Naaman’s Ambiguous Ethics and Over 100,000 Muslims

In II Kings 5, there’s this really interesting story about the prophet Elisha healing this guy Naaman, a Syrian general and enemy of Elisha’s people. Much of the intrigue around this short account—which has virtually no consequences for the history of Israel—comes from Jesus citing it in Luke 4 as an example of the universality of the gospel. And while that element makes the story noteworthy, there is this other part of the account that I find even more intriguing—it comes right after the healing episode:

Then Naaman said, “…For from now on your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the Lord. But may the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I have to bow there also—when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this.”
Elisha said to him, “Go in peace.”

If you didn’t catch it, Naaman asks Elisha if it’s all right if he bows to this false god on occasion—and Elisha gives him the go-ahead. It’s not totally clear what exactly the context of this question is, but most think that Naaman is escorting his elderly king into the temple and is forced into the position of bowing while helping his master. It seems like a fairly innocent situation, but at the same time it’s apparently important enough to ask Elisha about and there is no record of Naaman resisting this worshipful action.

A lot of the time when we are discussing idols, we have to jump through some hermeneutical hoops to make it apply. However, Naaman’s scenario is actually extremely relevant to something going on around the world today: C-5 MBBs. Rather than being a Star Wars droid serial, MBB stands for Muslim-Background Believers and C-5 is a category of those Christian believers outlined in John Travis’s 1988 study on Christ followers in Muslim-majority countries. Specifically, the C-5 classification refers to Muslims who have accepted Jesus as the Messiah but have continued identifying as Muslim, going to Mosque, and otherwise continuing as they were.

This C-5 demographic has caused a lot of controversy over the years as well-meaning Christians from every end of the spectrum argue over whether these men and women can rightfully be called Christian. They don’t get the pass that is usually applied to the most extremely accommodating group, C-6, which has been forced to hide their faith completely on account of explicit Islamic persecution. No, the over 100,000 C-5 MBBs are in a strange position of wanting to belong to their communities but also accept Christ as Lord—and a lot of people aren’t sure what the right thing to do is.

To some, the issue might seem silly, and they might point to obvious Scriptures like Exodus 20:3, Isaiah 44, Galatians 5:19-21, or host of other references condemning idolatry. And I sympathize with that. As I’ve said many times before, thematic weight is key in reading the Bible—that’s why Proverbs 10:15 doesn’t inform my attitude toward wealth as much as the pages and pages of Scripture’s condemnation of amassing riches.  Yet, some situations seem to defy these rules or offer exceptions to those topics the Bible seems so firm on. There’s more ambiguity in doing the right thing than we tend to acknowledge. And that’s what makes doing it so hard.

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