Part I: A Response to Some of the Insider-Movement Leaning Articles in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 4th ed. Textbook


A Response to Some of the Insider-Movement Leaning Articles in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 4th ed. Textbook  1

Part I of IV

  • Part I 
    • Introduction
    • Some Background on 20th Century Cultural Anthropology and Contextualization
    • Charles Kraft’s Notion of Culture: “Culture, Worldview and Contextualization”
  • Part II
    • Phil Parshall’s Warning to Insider Movements: “Going Too Far?” (in light of his 1980 book, New Paths in Muslim Evangelism)
  • Part III
    • John Travis’ Response (to Parshall’s article): “Must all Muslims Leave ‘Islam’ to Follow Jesus?”
    • Ralph Winter’s Response to Parshall’s “Going to Far?”  
    • Rebecca Lewis, “Insider Movements: Retaining Identity and Preserving Community”
    • Some Elaborations
  • Part IV
    • Lewis’ Notion of “Pre-Existing Communities” Becoming The “Church” and C5 Believers’ Retention of Their Socio-Religious Identity
    • Harley Talman, “Become Like, Remain Like”: The Identity Question Revisited
    • Summary and Final Thoughts

I. Introduction:

For over three decades now, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, now in its fourth edition 2 has become a huge anthology of articles on the “Biblical-,”“Historical-,”“Cultural-,” and “Strategic Perspectives” on world evangelization, revealing over time a wider and wider spectrum of missiological viewpoints and, in my view, theological ones. The text, its revisions, and its course offerings around the world all reflect Ralph Winter’s original vision to make the Church aware of God’s heart and plan for the world and to help train men and women to bring the Gospel to the nations. Beginning with the first edition in 1981 and three successive editions, Winter and his associate Steve Hawthorne have not failed to include articles on the latest trends in missions, focusing on “people movements,”“church planting movements,” and now, “insider movements” (normally capitalized and abbreviated as “IM”).

The purpose of this series of articles is to critique specific papers and case studies about IM in a Muslim context 3 mostly found in The Strategic Perspective section of Perspectives, especially the “Strategies for Church Movements” subsection (p. 627 f.). These IM positions, while advocated in various missiological journals (especially International Journal of Frontier Missions) 4 are not widely accepted by the Global Church, or even among Muslim background believers in Christ. 5 I am therefore writing to provide an alternative view to those of the IM proponents represented in the Perspectives articles. 6 My claim, and that of many others, 7 is that certain issues raised by IM proponents in general are more than methodological; they involve some of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. In short, what was intended to be “a bridge” in communicating the Gospel has often led to the blending of elements of Christianity and Islam; i.e., they constitute cases of syncretism. These issues need to be discussed openly among those who take the Perspectives course as well as by local church leadership and missions committees.

In the main, I’ll review the articles by Phil Parshall (as well as sections of his 1980 text, New Paths in Muslim Evangelism 8), Rebecca Lewis, John Travis, Ralph Winter (his comment section on Parshall’s “Going Too Far?”), as well as Charles Kraft 9 and Harley Talman. 10 I’m reviewing parts of Parshall’s 1980 text because of its influence on the burgeoning contextualization movements of the last third of the 20th Century, some of which have become Insider Movements. While it is not my intent, much less duty, to comment on the motives of these writers (God is their Judge… and mine), it is important that theological issues involving what I consider extreme contextualization be identified because of the real danger of syncretism. 11


II. Some Background on 20th Century Cultural Anthropology and Contextualization

Actually, the term “contextualization” is relatively new in the missions literature and, according to Charles Kraft, has largely replaced the term “indigenization.” 12 It was introduced in the early 1970’s by Asian church leader and theologian Shoki Coe in his appeal for “contextualized” theologies appropriate for the non-Western world. 13 It wasn’t long before evangelical missiologists took hold of the term, putting the label on new experimental strategies and practices of cross-cultural evangelism. 14 15

The intellectual ground for the spread of the concept of contextualization in late 20th Century missiology was indeed fertile, thanks to the broad acceptance among evangelicals of the essential findings of 20th Century social/cultural anthropology. For example, the early leaders of Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Summer Institute of Linguistics—Cameron Townsend (the founder of both), Kenneth Pike, Eugene Nida 16 and others—all owed much to Edward Sapir and Leonard Bloomfield, the two most prominent American structural linguists 17 of early-to-mid 20th Century and both students of Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology. As an outstanding linguist and an anthropologist, Sapir distinguished himself as a pioneer in integrating the behavioral sciences in the 1920’s-1930’s. 18 In describing a culture, Sapir focused on “…those general attitudes, views of life, and specific manifestations of civilization that give a particular people its distinctive place in the world.” 19 And then he added, “Emphasis is put not so much on what is done and believed by a people as on how what is done and believed functions in the whole life of that people, on what significance it has for them.” 20 Sapir therefore captured the notion of cultural relativism, which was later articulated in more or less absolute terms. Robert Redfield’s statement is an absolute form, as noted by Eugene Nida: “Cultural relativism means that the values expressed in any culture are to be both understood and themselves valued only according to the way the people who carry that culture see things.” 21

These brief statements reveal some of the primary notions concerning a culture by 20th Century cultural anthropologists:

(1) the relation between the behavior and the belief systems (including worldviews) of a people;

(2) the value of the behavior and beliefs in terms of their functionality within that culture;

(3) the independence of each culture as a system with its own patterns and norms of acceptable behavior (i.e., cultural relativism); and [for at least some of these researchers like Ruth Benedict 22]

(4), the relative nature of ethical and religious mores, as determined by each culture. Interestingly, Sapir once described a “genuine culture” (as opposed to a “spurious culture”) as one which is “…inherently harmonious, balanced, self-satisfactory.

It is the expression of a richly varied and yet somehow unified and consistent attitude toward life, an attitude which sees the significance of any one element of civilization in its relation to all others.” 23 In other words, Sapir saw the quality of a culture in terms of its degree of cohesiveness of behavior and beliefs, not in terms of any external measure, such as one that might come from a Western society, let alone a Biblical view entailing absolutes!

While distancing themselves from moral/ethical relativism, many leading missiologists of the late 20th Century (of whom I’ll mention two here) adhered to some form of cultural relativism in their application of findings of cultural anthropology for the missionary enterprise. Eugene Nida, primarily known as the most influential contemporary Bible translation theorist, was arguably the most influential popularizer of cultural anthropology for would-be missionaries of the 20th Century. Nida eschewed the “absolute cultural relativity” of anthropologists like Robert Redfield; nevertheless, he claimed that there was a Biblical “relative relativism,” conditioned by three factors:

(1) the endowment and opportunities of people,

(2) the extent of revelation, and

(3) the cultural patterns of the society in question.” 24

The third factor is of particular interest to us here.

Nida argued that there could be seemingly contradictory actions that, say, the apostles took depending on the particular cultural context, i.e., Nida argued for a “Biblical relativism,” citing Paul’s statements in I Cor. 9:20-21. Thus, “Paul could … vigorously object to Peter’s yielding to pressure from the Judiazers (Galatians 2:11-16), while later [undergoing]rites of purification in the temple, at the suggestion of the elders in Jerusalem who urged him to show all that ‘thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the law’ (Acts 21:24).” However, what Nida failed to point out is that Paul’s rebuke of Peter was due to Peter’s hypocritical mistreatment of his Gentile brothers, as if they were “unclean.” 25 Thus, the real problem was moral—Peter’s violating the law of love in Christ—not merely yielding to pressure from the Judaizers. 26

On the other hand, the Christian anthropologist, Marvin Mayers, 27 argued for the compatibility of Biblical absolutism and cultural relativism, which he understood to be the appropriate approach to missions, by stating that different cultures may express Biblical absolutes in different ways in terms of their local norms. Mayers’ view of cultural relativism was that it is compatible with Biblical absolutism so long as the principles of God’s word are discernible and operable in the target culture, without necessarily having the same outer form as that of the cross-cultural messenger. He states:

The approach of biblical absolutism and cultural relativism affirms that there is a supernatural intrusion. This involves act as well as precept. Even as Christ, through the incarnation, became flesh and dwelt among us, so precept or truth becomes expressed in culture. However, even as the Word made flesh lost none of His divineness, so precept loses no truth by its expression via human sociocultural forms. It is always full and complete as truth. So long as the sociocultural expression is approached crossculturally it can be recognized as truth as well. The moment truth is wed to one cultural expression there is a high potential for “falsehood” in any other culture. More seriously, since any given culture is in the process of change, there is an even higher potential for falsehood within the culture that locks truth into one expression. 28

Mayers warned missionaries not to judge the ethical behavior of a people group according to their own particular cultural expressions of an ethical principle (an ethnocentric, or monocultural approach), but rather to first look for the local norms of behavior (of the target culture) that relate to the ethical principle (a cross-cultural, or bicultural approach), and then determine whether an individual is living consistently with that norm. 29 To Mayers, the greatest problem of Western missionaries is to combine “biblical absolutism” and “cultural absolutism”: “Many well-meaning people within the one-culture setting assume that the way they do things is not only the way God would have them do it but the way He would have everyone else do it also.” 30 31

One can see that both Nida and Mayers were making use of functional equivalence in determining how missionaries should approach the communication of the Gospel message to introduce change in another culture. 32 In other words, the communicator/agent of change is to look for whatever behavioral patterns function as the equivalent of the communicator’s own pattern—again seen as a cultural phenomenon arising from within the person’s own system of values. This concept will be dealt with in regard to IM methodology in succeeding sections.

Here, then, are two influential missiologists appealing to cultural relativism (in one form or another) in the training of missionaries on two grounds:

(1) cultural relativism is an indictment of ethnocentrism; modern evangelical missionaries and mission agencies clearly want to dispel any vestige of ethnocentrism, with its inherent sense of cultural superiority; and

(2) modern missionaries want to affirm the value of each person as creatures made in the image of God.

To be sure, studies in cultural anthropology have shown the complexity and cohesiveness of a people’s patterns of behavior, just as early 20th Century anthropological linguistics demonstrated the complexity and systematicity of languages for which writing systems had not yet been developed (i.e., languages of so-called “primitive” peoples). However, as we shall see, the translation (broadly speaking) of a Biblical pattern or concept into a target culture and/or its language by means of functional equivalence methodology may yield problems of inaccuracy or distortion, particularly if the target culture holds to a worldview (perhaps through its embrace of another religion) that is antithetical to the Biblical one. 33

Without going into much detail here, I see at least three major barriers for the cross-cultural evangelist who attempts to maintain cultural relativism:

(a) The evangelist must be cautious, if not hampered, in introducing Biblical revelation if the local categorical distinctions don’t provide for functional equivalences; e.g., if a culture doesn’t have blood sacrifice; how would a Bible translator/evangelist find a corresponding expression to describe the atoning work of Christ on the cross? 34

(b) For the evangelist to maintain the integrity of the target culture, the local norms must remain the standard of behavior, into which the evangelist must shape the Gospel message; e.g., what if ancestor worship predominates the value system of the local society? How can the evangelist encourage people to forsake all and follow Christ if the head of the family vehemently opposes it?

(c) To justify some form of cultural relativism in arguing that Biblical truth is not wedded to any particular culture 35 implies that any expression of Biblical theology is culture-bound. 36

By contrast, the apostles did not use this approach when they entered “pagan” territory in Galatia, for example (cf. Acts 14:8-18); rather, they proclaimed there was a living God, the Creator of the universe, and that they were mere men (though their hearers thought they were gods dropped from the sky, Zeus and Hermes). Contrast the view of cultural anthropologists who refer to the need to introduce change only in ways that would not disrupt the internal cohesiveness. 37 Please note that my statements about cultural anthropology as a social science are not anti-intellectualistic: every science, hard or social, operates under the assumptions of methodological naturalism: their respective assumptions and methods do not take account of God’s operation in the world. Christians advocating the use of insights from anthropology are careful to distinguish methodological from ontological naturalism (usually in terms of cultural relativism vs. ethical/moral relativism). 38 However, Ruth Benedict, a leading anthropologist, saw a connection between cultural relativism and ethical relativism; cf. fn 22 above on her paper on ethical relativism.

Out of this intellectual milieu comes the notion of contextualization—processes associated with adjusting the shape of the message and the lifestyle of the messenger so as to introduce change without disrupting the inner integrity of the target culture or remolding it into that of the messenger. Note, however, there is an inherent tension between how secular cultural anthropologists view change and how missionaries view change from the vantage point of Scripture, i.e., the supernatural changes that result from the proclamation and reception of the Gospel. What the mobs in Thessalonica said against the apostles, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also” (Acts 17:6), weren’t being hyperbolic; they just had their direction backwards. Yes, proclaimers of the Gospel believe that God sets the world, and individual cultures, aright, as people “…turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (I Thes. 1:9-10). Even using man’s rebellion at the Tower of Babel, 39 God diversified the languages to thwart the rebels from finishing their project, thereby bringing about different cultures to live and function according to His sovereign purposes, as variegated expressions of the life of His Son in those He has redeemed, the world-wide Body of Christ.

It is my contention in this paper that an extreme form of contextualization in Insider Movements, as presented in a series of articles in Perspectives noted above, has sought to maintain the structures and patterns of Muslim-dominant cultures in attempting to gain a greater receptivity, but at expense of making compromises with the Gospel itself. This is a strong claim, and, obviously needs to be supported, which is my intention in the succeeding sections of this article.

Being a cover term, contextualization, as used in missiology, deals with the translation of the meaning of the Gospel using forms (language expressions, customs, and thought patterns to whatever extent necessary) that are deemed appropriate in new cultural contexts, and so forth. Such issues are not new, and were certainly not new to the N.T. apostles and evangelists who, in proclaiming the Gospel to their various audiences, engaged their listeners, speaking their languages, understanding their customs (Judaic, Hellenic, Roman, pagan), respecting them as created in God’s image and yet sinners in need of His salvation in Christ. They relied on the Holy Spirit to illuminate the truth of the Gospel as they proclaimed it in a Hellenized world, governed by Rome, influenced by various philosophies, ubiquitous pagan worship of gods and goddesses, mystery religions, etc. (cf. Luke’s descriptions in Acts and Paul’s in I Corinthians, especially).

Yet, the apostles’ engagement of their audiences did not come at the expense of either altering the content of the Gospel or using human means to try to persuade them. Paul stated that he did not try to persuade his hearers by using the familiar rhetorical patterns expected of an orator (cf. I Cor. 2:1-5). Instead, the very heart of his message was the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which was foolish to the Greeks and irrelevant to the Jews (I Cor. 1:18-29; Acts 17:32.). Why these responses? The two sides of the same coin:

(1) the Gospel explicates God’s judgment of man’s best efforts to make himself acceptable to Him and His love in sending His Son to bear the judgment; and

(2) the Gospel offends the natural man in being incapable of knowing God and of saving himself from his dreadful condition, apart from the redemptive work of Christ and the inner working of God’s Spirit (cf. I Cor. 1:21; 2:4-5).

Perhaps it goes without saying that today’s mission agencies and missionaries aim at having their contextualizing activities modeled after the New Testament pattern. Charles Kraft states: “The contextualization of Christianity is part and parcel of the New Testament record. This is the process that the apostles were involved in as they took the Christian message that had come to them in the Aramaic language and culture and communicated it to those who spoke Greek.” 40

Now, as we approach the issue of contextualization in missiology, let’s look more closely at some components of human culture. It goes without saying that the cognitive capacities of the mind that God gave us, most notably, the language faculty, make human culture possible and transmissible from generation to generation. Without going into specific theories, we can view culture in much the same way as we view language: roughly, that there is an outer aspect involving behavior, as well as an inner aspect involving belief systems, etc. 41 Here are some brief descriptions of what constitutes “culture,” taken from various sources, including articles in Perspectives:

a. rules or patterns of behavior (“structured customs”) and “underlying worldview assumptions” 42

b. “body of learned behavior…transmitto [a group’s]children” 43

c. “[embodiment of]any social inherited element in man, material and spiritual” 44

d. the “super-glue which binds people together [giving]…a sense of identity and continuity,” consisting of behavior based on values, beliefs, and worldview 45

e. “truth claims and moral obligations” 46

If the intangible constructs (spiritual elements, worldviews, values, beliefs, truth claims, and moral obligations) 47 are indeed essential to defining “culture,” then I propose that one cannot easily isolate religion from culture—they are interconnected, much like form and meaning comprising language. In Non-Western societies, in particular, religion and culture are highly intertwined, or more holistic than the more compartmentalized rubric of Western cultures. 48


III. Charles Krafts Notion of Culture: Culture, Worldview and Contextualization 49

As a major missiologist in support of IM, Kraft elaborates on worldview as being “the deep level of culture” because it is “the culturally structured set of assumptions (including values and commitments/allegiances) underlying how a people perceive and respond to reality. Worldview is not separate from culture. It is included in culture as the deepest level of presuppositions upon which people base their lives” (p. 401).

However, rather than pursuing this line of reasoning about the significance of worldview in shaping the outer form of culture (patterns of behavior), Kraft mysteriously retreats to a behavioristic notion of the power of individual habit in determining behavior (pp. 401-02):

Culture (including worldview) is a matter of structure or patterns. Culture does not do anything. Culture is like the script an actor follows. The script provides guidelines within which actors ordinarily operate, though they may choose on occasion to modify the script, either because they have forgotten something or because someone else changed things…. The “power” that keeps people following their cultural script is something inside of people—the power of habit. Culture has no power in and of itself. People regularly modify old customs and create new ones, though the habits that result in great conformity are strong. It is important that cross-culture witnesses recognize both the possibility of change and the place and power of habit. The distinction we are making is embodied in the contrast between the words culture and society. Culture refers to the structure, but society refers to the people themselves. When we feel pressure to conform, it is the pressure of people (i.e., social pressure) that we feel, not the pressure of culture patterning (the script) itself.

Notice that Kraft concludes that the pressure to conform comes from “society” (people) not “culture.” So, we now have to ask what the determinants of “habit” are. I believe we are back to square one—so much for the importance of worldviews, values, etc.!

To add to the confusion, Kraft states that “[t]he Bible demonstrates that God can use any pagan culture (even Greek or American) with its language to convey His messages to humans….” This is certainly true, but then he slides into making an overgeneralization found in IM methodology: “He [God] took customs already in use and invested them with new meaning, guiding people to use them for His purposes … on the basis of new worldview understandings” (p. 406). This statement is faulty as an across-the-board procedure because, if, as Kraft himself admits, at the heart of a culture is its set of worldview assumptions, how can these presuppositions be modified by the Christian communicator, while leaving the culture (the outer form, presumably) intact?   Elsewhere (p. 402), Kraft asserts: “The way of Jesus is…to honor a people’s culture and its incorporated worldview, not to wrest them from it.” How can such a statement square with Biblical statements like the following? 50 51

  • (God speaking to the Israelites, prior to entering the promised land in Canaan): “Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst. You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim (for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God)….” (Ex.34:12-14 f.; and many similar commands not to imitate the practices of the Canaanites nor intermarry with them, e.g., Lev. 18:2-4).)
  • (The risen Lord Jesus is speaking to Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus road): “…delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts. 26:17-18).
  • (Paul to the Corinthian church): Citing Isa. 52:11, Paul says “Therefore go out from their midst and be separate from them, says the Lord and touch no unclean thing….” (II Cor. 6:17, in exhorting them not to be “unequally yoked with unbelievers,” vs. 14-16) 52
  • (Paul to the Colossian church): “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col. 1:13).
  • (John to churches in Asia [Western Turkey]): “We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (I John 5:19).

In other words, Kraft does not take account of the corruption of the sinful nature, permeating the culture (and society too!), nor of God’s calling of His people to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” before the Gentile nations, instead of copying their idolatrous lifestyle (cf. Ex. 19:5-6 and I Peter 2:9-10). While he would likely deny it, Kraft’s conclusions in this paper are tantamount to the notion that religion (the locus of the worldviews and underlying values) and culture can be separated so that the communicator can “invest new meanings” into customs without coming directly into conflict with the displaced “religious values.” But spiritual transformation doesn’t come about when the Biblical solution to the sin problem is ignored; i.e., when a people’s worldviews are not dealt with.

In summary, contextualization is an open-ended process, and, if it is essentially based on cultural relativism, with Biblical revelation filtered by functional equivalence methodology—itself open-ended—then its missiological yields may be syncretistic. I think everyone would agree that syncretism is a real and present danger in any missiological movement. The point of disagreement concerns whether IM movements have overstepped the Biblical boundaries and have therefore slidden into syncretism. The goal of the following sections critiquing several articles in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement (Fourth Edition) is to examine the articles that favor IM movements to determine whether these movements and their advocates have deviated from Scripture.


  1. While several have made comments about this paper, I wish to thank Adam Simnowitz especially for his detailed comments and suggestions on an earlier version of the whole paper.
  2. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds. 2009. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader. Fourth Edition. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library
  3. There are Insider Movements among Hindu and Buddhist people groups as well, but I’ll confine my remarks to those dealing with Muslim peoples.
  4. Now International Journal of Frontier Missiology, published by the International Society for Frontier Missiology, which is part of the Frontier Mission Fellowship, founded by Ralph and Roberta Winter.
  5. According to Rev. Fred Farrokh, Missionary, Elim Fellowship and Ambassador-at-Large, JFM Network (personal communication). Although these points are hotly contested by proponents of IM, I believe that the facts will bear me out. Certainly, there is a lot of criticism of historically Christian churches in Muslim majority countries who are in opposition to IM as a whole.
  6. That is, without insisting on an “extractionist” model, which, unfortunately, has become such a straw man for those promoting radical contextualization.
  7. See Biblical Missiology’ s website: and the contributions from various workers among Muslims as well as Christians from Muslim backgrounds in the anthology Chrislam: How Missionaries are Promoting an Islamized Gospel, rev. ed. 2012. Joshua Lingel, Jeff Morton, Bill Nikides, eds. Garden Grove, CA: i2 Ministries Publishing.
  8. Phil Parshall. 1980. New Paths in Muslim Evangelism: Evangelical Approaches to Contextualization. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House. (Parshall revised this work in 2003, under the title Muslim Evangelism: Contemporary Approaches to Contextualization. Waynesboro, GA: Gabriel Publishing. Since I’m interested in the historical impact of the original version, I will not consider Parshall’s revised text here.)
  9. Charles H. Kraft, “Culture, Worldview and Contextualization” in Perspectives, pp. 400-406 (in The Cultural Perspective section of Perspectives).
  10. Harley Talman, “Become Like, Remain Like” in Perspectives, pp. 146-48.
  11. We are called to be humble servants of our Lord Jesus Christ, and not judge fellow believers for their personal decisions pertaining to “Christian liberty” (see Rom. 14; I Cor. 8). Nevertheless, with regard to the fundamentals of the Gospel itself—who the Triune God is, the Deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, His redemptive work as providing the only way to God, etc.—we must all be faithful to the inerrant written Word of God; see Paul’s anathema in Galatians 1:6-9 on those who preached “a gospel contrary to the one [he]preached.”
  12. Charles H. Kraft, “Culture, Worldview and Contextualization” in Perspectives, p. 404.
  13. See Roger Dixon, “Moving on from the C1-C6 Spectrum” in Chrislam, p. 93, and Dean Flemming. 2005. Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, p. 19.
  14. See Phil Parshall’s introductory comments in New Paths, along these lines (pp. 16-18), as he intended that his book be “a move away from models of evangelistic technique that have proved barren and a shift toward experimental methodology that may result in a fruit bearing experience among Muslims” (p. 17; italics added).
  15. In the next segment of this paper (Part II), I’ll illustrate some of these contextualized approaches to Muslim evangelism.
  16. After doing translation work in Mexico through SIL in the 1930’s and completing his Ph.D. in linguistics in 1943, Nida soon went to the American Bible Society, where he later became secretary of translations.
  17. In North America; I’m excluding the influence of the prominent French structural linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure. Actually, Sapir and Saussure were mentalists, as opposed to Bloomfield, who was a strict behaviorist, following the psychologist J.B. Watson.
  18. Many of the leading 20th Century American anthropologists acknowledged Edward Sapir’s stellar contributions to linguistics, anthropology, and other social sciences. E.g., Clyde Kluckhohn, professor of social anthropology at Harvard University, said of him: “For sheer brilliance Edward Sapir is unsurpassed by any American anthropologist, living or dead” (acknowledgement of Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture, and Personality. David G. Mandelbaum, ed. 1949. Berkeley, CA: University of California Pr.)
  19. Edward Sapir. 1924. “Culture, Genuine and Spurious.” American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 29. Reprinted in his Culture, Language and Personality: Selected Essays. David G. Mandelbaum, ed. 1966. Berkeley, CA: University of California Pr.[an abbreviated version of the work cited above], p. 83.
  20. Ibid. Emphasis added.
  21. Robert Redfield. 1953. The Primitive World and Its Transformations. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Pr., p. 144, as cited in Eugene A. Nida. 1954. Customs and Cultures: Anthropology for Christian Missions. NY: Harper & Brothers, p. 49.
  22. Ruth Benedict was one of Boas’ most prominent students and a renowned anthropologist in the 1920’s-1940’s; see her paper on ethical relativism: Ruth Benedict. 1934. “Anthropology and the Abnormal.” Journal of General Psychology. Vol. 10; accessible at
  23. p. 90.
  24. Eugene A. Nida. 1954. Customs and Cultures. NY: Harper & Brothers, pp. 49-50.
  25. See Acts 10:9-35; 11:1-18; and 15:7-11.
  26. Much more could be said concerning Nida’s notion of “relative relativism” in the Bible but space limits our discussion here.
  27. Mayers was an SIL anthropologist in Guatemala, later the director of the Texas SIL Translation Center, as well as department head of Sociology and Anthropology at Wheaton College, and finally Dean of the School of Intercultural Studies at BIOLA University. He did his Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of Chicago, a very influential center for cultural anthropology.
  28. Marvin K. Mayers, Christianity Confronts Culture: A Strategy for Cross-Cultural Evangelism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, p. 233. (N.B. This was the first edition; it was revised in 1987.)
  29. Marvin K. Mayers. 1974. Christianity Confronts Culture (1st ed.).Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, pp. 231-43.
  30. Mayers, p. 232.
  31. This unfortunately true state of affairs among many missionaries was addressed as early as 1912 by the Anglican missionary, Roland Allen Rolland Allen. 1960. Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (5th ed.). London: World Dominion Pr. (N.B.: Allen actually published only one revision in 1927; he died in 1947.) See more on which in Section II with respect to IM proponents’ charge of syncretism on the part of Western missionaries imposing their views of what Christians should look like and how the church should function.
  32. In discussing how Biblical morals like not stealing may be expressed differently in different cultures, Mayers doesn’t bring up the issue of the destructive effects of original sin on cultures in general.
  33. With respect to Nida’s “dynamic equivalence” approach to translation, the term “functional equivalence” is a more accurate descriptive term linguistically (the former being a more like a commercial label). Later in his career, Nida abandoned “dynamic equivalence,” using “functional equivalence” instead.
  34. At this point, I’m merely raising the question (knowing that answers have been given), for the sake of indicating the need to evaluate functional equivalence as a valid methodology in cross-cultural evangelism.
  35. Mayers, p. 233.
  36. See Nida’s statement: “The only absolute in Christianity is the triune God. Anything which involves man, who is finite and limited, must of necessity be limited, and hence relative. Biblical cultural relativism is an obligatory feature of our incarnational religion, for without it we would either absolutize human institutions or relativize God.” (Nida. 1954. Customs and Cultures, p. 282).
  37. See Margaret Mead, ed. 1955. Cultural Patterns and Technical Change: A Manual prepared by The World Federation for Mental Health. NY: UNESCO. (A Mentor Book published by The New American Library)
  38. Mayers, p. 231.
  39. See Gen. 11:1-9 and Acts 17:26-27.
  40. Charles H. Kraft. “Culture, Worldview and Contextualization” in Perspectives, p. 404.
  41. Cognitive scientists are seeing that, similar to the cognitive capacity responsible for the language faculty, there is an innate schemata for what linguist and philosopher Ray Jackendoff calls “social cognition” responsible for the development of human culture; see Ray Jackendoff. 2007. Language, Consciousness, Culture: Essays on Mental Structure. Cambridge, MA: MIT Pr., Ch. 5 “Cognition of Society and Culture.”
  42. Kraft calls the first the “surface level of culture,” and the latter the “deep level culture” (p. 401). Kraft borrows these terms (through Eugene Nida?) from an older description of syntactic levels of “deep structure” and “surface structure” found in Noam Chomsky. 1965. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Pr.; Chomsky has since refined his grammatical theory over the last few decades.
  43. Margaret Mead, ed. 1955. Cultural Patterns and Technical Change. NY: UNESCO, p. 12.
  44. Edward Sapir. 1924. “Culture, Genuine and Spurious,” in Edward Sapir. 1955. Culture, Language and Personality: Selected Essays. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of Cal. Pr., David Mandelbaum, ed.
  45. Lloyd E. Kwast, “Understanding Culture” in Perspectives, pp. 398-99.
  46. James Davidson Hunter. 2010. To Change the World. NY: Oxford Univ. Pr., p. 33.
  47. Obviously, these are overlapping concepts.
  48. As Roger Dixon affirms, for example, regarding Asian cultures, where he lived for 34 years as a missionary; see his “Moving on from the C1-C6 Spectrum” in J. Lingel, J. Morton, and B. Nikides, eds. 2012. Chrislam: How Missionaries Are Promoting an Islamized Gospel. Rev. ed. Garden Grove, CA: i2 Ministries Publishing, especially pp. 90-92.
  49. Charles H. Kraft, “Culture, Worldview and Contextualization” in Perspectives, pp. 400-406.
  50. The reader should understand that these are but a sample of many Scriptures of the same tenor; they are hardly a few “proof texts” for an otherwise unsupportable claim in the Bible. Nevertheless, it bears repeating that the N.T. knows of no isolationist or monastic version of the Christian life!
  51. All Biblical quotations are from The Holy Bible (English Standard Version). 2001. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, unless otherwise indicated.
  52. Paul is not calling the believers to avoid interacting with those around them—else how could they evangelize them? See I Cor. 5:9-13.

About Author

Don has a B.S. in missiological studies, Nyack College; an M.A. in Teaching English as a Second Language, New York University; and a Ph.D. in Linguistics, New York University. He taught in and directed ESL programs for 50 years, and linguistics for about half of those years. His published books include Intensive Course in American English Grammar, Series I (Prelim. Ed.), co-editor. American Language Institute, New York University (1964), Modifying English as a Second Language Materials, and Placement Guide; University of State of New York (1975), and The Language Gap. [on the uniqueness of human language] Zondervan, Probe Ministries (1984). He has served as a teaching elder for many years.


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  2. Donald McKeon on

    Thank you, Fred. That’s a telling quote, which, if true, should cause anyone to wonder why God has given us the responsibility to spread the Gospel of Christ in the first place. (I don’t mean to preach or meander here, but I’m stirred by this quote, so pardon the verbiage.) We know that “sinfulness” is the root cause of any distortion of God’s truth, but Kraft ends on a rather hopeless note because he doesn’t expressly take into account (not here anyway) that the Gospel itself is the Divine Solution. Regarding “limitations,” it would be important to know what Kraft is specifically referring to. Misperceptions due to incomplete or faulty knowledge, for example, can cause unintentional distortions of the truth, and, if left unchecked, could eventuate in syncretism. I don’t know if Kraft was also alluding to language (and its use in communication)–maybe not–but any language is organized so intricately and precisely (with its system of units and principles of combination) as to guarantee the truth-preserving property in semantics (a long story). Otherwise, communication (from God to us, from us to others) would be impossible. That’s how God designed language in the mind, and entrusts us to communicate His revealed truth by His Spirit to the ends of the earth. Thank God for all those who haven’t given up on the task.

  3. Fred Farrokh on

    Thanks, Don, for the very thorough and informative piece. You raise an important point on the contextualization/syncretism fault line. While many IM proponents may have crossed into syncretism unintentionally, this was not the case with Chuck Kraft. I provide this quote from his 2005 work “Appropriate Christianity:” “What about the concept of syncretism? Is this something that can be avoided or is it a factor of human limitations and sinfulness? I vote for the latter and suggest there is no way to avoid it” (p.77).

  4. Pingback: Biblical Missiology | Part II: A Response to Some of the Insider-Movement Leaning Articles in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 4th ed. Textbook

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