LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Christian missionaries who are faithful to the command of Christ will seek to meet a spiritual need among the people of post-war Iraq that runs deeper than their need for food and shelter, R. Albert Mohler Jr. told a national television audience May 10.
Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, debated Charles Kimball, chairman of Wake Forest University’s religion department, on the issue of humanitarian aid and evangelism to Iraq on “CNN Saturday.”
A number of Christian groups are planning to provide humanitarian relief for the citizens of Iraq following the war. A debate has arisen over whether missionaries should also take the Gospel into the predominately Muslim country.
Kimball, who is opposed to efforts to tie humanitarian relief to evangelization, said attempts to convert Muslims in Iraq to the Christian faith “smacks of a kind of Christian triumphalism.”
Mohler said authentic biblical Christianity seeks to meet the physical needs of Iraq while at the same time being faithful to the command of Christ to “go into the world and make disciples.” Christians must point all persons to Christ, who alone is able to save, he said.
“I agree with Dr. Kimball that there are urgent humanitarian needs that really must be met,” Mohler said. “I agree with that wholeheartedly. I also agree with his call for sensitivity.
“But we cannot be so sensitive that we abandon the Gospel. We must understand that these people have an even deeper need than food and clothing and shelter. Those immediate needs point to deeper needs.”
Responding to a question from host Fredericka Whitfield on the offensive nature of telling Muslims that Christ is the only way to salvation, Mohler pointed out that Islam also is a faith that seeks converts, so Muslims should not be offended by Christian witness.
“That [one way to salvation] may be offensive, but it is no more offensive than the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been for over 2000 years,” Mohler said.
“Muslims, because they hold to a missionary faith, understand that. And I think we really respect each other enough to speak the truth to each other. I think it is the ultimate tribute of respect that one person can pay to another. As a Christian, that means telling them about Jesus Christ.”
Mohler said that Christians, by asserting Christ as the only way of salvation, are not implying that all Muslims are evil. The exclusive truth claims of Christ demand that the Christian point all persons away from false worldviews and toward the cross, he said.
“We are in a position where truth-telling requires us to say that we believe the Christian Gospel is the only way of salvation,” Mohler said.
“And that means that any other way that leads in any other direction away from the cross of Jesus Christ is a way that leads not unto life, but unto death. That is a non-negotiable issue central to classical, biblical Christianity.”
Kimball, an ordained Baptist minister and a 1975 graduate of Southern Seminary, said he is troubled by Christian truth claims that assert one way to salvation. He said “Iraq’s first need is humanitarian.”
“There are many ways to engage in Christian mission and witness,” Kimball said. “There isn’t a singular way. When we begin to talk in monolithic terms as though there is one true way and only one acid test for true Christianity, then we are starting down the road, I think, to the kinds of things that lead people to justify almost anything in the name of religion.”
Mohler pointed out that Christian missionaries from around the globe — and not only from America — are already proclaiming the Gospel in Iraq as well as in every other nation in the world.
The Christian mission did not begin in 2003 but began in the first century with the apostles, Mohler said.
“I’m not speaking operationally on behalf of Christian missions organizations, but I can tell you that this is the heart of Christianity, and Jesus said, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by Me.’
“The only way someone who calls themselves a Christian can get around it is by thinking that Jesus actually didn’t say it [or] saying Jesus was wrong.”
Mohler expressed incredulity that the secular left in America is irate over the notion of religious liberty in Iraq, a basic human freedom that Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial regime has denied the people for many years.
“It’s just interesting that the secular left has all of a sudden become outraged at the idea that the people of Iraq should experience the same religious liberty and hear the same Gospel that Christians preach everywhere else,” he said.
“We would expect that as a basic freedom anywhere. And certainly [we would expect it] where freedom has been earned and where tyranny has been overturned.”
Mohler and Kimball also discussed the topic on the May 5 broadcast of National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air.”
On that program, separate interviews with Mohler and Kimball conducted by host Terry Gross demonstrated that the controversy also centers on different understandings of Scripture.
Kimball told Fresh Air that he grew up believing that Jesus was the only way to salvation but began to question this belief while in college.
Kimball is no longer a Southern Baptist but calls himself “a Baptist in the South.” Kimball 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 told NPR 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.
“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,” Mohler said.
“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 United States government. Christians are united by their relationship to Christ and not by common ethnic or national background.
“I think it is incumbent upon us to make very clear, as Christians, that we are not there in the name of the American government, nor frankly, representing the American people,” Mohler said. “We’re there in the name of Christ. Christianity is trans-ethnic, trans-political, trans-national. That is essential to the Christian Gospel.”