A Palestinian Muslim made national headlines this week when it was discovered that he is a doctoral student in archaeology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. The student worked at a dig in Israel alongside Southwestern students and faculty. He developed a relationship with them, and chose to complete his doctorate at their school. The seminary president explains that his admission "provides a chance for us to have an influence on his life."
Why is this news?
One answer is denominational. As a former faculty member and alumni of Southwestern, I can attest to the historic requirement that Southern Baptist seminaries admit only those who intend to become Southern Baptist ministers. Southern Baptist churches contribute a large percentage of each student's tuition for this purpose. Some have been surprised and even angered that the seminary would utilize church funds to educate a Muslim student.
But I assume the larger reason for the story's national interest is its shock value. If a Muslim student enrolled at an Episcopal or Methodist seminary, this might not be such surprising news. But Baptists have been known historically for their exclusivity. For instance, many Baptist churches allow only other Baptists to share the Lord's Supper with them. For a Baptist seminary to admit a Muslim student seems like the Republican National Convention inviting Bill Clinton to be its keynote speaker. Both decisions would make headlines.
I'm sure the Muslim student is surprised by this uproar. Having been to Israel more than 20 times, I can tell you that Muslims, Christians, Jews, and secularists work together in the Holy Land on a level that surprises most tourists. The extremists at either end make the headlines, but the vast majority live and work side by side, send their children to the same schools, and inhabit the same tiny country.
Here's my question: what is the best way to engage people of non-Christian faiths? On a spectrum, I see at least four options. One: seek every means to influence them toward Jesus, even if we must sidestep institutional guidelines to do so. Two: strive to share Christ but adhere always to the principles that govern our organization. Three: build unconditional relationships without making our evangelistic purpose so overt. Four: avoid such relationships, lest they appear to endorse the person's non-Christian beliefs, and restrict evangelism to media and missionary events. Which do you think is most appropriate? Please share your thoughts on in our comments section.
I believe that there are situations in which each approach is valid, and contexts where it is invalid. We must submit to the Spirit's guidance as we seek to speak the truth in love. John Wesley was right: "You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work." How committed are you to the work of the gospel today?
Publication date: May 23, 2014