3 Lessons From History on How the Church Can Turn Back the Threat of ISIS

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A resident of Tabqa city waves an Islamist flag in celebration after Islamic State militants took over Tabqa air base, in nearby Raqqa city Sunday. (Reuters/Stringer)

In its heyday, no one would have guessed that Christian North Africa would fall to Islam. Nonetheless, that is exactly what happened in the seventh century. Here are three trends (or sins) in the North African church that we must avoid in order to help guarantee that we will not suffer a similar fate.

1. Avoid Being Divisive

It is one thing to disagree; it is another thing to be divisive. Christians can disagree in nonessential issues and still be one in Christ. A divisive spirit, however, divides and weakens the church, making it vulnerable to outside forces that want to destroy it. Divisiveness was a major factor that weakened the North African Church and made it vulnerable to the attacks of Islam in the seventh century.

This divisive spirit showed itself especially in the Donatist controversy that erupted early in the fourth century. It was centered around whether those who had denied the faith in recent persecutions could, now that persecution was past, become leaders in the church. One group led by Donatus insisted on high standards for those in leadership, while the other side insisted on mercy toward those who had recanted their faith in the past and allowing them to serve as bishops and leaders.

This controversy eventually caused a split in the North African Church. The Donatist churches, with their emphasis on high moral standards for their members and leaders, grew rapidly and soon rivaled in number the orthodox or Catholic churches of North Africa.

The rivalry was intense and was only resolved (outwardly) when the Roman emperor, in response to an appeal by Augustine, outlawed the Donatist churches, arrested their leaders and confiscated their properties and buildings, giving them to the Catholics. This controversy and the strong-arm tactics that were used to resolve it left a deep wound in the North African church from which it never recovered.

Avoid being divisive. Satan's tactic is "divide and conquer." We must be uncompromising about truth, but at the same time, be careful that we are not so intent on digging up the tares that we also uproot the wheat in the process (Matt. 13:29).

2. Avoid a "Watering Down" of the Faith

The Donatist controversy was indicative of a "watering down" of the call of the Gospel to discipleship and absolute commitment to Christ. Yes, we must offer mercy, forgiveness and redemption in the Name of Christ to a broken and fragmented world; but we must, at the same time, make clear the call to absolute surrender to Christ and His Lordship, which is just as clear in the Gospels.

The evidence indicates that as North African Christianity became more and more institutionalized and formalized, individual faith became tied to going through the outward motions and rituals required by the institutionalized church. The dynamic faith of earlier generations gradually eroded and was replaced by an outward, political-ceremonial sort of Christianity.

North African Christianity became soft and self-centered. As individual commitment to Christ waned and moral laxity increased, the church was further weakened, making it vulnerable to the committed armies of Islam when they arrived on the scene. We must not allow this to happen to our generation, which is why we must pray for another Great Awakening in our land

In his 1961 inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy threw out a challenge to the American people. He said, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." I believe, in a similar way, God is calling his people today to make a shift from a watered-down, me-centered approach to the Gospel to a selfless, Christ-centered approach. In this new attitude and mindset we are no longer preoccupied with what God will do for us, but our consuming passion is now to know His heart and do His will.

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