(RNS) One of Germany’s largest Protestant regional churches has come under fire from other Christians for speaking out against efforts to convert Muslims just as tens of thousands of refugees from the Islamic world are streaming into the country.
In a new position paper, the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland says the passage in the Gospel of Matthew known as the Great Commission -- “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” -- does not mean Christians must try to convert others to their faith.
“A strategic mission to Islam or meeting Muslims to convert them threatens social peace and contradicts the spirit and mandate of Jesus Christ and is therefore to be firmly rejected,” the paper entitled “Pilgrim Fellowship and Witness in Dialogue with Muslims” argues.
This initiative by the mainline Rhineland church, published in early October, prompted a sharp response from Germany’s small evangelical movement.
"We declare firmly that the fundamental missionary task of Christians, namely to preach the Gospel of Jesus to others and invite them to follow it, cannot be given up,” said Hartmut Steeb, secretary general of the German Evangelical Alliance.
The 32-page document could hardly have come at a more sensitive time.
Germany expects to receive 800,000 to 1 million asylum seekers this year, mostly Muslims from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The country’s Islamic minority could soon overtake France’s 5 million to become Europe’s largest. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s warm welcome to all refugees fleeing war and oppression has led to major political controversies at home and abroad.
Some fellow Christian Democrats accuse Merkel of recklessly flinging open Germany’s borders. Far-right groups protesting against a purported “Islamization” of German society are gathering support.
At the same time, hundreds of Muslims are reported to have converted this year. The fact that most are Iranians and Afghans, who could face the death penalty for apostasy back home if they were deported, has prompted some German Muslims to ask whether they are only converting to better their chances for political asylum.
The dividing line over proselytizing roughly runs between Germany’s mainline Protestant churches -- mostly the Lutheran, Reformed and United groups -- that make up about 30 percent of the population and its evangelical churches that account for only about 1 percent.
Both call themselves evangelical (evangelisch), with the latter sometimes using the term “evangelikanisch” to show the difference.
While most Christian churches have mobilized to help the newcomers, Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants have not spoken of the refugee crisis as an opportunity for evangelization.
By contrast, the Consortium of Evangelical Missions -- an association linking mission activities of evangelical groups around the country -- told its members in late September: “We have today the unique opportunity to introduce Jesus to countless people right here who have not yet heard the Good News.”
The consortium statement stressed that most refugees were Muslims who “have escaped Islamist terror (and) are deeply shocked at the inhuman barbarity committed in the name of their religion.” Many had never met a Christian and would ask why Europeans were so friendly to them “while their cousins in Arabia turn them away so heartlessly.”
The statement even pointed out that many Syrians were well-educated, hardworking and had a relatively low birth rate. “Fears about a ‘biological takeover’ do not correspond to the facts,” it stated.
Barbara Rudolph, head of mission work for the mainline Evangelical Church in the Rhineland, said the position paper had been misunderstood. “This is not about ending our missionary work,” she said.
In 2011, she noted, the World Council of Churches, the Vatican and the World Evangelical Alliance issued a joint code of conduct entitled "Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World” that said Christians should avoid "inappropriate methods of exercising mission by resorting to deception and coercive means."
Rudolph said the document by her regional church was part of a broader discussion within the Evangelical Church in Germany, the country’s main national association of Protestant churches, based on the 2011 code of conduct.
“We want to live in a way that makes others curious about our faith,” she said. “Whoever wants to become a Christian can be baptized.”
This new approach to the Great Commission has come under criticism even from within Rudolph’s church. Comments about it on her blog are mostly negative. “This new understanding of mission … excludes the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It mixes up law and Gospel by arguing that a certain ethical behavior amounts to missionary work,” wrote one pastor.
Another mission official for the Rhineland church said the document seemed to give up the very idea of spreading the Christian faith. “I base my life on the fundamental truth of the Gospel,” Pastor Christoph Noetzel told the independent Christian news service Idea. “I’d like to do it in the future as well, without it being relativized by my church.”
An official for mission work with the Evangelical Church in Germany, Hans-Hermann Pompe, told Idea: “If someone concludes from this document that it’s all the same to Protestants whether they follow Jesus or Mohammad, its authors should not be surprised.”
(Reporter Tom Heneghan is based in Paris.)
YS/AMB END HENEGHAN