If you were following the news of American Christianity since December – or the US and UK media that jumped all over the story – you likely heard about Professor Larycia Hawkins. Hawkins is a political science professor at Wheaton College, a leading evangelical liberal arts university near Chicago. Although a Christian, Hawkins announced that for Advent she was going to wear a hijab (headscarf worn by Muslim women) as a way to show solidarity with the many Muslims who are regarded with anger, fear, and hatred in this current political climate. She invited her students and other Christians to join her.

At first it was exciting and well-received; many Muslims appreciated the gesture, many Christians were challenged and it was refreshing to see a positive story about evangelicals making international news. Then the other shoe dropped. In a statement about her show of solidarity, Professor Hawkins made a reference to Christians and Muslims worshipping the same God… and Wheaton College promptly responded by suspending her for potentially violating the school’s Statement of Faith. Wheaton’s administration has since begun the process to fire her.

This story matters to me a lot. I’m a Wheaton alumnus, and the school taught me to appreciate the importance of theology and the distinctiveness of the Christian faith. Wheaton is one of the few schools that has high standards for academics and genuine faith, and excels at promoting both. Yet I’m also living in London on an estate with many Muslim neighbours, and am involved in several interfaith and community building projects. I’m quite invested in how Christians choose to support their Muslim neighbours.

I don’t want to get caught up here in the argument over whether or not God and Allah are the same; far cleverer people than me have landed on both sides of that debate. And we should be careful of judging the internal politics and motivations behind Wheaton’s disciplinary actions, because it would only be speculation.

What I really care about is how the gospel is communicated in all this. If Christians are supposed to live the gospel through both our words and our actions, then what is the message that was communicated through these events to people outside the Church?

Professor Hawkins, through her words and actions, communicated to the world that Jesus is concerned about everyone who is oppressed and marginalised, that there are Christians who are concerned about the current anti-Islam rhetoric; that Christians don’t just speak about solidarity with the oppressed, but are willing to act on it; that Christianity seeks to embody love, pursue justice, and welcome others with open arms.

Wheaton, while responding to very legitimate concerns about theology, communicated to the world that Jesus prioritises right thinking over right loving; that Christians love each other, until they disagree; that Christians will actively shut down attempts at solidarity with other faiths; that Christians aren’t okay with standing up for Muslims.

I don’t think that is the message Wheaton’s administration intended to send. Their theological concerns are important and worth clarifying. But when they gave such a strong disciplinary response over that concern while there was an international spotlight on the school, this is the message the school inevitably sent to the rest of the world.

Here’s the thing — most people outside of the bubble of Christian culture don’t care about our theological debates. They care about what we do.

My Muslim neighbours don’t care much about how I understand the nuances of the Trinity. They want to know if I think Christians and Muslims are enemies, or if I’ll defend them when someone calls them a terrorist, or whether we will walk their kids to school when they are ill.

My non-religious neighbours aren’t too bothered about my biblical framework for the incarnation. They want to know if I’ll listen to them when they’re upset, what they should do with their dog if they go to a church service, or if our church’s kids’ clubs will take their kids without forcing religion on them.

Actions speak louder than words. Hawkins’ actions demonstrated compassion and solidarity with a marginalised minority when most of the world seems to be afraid of them; Wheaton’s actions showed that the perception of inaccurate theology overshadows compassion and solidarity.

Actions speak louder than words. Good theology is essential within the Church, yes. But outside the Church, people need to see the gospel before they’re ready to listen to it.

Actions speak louder than words. People will watch what you do before they care much about what you say.

May love always be what people see first.

Written by Peter Anderson // Follow Peter on  Twitter

Peter was raised in rural America, schooled in the suburbs, and shaped in urban Chicago. He's now part of a missional community in East London. He thinks peacemaking and spiritual depth go hand-in-hand, and likes finding new partners to make these a reality in the world.

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