Middle East Resources

Distinctively Christian Lifestyle

Shirley W. Madany

From a translation from the Arabic version of “The Christian Heritage in North Africa: An Historical Study from the First Century to the Middle Ages” by Robin Daniel (Originally published in English as THIS HOLY SEED, 1991)

“Why did the pagan society react so violently against the Christians in this fashion? (Reference here is made concerning the sufferings and martyrdom of thousands of North African Christians)? And what harm did these peace-loving people inflict upon the citizens of the Roman Empire? To answer this question we must face the fact that Christians were “different” from the others. They did not behave as ordinary people and thus, their lives were surrounded by an aura that set them apart from the rest of the citizenry in Rome and Carthage. This brought suspicion upon them, whether from the rulers or their fellow citizens… And since the meetings of the Christians were held behind closed doors, and non-Christians were not allowed to enter such meetings, they were suspected as planning revolts against the emperor. But the most important reason for the popular hatred that was directed against the Christians, was their unwillingness to participate in the public occasions such as the holy days of paganism. What really bothered their contemporaries was not so much what they did, but what they refused to do.  Tertullian defended the Christians, when he said, “we don’t want to go to the noisy games, nor to observe the lasciviousness of the plays, nor applaud the awful things that took place in the public arenas.” (It was Tertullian, a North African convert, who made the statement: the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church.)

“This does not mean that Christians practiced world flight. They were to be found among the shopkeepers and merchants. There were Christian laborers and artisans. They ate in the same restaurants, they wore the same clothes and they did not refrain from helping their neighbors. But on account of the different way they lived, the non-Christians began to look upon them as enemies.” (Chapter 10, p 122)

Certainly those early Christians were not lacking in courage. No one had to ask them to live in a distinctly Christian way. They could not help but be different once they had decided to follow Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

In 1977,  we visited Tunisia. We heard the story of Perpetua and Felicita, a North African lady and her maid, who refused to recant their Christian faith and were thrown to the lions in the amphitheater at Carthage. This was part of the popular “noisy” entertainment of those days. Is it any wonder that no Christians had a taste for such events and that they steered as clear as they could from those gatherings? Today, if you visit the lovely little Anglican Church in the city of Tunis, you will be shown four stained glass windows honoring the memories of Perpetua and Felicita, along with two famous church fathers, St. Cyprian and St. Augustine.

Is it fair to look all the way back to the days of the early church for guidance in the year 1999? After all, we don’t throw people to the lions any more, do we? Rather, Christians today are more likely to be harmed by their own tolerance and apathy. We prefer to steer clear of questions of ethics and morals that are part and parcel of the total Christian revelation.

Considering the secular aura which surrounds Christians living in Western lands, perhaps it doesn’t hurt for those of us who are engaged in missions to Muslims to take another look at how the early Christians behaved in the face of the environment which had held them in chains. Like the Ephesians we need to be reminded that we too, live in a dark world. It was the Gospel that brought us into the light. Now that we want to share our salvation with those who have never heard the Gospel, how can our style of living be improved? Regarding this subject let me make another quote:

“When we take these facts into account, we conclude that in planning for missions to Muslims in the next century, it becomes the responsibility of all Christians to fight tenaciously the steady advance of secularism into the various spheres of their life and communities.

“ The credibility of the Christians' missionary endeavors, at home within a pluralistic society, and overseas, depends on their distancing themselves from the norms and the lifestyles of the secular societies which surround them. Unless Christians lead lives, which are concretely different from the lifestyles of the secularized citizenry, no Muslim will consider seriously what Christianity has to offer. We have so much to learn from the history of the first three hundred years of the Christian era when to be a Christian meant both a marked separation from the corrupt heathen environment and, at the same time, engaging it with the bold Christian word-and-life testimony: Jesus is Lord.” From “Christian Missions to Muslims in the 21st Century,” convocation address given at Westminster Seminary, Escondido, CA, in January 1997, by Rev. Bassam Madany.  

In discussing the need for a consistently Christian lifestyle, some people tend to think that we are simply talking about how Christians ought to dress. Naturally we aren’t. We do not suggest that we should copy the Muslim or Amish dress code. Lifestyle is much more than that. The Christian worldview embraces all areas of life. What we are talking about has to do with morals and daily walk.   

Still it seems necessary at times to spell things right out.

In the early years of this century, evangelical Christians in the Middle East were regarded in a special way because of their reputation. They could be trusted to not steal, or lie or cheat.   My husband remembers how Muslim neighbors would come to the missionaries seeking their advice and help. They would entrust them with money because there were no banks in those days. Christians lived soberly and worked hard for their living. The missionaries had brought the Gospel as well as education and medical help to the neglected lands that had suffered for centuries under oppressive Ottoman rule. 

In the USA, people who practice a different lifestyle intrigue us. The Amish are a great favorite. Their communities become tourist attractions and their home style food and craft-oriented markets, are popular with the average American. Another group, which gets annual news coverage, is the growing Islamic community within our borders. The latest celebration of Ramadan, early in 1999, was such an occasion. Our local newspaper ran two lengthy feature pages on both the religion of Islam and the fasting of Ramadan, and also about the rise of Islamic schools. In this latter article in The Star Tribune of January 3rd, there was a glowing account of the Universal School in Bridgeview, IL, an Islamic private school where 500 students learn about their faith and Muslim heritage in addition to reading, writing and arithmetic.

Julie Zasadny, who wrote the article was impressed. She noted that above the chalkboard in a classroom there was a sign which read: “We are Muslims, different and proud of it!” How succinct! 

We are not suggesting that we should copy the dress code of the newly arrived Muslims, but we do wonder if Christian schools ought not to emulate this attitude: “We are Christians, and we are different.” Then perhaps we would be obliged to point out the differences. Perhaps we should consider just how eager we are to tell our children that we are “different.” Different from what and from whom. Do we dare to be Daniels in this day and age? We aren’t getting very good vibrations from Washington, DC about the morals of our country. We could start with that aspect, as it becomes obvious that the expression, “the American people,” does not necessarily represent the Christian population of America.

One of the teachers at the Islamic school, formerly a public school teacher, said that the two schools were worlds apart. The reporter commented: “Prayer time is built into the school day at Islamic schools, which makes it easy to follow the required five prayers a day. Students learn how to behave starting in the earliest grades. Kindergartners push their chairs in when leaving the table, and they learn to sit quietly, hands folded on the desk.”   Islamic school students wear uniforms and older girls wear long dark robes over their clothes and they must wear scarves, called the “hijab,” over their hair starting in seventh grade. The scarf is optional outside of school, but even some young girls at Universal choose to wear it.”

We could give more thought to applying God’s Word to our life’s walk. The Apostle Paul devotes several chapters in Romans to the implications of the Gospel into every area of life. And the aged Apostle John, in his three letters, insists that faith and life must go hand in hand. “This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.” I John 2:6

In Islamic countries, as individual converts from Islam begin to find Christian mates, create Christian homes and gather together for worship, they experience exactly what the early Christians must have experienced. They find out just how difficult it is to shed their old habits and live according to the Word of God. Some national characteristics keep standing in the way of harmony. One such group voiced a request for prayer recently over the matter of pride which is shattering their unity. They find it difficult to admit a wrong or to forgive what they think is a wrong. This is what we mean by lifestyle. We are all familiar with the words that were uttered by the neighbors of the early Christian, “look how they love one another!” It takes grace and courage to forgive, but how else is a body of Christians going to witness to those who live around them?

Difficult words, but there they are. As the apostle John put it, “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”

1 John 1:7

Some time ago, I wrote an article on the subject of women’s attire for a women’s magazine and decided to use the phrase, “if the shoe doesn’t fit, don’t wear it.” Presuming that all Christians would want to bring the Gospel to our Muslim neighbors, it grieves us constantly to observe the inappropriate dress of certain young girls and even their mothers, when they are attending worship services. Because of our life work, we see them empathetically through the eyes of Muslims who might be enquiring into the Gospel. We shudder at the conclusion they must draw when they see young women with inadequate clothing—especially skirts, which reach barely to mid-point between thigh and knee! Where is the modest dress of a Christian woman? What a confusing witness this is, in the light of the Muslim’s over-accentuation of modesty. We well remember an incident in Istanbul, Turkey, when we were entering one of those famous mosques with a group of tourists. Everyone had to remove his or her shoes. And those men and women who were ill clad, had to put on some temporary covering to satisfy the need for proper attire within a Muslim house of worship. 

Consider the lifestyle of the martyrs of the early church. If they had not been strong in their faith, do you think the church would have survived 2000 years?