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Takfīr and Church Unity: A Lesson from an Unlikely Source

originally published at ABTS Lebanon

Orthodox Cross, Catholic Cross, Evangelical Cross

A new word keeps showing up in the news describing radical Islamic groups—takfīr. It’s the English transliteration of an Arabic word that means “to anathematize” or “to declare someone apostate or an infidel.”

The ideology of takfīrī groups (e.g. ISIS, al-Qaeda, etc.) draws a very tight circle around what is acceptable belief and practice. In order to belong to the group, one must repudiate moderate interpretations of the Islamic faith in order to conform to takfīrī values and behaviors which are compulsory with very little room for variance. Any divergence is “unbelief” and carries the stiff penalty of exclusion at best or death at worst. Takfīrīs control through power and enforce conformity.

And how is that working for these groups? We’re all aware that ISIS manages to draw a steady trickle of recruits to their debauched ideology. However, taking a wider purview, it is hardly surprising, though it is certainly noteworthy, that wherever ISIS rules, people flee. If you want to start a new wave of emigration from Syria and Iraq, just raise the famous black flag of ISIS. People of every religious persuasion—Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, Yazidis and Christians of all denominations—literally run for their lives. While the armed conflict continues, observers might not be blamed for wondering how long ISIS can last with the mass defections it is spawning. The Caliph is emptying his Caliphate! Soon, there will simply be nobody left to rule!

So where is the lesson for the Church? Surely the Church can’t be accused of takfīr?! Can it?

A young friend from an Evangelical church in North Africa—I’ll call him Hani—was pursuing a relationship with a young woman who had also embraced Christ. Her faith journey had passed through the Orthodox Church though she was not raised in that Church. They were considering marriage.

The dilemma was that the Orthodox Church would not marry them unless Hani was baptized in the Orthodox Church. The problem was compounded in that Hani’s Evangelical Church placed great emphasis on Baptism as the public initiation into the faith. To be re-baptized would be to repudiate his Church’s teaching and role in his life. Indeed, he would have to become Orthodox. By the same token, the young woman’s faith community was Orthodox and for her to leave her Orthodox Church to marry an Evangelical would be seen as a betrayal of her faith community.

The scenario is quite common among Christian denominations. It appears that one of the two will have to break with his or her faith community if the marriage is to transpire.

Evangelicals are not immune to these conundrums. My wife had a similar situation years ago when she wished to serve as a youth worker in a local Church. Though she had been baptized in water in the name of the Trinity, she was told she would need to be re-baptized in that particular church in order to become a member and take on the role of youth worker. Her other baptism was apparently invalid and unacceptable. “Every church has its policy. This is ours.”

OK. I admit that being re-baptized is not the same degree of conformity that takfīrī groups demand, but the root of the issue bears a striking resemblance. For the two young people mentioned above, the price of marriage is high. One of them will have to break with their faith community and, to a degree, their family of origin, in order to marry. That’s all because one Church will not validate the baptism of another.

I am suggesting that this tragic failure of churches to recognize each other is not all that different from the takfīrī tendency among radical Islamic groups. Various churches have anathematized one another throughout history. Think of the Great Schism of 1054 in which mutual anathemas were exchanged between the Churches of East and West. I recognize that a lot has been done to heal the breach between East and West and between various Protestant denominations and their Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters and I applaud that. Still, we must ask why our practice in the afore-mentioned areas (marriage, baptism and we didn’t mention the Lord’s Table) continues to hold tightly to the relic of a bygone era? I respectfully ask how long Church and denominational leaders will go on gleefully ignoring the hardships that this lack of unity is inflicting on their people? Isn’t it time we recognize, even affirm each other? Can’t we get over the hump and begin collaborating instead of competing?

For a positive alternative, consider Paul Hiebert, a missiologist, who sketched out two ways to determine who should be considered a Christian. His concern was the new believer from a non-Christian background who, though desirous to follow Christ, would require months of teaching in order to fully understand the faith and adhere to even a simplified doctrinal statement. Hiebert used two mathematical concepts—“bounded sets” and “centered sets”—and drew application to how we determine who belongs in the faith. Bounded sets draw tight boundaries which define orthodoxy (right belief) or orthopraxy (right behavior) or both. This way of thinking is common and useful in many cases but there are also negative aspects (e.g. it is reductionist--adherence to a doctrinal statement equals orthodoxy; it is cerebral—requiring little if any change of behavior).

Thinking in terms of a “centered set” offers another way of determining belonging. It is based on a common agreed-upon “center.” The primary criteria for belonging is the direction a person is moving in relation to that center, thus a “centered set.”

I know. It’s too simple and too idealistic. But someone should ask the question, so I’ll go ahead and stick my neck out. Why can’t the various Church families agree on a center—an axis around which the Christian faith revolves? Issues of whether we should accept one another’s baptism, inter-marriage or serve one another the Lord’s Table could be decided based on each denomination’s embrace of that center. Why not let the center be the Nicene Creed? Right. We don’t agree on the filioque clause. But if we at least agreed on a common center, we could move toward a greater unity. Perhaps the ancient creeds would supply the framework to move us in the right direction.

I am not suggesting that we suddenly dissolve our denominational distinctives. I’m not asking Presbyterians to pray with the aid of icons or Catholics to baptize only adult believers or Lutherans to believe that the communion bread becomes the body of Christ. Various Church families will continue to hold their distinctives in faith and practice. But why should those distinctives continue to be an obstacle to the greater and over-arching unity for which Christ prayed? As we recognize that we are moving toward the center, we can begin to overcome the hindrances to unity that have plagued us for hundreds of years. Maybe we’ll even discover that our traditions and diversity can be mutually enriching.

When we fail to recognize the baptism of another Church family, are we not practicing a “Christian” form of takfīr (anathematization)—a holdover from medieval times that can now safely be discarded. Don’t you think it’s time we got rid of every vestige of takfīr? Maybe we can learn from the takfīrī groups to clean our house thoroughly…to clear out the old leaven of religious compulsion and replace it with the grace-filled center of Jesus’ life-giving Gospel. Let’s purpose to be different. Shepherds, can you find a common center, rather than a restricted pin, so that the sheep know where to find green pasture? Can we bury the hatchet and take practical steps towards unity that lift a burden from believers and portray a unified body of Christ to a watching world?

“There is one body, and one Spirit, even as you are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all, and in you all…” I think the Apostle would find the situations I mention above baffling, if not maddening, and would call us to base our unity on the one crucified and risen Lord whom we worship.


1 That’s the phrase “and the Son” that describes the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father “and the Son.” The phrase was added in the Western Church and the East continues to recite the creed without the additional phrase.

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