The Christian Witness to the Muslim by John Gilchrist, p 392
D. THE NUMEROUS CHRISTIAN CHURCHES.
1. The Divisions Within the Christian and Muslim Worlds.
We shall close with a common objection raised by Muslims, namely the wide divisions among Christians and the large number of different denominations. This is not an easy subject, particularly as the real divisions today are not along denominational lines but in respect of movements crossing all Protestant denominations, dividing Christians into nominal adherents, evangelical believers, charismatics and the like.
Muslims traditionally parade the unity of the Islamic world before Christians as a preferable religious organism to the multitudinous churches and sects of Christendom. Actually this unity is really only on the surface and deep divisions lie beneath. Just as the Christian world has three major groupings, namely the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant, so Islam is divided into the Sunni and Shitite groups, the latter numbering about fifteen per cent of the world Muslim population with the Sunnis making up the rest. Within both of these groupings within Islam there are a host of divisions.
The truth is that Islam is more broken into sects than even Christendom. (MacDonald, Aspects of Islam, p. 90).
In the companion volume to this book we mentioned a few of these movements (such as the Sufis, found amongst both Sunnis and Shi'ites) and it would not be possible to canvass all the divisions that exist among Muslims. Even in South Africa, with less than four hundred thousand Muslims, divisions are so deep that opposing groups sometimes even come physically to blows. Only a few months prior to the time of writing this section a Muslim from my own home town was murdered by fellow Muslims on religious grounds alone.
The Church of Mohammed, like the Church of Christ, has been rent by intestine divisions and strifes. Difference of opinion on abstract subjects, about which there cannot be any certitude in a finite existence, has always given rise to greater bitterness and a fiercer hostility than ordinary differences on matters within the range of human cognition. (Ali, The Spirit of Islam, p. 292).
It would be truer to say that the apparent unity of the Muslim world is really a regulated uniformity, a strict outward compliance to prescribed rules and religious forms. Every Muslim, when attending mosque, even if he does so faithfully five times a day, follows the exact same pattern of worship that he has been taught to practice every time he performs salaah. Every other Muslim who will pray alongside him will do precisely the same as he does. The imposition of a strictly defined practice of religion - the daily salaah with its ablutions and rites, the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, the annual Ramadan fast, etc. - will, without difficulty, create a rigid uniformity that may well have the appearance of unity.
Such apparent unity is visible in the parade marches of military battalions, the particular dress of any school, and the like. Under the surface, however, there may well be, and invariably is, a deep-rooted disunity. Once the rigid patterns of outward religion are removed and adherents are called upon to establish a unity of faith and spirit based on love and corporate growth (as in Christianity - see Ephesians 4.15-16), the outward unity will disappear as natural human divisions are given opportunity to express themselves. The imposed rites of Islam merely suppress the inherent disunity in the Muslim world which expresses itself in so many other ways outside the mosque.
2. The Essential Unity of the Spirit in Christianity.
Christians should freely acknowledge the divisions within the Christian Church worldwide and simultaneously lament them as being far short of the declared vision of the Lord Jesus Christ for his Church (John 17.20-23). A brief explanation of Church history and the cause of its divisions will often assist to give a Muslim a more balanced perspective of the true state of affairs. It will also be essential to distinguish between nominal Christians and true born-again believers who make up the true church of Jesus Christ.
Likewise we need to point out that Jesus himself never anticipated that whole nations would become part of his Church on earth. The "Christendom" concept, an historical "dar-ul" Christianity as it were, was not in his mind when he said "Go and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28.19). He always foresaw his Church as constituting a fraction of believers out of every nation (Matthew 13. 47-48), something that in this age is being more and more realised as the Christian faith loses its traditional national grip in the West but is spreading widely in the hitherto non-Christian world.
The Church is conceived in the New Testament as a society within a society. It is never properly thought of as coterminous, within history, with the whole of human society. "Christendom", though the term has validity, is not finally a Christian concept. (Cragg, The Call of the Minaret, p. 323).
The very concept in Islam of a theocratic ummah makes the religion essentially political as well as religious. Church and State are intentionally intertwined and a title such as the current "Islamic Republic of Iran" expresses the ideal, but it would be entirely inappropriate for Christianity. As Cragg goes on to say, "Christianity, then, is not a political expression" (op. cit., p. 325). We need to patiently expound the Christian ideal to Muslims - a spiritual ekklesia within the world but not of it, a body of true believers taken out of every nation as a glory and praise to God through Jesus Christ. We accept that God demands control of all human affairs and that nothing in the political world is irrelevant to Christian faith and practice, all believers being called to render due service to both Church and State (Luke 20.25). We do not believe, however, that they "can be met in a religio-political order externally established" (Cragg, The Call of the Minaret, p. 327).
It is also very important to emphasize the basic unity of all Christian Churches on all principal matters of doctrine and faith. It is only one Bible that is acknowledged throughout all branches of the Church and there is no division, even across the major Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions, on issues such as the doctrine of the Trinity, the atoning work of Jesus Christ, his royal control of all the universe as the eternal Son of God, and the fundamental need of faith in him.
When discussing the Church with a Muslim it is best to emphasize the basic unity of all Christians in matters of faith and doctrine. The average Muslim sees the Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Protestants as one community. (Register, Dialogue and Interfaith Witness with Muslims, p. 52).
A Christian minister with experience among Muslims, Samuel Knowles, in his booklet Aina-i-Islam ("The Mirror of Islam"), began with this very subject and observed that Muslims err when they suppose that the different movements and denominations within the Christian Church arise from disputes concerning the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. Another writer, giving a brief review of his booklet, expresses his response to this error in his book on Christian writings relative to Islam in India:
On the contrary, nothing is clearer than the essential agreement of Christian Denominations as to the great doctrines relating to the Godhead, man's sinful condition, and the need of faith in the atoning work of the Son of God in order to be saved. (Wherry, The Muslim Controversy, p. 103).
Another Christian writer also notes this essential unity among all Christians, notwithstanding differences of opinion on matters not necessarily relevant to the fundamentals of the Christian faith:
As in the case of other communities of the World, the Christian community too has, unfortunately, drifted into different groups or denominations. This division is based only on the differences of opinion in the interpretation of certain principles and rituals but the Basic Doctrine of faith of All Christians remains the same. (Deshmukh, The Gospel and Islam, p. 65).
The very existence of such divisions in contrast with the express prayer of Jesus that we should become "perfectly one" (John 17.23) is a genuine cause of offence to many Muslims and a sincere enquirer will often be sorely confused with the selection of denominations and varying emphases that he will soon discover in the Church. The call here is to a genuine love and spirit of patience and tolerance between believers of different persuasions, remembering the words of our Lord Jesus when he said:
"By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another". John 13.35
What a great blessing and step forward in faith it will be when Christians learn to love and accept one another as brethren in Christ and devote their energies away from disputes within the Church to the winning of the Muslim peoples of the world to the saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.
(The Christian Witness to the Muslim by John Gilchrist, p 392f)
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