“…for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (2 Timothy 1:7)
A few years ago, I was having a conversation with a friend about the rise of ISIS. ISIS was new on the scene, and the horrifying images of beheadings and other atrocities were just beginning to circulate. I was asked what I would do if I were captured by ISIS and they were going to behead me. Would I resist? Would I fight?
After pondering the question for a moment, I replied, “I don’t know if one knows what they would do in that situation until they’re in it. But I hope and pray that I would have the courage to share the gospel. To look at my captors and tell them that Christ died for what they were about to do to me.”
Now I’m older and the stakes are higher. I have a wife and a home to care for. My death would mean more now than it did back then. And yet, I still want to think that my answer then would be my answer now.
I’m a Calvinist. I believe in God’s effectual grace. I have Romans 1:16 etched on my wedding ring. And I believe it–that same gospel that is the power of God for salvation for the American kid at summer camp is the power of God for salvation of the merciless jihadist, if God so wills. And I know that apart from that gospel, there is nothing but eternal punishment in hell. Eternal meaning forever, without end. In light of this coming eternity, which is better: For the terrorist to lop off my head, then repent and meet me in heaven where we will worship Christ together for all eternity; or for me to escape for a few more decades of meager existence on this earth and my attacker die in his sins and spend eternity in hell? I hope I would choose the former. I think that is the proper response for Christians with an eternal perspective.
Sadly, not all of my fellow Christians agree. This has been apparent in a recent controversy surrounding Dr. James White, a Reformed Christian apologist and theologian. He has written or co-written over 20 books on theology and apologetics. He has participated in over 150 public moderated debates against all sorts of groups, including Roman Catholics, Mormons, Atheists, Oneness Pentecostals, and, of course, Muslims. His approach is always uncompromising and gospel-centered. I attended one of his debates and apologetics seminars in April in Rapid City, South Dakota, where he took on Jose Ventilacion of the Iglesia ni Cristo, a Phillipines-based unitarian cult that is establishing a presence in the area.
Now, most people have probably never heard of Iglesia ni Cristo, and haven’t given much thought to South Dakota. And most people with Dr. White’s credentials probably wouldn’t either. But Dr. White was there, because Dr. White’s priority is the furthering of the gospel. If that means going to remote places and talking to groups that most people have never heard of, he’ll do it.
A few months earlier, in January, Dr. White participated in two nights of informal dialogue in Memphis with Dr. Yasir Qadhi, an imam and professor. The first night was held in a church, the second at a mosque. I watched both within days of their publication, and found them to be very informative. From Dr. Qadhi, I learned a good bit about what Muslims believe. Dr. Qadhi is an orthodox believing Muslim, and his information would be helpful to any Christian interested in witnessing to Muslims. On the second night, Dr. White was able to, in a mosque, present the gospel clearly and completely, as well as Christian doctrines such as the Trinity that Muslims often misunderstand.
But last month (five months after the event in question), Brannon Howse, host of Worldview Weekend, became aware of these dialogues and launched a series of vitriolic attacks against Dr. White and his ministry that have not stopped since. Others have joined the chorus.
Here is a quick rundown of some of the more egregious accusations that have been made against Dr. White and the dialogue:
- Dr. White was accused by Howse and others of violating 2 John 9-11 for letting Dr. Qadhi speak in a church. The dialogue was accused of being “interfaith” and sweeping the differences between Christianity and Islam under the rug. I wonder if those leveling this critique realize that church buildings didn’t exist in the time of John’s writing. “Church” has always been and always will be the gathering of believers on the Lord’s Day for the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. That can happen in a cathedral, a barn, a jungle hut, or a prison cell. These dialogues were not church. They were clearly stated before, during, and after by Dr. White to be apologetic endeavors, night 1 for Christians to accurately understand Islam so that they could witness to Muslims, and night 2 in the mosque for White to present the gospel himself. Of course, by showing up to the party 5 months late, Brannon Howse likely never heard any of the advance discussion of these events or why they were done. He just heard that Christians and Muslims were talking, and that’s bad for his business model (we’ll see why momentarily). As far as the “sweeping differences under the rug” accusation, yes, there was some discussion as to similarities between Christianity and Islam because, believe it or not, there are similarities. Both are monotheistic (although Muslims often accuse Christians of not being so). Both are socially conservative. But differences were plainly and openly discussed, as well. Dr. White and Dr. Qadhi never said they were a part of the same faith. Rather, they both were clear that they believed the other was in a false religion and they wished they would convert.
- Dr. White was targeted in a hit piece, being called a “useful idiot for Islamism” by James Simpson of American Thinker, who uses Howse as a source. This succeeded at bringing one of conservativism’s favorite buzz phrases into the argument. Of course, this ignores the fact that the very term “useful idiot,” beyond just being childish and rude, is a term that originated to describe sympathizers of communism, which is an ideological opposite of any form of Islamic government. Simpson further muddied the waters in an interview with Janet Mefferd (more on her in a second) in which he repeatedly equivocates Dr. White with “the left” (never mind that Dr. White sits politically to the right of most Republicans). Basically, an attempt to attach White to all of conservativism’s various bogeymen. Also, a list of accusations surrounding Dr. Qadhi’s ties, many of which Dr. White has addressed before. Simpson later admitted on Twitter that he had not listened to any of Dr. White’s debates with Muslims, had not listened to Dr. White’s refutations of Howse’s accusations, or even attempted to contact Dr. White for comment.
- Janet Mefferd “interviewed” (read: interrogated) Dr. White on her program, and accused the dialogues of being “dangerous” among other things. While Mefferd, unlike the other players in this drama, was actually willing to have Dr. White on her show to discuss the issues, the interview quickly devolved into a bully pulpit, with Mefferd repeatedly interrupting, asking oddly-specific ‘gotcha’ questions, and accusing such dialogues of undermining Western civilization.
There’s a lot going on here, and it exists at the intersection of many things I have written about before.
Since Howse went on the attack, his followers and affiliates have eaten this up. People are now calling churches where White is scheduled to speak to try to prevent it. Other outlets in addition to Mefferd and American Thinker have jumped on board. Howse is probably getting more attention from this than anything he has done before. When you work in the ad-supported radio and internet site business, that means clicks, and clicks mean dollars. That might help to explain why Howse isn’t letting this go. Not only are site traffic and ad revenue on the line, but apparently Howse is in the survival rations business.
In the secular business world, this would be a brilliant marketing strategy. Create a need for a product (get everyone scared that Muslims and others want to kill them) then sell a product to meet the need (survival goods). The old, cynical marketing guidance is that “sex sells.” And, while in our present day, sex does trigger much commerce, I would imagine that fear takes second place in the category. Howse sells fear, and fear sells merchandise. Few fears are more widespread or deeper rooted than the fear of Muslims by white, conservative, American evangelicals. Someone who can tap into that fear and market to it stands to do well, at least by worldly standards.
The problem is, this isn’t secular business. These are people who claim to be Christians. Christians are supposed to love the truth. Not perpetuate lies, slander, and fear. Not profit off of false fear that they create. Jesus himself commands his followers not to fear in Matthew 6:25-34, which I will quote here in its entirety.
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (ESV)
I don’t see much in Jesus’ teaching here that supports the concept of stockpiling MREs in anticipation of future disasters. Furthermore, I don’t see anything here (or anywhere in the Bible) that encourages us to defend American society and Western civilization at all costs, even if it means shutting people out from the gospel. If Jesus speaks against his people having such fear, how much more does this apply to people like Brannon Howse, who will use their media platform to cause other Christians to disobey this command to not fear?
With this fear comes yet another incarnation of political idolatry, where the Bible is subjugated to the conservative political agenda and “America First.” The smear campaign against Dr. Qadhi is an attempt to tie him to radical groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood (of course, Qadhi himself has been threatened by various Islamic terrorist groups, calling into question just how closely affiliated with radicalism he can be). Howse and Co. have tried to make the case that Qadhi is lying–he really is a radical and a terrorist, regardless of what he said at the dialogues or anywhere else. Radical Islam is an enemy of America. In “civil religion” the idolatrous conflation of country and God, there always must be an enemy, as Kim Riddlebarger describes in his excellent article on the topic:
“When current events are read through the lens of civil religion, the nation’s struggles can be vividly portrayed in biblical images of sacrifice and redemption, and framed as part of the larger cosmic struggle between good and evil. Our enemies are declared to be “evil” because they oppose the good–our nation and its current cause.”
To the American right, Islam in any and all forms is the enemy. While what Howse and his crew are doing is wrong, it isn’t new. The conservative media has painted all Islam as radicalized and terror-in-waiting, and painted all Muslims who would tell you otherwise as liars. Again, fear sells. Anger also sells, and when you attack someone’s idol (in this case, America), they get really angry.
This idolatry needs to be called out for what it is. For the Christian, America cannot be first; the Christian’s first citizenship is in heaven. Instead of fearing for our own well-being, Jesus instructs us in that same Matthew 6 passage to “seek first the kingdom.” Christians are supposed to love and participate in the spread of the gospel. Above anything else. Even if it makes us uncomfortable. Even if it makes us go places and deal with people we don’t want to. Even if it means questioning our political agenda or views on foreign policy. Even if it means we die. Whether or not Dr. Qadhi or any Muslim is radicalized is moot, because the only power that can transform them is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Does Brannon Howse care about reaching Muslims with the gospel, so that they might repent and follow Christ?
I asked him on Twitter as the scandal was taking off. Three times over two days, to be exact.
I’ll admit, by the third time, I was frustrated and let him know about it. Because while Brannon Howse never answered my legitimate question, he had plenty of time between my tweets to post more tirades. After I later questioned him on some bad arguments he tweeted, he eventually blocked me. That’s his right. But the proof is in the pudding. If Howse, as a professing Christian, does desire to reach Muslims with the gospel, he apparently does not desire it as much as he wants to make Christians fear and avoid them, which means his methods likely will not be effective. So much for seeking first the kingdom. It’s easier and more profitable to worry about what can be eaten and worn.
Dr. White, on the other hand, is seeking first the kingdom. Disagree with his methods if you want, but White went into a mosque and unflinchingly preached the gospel, and people heard. Hopefully, the seeds planted will grow. Hopefully more Christians will be encouraged to take the message of Christ’s salvation to those who desperately need it, rather than letting fear, prejudice, or political agendas get in the way. After all, Christ did not die just for white America, he died to save a people of every tribe, tongue and nation. Including those who are presently Muslims. Including (hopefully) Dr. Yasir Qadhi.
I stand with Dr. James White and those like him who long to see this realized. ♦