This is the second in a series of occasional posts from Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, where I have the privilege of serving with Michael O’Neal, a church planter/pastor/teacher from Tennessee, and missionary Scott Carter to teach Christian apologetics to fellow believers and assist local pastors in their discipleship and church-planting efforts.
Sept. 27, 5:45 a.m., guest house in Subang Jaya
I am learning that I don’t need an alarm clock here. Yesterday it was jet lag that awakened me at 4 a.m., followed by the neighbor’s cat, then a flock of screeching birds. Today I made it to 5:45 and the Muslim call to prayer blaring from nearby Masjid Darul Ehsen mosque.
I roll out of bed, slip on my running shoes and head for a jog through the waking streets of this sector of Kuala Lampur. The sun rises, traffic picks up and the merchants open their doors. I pass a park where a solitary woman engages in tai chi while a dozen others exercise to the music from “Mama Mia.” Street vendors prepare their kiosks for the breakfast crowd. The pungent smell of raw fish cuts through the pleasant aroma of rice, noodles, spices and cooking meat. Tempting, but I think I’ll stay with Starbucks this morning, or maybe the McDonald’s or 7-11, all within easy walking distance of the guest house.
The temperature is in the low 80s and quite pleasant but the humidity has me oozing sweat as I round the last curve and catch a glimpse of the mosque – a mustard-colored building with multiple minarets and a beautiful golden dome. I get to thinking about the people I have met the last two days while preaching and teaching in area churches.
Malaysia is officially a Muslim country, although there is freedom of religion and one does not need to look hard to find Christian churches or other places of worship for Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists and others. There is an important caveat, though: Evangelizing Muslims is off limits. This creates a tremendous challenge to my Christian brothers and sisters who love their Muslim friends and want to tell them about Jesus.
Some are fairly new Christians who have discarded their idols, abandoned their empty rituals and discovered the simplicity of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. But not without cost. One Chinese-Malay couple attends a Sunday evening Bible study in a neighbor’s home despite stern warnings from their parents, who culturally are to be respected and obeyed. Another couple has faced job loss and other hardships directly related to their faith in Christ. And the man who hosts the Bible study has forfeited a considerable family fortune since trusting in the Lord.
Over lunch yesterday with a local pastor and several of his congregants I am peppered with questions about politics, culture and faith in the United States. American music, film and television dominate Malaysian culture, and I find I know less about health-care reform and the Tea Party movement than my friends who live halfway around the world.
I have to admit that I don’t personally know a single American being persecuted for his faith. And the reason most Americans don’t share the gospel has more to do with apathy or fear of rejection than the threat of imprisonment. But my friends want to know: What are they to do when the Bible tells them to share Christ but the government forbids it or the culture discourages it? The apostle Peter was clear when faced with that question: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Simple. True. Powerful. But I don’t quote that verse for my new friends. The words would seem hollow coming from my lips because I have never had to live them, while these dear brothers and sisters in Christ must weigh carefully their words and actions each day.
Scott, our host and a career missionary here, responded wisely to a similar question at a workshop a few days ago. While God has granted us salvation and given us the Great Commission, He also has provided each of us with a measure of discernment to deal discreetly with our Muslim friends. Pray always for them, Scott says. Live a Christ-honoring life at all times. And when asked why your life is different, point to the One who makes it so.
Objection 8: There are so many Christian denominations today, it’s clear that Christians can’t agree on what the Bible teaches.
The Handbook of Denominations in the United States (12th Edition) lists more than 200 Christian denominations in 17 broad categories, from “Baptist Churches” to “Community and New Paradigm Churches.” If Jesus prayed that His followers would be one (John 17:11), and if there is to be “one body and one Spirit … one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:4-5), why can’t Christians get along? Even within denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention there have been major splits over issues such as the inerrancy of Scripture and the role of women in the church. Doesn’t all this contentiousness prove a fatal flaw in the Bible, since even people who study it and say they believe it can’t agree on what it teaches?
First, it should be noted that many of the disagreements among Christians are over matters of conscience, such as which day of the week to worship, dietary restrictions, or which translation of the Bible to use (see Rom. 14:1-23; 1 Cor. 10:23-33), or they focus on lesser points of doctrine, such as the mode of baptism, church polity or the manner in which missions activities are organized and funded.
Second, it should be acknowledged that Christians often have engaged in petty squabbling, internal power struggles and political wrangling, resulting in unnecessary divisions in the body of Christ, not to mention damage to the church’s reputation. The New Testament implores believers to be gracious toward and forgiving of one another; clearly, this has not always been the case.
At the same time, Christian denominations generally developed out of a desire for fellowship and joint ministry between individual churches – a biblical concept (Acts. 11:27-30), according to Charles Draper (“Why So Many Denominations?” Apologetics Study Bible, p. 1709). In addition, denominations many times began as renewal movements. The Reformed movements of the 1500s sought to restore the doctrines of the sovereignty of God and justification by faith to the church, which had all but abandoned these biblical teachings. In time, some Presbyterians drifted toward liberalism and new conservative Presbyterian groups emerged to preserve the Reformed teachings. Baptists came along within the Reformed tradition. Pentecostals and charismatics formed new unions based on their view of the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts.
There is a rich diversity among Christian denominations, and the differences between them often are not as wide as they appear. This is not to say that all differences are minor, or that all should be set aside for the sake of unity, for in Scripture Christian unity is the product of God’s Spirit working in the hearts of regenerate people and anchored in the truth of God’s Word. Some separations are, in fact, necessary. In the New Testament, many false teachers were disciplined or left the churches (see 1 Tim. 1:18-20; 1 John 2:19). In addition, the apostle Paul warns the church that false teachers will rise to prominence in the church in the days before Christ’s return (2 Tim. 3:1-9). The church today should be on guard against those who preach “another Jesus … a different spirit … a different gospel” (2 Cor. 11:4). For example, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to be Christian in their theology and practice, yet both organizations deny the central teachings of Scripture, particularly those having to do with the person and work of Christ, the person and work of the Holy Spirit, and the gospel.
Charles Draper summarizes: “The most important thing to do is to examine a church’s teaching and practice to see if it is consistent with Scripture. And finally we have to realize that in this life Christians will not agree on everything” (Ibid.).
Copyright 2008 by Rob Phillips