Can Muslims follow the Biblical Christ–and still be Muslim?
Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about the “Insider Movement” which is what missionary experts refer to as Muslims that love and follow Jesus while remaining within the cultural fold of Islam. I can remember before moving to Senegal as a missionary, a thought flashed through my mind, “I wonder if God might use me to initiate a movement of Muslims coming to Biblical faith in Christ as part of a Reformation movement within Islam?”
It turned out to be a fleeting thought. Instead I opted for the traditional apologetics approach, pointing out to Muslims why the New Testament is superior to the Koran and why they’re wrong about denying the divinity of Jesus and the atonement. I never seriously questioned this approach until I read Carl Medearis’s excellent book “Muslims, Christians, and Jesus.” In his book, Carl shares stories of his interactions with Muslims who deeply love Jesus and strive to follow His teachings—yet remain committed Muslims. I nearly wept thinking about how things could have been different if I had trusted my original instincts.
But now I have new questions, and they’re a bit unnerving because they strike at the heart of what it means to be a “Muslim” and what it means to be a “Christian.” I’ve heard that there are Muslim followers of Jesus that revere and strive to follow after the Jesus that they see revealed in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), but I’m wondering if these same Muslims can find a place in their theology to accept the rest of the New Testament as well? And if they can, I’m wondering if Christians can find a place in their theology to make room for Muhammad as a pre-messianic figure, pointing people to faith in Jesus the Messiah (a term the Koran affirms by the way) maybe not as authoritative as an Old Testament prophet, but perhaps on par with the status of local prophets in the New Testament?
Let’s break this down. Because most Muslims can’t bring themselves to say, “Jesus is God”, Christians write them off as heretics. The problem with this is that there’s nowhere in the New Testament that says, “Jesus is God”; so what we’re doing is insisting on non-Biblical language as a litmus test for Biblical faith. The doctrine may be true, and I believe it is, but should we really think of someone as outside the fold if they can’t bring themselves to say something that isn’t directly stated in the New Testament?
I wonder if a Muslim that respects the New Testament could find it in his or her theology to accept the statement, “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God….and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1-14). If a Muslim can accept this statement as the inspired Word of God, could we not call them brothers and sisters even if our understanding of what these verses mean may be slightly different?
Let’s talk about the cross. Mark Siljander has done an excellent job in his book “A Deadly Misunderstanding” showing that the case can be made in the Koran that Jesus died and rose again. If this is true, might it be possible for a Muslim to accept that the Messiah’s death has saving significance even if—to my knowledge—the Koran doesn’t explicitly say so? After all, the Koran does confirm the authenticity of the gospels and the case can be made from the gospels that the blood of Jesus was shed for the remission of sins (Matthew 26:28).
If we look at the sermons of Peter and Paul in the Book of Acts, we see neither a very high Christology, nor do we see the doctrine of penal substitution—a doctrine highly offensive to Muslims—and yet we’re told explicitly that those who heard and believed their message received eternal life (Acts 13:48). The Apostles’ message in the Book of Acts was essentially “Jesus was crucified, but God raised Him from the dead and through this man is preached to you forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life” (see Acts 10:39-43, 13:37-49, 17:31-32). Notice the Apostles’ emphasis on the humanity of Jesus in His saving work. I daresay if an evangelist preached like that today, he or she would likely be labeled a heretic!
Lest I be misunderstood, I’m not denying the deity of Christ, and neither am I saying that the doctrine of penal substitution is wrong per se. I’m simply raising the issue that if a Muslim can believe and practice the bare essentials of what Biblical faith in Jesus requires and still be true to their own faith, then not only have we figured out a way to build a bridge of peace between the historic religions of Islam and Christianity, we’ve also figured out a way for Christians to be faithful to the command of Jesus to “Go and make disciples of all nations” without using our faith as a battering ram to demonize people of another faith.