of God himself. Believers in Christ are to live in such a way that their marriages are imperfect yet genuine metaphors of Christ and the Church – and as in the recent Western order, to influence society such that the injustice of polygamy is no longer tolerated.

For polygamy is unjust, both to the women whose dignity and agency are violated in polygamous marriage, as well as to poorer and younger and even average men, for whom marriage in a polygamous society becomes less and less attainable. A case could even be made that polygamous societies lead to greater violent conflict, as there is a clear connection in history between nations with a shortage of brides and nations that try to conquer their neighbors. And polygamous societies will always lead to many more available single men than available single women. How can it be otherwise when having multiple wives becomes a status symbol of the religious, the wealthy, and the powerful?

The justifications of polygamists are mixed. Some are good desires, such as the desire to have children, or to get some relief from the never-ending household labor. Christians can recognize the good in these desires and point toward better ways to pursue these goals and to respond when they are denied. Other, selfish, desires that lead to polygamy are to be rejected outright. Hence, knowing what the underlying motivation is for taking on another wife will be key to responding both biblically and skillfully. Why skillfully? Because in polygamous societies, you are the crazy one who thinks that monogamy is the only way to go. For them, polygamy is simply normal, perhaps even good, the way the world is. Helping locals to turn against their own polygamous heritage will be no easy task, but speaking to their underlying motivations will only help in this effort. I’ve laid out here the main motivations for polygamy in our context, but other polygamous contexts will bring with them their own unique justifications that will require understanding and appropriate response.

Polygamy has been around an awfully long time, and no doubt it will continue to pop up various human societies into the future. As it decreases in Central Asia, it may stage a comeback in the post-Christian West. The Church will need to confront it wherever it finds polygamy, lovingly but boldly calling men and women to a faithful monogamy that points back to Eden, and forward to the coming marriage supper of the Lamb.

*Names changed for security

Photo by zelle duda on Unsplash

Divinity, Prophethood, Judgement, Cheesecake

“So what would you say are the main differences between Islam and Christianity?” asked Hamid*, taking a bite of the cheesecake we were sharing. One welcome development over the past decade has been a tremendous increase in the availability and quality of cheesecake in our Central Asian city.

Hamid, Darius*, and I had gathered at a nice local cafe in order to field Hamid’s many questions. A new teacher of history and comparative religion at an elite local high school, Hamid often found himself at a loss when students asked detailed questions about Christianity. His personal studies on the internet yielded some clarity – as well as a lot more questions.

Darius and Hamid were good friends, and Darius had shared the gospel with him several times. Though neither of us were sure to what extent Hamid’s questions were for his students or actually to satisfy his own curiosity. But we didn’t find it necessary to press. In an honor-shame culture, this sort of “I have a friend who” framing of a conversation allows seekers to explore hard questions as they weigh the risk of admitting that they themselves are having potentially explosive doubts. If the questions were for Hamid himself, then that’s great. And if they’re only for his students? Still great. At the very least, the truth shared now might serve to create in Hamid’s mind what locals call a “brain-worm” that could lead to more searching down the road.

“I mean, other than what you have already described about salvation by faith instead of by good deeds,” Hamid went on to clarify. “I think I understand that point.”

I sipped my hot drink and mulled on how to respond. We had already discussed the key difference Hamid had mentioned, Islam and Christianity’s mutually-exclusive answers to how a person can be saved. I decided to proceed in a slightly different way than I normally would.

“Well, let’s frame the differences in light of three central tenets of Islam’s worldview: the oneness of God (tawhid), prophethood, and the last day.”

Darius and Hamid leaned in. The three aspects of Islamic teaching that I mentioned are so central to Muslims’ worldviews that they are what a certain historical American document might call self-evident – so obvious to locals that they feel that no logical and honest person can ever deny them.

“When we speak of tawhid, or the oneness of God, Islam teaches a simple unity. There is only one God and he exists eternally as one person. However, the Bible teaches something that contradicts this understanding of God’s nature. It teaches that God is actually a complex unity. Yes, there is only one God, but he exists eternally as three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three persons, or three distinct consciousnesses, are equally divine, and completely one in their nature, essence, and will – yet they have distinct roles and they have real relationships of love and communication and glory with one another. In this way, the God of the Bible is totally different from the God of the Qur’an. You would agree that a disagreement about the very nature of God is about as big a disagreement as you can have, right?”

Here Hamid and Darius nodded their heads. Hamid and I had previously spoken of the Trinity while on a picnic together, where he had asked a great question, one which I had never heard before, “Do the members of the Trinity ever compete with one another?” “In only one respect that I can think of,” I had responded after a while, “In giving one another glory.”

“OK, so the Trinity is a big difference,” Hamid continued, “But why do you say there’s a difference in prophethood? Aren’t prophets just men sent by God with a book, preaching God’s message to their people?”

Here I decided to be a little more blunt than usual.

“Well, the writer of the Qur’an, for his own purposes, took Mohammad’s story and did a copy-paste over the story of all the other prophets. So, yes, in Islam all the prophets seem to follow the same script. They are spoken of as basically-sinless holy men who are sent by God to their own people with the message of God’s oneness and the coming judgment of the last day. The message is often communicated to the prophet directly via an angel or some kind of verbal revelation. Many of the prophet’s people reject their message and go on to suffer the consequences. The formula is very simple and is repeated over and over, whether the Qur’an is talking about Moses, Lot, or others. God is claimed to have sent countless prophets to their own peoples in this same formula until sending Mohammad as the final ‘seal’ of the prophets, with a message for all humanity and an incorruptable book. This is why Muslims think that the Injil is one book, given to Jesus, later corrupted, and why most are unaware that there are actually four Injils (gospels), none written by Jesus himself, and unaware that they are only one part of the twenty seven books of the New Testament.

“The prophets in the Bible are very different from prophets according to Islam. They are presented as sometimes very sinful men, chosen by God’s grace to display and communicate God’s message to his people. Yes, this message involves coming judgement and turning from idols to follow the one true God. But it centers around God’s covenant faithfulness toward sinners – including the sinful prophets themselves whose failures demonstrate that we need someone who is more than a prophet. Prophets also receive many different kinds of revelation, whether seemingly more ‘spiritual’ like angels, dreams, or visions, or whether seemingly more ‘natural,’ like doing historical research or writing proverbs. Some prophets write multiple books. Other prophets don’t write any books at all. For many of our books of the Bible we don’t even know who the author was!

“The difference in prophethood between Islam and Christianity is a big one. When it comes to Jesus, rather than him being the final prophet in a long line of sinless men, each with their own people and book, Jesus is the Word of God and the Son of God himself, the only sinless one after many flawed and sinful prophets, whose coming is the climax of God’s revelation to men. All the earlier prophets point to him positively through their inspired writings and faithful deeds, as well as negatively through their sin and failure – kind of like shadows or signs that point us to the real thing.”

“OK,” nodded Hamid, “That’s prophethood. So how is the understanding of the last day different?”

“Well this one connects again to how a person is saved. In Islam, a person is judged based on a scale which weighs their good or bad deeds. The heavier side determines their eternal destiny, though no one can ever know for sure since God’s mercy is presented as unpredictable and mysterious. So in Islam, the last day motivates people to obey based out of fear that their scale will condemn them, or that God may condemn them for some other reason, simply because he is God. There is no certainty about that day of judgment, and a lot of fear.”

Here Hamid nodded his head. Whatever internet Islamic scholars may say, this is very much what Central Asian Muslims on the street believe and live by. Fear is necessary because it keeps us from sinning which will (hopefully) keep us from hell. God can be won over by just enough good deeds (hopefully) – unless he plays a divine joker card and sends some of the undeserving to heaven and others to hell, simply because he’s God and he’s beyond our understanding.

“However,” I continued, “the key for the last day, according to the Bible, is that we are known by God and by Jesus. That we have a relationship with him based on faith in his promises. And that all our good deeds on that day stand as evidence that he knows us already and we know him. They’re not the basis for our acceptance, done out of fear, but the evidence of it, done out of love and gratitude. The last day for a true believer is not something with an uncertain outcome, but a time when we are promised acceptance and welcome by God, who never breaks his promises.”

Hamid sat thoughtfully, “Thank you,” he said, turning to me. “These differences are much clearer for me now.”

I sat back, grateful that some of that I had shared had been understood, maybe even accepted. Believe it or not, convincing local friends that Christianity and Islam really do fundamentally disagree with one another is one of the most stubbornly-difficult tasks we face when we seek to do evangelism. It was interesting to use the Islamic worldview of oneness-prophethood-judgment as a familiar framework for illustrating these crucial differences. Like the scale vs. sacrifice approach, it might be a way to present gospel truth in a concrete fashion Muslims are better able to understand.

We had been talking for a while by this point and I though we had probably given Hamid enough food for thought for one evening. The cheesecake was gone. Likely, he would want to switch topics to something a little lighter.

“OK, then!” Hamid said as he rubbed his hands together. “Next question. Explain to me the different branches of Christianity – and how to keep them all straight. Google was no help on this one.”

We were going to need some more cheesecake.

*names changed for security

Photo by mahyar mirghasemi on Unsplash

What of the Miracles Attesting to Islam?

This past week we hosted a Q&A time for the local believing men. For a couple hours, we sat in our living room and engaged difficult questions that they have wrestled with. Together, we attempted to first answer these questions from God’s word and then from other experience and logic.

We didn’t make it through very many questions, spending the time primarily engaging several apologetics issues that local Muslims regularly challenge the local believers with. One very common question is what we make of all the alleged miracles that support Islam’s claims.

Islam leans very heavily on claims of the miraculous in order to prove that it is indeed God’s final authoritative religion. The perfection of the Qur’an’s language – written by an illiterate prophet – is one alleged miracle most Muslims would agree to. It’s also very popular to go into detail about how mysterious Arabic phrases in the Qur’an were in fact prophecies of scientific realities only demonstrated in recent centuries (See the book, “Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus” for an in-depth discussion of this kind of Islamic apologetics). Islam is divided over whether Mohammad himself did many miracles. His official biography, written in the 700’s by Ibn Is’haq, describes dozens of miracles he performed. But many conservative Muslims debate this, since the Qur’an seems to suggest that the prophet of Islam did no other miracles other than the recitation of the Qur’an.

However, on a folk level, many Muslims maintain that Mohammad did in fact perform many miracles, such as splitting the moon in half at one point, and that Allah continues to give testifying signs that confirm the truth of Islam. Not unlike a Catholic finding a portrait of the virgin Mary in a piece of burnt toast, I’ve heard serious claims that “Allahu Akbar” has been written in the clouds or in the markings of a watermelon skin. Just last night I saw a post claiming that a Muslim scholar drank rat poison after eating some special dates and was unharmed. This was allegedly a fulfillment of a promise regarding said dates from either the Qur’an or the Hadith.

So, the local believers wanted to know, how should we respond when our friends or relatives we are sharing the gospel with make these claims?

“I always ask them, ‘What, where, when, how?'” said Darius*. “It’s all baseless.”

“But what Bible passages can we turn to to help answer this question,” I asked.

The group sat and mulled silently for a second.

“How about Matthew 7:15-20?” one of the other men suggested. “This talks about how we’ll know false prophets by their fruit. The fruit of Mohammad’s life was bad, so we know that we can’t trust his miracles.”

We read the passage together that begins with, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruit.”

“Good, and keep reading,” I suggested, “Until verse 23. Notice how it says that many will have prophesied and cast out demons in Jesus’ name, but they don’t actually know Jesus. So there must be another power enabling them to do these signs.”

“The power of Satan?” the group asked. Several of us nodded.

“We have to admit that according to the Bible, it’s possible for people to do real miracles, but with evil power, not with God’s power. Remember Pharaoh’s magicians in Exodus chapter 7, how they copied Aaron’s miracle and their staffs also became snakes?”

“Yes! But then Aaron’s snake swallowed the other snakes,” added Henry*.

“So, miracles done through an evil power really are possible, but we can say they will somehow fall short of God’s true miracles,” I suggested. “The magicians of Egypt are soon unable to duplicate the signs of Moses and Aaron.”

“Here’s a followup question, then. Are miracles even enough to validate the truth of a message?”

The group chewed on the question for a moment before affirming that no, miracles alone are insufficient proof.

“So what else is needed? How about agreement with the message of all God’s revelation that has come before?”

“That sounds like 1st John 4,” said one of my colleagues who was also part of the discussion.

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the spirit of God; every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Christ is not from God.” (1st John 4:1-3)

Here we spent a little time talking about the false teaching in the passage that denied Jesus’ humanity, and comparing it with Islam, which denies Jesus’ divinity. Even though opposite ends of the heresy spectrum, both are denying key tenets about the person and work of Christ, denying the core of the gospel message.

“So even if false prophets come with powerful signs, if their message denies the gospel taught from Genesis to Revelation, then they are false prophets. Signs must be accompanied by the same message,” we concluded.

“But so many of the miracles claimed by Islam are actually hogwash!” others chimed in.

“Yes, and you can have that discussion if you need to,” I responded. “But you can also just go to these verses (or others like Matthew 24:24 and Galatians 1:8) and show that miracles and signs alone simply aren’t proof of a correct message or religion. And then you can talk about the gospel message.”

The discussion moved on from there to responding to claims that the Bible has been changed and claims that Islam is the final “seal” religion. We ended the night by focusing on the need for God’s word to break down hard hearts, since consistent and clean logic is never enough in these kinds of apologetics conversations.

“Let’s make sure we are responding with God’s word. God promises to use his word in powerful ways, and it is the chosen vehicle of the Holy Spirit, like spiritual explosives. There’s simply no promise that he will use my logic or arguments or experience in the same way.”

*names changed for security

Photo by Alistair MacRobert on Unsplash

Ottomans and Incarnation

My son and I were killing some time in a local mall when we entered a furniture store and happened upon a small ottoman-type foot rest. I had been keeping an eye out for one just like it, the kind of addition that would complete a great reading corner in our living room.

We called the salesperson over to ask if we could buy it and while discussing details he looked in confusion from my son to me. My son, blonde-haired and blue eyed, clearly looks like a Westerner. But locals aren’t always sure when it come to me since I have darker hair and features. In fact, the better our language gets, the more my wife and I get mistaken for locals. After many years of plodding language study and countless mistakes, we do enjoy these occasional instances of being viewed as not obviously foreigners. I always chuckle when the checkpoint police ask me, “What are doing with that foreigner there?”

This particular salesperson was really pleased that we could speak the local language, and turns out he himself was no local either, but a transplant from a neighboring country and from a sister people group – one we have no ability to access due to political difficulties.

As we moved toward the cashier I got to ask him questions about his people group and home city, a place with a storied past and a people known for their poetry, craftsmanship, and culture. For example, my particular old stone house was built by masons from his city back in the 1950s. The female cashier joined into our conversation as well, the only actual local among the three of us conversing.

“Are you a Christian or a Muslim?” They asked me.

“I’m a Christian, the type called Injili (Evangelical),” I told them.

“There’s a lot of different groups in Christianity, just like in Islam,” the salesman said to the cashier.

“That’s right!” I jumped in. “Injilis are distinct for focusing so much on the sources, God’s written word, and prioritizing it over human tradition.”

“So, you actually think that Jesus is the Son of God, right?”

“Yes, that’s what he is called in the Scriptures. But the meaning is different than what people think. God has an eternal Word. His word became a man and dwelt among us. When his Word became a human he had a nature that was sinless, unlike ours, because he is actually God’s eternal Word. That’s an important part of what that title, ‘Son of God,’ means.

Their brows were furrowed as I spoke. It was clearly the first time they had ever heard this.

“It’s not a physical sonship as most Muslims think,” I continued. “It has a deeper spiritual meaning. Sometimes we also use ‘son’ in a different way. A man from this city might be called a son of the city, or a son of the mountains. Even the Qur’an has a term, ‘son of the road.'”

My new friends looked skeptical, but they let me keep going.

“At the same time, Adam is also called, ‘Son of God’ for having no earthly father, but being created directly by God. In a similar way, Jesus’ birth was a miraculous act of creation by God.”

“That’s right, because Mary was a pure virgin,” chimed in the cashier.

“Correct! So the title, ‘Son of God’ has important deeper meanings in the Scriptures that are not understood by those who are quick to claim it’s blasphemy.”

They chewed on this information and got back to processing my purchase.

“You know,” said the salesman, “That’s the one big difference between what we believe and what you believe.”

I surveyed the empty store and realized we had time for a little bit more conversation. My phone was buzzing. My wife was done grocery shopping and was likely calling to try and find us. I knew she would let me ignore this call for a few minutes because of the nature of the conversation.

“There’s another big difference,” I continued. “The question of how a person is saved.”

My friends’ eyebrows raised and they paused to listen.

“In Islam people believe that salvation is like a scale. If your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds, you can go to paradise. But God’s word – The Torah, the Psalms, the New Testament – disagrees with this idea. It teaches that we are so sinful that our bad will always outweigh good, and that even our good is mixed up with our pride. The scale system doesn’t work.”

They were still listening even after this controversial statement, so I kept going.

“Instead, God instituted a system of sacrifice and pardon. All of the prophets were commanded to do animal sacrifices, and through the blood of the sacrifice their sins could be forgiven. God gave these animal sacrifices as a prophecy about the life and death of Jesus. As the eternal Word of God, Jesus had no sin, and his purpose in coming was to be the final sacrifice for sins. The value of his blood was so great – and the power of his resurrection from the dead three days later – that anyone who stops believing in their own scale and in his sacrifice instead, will be forever pardoned, safe, and saved.”

At this point my wife was calling again and I needed to take it. My new friends handed me my change, passed me my ottoman in a shopping cart, and said goodbye. As I met the rest of my family outside the store I glanced back. The salesman and the cashier seemed stunned almost, still standing there, deep in thought.

Just that morning at our weekly service I had been discouraged about not having opportunities to share the gospel recently. Then out of nowhere, a random furniture store interaction about a footrest turned into sharing about the incarnation and how to be saved by faith in Jesus’ sacrifice.

First-time interactions like this seldom lead to immediate professions of faith – the message is so new and so different it takes time and lots of repetition for it to be truly comprehended. But these kind of conversations serve almost as a shock tactic – like an ancient Persian war elephant breaking up a group of Greek hoplite infantry so that the cavalry can come in afterward with devastating effect. In this case, the elephant is the fact that none of their teachers have ever shared these things with them or portrayed accurately what Christians actually believe. And now they are faced with a bunch of new ideas – from an actual Christian – that frame things in an entirely different light. This in itself creates doubt. It puts what the locals call, “a worm in their mind.” One that can someday lead to more questions and even to true spiritual hunger.

Whether I get to do the followup or someone else does many years down the road, I pray that the gospel truths dropped in that short conversation will have their effect. And that the salesman and the cashier will know God’s eternal Word – God’s Son – for themselves.

Photo by WeLoveBarcelona.de on Unsplash

Sovereignty and Terrorism

The twentieth anniversary of 9/11 is a sobering milestone. As we traversed four US states today, we saw flags flying at half-mast.

When the attacks happened, I was in the US on furlough, in middle school in the Philadelphia area. Like most of my generation, I will never forget where I was when I first heard the news. For me, it was my English teacher, telling us that New York and Washington had been attacked – and that the world would never be the same. And I can never forget seeing those terrifying images on the TV as soon as we got home from school that afternoon. Like most households, we sat stunned, unable to turn away from the news for hours.

That same night small vigils gathered on street corners, holding flags and lighting candles. Drivers honked and shouted support as they drove by. The next day, pictures of Osama Bin Laden’s face with a target imposed over it went up on lockers all throughout my school.

The cultural and political fallout of 9/11 has reshaped the world as we know it. But one aspect of these attacks rarely gets mentioned: how they have also caused countless Muslims to question Islam – and to instead explore the claims of Jesus Christ.

This dynamic didn’t start with 9/11. In fact, some would trace it back to December 1979 and the siege of the great mosque in Mecca. It was that terrorist attack that served as the symbolic birth of modern Islamist extremism. Yet that attack – and others like 9/11 – has correlated with a greater openness to the gospel among Muslims than an any other known point in history.

It makes sense. I attended an Iranian Iftar dinner in Kentucky some years ago, when ISIS was still in control of a huge territory in Syria and Iraq and committing atrocities seemingly daily. And there at my table, one Iranian man put his fist down and argued vehemently with the rest of us that ISIS represented true Islam – according to the original sources and real history – and that’s why he wanted nothing to do with being a Muslim anymore. The other Iranian at the table of course argued back that the first man was completely incorrect and ISIS represented a mutant, cultish form of Islam (likely started by some foreign power for its own ends). But there they were, two men who had grown up mentored in the prayers of the mosque and the same traditions, now utterly divided by the atrocities of terrorists claiming to act in the name of their God.

In the years since, I have seen this argument played out countless times among the Central Asian people where we now serve. Every time a terrorist attack happens, it’s not only non-Muslims who hear the question, “Is this actually true Islam?” The same question is gnawing at the hearts of many Muslims as well. Or, as our locals say, it becomes a worm in their mind. The worm, as it were, gnaws. Many are able to suppress the question. Sadly, some decide to join the jihad. Yet others are pushed away from the faith of their fathers and pray desperately for God to reveal who he truly is.

Historically, the resistance of Muslims against the efforts of Christian missionaries has caused many to despair. One convert per lifetime was the former mantra. Yet it seems as if the Islamic extremism of the past forty years has done something stunning and unexpected – it has caused countless Muslims to doubt the validity of their faith for the first time, creating fertile ground for Christian evangelists.

Sovereign in all things. Do we believe in a God big enough to even turn terrorism somehow into good?

I pray that all terrorism done in the name of Islam will die out. It is a horrific and evil thing. So many victims have died unjustly, and the bulk of them have been the attackers’ fellow countrymen and Muslims themselves. At the same time, I see God using even these dark and wicked events to slowly create cracks in the foundations of Islamic confidence. Others have pointed this out in the past, we have seen it playing out among our own friends, and I have no doubt this dynamic will continue for the foreseeable future.

9/11 is rightly a time to lament. And yet with our lamenting we also soberly watch the sovereignty of God play out. We pray the attacks will end. We pray that justice will come. And we pray that eyes will continue to be opened – and the cracks will continue to grow.

Photo by Aidan Bartos on Unsplash

Why True Faith Is and Is Not Like Sheikhood

We are teaching through the book of John at our small local church plant. This past week we were looking at chapter 8:31-38, a section often summarized as “The Truth Will Set You Free.” A couple of the local believing men came by earlier in the week to study through the passage with me and we spent an hour or so asking interpretive questions of the text and making observations. What a help it is as a teacher to meet with other men with their own eyes and their own insights into the text.

One of the final questions I like to ask in these study sessions is, “What connections does this passage have to your culture? Any proverbs, customs, or history that can serve to illustrate the truth that we see here?” This time around we couldn’t think of much that connected with the major themes of freedom, slavery, and truth. I decided to shelve the question and try to come back to it when I was crafting the sermon later. I was writing out my local language manuscript the next day when it came to me – sheikhood might work.

The local concept of sheikhood could serve as a negative illustration of true faith held out in this passage of John. In this passage, Jesus has proclaimed that true disciples are those who abide in his word, who know the truth, and who are set free by the truth (v. 31-32). In protest, the Jewish audience balks, responding that they are free, that they have never been slaves of anyone, because they are children of Abraham (v. 33). Jesus goes on to spell out their slavery to sin and their need to be set free from the temporary and dangerous situation of the slave, and into the eternal freedom of the son and his house (v. 34-36).

One of the main points of the sermon was that only the truth of Jesus can set us free – our physical lineage cannot. This is where sheikhood comes in. Locals believe that an Islamic holy man, a sheikh, passes on his title, his prestige, and to some extent his holiness automatically to his biological male descendants. This is regardless of the actual character or life of said male descendant. He might not pray, he might be a drinker, or he might even be an atheist, and many would still call him “Dear Sheikh So-And-So.” Locals freely acknowledge this, and see the inconsistency in it, but it continues to happen nonetheless. We even had a fun surprise during all this, discovering that one of our own believing members, *Darius, is technically a sheikh in this regard (Given the fun-loving nature of our church plant, we are sure to have a good time teasing Darius with this newfound knowledge).

My point in bringing up sheikhood was to compare it with the Jews’ misplaced faith in their physical descent from Abraham and to contrast it to the true faith that is experienced by the individual who is set free by the truth of Jesus alone. True faith is not like sheikhood. It is not passed automatically from father to son, merely downloaded through physical descent. This view of faith-by-blood is a real danger in this part of the world, one which can destroy gospel clarity in as little as one generation. Local believers begin with the assumption that their physical children are automatically born with the same faith as their father. However, instead of this we should not trust in our parents, our people, our supposed descent from holy men, or anything else. We should trust in Christ alone and continue abiding in his word.

It resonated. The believers knew what I was talking about when I made the connection in the sermon, and they seemed to grasp the contrast presented by the illustration from their own world.

Later on, a few of us were at lunch together, enjoying some good rice, lamb, soups, and flatbread. Our summer volunteer turned to Mr *Talent and asked him what he had learned from the sermon that day. Mr. Talent swallowed his mouthful of flatbread and rice, and furrowed his brow.

“Well, the point about sheikhood was a powerful one for me.”

I nodded, thinking I knew where he was going. Instead, he took it in a different direction.

“Just as sheikhood is given from father to son without the son doing anything, so God the father gives us the eternal freedom of Jesus apart from our good works, and we thus also become sons of God.”

I smiled to myself. How many times had I heard other teachers and preachers recount how some the most powerful takeaways from their messages were not actually connections they had made at all? And yet it was not an improper connection to make. The eternal freedom of the Son is indeed given to us freely, not entirely unlike how the honor of a practicing sheikh is given (imputed) also to his irreligious son. How interesting that Mr. Talent put the pieces together in this way.

So in the end, it seems that we could say that sheikhood is and sheikhood is not like true faith. We are not saved by being part of anyone’s physical line. But we are saved by being part of a certain spiritual line, that of Christ. And in this line we become so much more than mere sheikhs, with their false genetic titles and holiness. We become free indeed, eternal residents of the house of God himself.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Blame It On the Masons

A local friend today gave me a powerful example of how far we humans will go to excuse away shortcomings in our own tribe – something true Christians are not immune from either.

We were discussing the correct use of a new local proverb I had just learned. The proverb translates to something like, “your excuse is worse than your shameful action.” I thought it was to be used for a typical situation where someone does something disrespectful and then uses a lame excuse to defend themselves.

“No, no, no,” my friend insisted, “We use it when someone does something blatantly sinful and then right away tries to do something spiritual as if nothing had happened. Like someone boldly going to do Islamic prayers right away after doing something very shameful.”

This statement reminded me of a sad encounter I had a few years ago with a former English student. He had invited me to his workplace. While there we hung out with his coworkers. One of them, a middle aged woman, was in an unhappy marriage. To my dismay, as I sipped chai and ate the obligatory guest chocolate, I realized that my student was joyfully helping this woman set up secret social media accounts so that she could cheat on her husband. They were laughing and having a great time. I was grieved that this student would so willingly and openly participate in this kind of deceit and betrayal.

Then the call to prayer went off. There was a small mosque built right next to my coworker’s office. “Come! Let’s go pray!” He said to me. I let him know that I was content to sit at the back of the mosque while he prayed, but I wasn’t going to be joining in. One, I’m a follower of Jesus who believes in salvation by grace alone, and therefore can’t participate in a prayer ritual that is understood to count as merit that balances out sins committed. Two, I was not about to join this man in prayer after he had happily become an accomplice to adultery. I was angry inside at the blatant hypocrisy of my student, who then went on after prayers to extol to me the virtues of his religion.

I shared this situation with my friend today as we sat in the park, and he confirmed that this would be a very appropriate situation to use this proverb. But by bringing up this story, I had poked the honor-shame mechanism in my friend’s worldview, and even though he’s not a strict practicing Muslim, he felt obligated to defend his tribe.

“You know, my friend,” he began. “We have some people here, secretly among us.” I nodded. It’s Central Asia. There tend to be actual spies around, and basically everyone suspects everyone else of being some kind of spy for someone. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that people think I’m a spy. “They are from our people, but they are supported by a group called the Masons. The Masons pay these people a salary and order them to do shameful things and then to go and do Islamic rituals also. In this way they hope to give foreigners like you a negative view of Islam. They hope to make Islam look two-faced, but we are on to them and their schemes.”

Now, lest you get the wrong idea, my local friend who told me this is extremely intelligent. He is a language teacher who is fluent in multiple languages with a sharp mind for cultural, historical, and political information. But as is often the case, intelligence is no match for the deeper impulse of defending the honor of one’s own tribe. The mind will quickly become the servant of the deep emotional need to find some kind of scapegoat or explanation so that shame is deflected – no matter how implausible that explanation is.

I have heard some wild explanations in my time from very dear and very intelligent friends (Central Asians and Westerners). But to hear that the Freemasons were paying locals to act like hypocritical Muslims so that foreigners like me would discount Islam? That’s, um, that’s quite the stretch.

Not really knowing what to do with that story, I moved the conversation on to other topics. But I found myself inwardly grateful for the simple honesty that following Jesus affords. We don’t have to latch on to elaborate stories to excuse away the actions of Christians who are not acting according to the Bible. We can simply say that their words and actions contradict God’s word – and that if they are true believers they will come to repent of them sooner or later. We don’t have to hide our own two-facedness, or that of our tribe. We can admit it, call it what it is, and bring it to the cross for forgiveness and change. After all, our good news begins with the bad news that we are all hypocrites desperately in need of being made clean and being made new.

Those most grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ should be those most free from the lure of conspiracy theories. We simply don’t need them. We have plenty of clear reasons for what’s wrong with the world, starting with our own sin and brokenness. Thank God, there’s no need for tales of imaginary Masonic spies.

Photo by David Tip on Unsplash

A Chai Glass and The Cleansing Power of Jesus

A while ago one of my teammates shared an object lesson with us that he used with one of his local friends, a teacher. This particular local friend has been on the fence for a long time, close to following Jesus, but wrestling with the cost. One day they were sitting down in my coworker’s kitchen discussing the gospel yet again. The local teacher was revisiting the concept of biblical forgiveness, specifically how Jesus’ work on the cross takes away our sin and purifies us from our unrighteousness. This concept is very foreign to Muslims who are raised in a very straight forward works-righteousness system. “Surely good deeds take away evil ones,” says the Qur’an.

Searching for an analogy, my coworker picked up his chai glass, partially full of dark black tea, and held it up.

“See this chai? Does it become clear when I add a drop of water to it?” And he proceeded to pour a small amount of water into the hour-glass shaped glass cup.

“No, it’s still brown,” said the teacher.

“What about now?” And he poured a little more water in. His local friend shook his head. My colleague did this a few times to drive the point home. Then he continued.

“This is like us when we try to purify ourselves from our sin by doing good deeds. Adding good deeds is not enough to truly purify us from the uncleanness of sin.”

“Yes,” the local teacher agreed. “I agree. It doesn’t really work. But we must try, right?”

Then my teammate got up and walked over to the kitchen sink. He turned it on.

“But this is what the righteousness of Jesus does to our sin when we become one with him.” And he held the chai glass underneath the rushing flow of clean, clear water. In seconds, all of the dark chai was gone, replaced by an overflowing stream of pure water that simply kept on flowing and flowing.”

The local teacher gasped. “Can that be true?! Can Jesus really purify you like that?”

“He did! When I believed in him. And his stream of purifying grace flows for me like this every single day.” The water kept on running as the two men watched and chewed on the power of this truth. One man living in the freedom of Jesus’ purifying grace every day and extending it to others (and this brother is truly a model of God’s grace to all he interacts with). The other man, hovering just outside and peeking over the fence as it were, not yet able to take the plunge. Wanting to and yet not wanting to, painfully within sight of the kingdom.

When I heard my teammate share this example, I was excited. What a clear and powerful opportunity for his friend! And what a simple and helpful object lesson on the difference between gospel and works religion. There’s not a home in this country without chai glasses – meaning we could reproduce this almost anywhere.

Our focus people are very much concrete thinkers. Even extremely intelligent people like this local teacher are wired to greatly appreciate analogy, metaphor, and hands-on examples over the abstract. We all are mixes of abstract and concrete learning to some extent, but in our corner of Central Asia concrete thinking is by far the more dominant stream. As highly literate, abstract-thinking, critically-trained Westerners, we are slowly learning how to better meet our friends half-way so that our message might be as clear and compelling as possible. Analogies like this might seem small, but we should be careful not to underestimate the potential for clarity that comes from small shifts in how the unchanging truth of the gospel is communicated in this world of such diverse lostness.

And wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish. For this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes. (Ezekiel 47:9 ESV)

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37-39 ESV)

The Christian Position on Holy War

A few years ago a local friend reached out to me.

“I’m writing an English language paper comparing the Islamic and the Christian position on holy war or jihad. Could you help me with this paper by telling me what you believe your holy book teaches about this?”

What an invitation! I compiled the following verses and wrote simple English summaries of the content and sent it to him. I post it here, in the chance that others may have Muslim friends with this same question. Groups like ISIS are making the very public claim that violent warfare and slavery is just as much a valid interpretation of the jihad passages as is the modernist interpretation of “inner spiritual struggle.” So Muslims the world over are faced with this question and are wrestling with these things afresh. The following is the response I sent to my friend.

The New Testament clearly teaches that no form of physical holy war (jihad) is permitted for true Christians.

In Matthew 5:38-45, Jesus teaches, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles… You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

Instead of fighting against enemies or resisting them, these verses from Matthew teach that followers of Jesus should not resist them, but should serve them, love them, and pray for them.

In Romans 12:14 and 12:17, Paul writes, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

In these verses from the book of Romans, instead of fighting enemies in the name of God, believers are told to bless them, to honor them, to live in peace, to not take revenge, to feed them, and to overcome evil by doing good.

In John 18:36, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this world.”

In Luke 17:20-21 Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed. Nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is! Or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”

In these verses Jesus teaches that his kingdom is a spiritual kingdom, not a physical kingdom. Because of this, his followers do not fight for him in this world. 

The same thing is taught in Ephesians 6:11-18, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

In these verses believers are told clearly that we do not fight against physical flesh and blood enemies, but we do fight against spiritual enemies, Satan and his demons. So, believers need spiritual weapons and armor to fight in this spiritual battle. The sword of a believer is not a literal sword, but is the word of God. His shield is not a physical shield, but his faith.

Peter tried to defend Jesus with a sword when the mob was trying to arrest Jesus, Jesus told him to “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than 12 legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:52-53)

Jesus tells Peter to put away his sword, that violence is not God’s way to advance his kingdom. If Jesus wanted to fight, he could ask God for 12,000 angels who would fight for him. But he would advance the kingdom of God by giving his life as a sacrifice, not by fighting. That is the same way followers of Jesus advance God’s kingdom, by giving our lives to others as holy sacrifices, not by fighting.

In the New Testament there is no command for Christians to fight unbelievers in a physical way. There are only commands not to fight them, but to love them and to speak truth to them.

“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” (2nd Timothy 2:24-26)

While Jesus was being murdered and while one of the early leaders of the church, Stephen, was being murdered, both of them prayed that God would forgive those who were killing them.

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 24:34)

“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60)

Some people say that Jesus supported fighting because in one passage he says that he came to bring a sword. But when the whole chapter is read, it is clear that Jesus is not talking about a physical sword, but that his message is like a sword that divides people because some believe and some will not. Those who do not believe will persecute those who do believe.

“Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour… Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:17-22)

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” (Matthew 10:34-36)

In this chapter, Jesus is talking about how his followers will be persecuted by those of their own society when they try to spread the message of Jesus. He is not talking about them fighting, but about how their own families will attack them when they try to share the message.

It is clear from these passages that true Christians must never take part in holy war or jihad. They must not try to fight for God in a physical battle. This is because God’s kingdom is a spiritual kingdom and God’s way is to defeat evil by love and sacrifice, not by fighting.

Some people will say that the Bible supports holy war or jihad because the nation of Israel was commanded to fight in order to conquer and defend the land of Israel. The history of this holy warfare is the subject of the book of Joshua in the Old Testament. In this time of history, the people of Israel were commanded to fight for God. However, with the coming of Jesus, this kind of fighting was no longer good or necessary. This is because the physical nation of Israel was a temporary physical example of what God was going to do in a spiritual way for the whole world. God chose ethnic physical Israel for a limited time as an example, but his plan was to have a spiritual people, not only an ethnic people, who are believers in him from every nation of the world. When Jesus came, the old age of the temporary and physical things passed away and the new age of the spiritual and eternal things began. That is why Israel was commanded to fight its enemies and Christians are commanded not to fight our enemies any more, but to love them. We now know that our true enemies are not other nations, but are Satan and his evil spirits. This transition from a temporary physical people of God (Israel) to an eternal spiritual people of God (Christians, including Jewish Christian and those from every nation) is what explains the differences between the laws of the Jewish people in the Old Testament and the laws for Christians in the New Testament. Through Jesus, God made a better covenant or relationship with his people where physical fighting was no longer good or necessary.

“For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt… For this is the new covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”

Hebrews 8:7-13)

“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. Put on them, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:11-12)

The New Testament teaches that we now live in the age of the New Covenant, where the temporary things of the Old Covenant have been completed by better, eternal things. The New Testament logic is that Christians must not fight for God in a physical way because we live in a new and better age where we overcome evil by love.

In the history of Christianity there have been some Christians who tried to fight in the name of God against others. The crusaders were one of these groups in the middle ages. They fought against Muslims in the Middle East and against Salah-al-Din. However, these Christians were following their own traditions and their own politics and not obeying what is clearly taught in the Bible. According to the Bible, we must never obey our own traditions if they are against what the Bible teaches. However, when the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church declared that Christians should fight in the crusades, they were disobeying what the Bible clearly teaches and following their own traditions.

Jesus says about these kind of people that, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:6-8)

“Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Mark 15:3)

Any Christian who fights in a holy war is wrongly following his own tradition or thinking and is disobeying God’s word. Because true Christians are, through faith, citizens of a spiritual kingdom, they must not fight for their religion in a physical way. The only appropriate way to fight is in a spiritual way, through love for our enemies, by praying for them and giving up our lives for them. This is the Christian and biblical position on holy war or jihad.

Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

But They Really Do Resemble Their Mother

“You know,” said my host, “in Islam, it’s approved for a Christian girl to marry a Muslim man.”

“Yes,” I responded, “but it’s forbidden to happen the other way around, isn’t it?”

With a sheepish grin, my host admitted that it was true. Muslim men can marry women from other religions, but Muslim women are not allowed to marry men from other religions. My village host had been jesting (mostly) about having our single teammate marry one of his sons.

“For us true believers in Jesus,” I continued, “we won’t do it in either direction. Both men and women won’t marry someone who doesn’t share their same faith. Our faith is that central to us. It’s the same for our single friend here.”

Our gracious new teammate was already being jokingly called the family’s “bride” and she was enduring it admirably. But it was important for them to know that jesting aside, this was out of the question.

The seemingly inconsistent Islamic position on marrying nonbelievers is not inconsistent at all when you understand the cultural belief that it sprung out of – something called patrogenesis. This Middle Eastern and Central Asian belief holds that children biologically generate only from the father. Mothers are merely carriers, vessels, but they do not contribute meaningfully to the biological or spiritual makeup of the child. Strange as it may seem, this was the dominant view in this part of the world until quite recently. It now exists in an uneasy tension with the growing knowledge of genetics and modern medicine.

Because of this belief in patrogenesis, traditional locals do not believe that a child can be half one ethnicity and half another. They are considered one hundred percent the ethnicity of the father. This also holds true for religion. It simply doesn’t matter if the mother is another religion. If the father is a Muslim, the children will be born biologically Muslims. Therefore it’s no threat to the faith to have a Muslim man marry a Christian woman. Rather, it means the tribe has gained a “carrier” from a rival tribe. However, in this understanding any Muslim woman who marries a man from another religion has been lost to an enemy tribe, and is no longer able to contribute to the continuity of her own community. Hence why it was outlawed from the beginning of the faith.

But that’s not fair! No, it’s not, but it is awfully convenient, and one of the many aspects of Islam that allowed it to slowly squeeze the life out of the religious minorities in its domains over the last 1,400 years. This belief also has Islamic legal ramifications. Children legally belong only to the father, and not to the mother, since they are considered the fruit of his loins alone. You can imagine the terrible position this puts local mothers when dealing with an abusive man.

Even when it comes to small talk, it’s traditionally a shameful thing for children to be said to resemble their mother’s features. In the West, it’s a celebrated thing that all of my children look more like my wife – she is by far the prettier one in this relationship! But here in Central Asia, it’s kind of awkward for more traditional locals (who still point it out for some reason) and I find myself having to attempt to rescue them from the shameful situation their comment just created, “Look! They really did get my ears, Eh?!” While thinking to myself, Why are you publicly questioning my virility? How is that not weird?

Worse still, the presence of patrogenesis presents the possibility of heresy for the new believing community here. “Congratulations, a new believer has been born!” was how one believing friend greeted the birth of our third-born, much to our horror. The cultural logic makes sense. Dad is a believer, so newborn is a believer. The problem is this cultural belief is radically anti-gospel, the kind of dangerous assumption that means the gospel can be lost in one generation as the parents come to faith and the children are merely assumed to be believers by nature of their father’s blood. It has already happened to communities of Christians present in the Middle East from ancient times as well as those converted to Christianity by missionaries in the 1800s. Most of them have become new ethnic people groups, and the gospel emphasis on the new birth has been lost. This is where the tragic term, CBB (Christian background believer), came from.

Some cultural beliefs are not wrong, just different (as every culture-shocking new missionary constantly repeats to himself). Patrogenesis is not one of them. It’s not only scientifically wrong, it’s also morally wrong, denying women their equal dignity as co-contributors to the biology of their offspring. Patrogenesis relegates them to the status of a mere carrier and denies them equal parental rights. It’s an affront to the image of God that equally resides in every woman and to the wonder of the created female body. Frankly, it is an idea that requires the oft-overlooked contextualization category called rejection. Good contextualization means recognizing that part of the culture is downright evil, and needs to be discarded as soon as possible. Discarded – yet replaced with a better theology of the image of God and the wonder of two people conceiving spiritual-physical beings that have a real beginning in time, but who also live forever.

It’s these kinds of landmines that propel us ever onward in our attempt to learn the cultures of our lost friends. These sorts of underlying assumptions can go unknown and unchallenged for years, even when Muslims have believing friends who are sharing the gospel faithfully with them. Though it takes time, getting into these areas of worldview and belief is essential because they touch core issues of identity, how a certain enculturated person answers the crucial “Who am I?” question. And last I checked, a biblical understanding of identity has something to do with genuine faith.

These are the kinds of issues that run through my mind when believing Western friends genuinely ask if focusing on learning culture is really that biblical and necessary. “Can’t we just preach the gospel?” Yes, technically you can just preach the gospel. But surely you will be a more skillful and effective preacher if you dig deep into what your audience actually believes about life, birth, and death – rather than assuming they share your assumptions about these things. As those called to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), that also means attacking those worldview beliefs that radically disagree with the word of God. And that means tearing down anti-gospel strongholds like the belief in patrogenesis.

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