Wheaton College Administrators Remove Names From Christian-Muslim Statement

“My eagerness to support the statement’s strengths caused me to move too quickly,” president Duane Litfin tells student newspaper.

Ted Olsen

The Wheaton College student newspaper, The Record, reports today that the influential evangelical college’s president, provost, and chaplain have removed their names from a letter to Muslim leaders that has attracted criticism in some quarters.

Loving God and Neighbor Together” was published in the November 18, 2007, New York Times as a response to an October statement from 138 Muslim scholars and clerics calling for interfaith cooperation. Wheaton College president Duane Litfin and provost Stanton Jones were among the signatories, along with pastors Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, National Association of Evangelicals president Leith Anderson, Youth With a Mission chairman Lynn Green, Frontiers mission founder Greg Livingstone, theologians Miroslav Volf and John Stott, and Christianity Today Media Group editor-in-chief David Neff.

“I signed the statement because I am committed to the business of peace-making and neighbor-love,” Litfin wrote in The Record. “I did not savor the document’s unnuanced apology section, but swallowed that in order to be a part of reaching out a hand to these Muslim leaders who had courageously taken the initiative. Though the statement was not written in the way I would have written it, it seemed to me that I could sign it without compromising any of my Christian convictions.”

But in the last month, the statement has been sharply criticized by several other evangelical leaders, including Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler, pastor John Piper, and Focus on the Family’s CitizenLink newsletter.

(A Christianity Today news report on the statement and its critics appears in the March issue of the magazine; we’ll post it online shortly.)

Such critiques, Litfin said, prompted him to rethink his signature. “[O]n this occasion my eagerness to support the statement’s strengths caused me to move too quickly,” he wrote. Rereading the statement, he says, he found it was

not carefully enough crafted to avoid encouraging that basic premise of civil religion, i.e., that we are all worshiping the same God, climbing the same mountain, just taking different paths. It appears to me that the statement could have been written so to avoid this problem while still reaching out a gracious hand to these Muslim leaders. … To speak unqualifiedly of “our common love for God,” as if the Quran’s Allah and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ are one and the same, and as if what it means to “love God” in these two faiths means the same thing, is to say more than I am willing to grant. I do not criticize others who do not share these qualms. But as for me, I needed to back away.

Litfin emphasized that he was not pressured or even encouraged to take his name off the statement. “No one had suggested it or even knew I was taking this step,’ he said. “It was simply a matter of conscience, combined with the fact that I had put the College on the line in a way I was no longer comfortable in defending.”

And in fact Litfin implicitly answered some critics who had argued that interfaith dialogue undercut evangelism:

As to the related question this incident raises of evangelism and inter-faith dialogue, surely the best answer is a balanced one. If we truly believe the Gospel and love our neighbor, evangelism will lie near the core of our relationships without occupying the whole of it. Our friendships with non-Christians transcend evangelism in the sense that those friendships continue even when Christ is not received. In other words, our friendship is not contingent upon that reception. But nor can any genuine friendship with non-Christians exclude an evangelistic concern. Our relationship may be in pre-evangelistic phase, or evangelistic phase, or a post-evangelistic phase, but a desire to see our friend find Christ must never disappear from the frame. If our love is genuine, we will always retain sight of our friend’s deepest need and stand ready to serve it if the opportunity arises.

Jones and Wheaton College chaplain Stephen Kellough said they agreed with Litfin’s conclusions, and similarly withdrew their names to further distance the college from the statement. Roy Oksnevad, director of Muslim Ministries at Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center, kept his signature on the document, and told the Record, “I still agree [with the statement]. I don’t have reservations.”

Also of note in the Record this week: presidential candidate Mitt Romney had wanted to hold a rally on the campus two days before Super Tuesday, but was turned away. “Only in extraordinary circumstances do we open the college community to Sunday activities,” Jones told the student paper. “Particularly a political event at noon on Sunday is very incongruent with our religious identity.”