By Mike Tisdell
While not well known to most Evangelical Christians, the idea that one can come to true saving faith in God while remaining in religious systems like Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc…is rapidly becoming mainstream among the western missionaries we are sending and supporting. Missionaries ministering in the Islamic world, who have accepted the idea that Islam provides a path into the true Kingdom of God, frequently also accept the validity of Muhammad’s role as a true prophet of God. While these ideas are seldom talked about in the churches that are sending and supporting these missionaries, these are ideas that are frequently advanced in conversations between missionaries, in articles published in evangelical missiological journals, and in missiological classes taught in our seminaries. These are not ideas that come from the fringe, they are ideas being advance by the leading names and organizations associated with Evangelical Missions today. Missionaries will often refer to these ministries as “Insider Movements,” “Jesus Movement,” C5, or other labels. While the labels do change, the ideas remain the same.
It is nearly impossible for those entering the mission field today to avoid training that promotes these ideas because these ideas dominate modern mission’s literature, missiology classes, and seminaries. A significant amount of the course material for “Perspectives on the World Christian Movements” (hereafter referred to as “Missions Perspectives”) was provided by missiologist that are advancing these ideas. Most missionaries who have chosen full time mission’s work in the last couple of decades have been required to take this course. The Missions perspective course boasts over 130,000 graduates. Let’s take a look at some of the ideas being promoted by missiologists who have contributed to the Missions Perspectives required course work.
Harley Talman: He published a paper entitled “Is Muhammad Also among the Prophets?” in the current issue of the International Journal of Frontier Missions that argues for the acceptance of Muhammad as a true prophet of God, the following is from the conclusion of his paper.
“This paper has provided theological, missiological, and historical sanction for expanding constricted categories of prophethood to allow Christians to entertain the possibility of Muhammad being other than a false prophet. He may be seen as fulfilling a prophetic role, whether in response to general revelation or special, whether as a preacher or religious leader, whether as an ecstatic or charismatic prophet, or something more.” ref]Is Muhammad Also Among the Prophets?, Harley Talman, IJFM (International Journal of Frontier Missions), 31:4 Winter 2014•169[/ref]
In the article “Become Like, Remain Like” included in the Missions Perspective book, Harly Talman makes the following argument:
“What are the reasons that the apostle Paul advocated, “remaining like”? This passage surfaces at least three reasons: first, “the Lord has assigned to each one,” (v. 17) the situation in which he was called –his station is God given (cf. Acts 17:26). Second, the believer can remain with an unbelieving spouse and yet not be defiled. In fact, the presence of the believer “sanctifies” the unbelieving mate (1 Cor. 7:14). Third, remaining in one’s place may bring salvation to that partner (1 Cor 7:12-16). These also hold true with regard to the larger social community of the one who remains. God assigned the Muslim follower of Christ to the Muslim community. His association with Muslims who do not believe and live like him does not defile him; rather his presence “sanctifies” the community for God’s purposes.” 1
“We have made it clear that we are not asking them to convert, to change their identity and become “Christians.” Rather, they can become loyal followers of Jesus the Messiah and citizens of the kingdom of God.” 2
Ralph Winter: In the article in the IJFM (mentioned above), Harley Talman also states that the late Ralph Winter (the founder of Missions Perspectives and primary editor of the current textbook) “saw early Islam as a contextualization of the biblical faith for those Arabs who rejected the alien and unbiblical character of Arabian Judaism and Christianity.”[iv] 3 In his article, “Are we ready for tomorrow’s Kingdom?” included in the Missions perspectives textbook, Ralph Winter argues that Islam is an “earthen vessel” that is part of the Kingdom of God:
“Can we digest the plan fact the entire Islamic tradition is, like Roman Catholicism, full of “non-Christian” elements which we despise, yet is clearly the product of the impact of the Bible? What do we do with such forms of quasi-biblical faith? Rather than look at the bewildering varieties of forms of religious faith—at the different “earthen vessels” in which the faith is contained – let’s look at the extent that the will of God has taken hold. That is the Kingdom of God.” 4
Rick Brown: a translation consultant for Wycliffe/SIL, is the most well-known and vocal proponent of Muslim Idiom Translation practices i.e. he advocates replacing the phrases “Son of God” in reference to Jesus and “Father” in reference to God with alternative wording that is less “offensive” to Muslims in bible translations targeted for Muslim contexts. In the Missions Perspective Textbook Brown conveys a story used in support of these Muslim idiomatic translations.
“Brother Jacob had brought with him three cases of New Testaments, which he gave to Master Ibrahim to distribute to his leaders. But three days later, Ibrahim returned the cases saying they were obviously not for his people. There were too many words that were foreign or that pertained to a different ethnic group. Brother Jacob offered another book which he had prepared —a poetic paraphrase of the gospel story using familiar and acceptable language. Master Ibrahim saw that this book was wonderful, and he took a large quantity back with him for his disciples. Brother Jacob realized that these new followers of Christ need a Bible in familiar and intelligible language, so he initiated a Bible translation project for them, starting with the Gospel of mark.” 5
In an article entitled “What Must One Believe About Jesus for Salvation” challenges the idea that there is any belief about Jesus that is truly essential to the Christian faith.
“There is no statement [in the Bible] that one must believe Jesus is the Lamb of God or Image or Word or Wisdom of God incarnate or even that he is God himself incarnate. There is no requirement for belief in the virgin birth nor the Trinity or other such teachings. There is no statement saying that people must use one particular title for Jesus in order to be saved. They must simply receive him as their Lord and Savior, and act which also implies repentance from what is contrary to his lordship. These other doctrines although true and important can make the Gospel more appealing in many cases, but we should not confuse importance with necessity.” 6-Ralph Winter
Charles Kraft: he has been one of the most influential voices in modern missions. Charles Van Engen (Fuller Seminary), likening Kraft’s impact to the historical turning point from B.C. to A.D., said “One might say that there is missiology before Kraft (BK) and missiology after Kraft (AK).” Charles Kraft has been highly influential in training missionaries involved in bible translation work and has worked closely with Wycliffe/SIL. He is the author of a number of articles in the Missions Perspective text book. Here are some of the ideas promoted by Kraft.
“A Muslim asks us, “Was Jesus ‘the Son of God’”? How do we answer? We cannot answer, “yes” unless we are blind to, or unconcerned about, the impact of our answer on our Muslim hearer. Note the fact that sonship is an analogy—it’s an example—there’s nothing sacred in either that term or that concept, except insofar as it communicates some kind of truth. We have learned to understand and agreed among ourselves to refer to precious Scriptural truth by employing this word form to describe Christ. But the word form is only valuable when it signals that meaning. If this word form, this medium of communication, signals anything other than that Scriptural meaning, it loses its usefulness and must be replaced…” 7
“The issues that we deal with, even the so-called religious issues, are primarily cultural, and only secondarily religious… [The Muslim] doesn’t have to be convinced of the death of Christ. He simply has to pledge allegiance and faith to the God who worked out the details to make it possible for his faith response to take the place of a righteousness requirement. He may not, in fact, be able to believe in the death of Christ, especially if he knowingly places his faith in God through Christ, for within his frame of reference, if Christ died, God was defeated by men, and this, of course is unthinkable.” 8
James W. Gustafson: In the article “Pigs, Ponds and the Gospel” from the Missions Perspective textbook, James W. Gustafson tells us that:
“The ministry has one primary focus, that of enabling Jesus Christ to be born into Northeast Thai culture. Team members gifted in “holy gab” go out into villages to talk about Jesus. They don’t talk about religion. Instead they say, “We’re not here to change your religion because all religions are basically the same; they’re all about making people good.” 9
The missionaries that are teaching missionaries tell us that:
- Islam began as a true expression of biblical faith unlike the forms of Arabian Christianity that already existed.
- Muhammad may be considered a true Prophet of God by true followers or Christ.
- Belief in Christ’s death and resurrection, his divinity, the Trinity, etc… are all non-essential beliefs for true faith in God.
- One should remain in their original religious context when they come to faith in God i.e. if they were a Muslim should remain a Muslim, a Hindu they should remain a Hindu, etc….
- All Religions are the same.
How should we respond?
- Ask questions and don’t make any assumptions about what you think you have heard.
Many churches are unknowingly supporting missionaries that are involved in advancing “insider movements” 10 primarily because these missionaries are often very skilled at presenting their ministries to a western audience in ways that do not raise alarm. When they speak to their supporting congregations, there is often as much communicated by what is left unsaid as there is by what is said. For example, missionaries involved with “Insider Movements” will frequently come to their supporting churches with stories about the numbers of people who have come to Christ through their ministry and when people in the church hear these stories, they assume that these new Christ followers have joined a local church and are being taught the same gospel that is being taught in their own churches. Few ever think to ask questions like “Do those that have come to Christ through your ministry identify themselves as Christians or do the identify themselves as members of other religious groups like Muslims, Buddhists, or Hindus?”, “Do they believe in the divinity of Christ?”, “Do they believe in Christ’s death and resurrection and his atoning work on the Cross?”, “Do they continue to worship in the Mosques or Temples of their non-Christian community?”, “Do they affirm other religious writings, like the Qur’an, as God’s inspired Scripture?” We don’t ask these questions because we have already assumed that we understand what it means to follow Jesus. Sadly, what we think our missionaries mean is often very different than what they truly do mean.
- Understand the underlying Postmodern influences of this movement.
Most evangelical Christians assume that all true followers of Christ will be in agreement on the foundational beliefs that have united us together throughout history. We expect unity in these beliefs regardless of the context in which one lives or worships, but our missionaries are being taught that the essential beliefs of faith in God can vary dramatically depending on the context of the faith community that has embraced faith. These are not minor differences on issues like modes of baptism, style of worship, views on the end times, etc…, these are major differences in regards to the core issues of our faith, issues like belief in the divinity of Christ, belief in his death and resurrection, or belief in the uniqueness of the God of Scripture. When we ask questions about our core beliefs, we expect answers that reflect the unity of the entire body of Christ but too many of our missionaries have very different answers when speaking about the beliefs they personally hold to be essential when compared to the beliefs of those to whom they minister. Remember to keep this in mind when you ask questions and phrase your question in reference to the beliefs of the people to whom a missionary ministers rather than in reference to the beliefs of the missionaries themselves.
Recognize that the goal of postmodern missionaries is not to get you to accept their methods but rather to convince you to accept the idea that their methods are one of many valid alternatives that you may or may not choose for yourselves. For example, the Missions Perspective class doesn’t require that anyone adopt the “Insider” paradigm, but it does ask everyone to remain open to the possibility that this is a true movement of God and refrain from condemning it. Just like the larger postmodern culture around us, their plea is that we accept each competing idea as an equally valid alternative. Don’t let them draw you down this path because it is unbiblical.
- Be careful of conceding a point to a missionary who claims “expertise” in areas of which you are unfamiliar.
Frequently, missionaries involved with “insider missions” will present arguments in support of their ideas that require a great deal of knowledge about foreign culture, linguistics, history, biblical languages, etc… in order to make sense of the issue. Often their arguments are based on gross misinterpretations of the facts, but they are accepted by their audience because the missionary has presented himself as an “expert” in an area that is unfamiliar to his audience.
When an argument is made that requires that requires a great deal of knowledge in areas that are unfamiliar, take good notes and ask those who do have expertise in these areas to provide some feedback rather than blindly accepting their arguments. One good source for answers is BiblicalMissiology.org. If you can’t find the answers you are looking for on this site, send them an email. They are connected with many missionaries working in the field and experts in related areas and can provide well balanced responses to the claims that are being made by “Insider” missionaries. Take the time to investigate these issues yourself so that it won’t be so easy to have the wool pulled over your eyes when a missionary plays the “expert” card.
- Recognize that prior relationships can provide motivation for good people to close their eyes and ears to these issues.
Missionaries often have long term relationships with the churches and people that are supporting them. Many of these missionaries have grown up in these churches and are part of the church family. When these issues are raised, there is often a desire to ignore them rather than dealing with the repercussion that would result if the details of their ministry was fully understood. Sometimes when someone asks about the practices of the missionaries their church is supporting, that person may be made into a “scapegoat” by those who would rather ignore these issues than deal with the consequences of acknowledging a problem. Approach these issues with a lot of prayer, wisdom, and grace.
- Carefully consider when to provide support for a ministry and when to withdraw support.
Remember that not every missionary is involved! Many missionaries, especially those who have been in the field for many decades, have healthy ministries that deserve our continued support. While some even work for the very organizations that are most strongly involved, they have still remained unaware of these issues for decades. Sadly, only some began to hear about these issues when their funding began to dry up. While it is important for us to diligently seek to understand the details of each ministry we support, we need to remember that not every missionary is involved. Some missionaries truly do deserve our support, sometimes even when the organizations they work for do not!
We must also recognize that a portion of the money we give usually goes to support the general ministry fund of the sending organization, so even in cases where we fully trust a specific missionary and their ministry, we must recognize that when leaders of a ministry have taken a different direction, some of the financial support we provide may be used to fund ministries that we would abhor. My personal conviction is that we should be very slow to withdraw support from missionaries who have truly viable ministries even when the parent organization has stepped outside of Christian orthodoxy; however, we may need to consider how to help our missionaries transition to another organization and to help replace lost retirement benefits that may result if they leave. If a missionary intends to remain with an organization that has stepped outside of Christian orthodoxy, we may need to come up with a reasonable plan to withdraw support that allows our missionary time to plan for that loss of support. We should recognize that many missionaries have also been caught by surprise and are now stuck in a place they did not want to be; many do not support the choices being made by those in the leadership of their organization, decisions that had also been hidden from them for decades.
I would not support a missionary who was seeking to join an organization that continues to support, or remain indifferent to, an “Insider” ideology because that would require me to enter a new support agreement knowing that some of my money could be used to support ministries that oppose the Gospel of Christ. I would also have a great deal of concern for the “training” a missionary joining such an organization would receive as they began working with a ministry that was not committed to the purity of the Gospel.
- Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, Forth Edition, Pg. 147 ↩
- Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, Forth Edition, Pg. 147 ↩
- Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, Forth Edition, Pg. 394 ↩
- Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, Forth Edition, Pg. 394 ↩
- Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, Forth Edition, Pg. 707 ↩
- What Must One Believe About Jesus for Salvation, IJFM Vol. 17:4, Winter 2000 ↩
- Charles Kraft, “Distinctive Religious Barriers to Outside Penetration,” in the Report on Consultation on Islamic Communication (Marseille, 1974), pp. 67-68. ↩
- Kraft, “Distinctive Religious Barriers to Outside Penetration,” pp. 65, 71. ↩
- Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, Forth Edition, Pg. 294 ↩
- “Insider Movements” are sometime referred by other names like “Jesus Movements.” ↩