A Lack or Absence of A Biblical-Theological Emphasis: The Insider Movement

This article is posted as a 5-part series. You can find the other parts here:

A Critical Evaluation of Three Contextualization Proposals

I.The Insider Movement 1

The IM was originally a descriptive term explaining the phenomenon that Muslims followed Isa Al Masih in certain Asian countries. Later this became a prescriptive term for a radical contextualization model that emphasizes the accommodation of not only cultural factors but also religious factors of Islam. In the so-called C-spectrum first introduced by John Travis, the critical distinction between C4 and C5 centers on the question whether one can accommodate Islamic religious factors. 2 The two major points of dispute may reveal why the IM has been debated so seriously within the evangelical community.

First, IM proponents contend that Muslims can maintain their religious identity as Muslims and remain within their Islamic socio-religious community. In other words, Muslims do not have to get converted to “Christianity as a religion” (religious conversion), and thus they can both maintain their religious identity as Muslims and remain within the Islamic community. The term “Insiders” derives from the notion that these “Muslim followers of Jesus (Isa Al-Masih)” can remain within the Islamic community as Insiders for bringing many lost Muslims to Christ. These Insiders are claimed to be true believers in Christ who are part of the Kingdom.

Second, IM proponents contend that Muslim Insiders can continue to practice Islamic religious practices as long as they do not violate the biblical truths. When certain religious practices are incompatible with the biblical teachings, the Insiders may still implement them by reinterpreting Islamic factors personally or by subjectively inserting personal meanings that are different from the ordinary Islamic teachings. In this approach, the assumption is that Islam has positive components as a religion that one can affirm them in the life of new followers of Al-Masih.

Several IM proponents have attempted to provide biblical and theological validations to support this new contextualization model. Some demonstrative biblical passages for this purpose include the early church context in Acts 2-3, the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, Paul’s preaching in Acts 17, and Paul’s various instructions in 1 Corinthians 7-10. 3 This section will highlight several representative biblical and theological reasoning of IM proponents in view of the two major claims before this writer presents a critical evaluation from a brief exegetical consideration.

The most common approach favored by IM proponents for their biblical validation is to point out biblical examples (or biblical precedents) and present their arguments based on simple parallelism. For instance, the early church believers in Acts 2-3 and Acts 15 are taken to show similarities and parallel features between the Insiders within the Islamic context and Jewish believers in the first century. The early church believers maintained their socio-religious identity as both Jews and followers of Jesus based on the new covenant. They continued to remain within the Jewish religious community for some time and further continued to observe their Jewish religious practices. After noting these similar characteristics, IM proponents contend that Muslim Insiders can do the same based on this historical precedence in the Bible. Dudley Woodberry expresses his view in the following words:

The [Jewish] leaders of the Temple and synagogues had corrupted Judaic worship and rejected Jesus, but he and his first followers continued to identify with Judaism and to participate in temple and synagogue worship. Therefore a case may be made for Muslims who follow Jesus to continue to identify with their Muslim community and participate, to the extent their consciences allow, in its religious observance. 4

In his exegetical study of Acts 2, Kevin Higgins develops a more detailed biblical reasoning for the same assertions. For instance, Higgins takes “the taking of bread” and “the prayers” in Acts 2:42 to denote “early celebration of the Lord’s Supper” and “(Jewish congregational) prayers in the Temple” respectively. 5 He takes these religious rituals as an indication that, “even as new community continued to embrace the temple prayers, it also added major new emphases and interpretations.” 6 Therefore, he concludes, Muslim Insiders can remain in their former Islamic religious communities and observe Islamic religious practices by incorporating radically new meanings and reinterpretations into the previous Islamic religious forms and practices: “Proponents of Insider Movements, especially among Muslims, have pointed to possible parallel here. They have argued from this passage and others [Acts 2:42] that a biblical precedent exists for new believers from Islam to remain in the mosque and continue to practice other religious expressions of Islamic life.” 7

Several quick comments would suffice to point out a few vital problems in the exegetical conclusions of IM proponents. First, Higgins’ undertaking of the two components of early church life, “the taking of bread” and “the prayers,” is exegetically not warranted, and furthermore his conclusion on this questionable assumption simply collapses because of the following exegetical grounds. Darrel Bock, a prominent New Testament scholar, argues that the phrase “the taking of bread” is a common meal whereby the Lord’s Table might have been included. This is convincing because this passage emphasizes the radically distinctive nature of the early church as a new covenant community in contrast to the existing Jewish communities. 8 In other words, Luke’s primary focus in Acts 2 lies in the radical discontinuity of a radical communal lifestyle under the new covenant.

Second, the definite article of “the prayers” is better taken to be “well known or celebrity article” instead of “the set prayers” of Judaism. Daniel Wallace, a prominent Greek grammarian, asserts: “The article points out an object that is well known. . . . Either the pattern of worship was well known in the early church because it was the common manner in which it was done, or Luke was attempting to convey that each element of the worship was the only one deserving of the name (par excellence).” 9 Therefore, prayer is better viewed as an integral part of the early church life in connection with the Apostles’ teachings, the fellowship, and the breaking of bread. There is no indication of a particular type of set prayers in Judaism as Higgins asserts. Based upon these two exegetical weaknesses, the conclusion of Higgins simply does not hold.

There is an even more serious problem in the reasoning of IM proponents. As noted above, the IM depends on simplistic parallelism between the early Jewish believers and the Muslim Insiders thus only allowing selective biblical precedents to be the basis for validating the IM. Higgins is well aware of the dangers and the complicated issues of applying this model within Judaism to other religious contexts such as Islam or Hinduism, but at the same time he also holds the parallelism as a crucial backbone of his conclusions. 10

The real problem in the use of parallelism between early disciples and Muslim Insiders lies in the unspoken theological presupposition held by IM advocates. When they compare Judaism and Islam at a practical level, they make a subtle assumption that Islam contains valid expressions of God’s revelation, though imperfect, like Judaism. Islam is taken to be a valid religion containing God’s revelation as much as Judaism was part of God’s revelation in biblical history. Therefore, they accept that there exists a valid theological continuity between Christianity and Islam as much as the continuity existed between Judaism and Christianity. Redemptive history progressively develops throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament that Judaism certainly holds theological connections with Christianity. However, the continuity between Judaism and Islam cannot be claimed in the same manner. In order to make such parallelism between the early church believers and Muslim Insiders, it is necessary to prove that Islam contains God-ordained revelations that are consistent with the previous revelation in the Old and New Testament. These unspoken presuppositions of IM advocates are certainly far beyond what they can prove biblically and theologically.

This brings out another important aspect of the biblical theological method of IM proponents. Several erroneous hermeneutical errors are found in their biblical interpretations. First, they tend to use the historical precedents in the Bible as a normative guideline or principle for the contemporary IM context. As demonstrated in the case of Acts 2-3, this kind of hermeneutical interpretation continues in other biblical passages in their attempts to biblically validate the IM.

The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is a representative example. IM proponents contend that the Jerusalem Council can be a normative guideline for the contemporary church to emulate for the contextualization discussions, such as the IM. While not going into a detailed evaluation of the biblical reasoning of IM proponents due to the space limit, 11 it is still worthwhile to mention the serious hermeneutical error behind this biblical interpretation. Two prominent evangelical scholars, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, provide a well-reasoned guideline to interpret and apply biblical narratives and historical precedents in the book of Acts. 12 Several points of their work shed important light on the question of whether the pattern of the Jerusalem Council can be repeated by a contemporary church.

  1. It is probably never valid to use an analogy based on biblical precedent as giving biblical authority for present-day actions. . . . 2. Although it may not have been the author’s primary purpose, biblical narratives do have illustrative and, sometimes, ‘pattern’ value. . . . But none of us has God’s authority to reproduce the sort of exegesis and analogical analyses that the New Testament authors occasionally applied to the Old Testament. It should be noted especially in cases where the precedent justifies a present action, that the precedent does not establish a norm for specific action. . . . A warning is in order here. If one wishes to use a biblical precedent to justify some present action, one is on safer ground if the principle of the action is taught elsewhere, where it is the primary intent so to teach. 13 Paul’s quotations of pagan poets in Acts 17:28 together with his mentioning of pagan altar from a positive light in Acts 17:23 lead Higgins to conclude that it is valid to affirm religious aspects of other religions and to use religious resources such as the Qur’an to support biblical truths in a Muslim context. Furthermore, Higgins develops his theology of religions from Acts 17:26-27 as follows:

    In these verses Paul argues that God has created every nation, every culture, ‘pan ethnos.’ And not only did He create them, He also determined the era of history in which they would live and the geographical area they would inhabit. This is very careful, sovereign planning on God’s part, and encompasses, again, every nation and people. But there is a purpose for this careful planning and design; verse 27 makes this very clear. The purpose is so that they (the nations) should ‘seek God,’ ‘feel after Him,’ and indeed ‘find Him,’ although in fact ‘He is not far from us.’ . . . Paul’s use of the altar and the poets is very logical outworking of his worldview, which can be summarized in this way: The true God has designed the cultures, seasons, and locations of the nations to further the process by which all peoples might seek after and actually find Him. 14

    According to this quote, Higgins makes an error that seriously weakens his assertion. While Acts 17:26 apparently describes God’s sovereignty over all nations in terms of divine care and providence for his creation, the purpose statement in Acts 17:27 does not support Higgins’ conclusion of “actually finding God.” Paul is simply referring to general revelation through which “people would seek God.” That means, Paul does not affirm cultures and religions as the product of God’s design and further he does not approve them as a valid process for actually finding God. This point is clearly revealed in the use of two Greek optative verbs, ψηλαφήσειαν (feel, touch, handle, grope) and εὕροιεν (find, discover), that express only a possibility of groping or finding God. 15 The optative verbs neither describe actual seeking for God nor actual finding of God through cultures and religions. In contrast to Higgins’ positive view of religions as a valid foundation for seeking God, Hesselgrave contends that, “it is wrong to assume that the search for God is common” among men because “that idea is in stark contrast to biblical teachings, which indicate that it is God who searches and God who draws men and women to himself.” 16 Therefore, it is clear that Higgins’ arguments from Acts 17 contradict the overarching biblical principle of the total depravity of mankind in knowing God.

    The attempts of IM proponents for the biblical and theological validation of the IM have been futile as briefly demonstrated above. Since all of their previous biblical theological reasoning has been proven unsuccessful, IM proponents must come up with newer solutions and alternative responses. Even the most recent book, Understanding Insider Movements, was anticipated to include more legitimate biblical theological validations in response to all the previous criticisms, but this new edition does not contain any new material in this regard.

    IM proponents have endeavored to continue various missiological dialogues with the critics, and they try to bridge the gap in the division within a larger evangelical community. Yet, it is this writer’s observation that they simply assume that the biblical and theological validation for the IM is completed and that there is no need for additional validation. As this essay demonstrates, the biblical and theological validation is the most serious problem of the IM until today, and IM proponents must carry the burden of proving their cases on behalf of the IM. The lack of a biblical and theological consideration in the discussion of the IM is certainly a major problem in the contemporary missiological trends.

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    1. While there exist a wide variety of writings of IM proponents, it is not possible to describe a homogeneous model of the IM among their writings. This fact does make a critical evaluation more challenging. This essay deals with the writings of the primary proponents of the IM including John Travis, Kevin Higgins, Dudley Woodberry, and Rebecca Lewis. Many of their writings are published in International Journal of Frontier Missions and its Korean partner, Korean Journal of Frontier Missions, has been a major platform for introducing the IM for Korean readers. The main claims and validations are found in an extensive collection of articles written by the proponents, Harley Talman and John Jay Travis, eds. Understanding Insider Movements: Disciples of Jesus within Diverse Religious Communities (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2015).

      On the other hand, many have expressed serious concerns about the IM and criticized the biblical theological reasoning of IM proponents. For the major counter-arguments against the IM, see many articles appeared in St. Francis Magazine (SFM) and a book by Joshua Lingel, Jeff Morton, and Bill Nikides, eds., Chrislam: How Missionaries are Promoting Islamicized Gospel (Garden Grove, CA: i2 Ministries, 2011). It is also worthwhile to mention that three doctoral dissertations were completed on the IM in 2011-12. All three works concluded that IM could not be fully endorsed from an evangelical theological perspective. The most serious concern commonly expressed in all three doctoral dissertations is related to the fragile biblical-theological ground of the IM theology of missions.

      Looking at the current debates between the two sides, one must admit that the IM is far from being a proven contextualization model within an evangelical community, and that the IM theology of missions has some serious problems due to the lack of concrete biblical validation until today. Field reports also reveal mixed results. While many commendable reports about the IM are circulated, many national church leaders disapprove the results or the claims. In short, the evangelical community is still evaluating this new phenomenon and cautiously discussing the claims of the proponents of IM.

    2. For the C-spectrum, see John Travis, “The C1 to C6 Spectrum,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 34 (1998): 407-408; “Must All Muslims Leave ‘Islam’ to Follow Jesus?” EMQ 34 (1998): 411-15. In his recent article on the definition of the IM, Travis provides five characteristics of the IM as follows: following Jesus and the Bible, fellowship with indigenous leadership, spiritual transformation, remaining as witnesses, and multiplication. John Travis, “Insider Movements: Coming to Terms with Terms,” [on-line]; available from https://missionbooks.org/products/detail/understanding-insider-movements. According to these characteristics, there is hardly any objection one can raise. The matter, however, is far more complex than it seems.
    3. Some other passages include Samaritan woman in John 4, the Assyrian general Naaman in 2 Kings 5, and so-called “holy pagans” in the Bible. Due to the space limit, this essay cannot provide a fully elaboration of the biblical reasoning. This writer provides an extensive exegetical evaluation of these passages in his doctoral dissertation: “A Critical Evaluation of the Insider Movement as a Contextualization Model among Muslims” (Ph.D. diss., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2012), 146-203.
    4. Dudley J. Woodberry, “To the Muslim I Became a Muslim,” IJFM 24 (2007): 24.
    5. Kevin Higgins, “The Key to Insider Movements: The ‘Devoted’s’ of Acts,” IJFM 21 (2004): 156-60. The italics in parenthesis are added by this writer for clarification.
    6. Ibid., 159.
    7. Ibid., 158.
    8. Darrell Bock, Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 150-51.
    9. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 225. (Emphasis in the original)
    10. Higgins, “The Key to Insider Movements,” 158-59. He states: “Islam does not occupy the same position in salvation history as Judaism. . . . So, while I would grant that Judaism is in fact a different case than, say, Islam, the parallel still holds.”
    11. For a detailed exegetical analysis, see Kevin Higgins, “Acts 15 and Insider Movements among Muslims: Questions, Process, and Conclusions,” IJFM 24 (2007): 29-40.
    12. Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding the Bible, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 78-112.
    13. Ibid., 110-11 (emphasis in the original).

    The Jerusalem Council demonstrates the importance of careful exegesis of Scriptures based on scriptural authority, together with the apostolic authority in the unique historical context. On the contrary, church leaders today cannot claim this apostolic authority as in the first century Jerusalem Council and thus this kind of decision-making process cannot be repeated. 17Gary Corwin and Ralph Winter, “Reviewing September-October Mission Frontiers: A Conversation about Insider Movements,” Mission Frontiers 28 (2006): 19-20. In his humble appeal, Corwin states, “the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, rather than providing a theological and practical template for us to follow by analogy when introducing the gospel into new contexts, should perhaps be understood only as a one-time seminal event marking the final stage in the early church coming to fully understand that the old covenant and its requirements were fulfilled in Christ and that the new covenant was for all people and peoples, Jews and Gentiles.”

    In addition to contextual analogies, some IM proponents reach erroneous conclusions by adopting too simplistic analogies based on words or expressions in the Bible. One such example is to take 1 Corinthians 7:17, 20, 24 as a proof text for the IM where Paul says, “remain in that condition he was called.” 18John Ridgway, “Insider Movements in the Gospels and Acts,” IJFM 24 (2007): 85; Rebecca Lewis, “The Integrity of the Gospel and Insider Movements,” IJFM 27 (2010): 41-48. According to their conclusion from this text, it is argued that the Insider can remain within their previous Islamic religious community by maintaining their religious identity. This conclusion is completely false because they do not pay attention to the immediate literary context surrounding the given texts, but simply borrow the specific phrase that seems to be supportive to the IM claims. Paul’s main concern in the larger literary context of 1 Corinthians 7 is marriage and celibacy. The key idea can be summarized as follows: No matter what condition they were living in, the Corinthian believers could still accomplish God’s calling. They did not have to try to change their social and civil conditions in order to fulfill God’s calling in their lives. Since there is no religious affiliation in the original context, the claim of IM proponents simply falls apart.

    In addition to hermeneutical errors, IM proponents do not pay attention to biblical theology as a framework for establishing their arguments and their theology of missions. While searching for possible biblical precedents and analogies in the Bible, they do not pay sufficient attention to the exclusive truth claim of the Bible. An overarching biblical theology of religions both in the Old and New Testament unapologetically teaches exclusivism (Exod 20:2-6; Deut 6:4-6; John 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Tim 2:5). Nevertheless, IM proponents do not deal with this overarching framework, but primarily focus on their biased positive view of human cultures and religions for their treatment of Islam. IM proponents generally give more weight on the positive aspects of Islam and religious zeal of devout Muslims, and thus a biblical theological evaluation of Islam is seriously lacking in their writings.

    One most disturbing conclusion in this regard appears in the interpretations of Act 17. Higgins, for instance, in his evaluation of Paul’s approach to Athenians, states that “Paul not only affirms the religiosity of the Athenians, but also sees the altar to an unknown god as preparation for what he will say about the gospel.” 19Higgins, “The Key to Insider Movements,” 161.

  2. Ibid., 161 (emphasis in the original). Rebecca Lewis also arrives the similar conclusion that Muslim Insiders need not to leave their cultural-religious identity as Muslims based on her interpretation of Acts 17:26. See her article, “Insider Movements: Honoring God-Given Identity and Community,” IJFM 26 (2009): 16-19.
  3. For the syntactical significance of the optative verb, see Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 483-84 and 699-701. The optative is used to denote “a possible condition in the future, usually a remote possibility (such as if he could do something, if perhaps this should occur).” For the lexical meanings of these two verbs, see Bauer, Walter, Frederick William Denker, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature [BDAG], 3rd ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 412 and 1097-98. Both Bock and Witherington agree on this point. Bock, Acts, 566; Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 528. BDAG translates verse 27: “if perhaps (in the hope that) they might grope for him and find him.”
  4. David J. Hesselgrave, Paradigms in Conflict: 10 Key Questions in Christian Missions Today (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005), 102. William J. Larkin Jr. contends that human religious response is only “blind ignorance and foolish rebellion” because sin’s intervention produced this serious condition of men. Larkin, “The Contribution of the Gospels and Acts to a Biblical Theology of Religions,” in Christianity and the Religions, eds. Edward Rommen and Harold Netland (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1995), 82.

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