Takfīr and Church Unity: A Lesson from an Unlikely Source

 by Mike Kuhn

A new word keeps showing up in the news describing radical Islamic groups—takfīr.  It’s the English transliteration of an Arabic word that means “to anathematize” or “to declare someone apostate or an infidel.”

The ideology of takfīrī groups (e.g. ISIS, al-Qaeda, etc.) draws a very tight circle around what is acceptable belief and practice.  In order to belong to the group, one must repudiate moderate interpretations of the Islamic faith in order to conform to takfīrī values and behaviors which are compulsory with very little room for variance.  Any divergence is “unbelief” and carries the stiff penalty of exclusion at best or death at worst.  Takfīrīs control through power and enforce conformity.

And how is that working for these groups?  We’re all aware that ISIS manages to draw a steady trickle of recruits to their debauched ideology.  However, taking a wider purview, it is hardly surprising, though it is certainly noteworthy, that wherever ISIS rules, people flee.  If you want to start a new wave of emigration from Syria and Iraq, just raise the famous black flag of ISIS.  People of every religious persuasion—Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, Yazidis and Christians of all denominations—literally run for their lives.  While the armed conflict continues, observers might not be blamed for wondering how long ISIS can last with the mass defections it is spawning. The Caliph is emptying his Caliphate!  Soon, there will simply be nobody left to rule!

So where is the lesson for the Church?  Surely the Church can’t be accused of takfīr?!  Can it?

A young friend from an Evangelical church in North Africa—I’ll call him Hani—was pursuing a relationship with a young woman who had also embraced Christ.  Her faith journey had passed through the Orthodox Church though she was not raised in that Church.  They were considering marriage.

The dilemma was that the Orthodox Church would not marry them unless Hani was baptized in the Orthodox Church.  The problem was compounded in that Hani’s Evangelical Church placed great emphasis on Baptism as the public initiation into the faith.  To be re-baptized would be to repudiate his Church’s teaching and role in his life.  Indeed, he would have to become Orthodox.  By the same token, the young woman’s faith community was Orthodox and for her to leave her Orthodox Church to marry an Evangelical would be seen as a betrayal of her faith community.

The scenario is quite common among Christian denominations.  It appears that one of the two will have to break with his or her faith community if the marriage is to transpire.

Evangelicals are not immune to these conundrums. My wife had a similar situation years ago when she wished to serve as a youth worker in a local Church.  Though she had been baptized in water in the name of the Trinity, she was told she would need to be re-baptized in that particular church in order to become a member and take on the role of youth worker.  Her other baptism was apparently invalid and unacceptable.  “Every church has its policy.  This is ours.”

I admit that being re-baptized is not the same degree of conformity that takfīrī groups demand, but the root of the issue bears a striking resemblance. For the two young people mentioned above, the price of marriage is high.  One of them will have to break with their faith community and, to a degree, their family of origin, in order to marry.  That’s all because one Church will not validate the baptism of another.

I am suggesting that this tragic failure of churches to recognize each other is not all that different from the takfīrī tendency among radical Islamic groups.  Various churches have anathematized one another throughout history.  Think of the Great Schism of 1054 in which mutual anathemas were exchanged between the Churches of East and West.  I recognize that a lot has been done to heal the breach between East and West and between various Protestant denominations and their Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters and I applaud that.  Still, we must ask why our practice in the afore-mentioned areas (marriage, baptism and we didn’t mention the Lord’s Table) continues to hold tightly to the relic of a bygone era?  I respectfully ask how long Church and denominational leaders will go on gleefully ignoring the hardships that this lack of unity is inflicting on their people?  Isn’t it time we recognize, even affirm each other?  Can’t we get over the hump and begin collaborating instead of competing?

For a positive alternative, consider Paul Hiebert, a missiologist, who sketched out two ways to determine who should be considered a Christian.  His concern was the new believer from a non-Christian background who, though desirous to follow Christ, would require months of teaching in order to fully understand the faith and adhere to even a simplified doctrinal statement.  Hiebert used two mathematical concepts—“bounded sets” and “centered sets”—and drew application to how we determine who belongs in the faith. Bounded sets draw tight boundaries which define orthodoxy (right belief) or orthopraxy (right behavior) or both.  This way of thinking is common and useful in many cases but there are also negative aspects (e.g. it is reductionist–adherence to a doctrinal statement equals orthodoxy; it is cerebral—requiring little if any change of behavior).

Thinking in terms of a “centered set” offers another way of determining belonging.  It is based on a common agreed-upon “center.”  The primary criteria for belonging is the direction a person is moving in relation to that center, thus a “centered set.”

I know.  It’s too simple and too idealistic.  But someone should ask the question, so I’ll go ahead and stick my neck out.  Why can’t the various Church families agree on a center—an axis around which the Christian faith revolves?  Issues of whether we should accept one another’s baptism, inter-marriage or serve one another the Lord’s Table could be decided based on each denomination’s embrace of that center.  Why not let the center be the Nicene Creed?  Right.  We don’t agree on the filioque clause.[i]  But if we at least agreed on a common center, we could move toward a greater unity.  Perhaps the ancient creeds would supply the framework to move us in the right direction.

I am not suggesting that we suddenly dissolve our denominational distinctives.  I’m not asking Presbyterians to pray with the aid of icons or Catholics to baptize only adult believers or Lutherans to believe that the communion bread becomes the body of Christ.  Various Church families will continue to hold their distinctives in faith and practice.  But why should those distinctives continue to be an obstacle to the greater and over-arching unity for which Christ prayed?  As we recognize that we are moving toward the center, we can begin to overcome the hindrances to unity that have plagued us for hundreds of years.  Maybe we’ll even discover that our traditions and diversity can be mutually enriching.

When we fail to recognize the baptism of another Church family, are we not practicing a “Christian” form of takfīr (anathematization)-a holdover from medieval times that can now safely be discarded?  Don’t you think it’s time we got rid of every vestige of takfīr?  Maybe we can learn from the takfīrī groups to clean our house thoroughly…to clear out the old leaven of religious compulsion and replace it with the grace-filled center of Jesus’ life-giving Gospel.  Let’s purpose to be different.  Shepherds, can you find a common center, rather than a restricted pin, so that the sheep know where to find green pasture?  Can we bury the hatchet and take practical steps towards unity that lift a burden from believers and portray a unified body of Christ to a watching world?

“There is one body, and one Spirit, even as you are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all, and in you all…”  I think the Apostle would find the situations I mention above baffling, if not maddening, and would call us to base our unity on the one crucified and risen Lord whom we worship.

 

 

[i] That’s the phrase “and the Son” that describes the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father “and the Son.”  The phrase was added in the Western Church and the East continues to recite the creed without the additional phrase.

6 thoughts on “Takfīr and Church Unity: A Lesson from an Unlikely Source

  1. One approach might be to distinguish between the non-negotiable (doctrinal statement worthy) issues that should properly demarcate those with whom we can fellowship from those who must remain outside the body and those principles and practices that are agreed distinctives within a particular group. To join the church or organization, an individual would need to affirm the first without equivocation. But they would also agree to properly respect (and not seek to change) the distinctives held dear by that group. I’m sure “demoting” a belief or practice from the first to the second tier might still be considered compromise by many. But it is instructive to consider which of them I am prepared to die for and which I simply much prefer.

  2. Mike,
    Thank you for talking about this issue. It is sad how we humans are making our agendas (our traditions & our issues with each other) more important than those the Lord Jesus Himself had set for us (how the Lord accepts and loves us and we are to love each other and accept each other in His name).
    This comes naturally for us as humans as we set our human requirements and cultural bias to force others into OUR ways and paradigms. It is sad that we, believers and followers of the WAY don’t set His culture and paradiagm as ours.
    Jesus and the Holy Spirit helped the disciples in the 1st century to see The Lord’s culture as the important and ONLY one to be pursued. We see that in the book of Acts and in Paul’s writings. Yet we still divide up the Lord and His (not our) Church into factions that best fit our views and demands.
    We need to pray for the Lord and His Spirit to help us (as individuals and as a community) to see beyond our human perceptions and desires so that we long and live in His Body as He has intended for us; to truely love each other and accept each other in and because of His Name only (not in our name).
    Here in Knoxville I see the Lord moving, maybe in small steps – but as always it amazing when He moves and changes lives!!!

  3. Love the article and share your desire for us to find more reasons to come together than to be divided. My wife and I experienced the “baptism” requirement for her to become a member of the church where I attended before our marriage.

    I am a little intimidated to respond in this scholarly venue. I don’t qualify even as an amateur theologian, probably at best a qualified fuzzy thinker who loves to talk about such things.

    A couple of thoughts: John Wood gave to me some years back a visual for the “closed set/centered set” categories you use above. If you place God at the center of your diagram closed set folks will draw circles, you have to believe “these things,” what ever they might be, to be in the group. You can have a long list of “these things” including baptism, communion, dancing, drinking, etc. or only a very few ‘essential” things, i.e. the Nicene Creed, but he would still classify all as circle drawers. Small circle or large it is still circle drawing. An entirely different approach, in his words, is a linear one. A person is either moving toward God at the center or away from Him. Two categorically different views, a circle drawer or a line drawer. The circles will superimpose over the line which could be viewed as a continuum of knowledge/understanding. Certainly most of the organized Church through time has agreed to the validity of the Nicene Creed, but one could be so far out on the continuum line that they have never heard or especially understood the categories of the creed, but in their heart (Desire) be moving toward Him.

    The relevant distinction being the difference between head knowledge and a heart (Desire) for Him. Certainly one with orthodox head knowledge can and often will have a heart that also desires God, but one may have all the knowledge and no desire as Jesus notes about the Pharisees in John 5, who knew all the scriptures, had memorized most not all them, and scrupulously liked them out, but who not desire for Jesus when they met Him face to face. They had a very tight circle by which they judged their own people and especially the gentiles, yet Jesus welcomed and forgave the sinners and foreigners alike who wanted to follow (Moved toward Him) Him. Jesus’ questions to those with whom He came into contact was never, how much do you know, or even, what do you believe, it was simply an invitation, “Come follow me.” Even for Peter who had been with Him for three years and was himself convinced he believed, “I will never betray you,” was questioned in his humbled aftermath not with “do you believe now,” but with, “Do you love me, want me, above all else?”

    Circle drawing leads to the need to determine how much and how “firmly” one believes certain truths and inevitably then to leads to the question, is orthodox belief, however you draw that circle, enough or how much evidence of belief is enough. James says, for example, that the demons believe, they just don’t want God.
    I feel certain that many if not most Christians (Myself included.) through time have not known or fully understood all the ramifications of all that is held in the Nicene Creed, but I fully expect to see them in eternity.

    I am frequently struck by the account of the two thieves crucified on either side of Jesus. One could presume that they had pretty similar knowledge and perception of who Jesus was…one was drawn to what he saw an the other was not.

    I know this leaves us in a difficult place relative to the question about how do we decide who is in and who is not. Maybe this is why Jesus encourages us not to judge. We are never privy to what motivates what one does or believes. What He does say is that all will know we are His when we love one another. We will be know by our fruit, and the apostle Paul gives us a helpful list of what the fruit of the Spirit looks like. When Paul outlines “qualifications” for overseers and servants, he pointedly does not include a doctrinal statement, but directly references character/fruit parameters as the qualifiers.

    I have been wrestling of late with my whole perception of discipleship. I have grown up in a paradigm where discipleship is seen primarily as information transfer, with the hope that it will lead to transformation of course. I am now convinced that the disciple ship we are called to is one of our affections. This does not preclude right understanding of truth. They go hand in hand. As ones desire and therefore obedience increase God reveals more and more of Himself to him. (John 14:21) Transformations the process of our heart wants nothing more than Him as is stated in the first commandment. David, in the Psalms calls it an undivided heart. The wrestling comes with the realization that my affections are changed more directly by worship than study, (We become like what we worship. Ps. 115) and I am far more skilled at study and teaching than I am at worship and prayer.

    Mike, you know me, I can ramble on for hours, wish we were at Perkins. (It went out of business, by the way. The printing cost of menus must have caught up with them.)

    One last thought, Phil 1:6 says that, “On that day, He will complete the work that He has begun in us.” Apply that thought to the line perspective (Direction toward or away.)…on that day, wherever one was on the line doctrinally, so far away that he cannot even see the tight circles that are in fact true, or some level of understanding and vesting in the creeds, he will be made complete. He will know even as he is known as it says in 1 Corinthians 13. By the same token one who may be fully vested in the creeds and even fully knowing and understanding them, but have no desire for God (Pharisees of John 5, demons, etc.), will also be made “complete” or fully incomplete (Death, destruction, final judgment.). Completion will be realized by everyone and direction (Desire) on the continuum is the relevant factor.

    Sorry this is so long. Love you my friend.

    Jim

    • Thank-you, Jim. I should have given you a call before I wrote this. I appreciate your thoughts and the ongoing struggle to reconcile our ideal of church with the reality we see around us. This is a conversation-starter. Much more could and should be said. I appreciate those who are active in dialogue with other church bodies. I hardly touched on the missional impact of our ongoing schisms. One of the main reasons I’d like to see some healing in this area is because the ongoing failure to embrace one another, to my mind at least, is a poor reflection of Christ’s acceptance of us. Good to hear from you, friend. –Mike

    • Hi Danut. Thanks for your reply. I realize this accusation of “takfir” aimed at the church is offensive. I include myself in the Church so I am practicing self-criticism. I hope it might lead us to reconsider our rigid positions on the sacraments. Hopefully, we don’t actually think of other denominations as “infidels” even though our practice of the sacraments could easily lead a neutral on-looker to assume that we do. Thanks again for your comment and re-posting. -Mike

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