Wheaton College leadership retracts support for 'Common Word' response

Administrators from one of the most influential evangelical colleges in the US have removed their names from a controversial letter addressed to Muslim leaders that some say compromises the Christian faith.

Nearly 300 Christian leaders added their signatures last November to an official response "A Common Word Between Us and You", a letter sent to Christian leaders in October by 138 Muslim scholars and clerics calling for interfaith cooperation to help achieve world peace.

Wheaton College president Duane Litfin, provost Stanton Jones and chaplain Stephen Kellough have now backed away from the letter that they originally endorsed along.

"I signed the statement because I am committed to the business of peace-making and neighbor-love," Litfin stated on Friday in The Record, the student publication of Wheaton College. "I did not savor the document's unnuanced apology section, but swallowed that in order to be a part of reaching out a hand to these Muslim leaders who had courageously taken the initiative.

"Though the statement was not written in the way I would have written it, it seemed to me that I could sign it without compromising any of my Christian convictions."

The statement included such signatories as Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church, and Leith Anderson of the National Association of Evangelicals. It urged for interfaith dialogue that would build relations and reshape the Christian and Islam communities. Christian leaders also asked for forgiveness of sins committed against Muslims in the Crusades and excesses of the war on terror in the letter.

Titled "Loving God and Neighbor Together: A Christian Response to a Common Word Between Us and You", the statement emphasised the "absolutely central" commonality between both religions - love of God and love of neighbour.

The response, however, drew sharp criticism from highly respected theologians R Albert Mohler Jr, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and John Piper, a prominent US pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church.

Piper called the document a "profound disappointment" in the way it was worded and was surprised that even some of his friends had lent their support to the letter.

"What's missing from this document is a clear statement about what Christianity really is and how we can come together to talk with Muslims from our unique, distinctive, biblical standpoint," Piper said in a public statement last month.

He rejected the letter's emphasis on the common ground of the love of God, arguing that the love of God for Christians is starkly different from that of Islam.

"The love of God is ... uniquely expressed through Jesus Christ as the propitiation for our sins because he died on the cross and rose again. All those things, Islam radically rejects," Piper stressed. "So they do not believe in the love of God we believe in."

The Rev Canon Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, director of the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity and founder of the Barnabas Fund, applauded the effort of the Muslim leaders in reaching out to Christian leaders but called the Christian response a "betrayal" and "sell-out" of the Christian faith.

Following such criticism, Wheaton's Litfin realised he had "moved too quickly" to sign the statement in his eagerness to support its strengths, including peace-making.

Recognising that the statement could have been written differently to avoid vagueness of the Christian faith, Litfin said he could not support a statement that speaks as if the Muslim Allah and the God that Christians believe in are the same.

"I needed to back away," he said regarding his retraction.

At the same time, he said he does not criticise others "who do not share these qualms".

Noting that he was not pressured to withdraw his name from the statement, Litfin said, "It was simply a matter of conscience, combined with the fact that I had put the College on the line in a way I was no longer comfortable in defending."

Other signatories of the Christian response showed no qualms over their endorsement.

"I still agree [with the statement]. I don't have reservations," said Roy Oksnevad, director of Muslim Ministries at Wheaton College's Billy Graham Center, according to The Record.