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Muslims, Mormons, and the need for reform

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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Children play behind a curtain to separate the men and women in a prayer hall at the Islamic Cultural Center of New York in the Manhattan borough of New York (Credit: Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

In recent days, two interesting articles have been published issuing calls for reform in the Muslim and Mormon faiths. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, in an essay adapted from her book Heretic: Why Islam Needs Reformation Now, describes the issues facing Islam today and the necessary steps to move beyond them. She writes that “the fundamental problem is that the majority of otherwise peaceful and law-abiding Muslims are unwilling to acknowledge, much less to repudiate, the theological warrant for intolerance and violence embedded in their own religious texts.” Hirsi Ali continues by pointing out that Christianity and Judaism had to undergo a similar process of reformation in order to correctly contextualize the violent passages in our scriptures.

She goes on to list five precepts of the Islamic faith that need to be a focus of any reform efforts. Some of these include the way Muhammad is awarded “semi-divine status,” the literal way that the Qur’an is typically interpreted, and the forceful advancement of Islam through Sharia law and jihad. Without change in these areas, it is her belief that attempts to counteract the violence of extremist Muslims will be largely ineffectual.

Peggy Fletcher Stack makes a similar call for reformation within the Mormon Church, though for a different reason. Many Mormons have left the church in recent years as conflicting information about some of their basic teachings have become more commonly held knowledge. For example, differing accounts of how their belief system was revealed to Joseph Smith have shaken the faith of many. However, as Stack points out, “some Mormons have left the fold not because of the information itself, but because they were never told about it. They feel betrayed.” Now the Mormon Church is left to decide how to reform their teachings to account for this information without compromising the core beliefs of their faith.
    
It’s one thing to recognize the need for reform. It’s quite another to go about addressing it. As we will never get our faith perfect this side of heaven, a reforming spirit is always necessary as we seek to not only grow in the faith ourselves but to also help others grow in their walk with God (Ephesians 4:15-16). As Hirsi Ali alluded to, Christianity has undergone a number of reforms over the years, with some being more effective than others. In looking at that history, three principles stand out as common to most successful efforts:

First: The need for reform is often far more evident to those outside your faith or your church than it is for those on the inside. In Matthew 7, Jesus warned his disciples not to judge others with the metaphor of focusing on a speck in your brother’s eye while ignoring the log in your own eye (Matt. 7:1-5). While that admonition not to judge is essential for us to remember, it’s also helpful to recognize that Jesus had to give this instruction because it is so much easier to see the sin in others than it is to see the sin in ourselves. As we seek to lead others in conforming their lives more to God’s will, remember to value the input and perspective of others while weighing it against the guidance of the Holy Spirit.   

Second: In order to lead people towards reform, you have to be willing to set aside tradition for truth. As a leader, maintaining the status quo is often a default position. However, if we are not willing to at least consider the possibility that there are areas where we could improve, how are we to grow in our walk with the Lord or help others do the same? This sort of honest assessment is seldom easy. However, it is crucial if you want to help bring about the kind of reform that will actually make a difference in people’s relationship with God.  

Third: Reform requires that you set the truth of God’s word as the standard to which you are striving. What is accomplished if we are simply swapping one misconception for another? True reform necessitates drawing closer to God’s truth. As a leader, you will often be tasked with helping to guide reform. Set God’s truth as your standard and you will help to ensure that such efforts are not in vain.

We can see all three principles demonstrated in the years leading up to the Reformation. The growing corruption of the Church was evident for centuries, especially to those who were not entrenched in positions of leadership, but lasting change didn’t happen until the reformers were willing to set aside many of the traditions that had developed over the preceding 1500 years and refocus on the truth of God’s word. While the resulting split was not ideal and such a schism should not be seen as a primary solution today, the Reformation was an essential step for recalibrating Christian thought in both the resulting Protestant denominations as well as within the Roman Catholic Church.

Where do you see the need for reform today? Remember to always examine your own heart and life first as you will not be able to lead effective, lasting reform in others if your relationship with God isn’t right. Once you have made that self-assessment and taken whatever steps God has shown to be necessary for personal reform, pray and ask for his guidance in helping others draw closer to him as well. Christian history is filled with examples of unlikely people God has raised up to call the Church back to himself. Are you willing to be next?