In 1969, Thomas Mori, a Bengali Muslim of Afghan descent, met a Norwegian missionary in Eastern Pakistan. Over the course of weeks and months, the missionary shared the gospel with Thomas and patiently answered his questions. By God’s grace, Thomas was converted. Upon telling his family the news, however, Thomas found himself rejected and disowned because of his newfound faith in Christ. In the years that followed, Thomas struggled to find a church to assimilate into. The only other Christians belonged to a different tribe who would not welcome him. As a result, Thomas grew frustrated toward the church: “My experience with the church had been quite negative,” he explained. “Christians wanted Muslims to come to faith, but they didn’t want to fellowship with them.”
Thomas’s difficult experience of assimilating into a church as a Muslim-background believer undoubtedly explains the advice he later gave a group of six young men from a distant tribe who wanted to know how to be saved. “Go back home,” Thomas told them, “but don’t become Christians. Your parents will know very soon, because your life will be changed. When they ask you, you can tell them about Jesus.”
Thomas’s story is far from unique. Around the world when Muslims and others come to faith in Jesus Christ, they face the difficult decision of how to identify themselves and how to explain their change of identity. The question I want to address in this article is simply this: Can you become a Christian without identifying with Christ?...This is positively portrayed as a mission strategy. Can Muslim-background believers evangelize their families and neighbors if they are forced to flee because of their faith? Or worse, if they are killed?
The result is the proliferation of so-called “secret believers” who have faith in Jesus in their hearts while remaining culturally, religiously, and socially indistinguishable from the rest of their community. As one such “secret believer” in Eastern South Asia explains, “I believe 100 percent that Jesus is God, but I cannot tell this to the Muslims. If I say this, then the Muslims will open torture upon us. I am following Jesus’ example.” Being pressed about what he meant by “Jesus’ example,” he quoted Mark:1:23-25 where Jesus silences the demons since they know who he is. “This is a great teaching for us,” he explained. Jesus is saying, “It is not the time to teach that I am the Son of God.”
But is this really a viable option for new believers? Can you follow Jesus without publicly identifying with Christ, regardless of the opposition that may follow?
Jesus set the terms for discipleship in Luke:14:25-33 when he taught that “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” To unpack this Jesus gives the illustration of a man building a tower or a king going out to battle. In either case it is necessary to “count the cost” (14:28). This is no less true in the decision to follow Christ. A cost-less discipleship is a Christ-less discipleship. There simply is no other way. As Jesus concludes, “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (14:33).
Counting the cost matters because there is a pressure in missions to present following Jesus as less radical than it really is.…It’s not that we want to make it harder to follow Jesus than what the Bible teaches. It’s that we don’t want to deceive people into thinking that they’re on the road to heaven when they are really on the path to hell (Matthew:7:13-14). Muslim-background believers, like all Christians, must make the calculation: I may die for my faith, but Jesus is worthy.