Most of us are familiar with the charge of homophobia, that we Christians, allegedly, have an irrational fear of, hatred for, and intolerance toward homosexuals. We are labelled thus because we have the audacity to teach that homosexuality is sin. Much has been seen in recent years—bakers sued because they would not make cakes for “gay marriages”; florists and photographers sued because they refused to participate in such ceremonies; and Christian street preachers arrested for calling homosexuality a sin.
A new phobia controversy erupted in Belfast, Northern Ireland some months ago—Islamophobia.
Pastor James McConnell is the septuagenarian preacher of Ulster’s largest church, the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle. On Sunday, May 18, 2014, he preached a sermon with the provocative title, “The Sermon that Ministries and Pastors Will Not Be Allowed to Preach in the Future.” The text of the sermon was(a better theme would have been “The One Mediator between God and Men,” a theme that actually encapsulates what the text teaches). The sermon was a typical Fundamentalist, Arminian presentation delivered with rhetorical bluster—much shouting, hand waving, pulpit thumping, and little exegesis, the kind of sermon an SB reader would hardly care to hear.
However, the sermon caused a stir because of what McConnell said about Islam: “The Muslim god—Allah— is a heathen deity. Allah is a cruel deity. Allah is a demon deity….Islam is heathen. Islam is satanic. Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell.” Later in the same sermon, McConnell opined, “Now people say there are good Muslims in Britain—that may be so—but I don’t trust them.”
Soon after the sermon was preached, it became the most talked about story on local BBC media. Opinions varied. Some called McConnell a courageous preacher of truth; others labeled him a bigot. The PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) launched an investigation, treating the case as a possible “hate crime incident.” McConnell was unapologetic; he claimed that he was preaching the gospel; he insisted that he did not have a hateful bone in his body; and he defended his right to free speech. Even some prominent Northern Irish politicians weighed in on the controversy. As part of the investigation, McConnell was interviewed for almost two hours at Newtownabbey police station on Friday, June 6. Afterwards McConnell issued a statement apologizing for any offense but refused to retract the sermon itself. “I had no intention of causing any offense or insulting any member of the Muslim community,” he said, adding, that he did not intend to “arouse fear or stir up or incite hatred” toward any member of the Muslim community. Ostensibly, McConnell’s aim had been to raise awareness for the plight of Meriam Ibrahaim, the Sudanese woman condemned to death for “apostasy from Islam.” The PSNI have not pressed charges, but surely the prospect of an interview at a police station has a chilling effect upon anyone who might dare to speak in the future.
Let me make some comments on the case.
First, McConnell, while he has freedom of speech, was not wise in his words. The pulpit is not the place for political advocacy, and his congregation would have been served better if McConnell had carefully and systematically explained the core differences between Islam and Christianity on the Trinity, the Incarnation of the Son of God, the atonement of Christ, and other matters. If McConnell would like to equip his people to witness to Muslims—and not just to rant against them or about them—he needs to teach doctrine. McConnell and his flock should read the Qur’an, so that they know what Muslims believe and can effectively witness to them. There are also excellent Christian-Muslim debates online by James White, where White respectfully engages with the arguments of Muslim apologists and presents the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is not compromise—it is doing research; it is knowing why you believe what you believe, and what the person to whom you witness believes and why. To say, “Islam is evil” is true, but it will not open many doors for a fruitful discussion with a Muslim co-worker.1
Second, the reaction of the media was grossly hypocritical. Had the BBC not taken the story and run with it for several weeks, very few would have heard about or cared about it. Does the BBC really believe that those who would commit racially motivated attacks—Islam is not a race—need a theological justification for their behavior, or that such thugs ever darken the door of a church, or that any of them would ever have heard of the sermon, had the media not broadcast clips of it on TV and radio? If anyone is guilty of stirring tensions, it is the media. Moreover, McConnell was demonized and ridiculed as a bigot because he had the audacity to criticize Islam, and (regrettably at the same time) to lump all Muslims together with their violent Jihadist coreligionists. His infamous “I don’t trust them” statement drew most of the ire of the media—although “Islam is satanic” was more suitable headline fodder. Several Islamic spokesmen were interviewed. While McConnell was subjected to grueling interrogations, the Islamic representatives were thrown softballs. One would imagine that Islam had never said anything negative about Christianity!
Third, the churches in Northern Ireland—and elsewhere—need to have an answer to Islam that goes beyond foolish, ignorant ranting on the one hand, and craven fear and compromise on the other. As a case in point, the Irish Presbyterian Moderator was interviewed on Sunday 25 May on BBC Radio Ulster. When asked about McConnell’s comments, Rev. Dr. Rob Craig reluctantly said about McConnell’s comments: “They are not consistent with the Gospel of Christ and the love of God.” This was later reported sensationally with the headline, “Presbyterian Moderator Slams Pastor’s Islam Comments.” In the interview, it was clear that Dr. Craig had “slammed” no one, but had only very reluctantly commented, and a condemnation—if one wishes to call it that—was dragged out of him. When asked if he planned to follow the example of a colleague who had visited the local Islamic center to show solidarity and support, he said he had no immediate plans to do so, but was not entirely opposed to the idea. This is the same Presbyterian Church in Ireland whose Doctrine Committee reported to the 2007 General Assembly, “If we are guided by biblical vocabulary, it seems difficult to extend the word ‘idolatry’ to Islam, for example. Judaism is clearly not a case of it.” Islam is difficult to describe as idolatry? Islam, which denies the one true God and His Son Jesus Christ, is not idolatry? What the Moderator should have said was this: “While Pastor McConnell’s words were ill chosen, it should not be a surprising thing to learn that Christianity and Islam are two religions diametrically opposed to one another. Islam denies that Jesus is the Son of God; Islam denies that Jesus made an atonement for sin on the cross; Islam denies the only way of salvation. Of course Islam is a false religion.”
Fourth, it is a sign of things to come that Islam, many of whose adherents persecute and oppress Christians on a massive scale worldwide, can call upon the police to investigate a pastor for “hate crimes” simply because he criticizes that religion. The hate crime charge may not have stuck this time, but there will be more cases. Pastors need to be courageous, but they also need to heed Christ’s words: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” ().
1 Interested readers may view a number of blog posts on Islam on the Limerick Reformed Fellowship website, www.limerickreformed. com; and James White’s ministry can be accessed on www.aomin.org/.