By John Ingram
On January 24 and 25, 2017, Dr. James White, Christian apologist and director of Alpha and Omega Ministries, and Dr. Yasir Qadhi of the Memphis Islamic Center, engaged in a two-part dialogue before audiences made of Christians and Muslims where Drs. White and Qadhi each asked the other questions about his beliefs. On the first night, Part 1 of the dialogue was held at Grace Bible Church in Olive Branch, Mississippi, where Dr. White spent nearly two hours asking Dr. Qadhi questions about his Islamic faith. On the second night, Part 2 was held at the Memphis Islamic Center, where Dr. Qadhi spent nearly an hour and a half asking Dr. White questions about his Christian faith.
The following day, Dr. White drove from Memphis, Tennessee to Laurel, Mississippi, where he was scheduled to serve as the keynote speaker for the tenth annual Deep South Founders Conference, where I was in attendance. Though the main topic of the conference was the Doctrine of Justification, the first night, Thursday, January 26, Dr. White opened the conference with a talk titled “What Every Christian Needs to Know About Islam.” His purpose in this talk was much the same as his purpose in Part 1 of the dialogue with Dr. Qadhi, where he had asked Dr. Qadhi to explain his Islamic beliefs to an audience of both Muslims and Christians: He believes that the Christian who understands what Muslims believe will be better equipped to present the gospel of Jesus Christ to Muslims. I believe that on this he is absolutely right, and who better to learn about Islamic doctrine from than a conservative Sunni Muslim cleric with multiple degrees from the Islamic University of Madinah and Yale University (as well as a B.S. in chemical engineering from the University of Houston)?
Dr. White also shared with us his purpose in the second part of the dialogue, wherein Dr. Qadhi asked him questions about his Christian faith: To help Muslims overcome their misconceptions about certain Christian teachings from which most of them tend to recoil, especially the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and the doctrine of atonement. Most Muslims, following the Quran, see the Christian belief in the triune God as polytheistic, and most do not understand the doctrine of atonement at all, as the Quran denies the crucifixion of Christ, and as atonement is unnecessary according to Islamic theology. Dr. White believes, and is probably correct in believing, that a Muslim who understands these core Christian beliefs will be more open to conversing with an evangelist than a Muslim who is only familiar with the Quran’s teachings about God and about the person and work of Jesus.
To this point, I have presented what I understand to have been Dr. White’s purposes in having this dialogue: To better equip Christians who might have opportunities to share the gospel with Muslims, and to overcome the misconceptions Muslims have concerning some core teachings of Christianity. To these ends, I believe that the dialogue was successful, at least on a small scale, as Dr. White recounted to us that on both nights, Christians and Muslims in attendance joined together to continue the discussion. My purpose in writing this, however, is to weigh in on the massive controversy which this dialogue has sparked. During the second day of the Deep South Founders Conference, Dr. White shared with some of us during a break that certain members of the Christian blogosphere were accusing him of apostasy as a result of the dialogue, and that even Bethlehem Baptist Church of Laurel, which was hosting the conference, had received a phone call warning of the wolf in sheep’s clothing on the prowl among us.
The reasons for the controversy are many, and I must say that I agree, or at least sympathize, with some of the criticisms, but I believe that the recent outrage against Dr. White is wholly unwarranted. The only criticisms which I believe have any real merit to them have to do with what I see as ill-advised language used by Dr. White, so I will start with that.
The first case of possibly ill-advised language is the title of the event, which was “Christians and Muslims: Agreements and Differences.” I do not know whether Dr. White gave it that title, but it is probable that he at least gave it his approval. The one word which might be inappropriate there is the word “agreements.” It is true that there are certain things on which Christians and Muslims agree, and some of those things were brought out in the dialogue, but these agreements are only surface-level and meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Indeed, Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic religions, and Christians and Muslims both claim to worship the God of Abraham, but God as presented in the Bible is fundamentally different from God as presented in the Quran. The God whom Christians worship is triune – existing in three persons: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Muslims deny this. Christians and Muslims also both believe in a historical Jesus, but Christians believe that Jesus is the divine Son of God, equal in glory and co-eternal with the Father, who died on the cross to make atonement for our sins. Muslims believe that Jesus is only a prophet, that he was not crucified, and that atonement for sins is not necessary.
I know that this is a long paragraph I have devoted to something I maintain is only a minor criticism of Dr. White’s participation in this event, but I believe that it is especially important to say given the never-ending worldwide debate about whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. I should note at this point that Dr. White has consistently and emphatically affirmed that, despite historical claims, Muslims do not worship the God of the Bible. I would like to point out at this time that it is thanks to Dr. White that I know as much as I do about Islam, and for that I am thankful.
The other case of ill-advised language on Dr. White’s part is his referring to Dr. Qadhi as a “kindred spirit.” This hackneyed phrase is one which I never use, but if I did, I would only use it in reference to fellow Christians. Even so, I do not think that we should read much into it, as Drs. White and Qadhi each believes that the other will stand before God condemned and cast into hell if he continues to believe and teach as he currently does. It is clear from Dr. White that what he meant by his reference to Dr. Qadhi as a kindred spirit is that he sees Dr. Qadhi as a man as committed to scholarship and ideological consistency as he is, which, I believe, is the reason why this dialogue was as successful as it was.
Beyond these issues of language, the major criticism that has been leveled against Dr. White is that he was negligent in allowing a Muslim to spend hours in a church meetinghouse explaining Islamic teaching without jumping in to refute him at each point. Their assumption is that it is dangerous for Christians to hear false teaching without hearing it immediately countered. However, while I was not there, I suspect that for the most part, the same people who attended Part 1 also attended Part 2, or at least watched the video, where the following day Dr. White did counter what had been said the day before as he answered Dr. Qadhi’s questions. Also, saying that it is unwise for Christians to be exposed to false teaching for educational purposes is like saying that Christians should only seek to learn about opposing belief systems by reading Christian critiques of those belief systems, rather than by going to the source. This is just plain poor scholarship and unlikely to be beneficial in apologetics. Part of the initial controversy likely resulted from the timing of the video uploads, as I recall that Part 1 was uploaded to YouTube quickly, while Part 2’s upload was delayed a few days, but Part 2, once uploaded, should have stifled these concerns for reasonable Christians.
Another concern which critics have aired is that Dr. Qadhi’s expression of his beliefs should be suspect because of the Islamic doctrine of Taqiya, which allows Muslims to lie about their beliefs in certain circumstances. I believe that this criticism is mistaken because Dr. Qadhi is of the Sunni denomination of Islam. Taqiya is a practice emphasized by Shia Muslims, and while Sunnis do agree with it in principle, they hold that it is only permitted in the face of an imminent death threat made by a non-Muslim. I have a hard time believing that Dr. Qadhi feels that his life is under constant threat from Dr. White or from Memphis-area Christians. He has, however, been declared an apostate by ISIL, which puts him in danger of being targeted for assassination by their supporters. For a more candid look at Dr. Qadhi’s views on Islamic extremism, I recommend this video of him speaking to a Muslim audience in response to the Pulse nightclub shooting.
In conclusion, while Dr. White’s execution may not have been perfect, his motives in participating in this dialogue were noble. And, as far as I have been able to tell, the benefits of the dialogue: better equipped Christian evangelists and potentially more open-minded Muslims, far outweigh the one observed negative consequence: fussy Christian bloggers. Dr. White continues to be, in my opinion, a faithful and wise teacher, pastor, and apologist.
John Ingram is a guest writer for the Reformed Outlook. John lives in Ridgeland, MS and is a member of Grace Baptist Church of Jackson. He is a CPA and enjoys running, kayaking, and cooking.