James McConnell: hate preacher, brave purveyor of truth, or somewhere in between?
It's a simple choice. Pastor James McConnell from Northern Ireland, in describing the Islamic religion as heathen, Satanic and a doctrine spawned in Hell was standing up for the truth of the Gospel and courageously speaking for Jesus; or he is a bigot full of hatred and typical of the religious ranters in the Christian Church. The vehement outrage greeting Pastor McConnell's sermon has resulted in an equally vehement defence of his statements.
And here is my problem, when presented with such a simple choice; I do not find it simple. I am a Bible believing Christian who does not think that Islam is just another way to God, who has read the Koran and thinks it is wrong in many respects and who believes that Islam is a real threat to world peace and a primary persecutor of Christians. So surely I should be supporting pastor James McConnell? But I don't. I think he was wrong. And that what he said was at best ignorant and at worst harmful to the Gospel. Why?
1) It was not preaching the Gospel. A preacher is supposed to preach the Gospel from the pulpit and nothing else. A preacher is supposed to preach the Word of God and to say what God says. In the clip of the sermon (watch for approx three minutes from 7.45) you don't hear anything of that.
Look at some of the statements "there are good Muslims in Britain – but I don't trust them.....Enoch Powell was a prophet...." I find nothing of the Bible, rather just a statement of the pastor's fears, ignorance and politics. And the pulpit is not the place for that. The pulpit is the place for proclaiming the Word of God and leading the people into the presence of God. Not filling their minds with fears and ignorance. When the pastor stated "There are cells of Muslims throughout Britain" and then went on to chide his congregation "can I hear an Amen" he was being ridiculous. We say Amen to the Word of God – not to the political pronouncements of men.
2) It was not wise. Pastor James McConnell knows that his sermons are recorded and broadcast. He knows that several prominent politicians attend his congregation of 2,000 and that more than those present will hear his words. So he has a responsibility to be as wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove. Oh, but he is only telling the truth. Can't we do that nowadays? Yes we have freedom of speech, but when we are preachers we are to speak the Word of God, not our own inanities, even if we think they are true. Look at how Jesus spoke to the Roman authority Pilate, or Paul spoke to Festus and King Agrippa. They spoke with respect and grace – even though they knew that they were lost and needed salvation. Actually they spoke with respect and grace because they knew that those they were speaking to needed salvation.
3) It was very bad theology. The impression that was given was that Pastor McConnell was warning about Muslims and their dishonesty and bad theology. But what about everyone else? In my Bible it tells me that everyone is a sinner and that includes my new age neighbours, my Christian neighbours and my atheist neighbours, as well as my Muslim neighbours. In fact I seem to remember something about Christ telling me to love my neighbours, whether they are Muslim (or Rumanian!). Of course the pastor would point out that loving our neighbour does not mean that we have to agree with them, and he would be right. But calling them names and implying they are dishonest hardly matches that criteria, does it? A good theologian/preacher would know that all human beings are "dead in trespasses and sins" whether Muslim, nominally Christian, atheist or pagan. We should avoid identifying one particular group as though they were somehow more evil, or further from God than anyone else.
4) It was harmful. Because it does not help those of us who are seeking to reach out to Muslims with the Good News. It does not help those of us who are seeking to reach our wider secular culture and to challenge its predominant narratives. And it was harmful because it actually stops people examining the real danger from Islam, because of the fear that they would be associated with such irrationality, ignorance and prejudice.
And there is plenty to be concerned about. Meriam Ibrahaim – the Sudanese woman condemned to death because she refuses to turn from Christianity to Islam – is an extreme but not uncommon example.
I can think of people in this country whose lives are in danger because they have converted from Islam. Is it not extraordinary that I cannot even mention their circumstances, let alone their names, in case they are identified and placed at risk? I thought we were supposed to have freedom of religion? And it is not just the lunatic fringe. I once spoke at an Islamic college where the students were considered to be more liberal and most were at PhD level. My theme was the Islamic concept of tolerance and I talked about how Islam should be prepared to have genuine freedom of religion in which Christians would be allowed to become Muslims and Muslims would be allowed to become Christians. Much to my astonishment when I asked if Muslims should be punished by the State for converting from Islam, while the vast majority of the students agreed that the death penalty was not necessary, almost all supported the idea that the State should fine or imprison apostates!
By speaking in the way that he did, pastor James McConnell has made it more difficult for those of us who wish to raise genuine concerns about the intolerance of Islam; he has presented an image of the Church and the Gospel, which is harmful, and he has caused the name of Christ to be blasphemed amongst the Gentiles. I regard him as a Christian brother and I have a great deal of sympathy for him. I know how difficult it is in these days for those of us who preach a gospel that is so gloriously counter cultural. I pray that all of us who preach the Gospel, would be brave and courageous as we proclaim the Word of Christ. May we also ensure that what we say is the Word of God, and not just the fears of our own hearts, or the prejudices of those we are speaking to, and may our speech always be the truth seasoned with grace and love.