The Church

I. Muslim Questions


  • How far can we compare the Church and the Umma (the community of Muslims) and at what points do they differ?
  • What are the main differences between the various Christian churches?
  • Is there a search for unity among Christians?
  • How does somebody become a member of the Church? What is the meaning of baptism?
  • How is the Church governed? Is there a body corresponding to the mosque committee?
  • What is the understanding in the Catholic Church of the role of the Pope, his infallibility, the teaching office of the Church and the Vatican State? Does infallibility correspond to the Islamic concept of i?s?m (ma?s?m in adjectival form), which indicates being protected from sins?


II. Muslim Perspectives




1. Muslims understand themselves as members of the Umma, the community of Muslims, who in Gods sight are all alike. At least in Sunni Islam there is fundamentally no hierarchy, no teaching office with authority on questions of faith, no priesthood and no clergy. Every single Muslim stands directly before God without any mediator.


2. In the consciousness of Muslims the unity of the Umma overrides the different groups within Islam (e.g. Sunnis and Shiites) and also the division of the Muslim world into different independent states, even when these are sometimes in conflict or at war with each other. In contrast, Christians appear to be divided into different groups, and not only within the Islamic world.


3. In the consciousness of the Muslim the interpretation of the Quran and the tradition are fundamentally responsibilities of the individual believer. The system of ijm? (the consensus of religious scholars) no longer applies. There are certainly Muslims who long for a teaching office which could protect the unity of the faith and expound the faith in todays world. More frequently, however, one encounters great doubt over the idea of a binding authority in matters of faith.


4. Generally speaking, people are Muslims because they were born in a Muslim country and grew up in the context of Islamic faith. The same is assumed about Christians. Furthermore, the essential difference between Christian baptism and Islamic circumcision is not often clearly understood. Arabic Muslims will sometimes translate the Arabic word for circumcision as baptism. On the other hand, there are increasing numbers of both Muslims and Christians who consciously convert to their faith as adults or commit themselves to it afresh.




1. Within the Umma all believers (whether men or women) are of equal value in Gods eyes, like the teeth of a comb (Hadith). The most honoured among you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous among you. (Quran 49:13) Devotion to God does not require a mediator, even if most Muslims in fact accord great significance to the intercession of saints. It is generally believed by Muslims that Muhammad is a living intercessor for them at the throne of God, though Wahhabi28 Muslims emphasize, with reference to different Quranic verses, that this intercession only takes place on the Last Day and with Gods express permission (see 2:256 and 20:109, among other texts).


2. The Umma is the community of all believers: the believers are but a single brotherhood (49:10). It is the duty of the Caliph (in the past) and the head of state (today) to concern themselves about the cohesion of the Umma and to ensure that Islamic Law is upheld, although it is not normally their function to provide detailed definition and interpretation of the faith and the Law.


3. Defining what Muslims should believe and how they should practise their faith is the responsibility of the religious scholars (ulam?, those with good knowledge of the religious sciences; fuqah?, those who have studied fiqh, the religious Law). The community, that is the Umma as a whole, is infallible as regards the definition of the faith and the Law: My community will never agree in error (Hadith). The outworking of this principle is, however, very difficult. In individual countries a grand mufti or a board of muftis (d?r al-ift?) are responsible for the official interpretation of the Law through formal legal decisions, known as fatwas. A Muslim can also seek advice from scholars and/or from spiritual leaders (ulam? and Sufi sheikhs) who are recognized for their competence and experience.


4. It is the role of the imam to preside over the ritual prayer (sal?t) and to deliver the sermon (khutba). He is normally a public official, paid by the Government. In his absence, his place can be taken by any competent Muslim male. The imam is not a priest. There is no clergy in Islam, but rather scholars with a good knowledge of the religious sciences.


5. There are many movements in Islam all claiming to be the true way. Nevertheless, many Muslims today take the view that the division between Sunnis and Shi?ites in particular, not to mention the divisions between smaller groups and theological schools, is a historical matter, and that the various movements all emphasize different aspects of Islam, each of them rooted in the Quran.


6. Christianity appears to Muslims to be more divided than Islam, not least in view of Christian teaching about the nature and significance of Jesus Christ. When the Quran mentions Jesus or Christians, it often draws attention to disunity among Christians: But the sects differ among themselves: and woe to the unbelievers because of the (coming) judgement of a momentous Day! (19:37; cf. 2:113,145; 5:14) For Muslims in Europe this applies particularly to the division of Christians into Catholics and Protestants.


III. Christian Perspectives


1. Catholic/Protestant29


(i) In Christian understanding, Church is a multi-layered concept. It is first of all the community of those who believe in Jesus as Son of God and Saviour and confess him in baptism. This broad community of the baptized is divided into different Christian churches.


(ii) One becomes a Christian not by birth but through faith and baptism.30 The one who is baptized is united with the death and Resurrection of Jesus (Romans 6) and thus becomes a member of the Church.


(iii) The Church constantly strives to be faithful to the word of God in the Old and New Testaments and to understand it in the context of each new era. The Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised to his disciples, is active in this continuing renewal in the understanding of the word of God, as it is worked out in the community of the Church.


1.1 Distinctive Protestant Beliefs


The Church exists where the word of God is truly proclaimed and the sacraments of baptism and the Lords Supper are administered in keeping with the Gospel.31 The Church is based on local congregations. Its constitution is synodical; its leaders, whether ministers or bishops, are accountable to synodical boards, composed of ordained and lay members. All leadership in the Church, whether exercised by men or women, married or single, is understood as a form of service between brothers and sisters.


1.2 Distinctive Catholic Beliefs


First and foremost, the Church is the People of God, in which all people are of equal value on the basis of their baptism. The purpose of ordained ministry within the Church is to serve the community of believers. The 2nd Vatican Council, in its Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), deliberately speaks of a hierarchical community (communio hierarchica).32 The Church is not the hierarchy but rather the community of Christians; the hierarchy serves the community.


To understand correctly the doctrine of the infallibility33 of the Pope and of the bishops, one must above all note that it is fundamentally the word of God communicated in Jesus Christ that is infallible, i.e. entirely reliable and free of error. Jesus proclaims and bears witness to the truth about God (cf. John 18:37). This truth is disclosed to the Church through the work of the Holy Spirit and it is received by the Church in faith. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, leads the disciples of Jesus into the whole truth (John 16:13). In the faith of the Church, brought about by the Spirit, there is the certainty of divine truth. Thus the 2nd Vatican Council explains: The body of the faithful as a whole, anointed as they are by the Holy One (cf. 1 John 2:20,27), cannot err in matters of belief. This freedom from error is given when the believers as a whole express universal agreement in matters of faith and morals.34 The infallibility in matters of faith which belongs to the Church as a whole takes concrete form in the fellowship of the bishops as successors of the apostles (above all in an ecumenical council) and in the ministry of the one who, as the Apostle Peters successor, is charged with the ministry of unity in the Church (the Papal office). Infallibility thus does not belong to the Pope as a private individual, nor are all his doctrinal statements infallible. Infallibility is ascribed to his doctrinal decisions when he is speaking ex cathedra, i.e. when, by virtue of his office as supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful . . . he proclaims by a definitive act some doctrine of faith or morals35. So the Pope, and equally the community of bishops, cannot arbitrarily declare certain teachings infallible; rather, they are bound to the beliefs to which the Church as a whole is committed and which it passes on. Hence, before a doctrinal decision is made, they must attend to the witness to the faith in the Scriptures, in the tradition of the Church and in the living experience of faith of Christian believers (sensus fidei).36


Conversely, it is just as necessary for the community of believers to hear the faith proclaimed reliably and authoritatively. Such reliable proclamation is the task of the ordained ministry in the Church, which is rooted in the mission of the apostles and – specifically for the office of Peter – in the mission which Jesus entrusted to Peter (cf. Matthew 16:18; Luke 22:32; John 21:15-17).


The universal Church, as it is understood and as it takes form in the Catholic Church, is a fellowship of local churches of equal status. The unity of the local churches is grounded in the diocese, led by a bishop. The diocese is divided into parishes, which are entrusted by the bishop to parish priests.37 Responsibility for the local churches lies with the bishop, who sends out priests, as his fellow-workers, to bring together a group of believers in a congregation. It is the priests task, supported as far as possible by other office-holders in the church, to gather together the Christians in the name of Christ, to preside at celebrations of the Eucharist, to celebrate the other sacraments and to be responsible for the teaching and pastoral care of the believers. The totality of dioceses or local churches constitutes the universal Church. The guidance of the universal Church, and the maintenance of its unity, are the tasks of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, as successor of the Apostle Peter, together with the College of Bishops.


The leaders of the Eastern Churches, whether independent of the Pope in Rome or united with him (the Uniate Churches), are known as Patriarchs.


2. The Churches and the Unity of the Church


Practically from its very beginnings the Church has known the pain of schisms (divisions) and heresies (serious departures from correct belief). Alongside theological issues, political and moral factors have played an important or even decisive role.38


In the world today there are three main branches of Christendom that have spread across the whole world: Catholicism, Protestantism and Orthodoxy.39 For several centuries they have lived in opposition to each other, at times in armed conflict. They have also often engaged in sharp competition with each other in mission-fields, not always with great honesty. This contradicts the message of Jesus and his prayer for unity (John 17).


In the early decades of the 20th century the ecumenical movement, which works for the unity of the Church, saw considerable progress. 1948 saw the foundation of the World Council of Churches (WCC), to which most Protestant Churches, the Anglican Church and most Orthodox Churches belong. The Catholic Church, which reckons more than half the worlds Christians as members and so is in numerical terms by far the strongest Christian Church, has not joined the WCC, even after the 2nd Vatican Council. However, it takes part in the work of the main WCC commissions and has achieved important agreements with its different member churches on the Eucharist, ministry, authority in the Church and the role of the Pope. The way towards the unity of Christians is therefore open; the goal is that all Christians should recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, that they should listen to each other and, wherever and however possible, that they should work together.


IV. Christian Responses40


1. The Church and the Umma are both communities of believers. They both also encompass social and worldly dimensions. The Umma understands itself as commissioned to take forward the work of Muhammad in the contemporary world by bringing about the recognition of Gods will. To the Umma as comprehensive community there corresponds the Church as spiritual unity and visible representation of Christ and of his kingdom. The Catholic Church is more strongly characterized by hierarchical structure and official teaching, while in the Protestant churches the synodical principle is more strongly stressed, even where structures of leadership have been thoroughly developed. The two emphases must not be considered mutually exclusive.


2. Papacy and Caliphate. As a head of state, the Caliph was a worldly ruler; the authority of the Pope today is of a purely spiritual nature. The tiny contemporary Vatican State ensures the political independence of the Pope and the Curia, i.e. the central organ of the Catholic Church. The nuncios or envoys of the Pope are not the messengers of a worldly ruler; they are essentially no more than the personal representatives of a spiritual leader.41


3. Infallibility in the Catholic Church42 and in the Umma. The fundamental principle is present in both the Catholic Church and the Umma. The common factor is that infallibility essentially belongs to the community of believers; the difference lies in how it is determined.43 In Catholic understanding there is a need for a teaching office, guided by the Holy Spirit, so that along with the inevitable developments which unfold over the generations the Church might be kept faithful to the Gospel.


4. The Catholic priest and the Protestant minister, like the imam, preside over the liturgical prayers, preach and teach. The Catholic priest and the protestant minister are ordained. In contrast, the imam is a Muslim commissioned by a mosque congregation or an organisation of mosques to preside over a congregation of Muslims. To work as an imam it is not necessary to undergo vocational theological training.


5. Baptism, confession of faith and circumcision. A person is a Muslim through being born to Muslim parents or through conversion to Islam by saying the shah?da, the confession of faith, before witnesses. A person becomes a member of the Christian Church through baptism, which includes the confession of faith in Jesus as the Son of God. Circumcision, which is not mentioned in the Quran, is only sunna (i.e. a tradition based on hadith). For some legal scholars it is compulsory; for others it is recommended. It applies to boys; some also wish to apply it to girls, but this is rejected by most Muslims.44


6. Unity in the Church and in the Umma. Both Church and Umma have experienced schisms and rivalries, often accompanied by bloodshed. Human factors, errors and sins should not be denied or glossed over. Within the Church this might mean, for example, public acknowledgement by the Catholic Church of the ways it contributed to the schism with the Eastern Church and to the divisions of the Church in the 16th century, and likewise acknowledgement by Protestant churches of the conflicts among themselves. This offers the opportunity to explain that according to the Catholic faith the Christian Church is at the same time of divine and human, that is fallible, nature; and that, for both Catholics and Protestants, the Church is at the same time holy and yet composed of sinners. The recognition that the Church is in a continuous process of reform45 implies the constant challenge to engage in fresh thinking within the Church, but this should not be misunderstood as an invitation to bring about further division. Just as Muslims feel that despite the division of Islam into various branches they are brothers in the faith, Christians should also recognize, across confessional boundaries, that they are one in Christ and are called to work together wherever possible: in the translation and interpretation of the Bible; in theological reflection and research; in the development of spirituality and witness; in social and in charitable work.

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J. Prof. Dr. T. Specker,
Prof. Dr. Christian W. Troll,

Kolleg Sankt Georgen
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