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Church Unity: Lessons from an Unlikely Source – Part 1

A new word keeps showing up in the news describing radical Islamic groups – “takfÄ«r.”

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 (for example, ISIS, al-Qaida and so on) 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 that 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. TakfÄ«rÄ«s 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 takfÄ«r, 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 rebaptized 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 rebaptized 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.”

I admit that being rebaptized 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 aforementioned 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?

Mike Kuhn is a professor at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. He has lived in Middle Eastern countries for 25 years and previously served as pastor of a church in the United States. A version of this article first appeared on the Institute of Middle East Studies blog and is used with permission.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here.