Rehabilitating the Image of Christianity among Muslims

For all Americans, September 11, 2001 was one of the most memorable days in our modern history. It was the day radical terrorists attacked the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in the Washington DC, killing almost 3000 people in one day.

However, for those of us who were living in the city of Jos, in north-central Nigeria at that time, September 11th went almost unnoticed because we were involved in our own violent crisis. Four days earlier, on September 7th, a major ethno-religious crisis exploded in Jos that took the lives of 1000 to 2000 people and destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses. This was a week mixed with terror, amazement, anger, shock, and many other conflicting emotions. Unfortunately, that was not to be the last crisis. In November 2008, another crisis sparked off with at least another 700 to 800 loosing their lives. Sadly, in January 2010, the violence returned and hundreds more people were slaughtered, many of them non-combatants who had nothing to do with the controversies that sparked the violence.

The factors that fed the flames of this conflict are beyond the scope of this paper. It is sufficient to say that there were political, ethnic, economic and religious factors involved. Regardless of other causes, these conflicts have certainly polarized the Christian and Muslim communities and created much different perceptions of our respective religions in the eyes of the opposite community.

The Muslim Perception of Christianity In Nigeria

From a Muslim point of view, there is disturbing evidence that Christianity is taking Nigeria down the wrong road.

It was Christians who burned mosques and killed Muslims in Jos. Regardless of who started the conflict, many Muslims died at the hands of Christians.

  • It is Christians who promote secularism, which is perceived as leaving God out of public life and is anathema to Islam.
  • It is the Christian girls at the university who dress immodestly and provocatively.
  • It was the Christian world that sponsored the “Miss World” contest some years ago in Abuja with its semi-nudity and exploitation of the female body.
  • It is Christian parts of Nigeria that are suffering most from HIV/AIDS which is viewed by many Muslims as a clear proof of the moral bankruptcy of Christianity.
  • It is Christians who are working hard to protect their ability to buy alcohol in the states that have implemented Islamic Shari law in Northern Nigeria.

Even Christians sometimes agree. I once overheard a Christian elder in a large church in Jos complain bitterly that the Nigerian states that have Muslim governors, like Bauchi State, have really helped develop their states but the states with Christian governors have just gone backwards because the Christian governors have “eaten all the money.”

Whether these things are all true or not, these are the perceptions that Muslims have of Christians in Nigeria. I will allow others to speak of the image Muslims have of Christians in other parts of the world. However, it is to our shame that Christians in Nigeria are often viewed as immoral, dishonest, violent drunkards instead of the generous, kind, thoughtful, forgiving saints Jesus taught us to be.

We in the Christian community are able to distinguish between “true Christians” and those who are cultural Christians.

We know a true Christian would not take up a cutlass and kill his Muslim neighbor.

  • We know a true Christian would not steal money from the government.
  • We know the kinds of indecent movies seen in Nigeria on satellite TV and the vulgar music sometimes heard on Nigerian airwaves do not reflect what Christians believe or who Christians are, even though they often come from “Christian” America.

Unfortunately, our Muslim neighbors and friends do not understand the diversity within Christianity and tend to lump us all together as we tend to do to Islam.

Thus, I believe we have an image problem in Christianity. The image of Christianity in Nigeria and around the world needs serious rehabilitation. There is nothing wrong with the Christian faith. Christianity is the most noble, generous, compassionate forgiving and truthful religion in the world. Our problem is the perception of Christianity. And, unfortunately, the perception of Christianity is often influenced by the way we Christians live our lives.

The Correct Image of Christianity

What should be the correct image of Christianity? The whole Bible addresses this issue but following scriptures provide hints about the expected perception of Christianity:

  • 1 Peter 2: 12: Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
  • Acts 2:46b-47: They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.

These passages suggest that people should be able to tell something about our faith from our deeds. We Protestants are grateful for Martin Luther who helped us understand we are not justified by weighing our good deeds against our bad deeds. Unfortunately, the people outside of Christianity do indeed measure Christianity by that standard. Non-Christians look at our good deeds and our bad deeds and make a judgment about the value of the faith we follow. Whereas our good deeds do not determine our salvation, they may help determine the salvation of others because whether or not people come to Christ will largely be determined by how attractive Christianity is to them. And the attractiveness of Christianity is inseparably linked with the way the Christian faith is viewed by outsiders.

Living lives “among the pagans” implies integration and engagement—we live where they can see us. We must not so separate ourselves from unbelievers that they cannot see our good works. Our good deeds may not be good enough to earn us salvation but they certainly earn us respect among those we are wishing to bring into Christ’s kingdom.

The second passage tells us that in the early days of Christianity the Christians were “enjoying the favor of all the people.” Somehow, the unbelieving Jews were impressed by and pleased with these followers of Jesus. It is true Christianity did not continue to enjoy that favor with all unbelievers. However, it is significant that the first impressions of Christianity among the common people were positive. The friends and neighbors of the early Christians could not find fault with the wholesome and compassionate lives of these Jesus devotees.

Here is the point: Our ability to spread our Christian faith successfully is directly proportionate to the way others perceive our faith. If our non-Christian friends see our faith as something that is self-centered and leads to immorality and injustice and lack of self-control, they will want none of it. However, if they see our good and wholesome deeds, some of them are going to be attracted to our faith and will become open to the gospel.

Correcting the Image of Christianity

What should be our response to these truths? I believe that before we can do any successful evangelism among Muslims, we must work on improving the image of Christianity. That means we must engage in “image evangelism.” How are we going to do that? How should we respond to the negative perception of Christianity in much of the Muslim world? The following are some tentative steps that lead in the right direction.

We Must Respond with Respect.

The Apostle Paul appeared before a number of non-Christian leaders. He always seemed to know exactly how to address them. For example, when he spoke to the pagan philosophers in Athens, he said, “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious” (Acts 17:22). Paul did not ridicule their religion. He acknowledged they were religious people in a positive sense and used that as a bridge to share the truth about Jesus.

Human beings are made in the image of God which means they have the ability to make certain moral choices. If they choose to reject our understanding of God, we must respect them, not so much for the wisdom of their choices but for the fact that as humans they have been given the right of choice by God. We do not gain ground slandering people of other faiths or verbally abusing their beliefs.

One of the biggest problems Christians face in interacting with Muslims is the careless and sacrilegious way we refer to the Qur’an and their prophet Mohammed. There are many books written by Christians that portray Mohammed as a ruthless, cruel womanizer. Those books may be useful in keeping Christians from becoming Muslims but this kind of literature will not be very useful in bringing Muslims to faith in Christ. In fact, they will drive Muslims further from us. How much more has the image of Christianity been tainted and how much more difficult has Christian evangelism of Muslims been made by the threats of burning the Qur’an by one misguided pastor and a church of 50 members in Florida?

Respect does not mean that we must embrace the religion. It does not mean that we must promote the religion. It does not mean that we must admire the religion. It does not mean that we must defend the religion. Respect means that we must give other people the right to worship however they think best without publicly slandering them or their religion.

There is a time and a place to have appropriate debate and dialogue about opposing religious beliefs. There is certainly a time and a place for Christian leaders to instruct their people about the errors of other religions. There is even a time for thoughtful people to expose the faults and weaknesses and limitations of religious movements in a public forum. However, such communications usually should not include the emotionally charged provocative statements that have sometimes characterized Christian charges against Islam.

Knowing how to balance all of this is indeed difficult. However, there is one thing I am convinced of: We must rehabilitate the Christian image and one of the ways we can do that is to have respect for those who do not believe like we do.

We Must Respond with Interaction.

When Paul was in Ephesus, he apparently received a letter from the Corinthians asking him several questions. One of the questions was related to whether or not believers should eat meat that had been offered to idols. In responding to this question, Paul addressed an unwritten question of whether or not a Christian could accept an invitation to eat a meal with a pagan friend. Here was Paul’s advice: “If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience” (1 Corinthians 10:27). What Paul states here is that it is indeed permissible for Christians to have public and private interaction with those of other religions.

I think it is not only permissible but it is good for Christians to have meaningful interactions and relationships with people of other faiths. Was not this Jesus’ philosophy as well? The “sinners and publicans” with whom he ate were certainly not saintly followers but when criticized for his interaction with them, his response was “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Matthew 9:12). How can you help other people unless you interact with them and find some kind of common ground? You will certainly have no influence over people if you have not interaction with them.

The more we interact with others, the more we learn about them.

  • The more we learn about them, the more we will be able to communicate with them.
  • The better we are able to communicate with them, the more we will be able to share our faith with them.
  • The more we are able to share our faith with them, the more likely there are to be Christian converts.

The other side of the coin is also true. The more we interact with other people, the more they will learn about us. And, if we are living holy lives, patterned after the example of Jesus, the more they learn about us, the more they will be attracted to the God we serve.

About ten years ago, I became involved in developing a faith-based HIV/AIDS programme for the secondary schools in Nigeria. We developed a curriculum, materials and a training workshop for teachers of both Christian Religious Studies and Islamic Studies in the public schools. In our five day training workshops, we have both Christian and Muslim participants and Christian and Muslim resources persons. Having this kind of close and intimate personal interaction has helped to forge friendships and has also proven to be useful in seeking to establish peace in Jos. I have attended a number of Christian-Muslim dialogue conferences over the years. However, our project goes far beyond just dialogue to active cooperation between Christians and Muslims. As a result of this project, I think it is fair to say that our Muslim colleagues and trainees have gone back to their homes with a much different perception of Christians than what the typical Muslim in Northern Nigeria has.

We may never win these people to Christ. However, in creating a positive image of Christianity among our Muslim friends, their children will be less hostile towards Christians which means they will be more open to the Christian message. Therefore, image evangelism among non-Christians is the first step in the successful evangelism of future generations.

We Must Respond by Giving Up Rights.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul gives some amazing instructions. Apparently, some Christians who had severe disputes were going to law against one another. Paul wrote this to them:

I say this to shame you . . . one brother goes to law against another—and this in front of unbelievers! The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? (1 Corinthians 6:5-7).

Paul was saying that it would better to give up your rights rather than to disgrace your faith before unbelievers. These new Christians did not always insist on their rights being upheld. They were willing to give up rights in order to promote peace and gain an opportunity to win some of these people to Christ.

We Christians, especially in the Western World, have been baptized with a great emphasis on justice and human rights. It is right and proper to focus on justice because God is a God of justice. It is good to insist that other people be able to enjoy their fundamental human rights. However, in so emphasizing our rights, we have sometimes tended to ignore the rights of others and have certainly not presented Jesus’ emphasis on self-denial and sacrifice. We do not just deny ourselves so that we can support Christian projects. We make sacrifices and give up our rights so that we can rehabilitate the image of Christianity.

I have been very impressed by the Christian women living in Northern Nigeria. Many have chosen to give up their right to dress like Christians in the South to show respect for the conservative culture of their Muslim neighbors. These women challenge us to be prepared to give up our personal rights if that will help create positive relationships with those of another faith and lay the groundwork for bringing them to Christ. Note Paul’s insightful comments:

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak . . . Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall (1 Corinthians 8:9, 13).

This statement was made about offending a Christian brother. However, it seems to me that it is even more important not to needlessly offend persons who are still unbelievers. To offend non-Christians may confirm them in their unbelief and condemn them to an eternity without Christ. The more we are willing to give up our rights in order to honor and respect a person of another religion, the more we are rehabilitating the image of Christianity.

We Must Respond with Apologies.

When Paul was taken before the non-Christian Sanhedrin, the high priest ordered someone to strike Paul on the mouth. Paul was a person who strongly believed in justice so he quickly and sharply replied: “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!” (Acts 23:3). When someone informed Paul that this was the high priest that he had just rebuked, Paul said, “Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written: `Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people.’” (23:5). In other words, Paul apologized to an unbeliever who probably needed to be rebuked. However, Paul did not want his faith to suffer because of his own impetuous actions. Therefore, he simply apologized.

Obviously, we must never apologize for our faith or any of the teachings of the Bible. However, there are times when we need to apologize to our non-Christian friends because of our own misdeeds or those of our fellow Christians. Contrary to what many tend to think, we never weaken ourselves when we acknowledge our faults and confess our sins. Our image as persons or organizations is nearly always strengthened by humility.

A couple of years ago, the office next to my office at the university was occupied by a Muslim colleague. One day I walked in his office and greeted him and then said, “Do you know what today is?” He could not think of the significance of the day so I said, “Today is September 7th, the day that all of this trouble started in Jos.” We talked about this for a couple of minutes and then I said, “Sheik, I am very sorry for the way that some Christians reacted during this crisis. Anybody who killed a Muslim or reacted violently was not following the teachings and example of Jesus. And on behalf of all that your people suffered at the hands of Christians, I sincerely apologize.” My Muslim colleague quickly said, “Our people did not respond correctly either. And I am very sorry for all of the injury our people caused to the Christian community.” I am not sure how important my apology was. However, I do believe that in the minds of my Muslim colleague and his two students who witnessed that exchange, the image of Christianity was rehabilitated just a little bit on that day.

We Must Respond with Positive Deeds.

One of the passages referred to earlier says, “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12). One of the ways we can rehabilitate the image of Christianity is to continue to do the many good works for which Christians and Christian organizations have been known.

One of the good things about most Christian organizations is they do not restrict their good deeds just to Christians. They do acts of mercy to both Christians and non-Christians. When Peter went to the Temple to pray and saw a lame man begging, he did not force him to become a Christian before he healed him. When Paul went to a market in Lystra and saw a crippled man, again, he did not require a confession of faith and baptism before he assisted him. Genuine Christian compassion reaches out to all those who are needy regardless of their faith. This is a Christian practice all throughout church history.

Some time ago, I was told a story by a good friend in Jos about a village near one of the large Muslim cities in Northern Nigeria. One day a delegation of Muslim elders from this village showed up at a church in edge of that city. They met the pastor and declared, “We have decided that all the people in our village will become Christians. We have come here to know how to do that.” When the pastor inquired about why they were making this decision, the spokesman said, “For the last several years Christians have been coming to our village helping us. They have dug wells, built a clinic, started a school and helped us in many other practical ways.” The spokesman then said, “No one from the other religion has done anything like that for us all these years. Therefore, we want to join with those people who had showed us genuine love and compassion.”

We do not do acts of mercy and compassion just to provide an opportunity to evangelize. However, successful evangelism is the ultimate result of these kinds of positive works. The hard work of evangelism is not leading a person in the sinner’s prayer but doing those things beforehand that encourage people to ask “What must I do to be saved?”

We Must Respond with Holy Living.

Perhaps the single best thing we can do to rebuild the image of Christianity is simply to live holy lives. Peter said immediately prior to the verse referred to above that we should “abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives . . .” (1 Peter 2:11b-12a). When we renounce and reject sinful and destructive behavior and live good lives, we are going to make a positive impression on those who are watching us from the outside.

Paul was converted in a very dramatic way on the Damascus Road. However, the first seed of doubt about the authenticity of this Jesus movement—the thing that caused Paul to “kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14b) may well have been his encounter with Stephen when he saw his face was like the face of an angel” (6:15b) and he heard his dying prayer for his persecutors, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (7:60). Paul could no doubt refute the theology of the Christians and could possibly even explain the miraculous deeds he had heard that Jesus had performed. However, the shining face and forgiving words hooked his heart.

If we want to rehabilitate the image of Christianity in our communities and around the world, we need to simply start living up to the teachings given to us by Jesus and his apostles.

We Must Respond by Obeying Jesus’ Teachings about Violence.

Jesus is abundantly clear about how Christians should respond to violence. I will only list here without comment two of Jesus’ major teachings about violence.

  • Matthew 5:43-47: You have heard that it was said, `Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
  • Luke 6:27-31: But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Very simply, Jesus taught us to respond to violence with non-violence.

It is also evident from the Book of Acts that the disciples followed the teachings and example of Jesus. When Peter and John and Paul and Silas were arrested, there were no threats; there were no plots; there was no violence. Paul later reflected the teachings of Jesus when he wrote, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head” (Romans 12:20). What this means is that the disciples understood precisely what Jesus had taught about violence and committed themselves to obey.

Whenever we disobey the teachings of Jesus on these issues, we are further creating a negative image of Christianity. There are many who present arguments why Jesus’ instructions about violence do not apply to their particular situation. However, if we ignore Jesus’ teaching about violence, we may as well give up his instruction about everything else we do not like or is not convenient for us. We never gain any ground when we disobey or disregard the teachings of Jesus on any subject and certainly not on violence.

We Must Respond by Correcting Misbehaving Christians.

Paul wrote a very blistering letter—the epistle to the Galatians in which he corrected some Christians who were demanding that Gentiles be circumcised. In that same letter, Paul tells about the time when he personally and publicly rebuked his senior colleague Peter because he was straying from the faith. In addition, the Jerusalem Council prepared a public document that corrected the teachings of certain Christians who were making evangelism of Gentiles more difficult. If we are going to successfully rehabilitate the image of Christianity, we will have to correct not only ourselves but also correct the beliefs and attitudes of our fellow Christians. And there are times when that might have to be done publicly.

This is often difficult to do. It is embarrassing for the Church to publicly acknowledge the controversial and sometimes dangerous extremists among us. However, there are times when those who claim to be our fellow Christians need to be corrected and rebuked and even expelled (Matthew 18:15-17).

In my interactions with Muslims, I have at times said, “If Ben Laden’s version of Islam is different from your own, you have a responsibility to say so. Because if you keep quiet about it, we Christians will assume you believe the same thing he does.” I think that same thing applies to Christian leaders. When a Christian leader makes a ridiculous statement that does not represent true Christianity, we need to disassociate ourselves from such statements and we also need to try to correct the brother who has made the statement.


“And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). This passage says that our lives should be like a mirror, not one that reflects what is in front of it but one that reflects something from an angle. We should think of our lives as a mirror that it held up at a 45 degree angle to see what is above us. People should be able to look into the mirror of our lives and see God who is vertically above us being reflected horizontally out from us. Whenever people can see the true beauty of Jesus reflected in our lives, most of the work of evangelism has already done.

I believe in many places, before we can start to impact the Muslim community, we must rebuild the image of Christianity. We must show to the non-Christian world, including the Islamic community, what genuine Christianity is. When we as individual believers with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory” with the “face of an angel” and the collective body of Christ is seen as a “radiant church” we will have rehabilitated the image of Christianity and will have laid an ideal foundation for expanding our Christian faith.