An interesting discussion came up at our recent home group. It wasn’t part of our bible study, just as we were chatting over food. It particularly centred on our regular Dialogue Evenings. The discussion centred on whether we would be happy to let our Muslim friends pray in our church building. That is, allowing them to do the salat in your church.
I recognise this is something of a wisdom question. I know churches that would say ‘yes’ and those who would say ‘no’. I wouldn’t want to fall out with anyone who took a different line on this to me. But my personal position is not allow it. I thought it might be helpful to explain why I take this view and, specifically, some of the reasons I do not find convincing.
Some would argue it is inappropriate to allow Muslim prayers in a church building. Personally, I am not convinced by this argument. I do not believe the church is a building and I do not have a theology of sacred spaces. I believe the church is the people; we are the temple of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. I do not believe there is anything particular special about the bricks and mortar in which we meet. The place becomes holy only inasmuch as Christians, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, are in it. This is why I believe it is perfectly valid for churches to meet in their own dedicated buildings as well as for others to meet in schools, community centres, gyms or wherever they can rent a space. There is nothing sacred about buildings.
In that sense, then, I do not have any particular problem with supposedly non-sacred things happening in our building. I do not mind children kicking footballs around our building. I do not mind Muslims coming in midweek and learning English. I do not mind the space being used for all sorts of non-religious reasons. All of this is because I do not believe there is anything special about the bricks and mortar.
Others are more specifically worried that demons or evil spirits will do something or other if we allow Muslim prayers. Again, I am not at all worried by that. If we don’t believe Allah exists (and, if you’re a Christian, I should hope you don’t), we don’t really have anything to fear from him. Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 8 seems to centre on this – idols and false gods only have power inasmuch as we recognise them as anything. But he is quite clear they are nothing and not any reason to be afraid. Even if we acknowledge this but believe there may be evil spirits involved, Paul is quite clear that we have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. As he says in Romans 8:38-39, none of these things can do anything to us. I do not find it at all biblically convincing that allowing Muslims to pray in your church building will be spiritually damaging in this way.
Our meetings alternate between our church and the local Khadijah Centre. Sometimes, at the Khadijah Centre, our Muslim friends have conducted their prayers in front of us. I am not at all bothered by this. I do not think there is any spiritual danger to us in witnessing them performing salat. So my objection has nothing to do with our church building per se nor any fear of spiritual danger to me or my congregation. My issue is primarily to do with what it appears we are affirming or encouraging.
It is one thing, in somebody else’s building, for them to decide to perform their prayers in front of you. In our particular meetings, there is no danger of anybody thinking that we are actively participating or affirming what is going on. Usually, if this happens at all, it takes places after we have just had presentations making clear to everybody present that we do not affirm this. Likewise, it is one thing for somebody to privately pray in their head. I can do absolutely nothing to stop that and I may not be aware of it going on at all. There is no evidence that I am affirming or approving of those prayers when it happens. But it strikes me as something completely different if I provide space for somebody to perform their set prayers in our church building.
If I am actively accommodating prayers to a false god – even apparently encouraging it – that strikes me as a serious problem. I would make the comparison with a visiting Hindu group. Would we be comfortable wheeling out a variety of idols and statues in our church in order to accommodate their act of worship? I would not be willing to do that because it would mean accommodating, even encouraging, worship that Christian people necessarily believe to be false. If we wouldn’t be happy allowing idols and statues to be setup for the sake of welcoming Hindu guests and encouraging that false worship, I’m not convinced we should be happy actively providing space for our Muslim guests to engage in their act of false worship either. We either have a problem with both or we have to accommodate both if we are being consistent.
None of that, of course, is to say they shouldn’t be free to pray. I am not advocating religious intolerance here. I think Muslims should be free to have mosques and Hindus should be free to have their temples and Christians should be free to have churches. But just as I wouldn’t be particularly keen to provide a space for those others to engage in what I consider to be false acts of worship, I would not be at all offended if they were not happy for me to conduct a communion service in their mosque or temple. I would be perfectly at peace with their hesitation- in fact I would fully understand it – allowing their building to be used for an act of worship that they believe to be false and sinful.
The issue here is not to do with sacred spaces. Nor is it to do with some sort of bad joo-joo. My issue is to do with actively encouraging – for the sake of good relations – what we necessarily believe to be false worship. The whole point of our meetings together is to try to point out why we believe these differences matter, to understand one another, and to try and encourage our friends towards the truth. I struggle to see us helpfully doing that whilst actively encouraging and accommodating what we consider to be sinful worship at the same time.
The question it comes down to for me is this: are we actively accommodating sin? If we really do believe our friends – albeit honestly and sincerely – are breaking the first commandment, we surely need to ask ourselves whether it is all that good and loving of us to actively help them do it by accommodating that very outward act in our church? In my view, I struggle to see how we are not accommodating false worship by doing this. And when we put it in those terms, it is hard for me to see a case for permitting it.