Does Fuller Seminary program really oppose evangelism of Muslims?
Stories in the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press over the weekend have potential to create a problem for Fuller Theological Seminary and its president, Richard Mouw.
"One of the nation's leading evangelical Christian seminaries has launched a federally funded project for making peace with Muslims, featuring a proposed code of ethics that rejects offensive statements about each other's faiths, affirms a mutual belief in one God, and pledges not to proselytize," Times religion writer Teresa Watanabe begins her story.
That noise you hear is a combination of some evangelical leaders screaming and others scratching their heads. Is Fuller really to take a stand that Christians should not "proselytize"? And what are these "offensive statements" that Fuller will oppose? If it's the old statements by Jerry Vines, Jerry Falwell, and Franklin Graham, haven't evangelical leaders already been there and done that on a much broader scale than Fuller Seminary's platform?
Some Southern Baptist leaders are quoted in the Times story (and the shortened AP version, which ran in dozens of newspapers over the weekend) as concerned—or outright opposing—the interfaith code of ethics.
"For Fuller to declare that Christians and Muslims worship the same God would be a radical departure, not only from the evangelical tradition but also the tenets of orthodox Christianity," John Revell, spokesman for the Southern Baptist executive committee, told the paper. Watanabe says that Revell "also questioned whether evangelical Christians who signed the proposed code against offensive statements and proselytizing would compromise their religious obligation to 'speak truth in love' and 'spread the good news of Jesus Christ.'"
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. is also highly critical, calling the statement tragic and lamentable: "The more we know about Christianity and Islam, the more we see there is a basic incompatibility. The essential ground of conflict and controversy cannot be removed."
But Fuller provost Sherwood Lingenfelter promises that the code, which will go before the full faculty for a vote, "will not compromise Christian beliefs." The program, characterized by the Department of Justice as "a conflict resolution program" in its $993,500 grant, is intended largely "to lead a large portion of evangelical Christians into a better understanding of Islam," he said. "After 9/11 there was a great deal of hostility in the Christian community toward Muslims. It is important for Christians to gain a respect for them and treat them with dignity and not assume they're all terrorists."
Eh? It sounds like perhaps Lingenfelter is engaging in some negative stereotyping of his own. Surely most evangelicals do not assume that all Muslims are terrorists. Let's go to the data.
In a poll released earlier this year, 79 percent of evangelical leaders said it was "very important" to "protect the rights of Muslims." 52 percent said Islam "preaches justice and moral values." Yes, 77 percent said they have an unfavorable view of Islam (13 percent said they had a favorable view), and about that may said that "Islam opposes religious freedom," but that's a long way from saying that all Muslims are terrorists. In fact, 62 percent of evangelical leaders agree with the statement that "terrorists have 'highjacked' Islam."
At about the time that this poll was released, the Institute on Religion and Democracy issued "Guidelines on Christian-Muslim Dialogue," but they seem to have dropped from the radar. Is Fuller's statement intended to codify these guidelines? Replace them? Extend them? Apply them?
Lingenfelter also reiterated the seminary's belief "that Christians, Muslims and Jews worshiped the same Creator and God of Abraham but had different understandings of the divine nature," says the Times, and "said that pledges against proselytizing one another's communities would apply only to the two-year peacemaking project and would not prevent either side from sharing their respective faiths during that time in what Fuller scholar J. Dudley Woodberry called gracious evangelism."
So what's the difference between gracious evangelism and proselytizing? And to whom will the statement apply? Unfortunately, while most of the questions surrounding this document could be answered by a simple look at the draft document, it doesn't seem to be available anywhere online (and Weblog doesn't engage in original reporting for this feature). If it gets posted, or if there are more developments on this story, we'll be sure to keep you informed.
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