Friends or brothers: a small but significant distinction

Our regular, monthly Muslim-Christian dialogue evening had to be cancelled yesterday evening. The Muslim folks with whom we meet had another meeting that they couldn’t reschedule. I, of course, was trying to arrange this meeting at the beginning of the month to no avail. The imam with whom we arrange the evenings only saw fit to think about it halfway through this week. It is not at all unusual for us to announce the meeting at church based on nothing but the hope that it will run the following Friday.

By the time we were able to talk, my friend suggested it might be a ‘bit late’ to arrange it now (yes, I know… I thought that too). But, that is what it is like working with Pakistani Muslims. We simply acknowledge it for what it is, press on, adapt as best we can and pray that the Lord will grant us further opportunities and honour our efforts for him. To quote Bruce Hornsby (or Tupac, if that floats your boat and you prefer his sample of the same song), ‘that’s just the way it is’.

When we do meet, I am always keen to introduce our visitors (or hosts, we alternate where we hold the meeting for home and away matches) as our ‘Muslim friends’. They are indeed our friends. Many of them are good people (notwithstanding Total Depravity; if you’re reformed, don’t write in). They, like us, want to know God and are keen to honour and obey him. They too want to honour their creator and wish to escape condemnation and be welcome into paradise for eternity. There are many other areas in which our Muslim friends are like us in their beliefs and desires.

The problem, of course, is that they do worship a different god and he is, fundamentally, unlike the Christian God. Though some wish to claim it isn’t so, even some of the Muslims in our discussions wish to claim it isn’t so, there is one simple and easy question to discern the matter: do you believe Jesus Christ is God, or not? No Muslim, who intends to remain one, has yet said ‘yes’. Ergo, different we worship different deities. We believe in a trinitarian God, one God in three persons; they believe in a unitarian god, one god as one person.

Once we accept that we worship different gods (and, there can be no denying that we do), it becomes much less surprising to find that we respond to our respective gods in wholly different ways. Major differences in belief and practice are only a surprise for those who labour under the misapprehension that Allah and Yahweh are conceptions of the same deity. It is, therefore, unsurprising that Christians teach salvation is a matter of God winning our salvation on our behalf, granting it to us as a work of grace and even saving us as a matter of his own sovereign decree. This conception of salvation is only possible on a trinitarian understanding of the Godhead. Muslims, by contrast, believe Allah condemns and shows mercy on a whim – our efforts in obeying him playing some (but not an altogether clear) role in whether he grants clemency or not. These are not the only points of difference, but they are probably the two most substantial from which all the others flow.

The point, at which I now arrive, is that these differences mean we can happily consider the Muslims meeting with us to be our friends – and they most certainly are our friends – but we cannot call them brother or sister. I am always struck, however, by the fraternal language used by our Muslim friends in referring to us. They – for good or ill – are happy to call us brothers and sisters (whether just in the formal meetings together for the sake of good PR or from a genuine sense of fraternity, I don’t know). We, however, cannot consider the relationship fraternal but can happily view it as amicable.

What possible difference does it make? We want to be clear that those who come to know and love the Lord Jesus Christ as saviour, very God from very God, begotten not created, etc etc, are adopted into his sonship. Each person who trusts in Christ by faith is adopted into Jesus’ sonship and thus becomes a true son and heir of God by being found in the Son himself (even Christian ladies are rightly understood as sons of God as they too are in the Son through whom the Father sees us). We are, therefore, rightly brothers with Christ – the eternal Son of God – and simultaneously with everybody else who is also found in him.

Those who are not in Christ, who reject him as the eternal Son of God and saviour of the world, by definition, do not belong to the household of God. It strikes me as important that we do not offer any false hope or give succour to the idea that we think any different. It is not good for the souls of those we claim to love nor is it any good for the witness of the church which would cease to be in any way unique on such grounds.

When I call the Muslims guys we have gotten to know ‘friends’, I really mean it. I like them, I want to serve them, I care about their eternal standing before Almighty God. So what sort of friends are we if we pretend that they’re alright with God when we firmly believe it isn’t so? How are we being friends to them by giving them false assurance through the language we use and a sense that they are closer to the kingdom – dare I say, barely stopping short of a suggestion they’re in the kingdom already – than we really believe they are or, more importantly, than scripture makes clear they are.

It may seem like a minor quibble, whether we use the word ‘brother’ or ‘friend’ to describe a lack of animosity, but if the difference between orthodoxy and heresy is one letter – homoousios or homoiousios (and that is not at all an unimportant distinction in our meetings) – perhaps whole words might be more significant than we think? Friends? Yes, absolutely. Brothers? Not yet, but we sincerely hope and pray we might be able to say ‘yes’ one day.