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Part 1: Baptism for the ex-Muslim Christian: Some Pastoral Observations

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The number of people converting from Islam to Christianity has never been higher than what we’re seeing today. There are numerous reasons for this and I have detailed those in other writings (here and here, for instance). When it comes to caring for these converts, baptism is without a doubt one of the most sensitive and important issues in relation to Christ’s converts from Islam.

The significance of the act is not lost on the average Muslim:

I knew that the significance of baptism is not lost on the Muslim world. A person can read the Bible without arousing too much hostility. But the sacrament of baptism is a different matter. To the Muslim this is the one unmistakable sign that a convert has renounced his Islamic faith to become a Christian. To the Muslim, baptism is apostasy.[1]

In this blog, I want to outline some good practices and key issues I have observed and sometimes applied throughout years of research and ministry among Christ’s converts from Islam.

There is first of all the question of sincerity. It is true that sometimes people from a Muslim background will seek baptism in order to acquire a certificate of baptism in order to help them in their claim for asylum or refugee status. Here is a certificate showing that they are Christian now—at least on a nominal level—and that they would therefore be in great danger if they were returned to Iran, say, or Afghanistan. The shari’a is very clear that the apostate of Islam must be executed. As the Prophet of the Muslims himself said, “Whoever changes his religion, slay him.” The penalty is not always carried out, but it is orthodox, traditional Islam. Killing the apostate is not any more radical or extremist than it is for a devout Catholic couple to abstain from using artificial birth control.

Another preliminary issue is related to the physical well-being of the person seeking baptism. In the words of a Nigerian pastor who is himself a convert from Islam:

It is noteworthy that the expectation of converts for physical/social security from the Christians, often appears to outweigh the benefits of the most important reward of conversion (eternal life), which they have automatically received. The challenge here is, that the absence of the former poses the risk of losing the latter.[2]

This is a reminder to be aware of balancing the material needs of the convert with the spiritual needs. This can be very difficult as those needs are often quite pronounced and can seem overwhelming to the pastor or minister who is accompanying the convert on his/her spiritual journey.

Regarding the seeker who is eager for a quick baptism, one course of action, which I have seen in use in many countries and contexts, is to tell him to a) continue attending the church and b) baptism is a topic we’ll cover later, when the pastor decides to. If the person stops attending church after receiving this answer it is a good indication that they really did just want a piece of paper. If the person continues to attend it is likely that there is something else in the life of the church that attracts them. A pastor with experience in the USA and Iran once told me that during this period he looks for signs of moral transformation. As St Paul wrote to the Galatians, the activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of a woman or man leads to the production of certain fruit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22). The implication is that during this time of waiting the pastor is trying to discern if God’s Spirit is active in bringing about these changes. However, this does not mean the convert is expected to become a paragon of virtue before her baptism, just that he/she is open to being molded by God’s Spirit. Furthermore, the ethical transformation is integral to the long-term formation of an integrated and stable convert identity, which is the ultimate goal of the pastoral care. This practice therefore ties together a key ritual of Christianity, redolent with biblical significance, and ethical transformation.

Regarding the sincerity question, the pastor working with converts or potential converts must also be pragmatic about requests for baptism to some degree. Do we humans ever make decisions for purely “spiritual” reasons? Is it not common for someone to explain that they attend St Andrew’s because they like the preaching and, unlike St. John’s, there is plenty of parking? Do those non-spiritual parking spaces somehow mean that the person’s entire reason for attending St. Andrew’s is insincere? Of course not! It is entirely possible for a convert to desire baptism because they are attracted to Christ and want to confess their affiliation to him in that sacrament while also wanting the piece of paper for their asylum application.

Baptism is also a rite wherein specific cultural habits that are inconsistent with a Christian identity can be refuted. Consider this example from pastor “Thad”:

DM: But you do use a modified version of the traditional Presbyterian [baptismal liturgy]?

Thad: Right. But we add a couple things. We ask them to renounce all false religions and all superstitions. So that they renounce: in their confession they say, “today I renounce,”—we don’t use the word Islam—“all false religion and all superstitious practice to embrace Christ.” and we add another question, that they accept the authority of the leadership of the church, and we have one other question, that they embrace the principle of Matthew 18. So, if they have a problem with another believer they will either try to go personally and work it out or bring another believer. Because in the Iranian culture, because of the honor society and honor/shame principle, it’s very difficult to confront each other over problems. So, what you do is you just gossip: I got a problem with Duane, I don’t go to Duane and say, “hey Duane, why’d you say that?” I just go around badmouthing you. So . . . we at least have them say, “I understand that according to Matthew 18, if my brother has sinned against me, I’m responsible to go talk to him and work it out.” Which is totally against their culture to do. [3]

The example here is in relation to Iranian culture, but other cultures and societies will have their own cultural habits that need to be challenged. Ensconcing the ethical commitment within the baptismal rite reinforces its significance.

*Part 2 of this blog, discussing practical ways to prepare a convert for baptism, will be published next monday.*

[1] Sheikh and R Schneider 1987, p.61

[2] Muhammad Ibrahim, “How we Help Converts” from Passion for Converts.

[3] Living among the Breakage, p. 188

 

Rev. Dr. Duane Alexander Miller lives in Madrid with Sharon and their three children where they teach and minister at the Anglican Cathedral of the Redeemer. He is associate faculty at the Protestant Faculty of Theology at Madrid (UEBE). You can contact Duane here.