Does Insider Movement Contextualization Produce Biblically Faithful Churches or a Mere Mosquerade?

Read part 1 here.

1.    History of IM Discussion

The contextualization discussion surrounding what has come to be known as Insider Movement strategy has a longer history than does its name. In fact, according to one commentator, the Insider Movement (IM) traces its roots back to the mid-1970s through the work of Charles Kraft and Eugene Nida. During that time, Kraft and Nida proved influential in advancing a translation theory known as Dynamic Equivalence (DE). 1

Dynamic equivalence translations are highly receptor-oriented and attempt to leverage vocabulary and vernacular familiar to the audience in the process of communicating the gospel. From this linguistic foundation, IM strategies continue along the receptor-oriented trajectory by seeking to retain not only the vocabulary of the context but also its cultural and religious forms. In fact, Charles Kraft himself began exploring the idea of DE churches as early as 1978. 2

Interestingly, despite some Western missionary optimism regarding IM contextualization, Arab Christians have often opposed such strategies, noting their concerns that “continuity with the past will tie the Muslim believer to darkness.” 3In noting such reticence to endorse these contextualization strategies, however, Western advocates have at times chosen to reject the warnings of our brothers and sisters in Christ who are culturally closer to IM participants in favor of our outside analysis of the dynamics of such strategies. 4

2.    Jesus’s Church vs. Paul’s Church

Contextualization is the attempt to present and embody the unchanging message of the Bible within the changing contexts of the world. Thus, one of the typical approaches to contextualization is to seek out the irreducible core of biblical teaching and then to clothe that teaching in culturally communicative forms.

In search of an irreducible core teaching regarding the church, some IM proponents such as Leonard Bartlotti argue that there is a spectrum of cultural expression that ranges from minimalist to traditionalist ecclesiology. 5 The theory for IM proponents like Bartlotti is that if one takes a minimalist approach to ecclesiology, wherein one practices some of the biblical minimum of two or three gathered around the Word and in the Spirit, then IM might meet these basic criteria. 6

Attempting to establish the biblical basis of the minimalist approach, Bartlotti writes, “In [the minimalist]view of the church, believers who gather around the Word and the Spirit of Christ have essentially all they need to grow and develop in faith, practice, Christlikeness, and witness.” 7 Bartlotti sees this minimalist approach as distinct from a traditionalist expression of church, writing, “This side of the spectrum values simplicity, freedom, informality, and a synoptic ‘Jesus style’ somewhat removed from Pauline theologizing and complexities, but not removed from Pauline dynamics.” 8 IM ecclesiology is then merely a minimalist approach.

However, to grant this distinction is to grant that Jesus’s ecclesiology is an option that can be chosen over and against a more robust Pauline expression. Bartlotti’s spectrum suggests that it is possible—and potentially appropriate for IMs—to cut off Paul’s ecclesiological teaching from Jesus’s and still remain biblically faithful. Yet, even if one were to admit such an untenable division between supposedly Jesus-style and Pauline-style churches, Jesus’s ecclesiological concerns challenge IM strategies in at least two ways. A brief consideration of the two occasions where Jesus uses the word ekklesia proves vital in the task of assessing IM ecclesiology.

2.1  Peter’s Confession and Jesus’s Church: Matthew 16:16

The first occasion that Jesus uses the word ekklesia is a climactic moment in Matthew’s gospel. After Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter speaks up and declares that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Most protestant scholarship understands this passage to mean that Jesus intends to build his church both on Peter and his declaration, and also through those who would likewise recognize him as the Son of God. 9 As Stuart Weber comments, “What Jesus was saying is that Peter would be a ‘first among equals’ in the history of Jesus’ church. Peter would be the initial spokesman among those who would become the custodians of the revealed truth about Jesus’ identity—the heart of the revealed gospel.” 10

This particular claim is of little challenge to advocates of IM strategies as it is clearly a universal or invisible church that Jesus has in mind rather than an organized local church. One might readily affirm that those who believe in Jesus are incorporated into his invisible church prior to inclusion in a local expression of church. However, pertinent to our investigation is the declaration itself prior to unpacking its ecclesial implications. When Jesus speaks of building his unshakable church, it is inextricably connected to the recognition of his Sonship.

2.2 IM Strategic Conflicts: Muslim Idiom Translations (MIT) and Divine Filial Language (DFL)

This is the point at which IM strategists operating among Muslim peoples often become uneasy. Due to Islamic repulsion at the idea that God could sire a Son, missionaries hoping to contextualize the gospel for Muslim audiences regularly propose alternative titles by which Jesus might be known. Some missiologists merely suggest that witnesses should give verbal preference to identifying Jesus as Lord or King over and against Son. However, several IM proponents also desire alternative translations of this language in Muslim Idiom Translations (MIT) of Scripture.

Resulting from this translation commitment, one Turkish attempt at a Muslim-sensitive translation renders the great commission of Matthew 28:18–19 as follows:

Now go to all the nations and train ‘islamic disciples’ [lit. murits] to me and make them ‘purify themselves by islamic ritualistic washing unto repentance’ [lit. tovbe abdesti] to the name of the Protector, his Representative and the Holy Spirit. 11

The problems in this representation of the great commission are manifold. One might be able to overlook the Islamic vocabulary used to identify Jesus’s disciples and the purification language to identify Christian baptism. But there is no way to justify the disregard for the Greek original of the biblical text that allows the triune persons of the godhead to be thus represented. 12

Practically speaking, it is possible that one might be able to observe initial pragmatic benefits of removing divine filial language (DFL) from the Bible and from gospel presentations. Yet observations of pragmatic effectiveness cannot supplant the importance of presenting the unadulterated biblical message of the Gospel. As demonstrated by Adam Simnowitz’s extensive research, MIT versions of the Scriptures often compromise biblical language and the theology that derives from it at the altar of expedient communication. 13

At the same time, it should be noted that most Muslims are already aware of the fact that the Bible speaks of Jesus as the Son of God. In fact, this is part of the qur’anic polemic against Christianity. Written on the pages of the Islamic holy book, Qur’an 4:171 declares, “God is only one God. Glory to Him! (Far be it) that He should have a son!” 14 Traditional Islamic interpretation of this verse—and the several others like it—recognizes that it is Christians who are the ones who declare that God has a son. 15 Thus, by exchanging the DFL for less offensive nomenclature, the Christian simply demonstrates complicity with the qur’anic accusation that Christians are willing to engage in scriptural falsification. 16 One thus loses any initial pragmatic momentum that comes from removing DFL as the effects of altering Scripture further undermine Muslim confidence in the Bible and the Christians who are willing to compromise its text.

For the purposes of this investigation, we must note that Jesus connects his church to the explicit recognition that he is the expected Messiah and the Son of God. Any attempt to build a church on an altered understanding of Jesus as the incarnate Son begins a church on an unhealthy foundation. Yet many IM advocates argue that such translations are essential components of IM success. For example, John Travis, J. Dudley Woodberry, and John Wilder argue that “It is crucial to have an appropriately contextualized Bible . . . that intentionally uses affectively and cognitively meaningful vocabulary for Muslim readers.” 17 Lest one think MITs are relegated to inconsequential vocabulary, Travis includes a footnote that demands “culturally appropriate ways to translate ‘Holy Spirit,’ ‘Son of God,’ ‘Lord,’ ‘Christian,’ and ‘church.’” 18

One sees these translations included in actual practice through Jan Prenger’s study of IMs. Citing the insistence upon a contextualized MIT, Prenger writes,

Having the appropriate version of the Bible seems important. [One interviewee] mentioned that having a contextual translation available was a huge factor in the movement. He said, “The churches don’t use that Bible, and these Muslims really view it as, ‘This is our translation.’” 19

Therefore, if IM strategies utilize MITs that obscure Jesus as the Son of God, a dangerous deference to Islamic theology emerges. Any gathering of such Insiders that might emerge is building upon a foundation that has exhibited more interest in crafting a message that can be embraced than translating the text as it was written.

Since the recognition of Jesus as the Son of God is tied to his Messianic role and is the foundation for his unshakable church, this is no trifling matter. If the contextualized translations of Scripture used in IMs persist in obscuring such a central element of biblical christology, it is difficult to imagine building a strong church on such a weakened foundation. In addition to this reference to the church, Jesus speaks of his ekklesia two chapters later in Matthew’s gospel.

2.3  Local, Identifiable Expressions of Jesus’s Church: Matthew 18:15–20

The second passage in which Jesus uses the word ekklesia occurs two chapters later in Matthew’s gospel. In Matthew 18:15–20 Jesus discusses the process by which believers are to confront interpersonal sins within the local church community. While the first time that Jesus uses the word ekklesia is apparently in reference to the church universal, this instance clearly communicates a local expression of church. That this is true can be seen in Matthew 18:17, which states that the church is to be gathered, informed, and involved in excommunication of the unrepentant sinning brother or sister.

Since the church is a local and gatherable assembly in this passage, one cannot say that Jesus was unconcerned with the formation of local churches. In fact, these local churches are composed of believers who might be called to carry the weighty burden of rendering a verdict on another believer’s status as a part of the church. This passage leaves no room for the notion of an isolated or unchurched Christian, as Donald Hagner comments,

The Christian is always to be accountable to a community. And the importance of the community receives indirect confirmation in the divinely granted authority of its leaders, in the promise of answered prayer in the administration of the church, and in the promise of the continuing presence of the risen Christ in the midst of those gathered in his name. 20

In just two references to ekklesia, then, Jesus has established that his church will be built upon the foundation of the confession that he is the Old Testament’s anticipated Messiah and the incarnate Son of God. Furthermore, he has established the fact that this church is composed of local, identifiable, gatherable, and mutually-responsible communities of believers.

2.4  IM Strategic Conflicts: Difficulty with Discipline

Sometimes, due to contextual stigma with the local word for “church” IMs opt to use alternative language to describe the gatherings of Insiders. While a few IM expressions are intentionally churchless, 21 most encourage believers to be known to one another and to meet within the mosque structure. 22 For example, some IM groups are called jamaats using the Arabic word for gathering. 23 Some jamaats could easily be compared with house churches in that these Insiders meet together in homes regularly, read or chant Scripture together, and often share a meal. 24 On the surface, then, if an IM strategy includes the impulse to gather in local groups, many of the biblical activities of a local church can be observed and practiced within a jamaat.

The concern for IM strategies, however, is not with the ability of IM gatherings to include prayer, worship, and teaching. If the church is to be an identifiable group that can exercise the church discipline expected by Jesus in Matthew 18, they must be able to differentiate between members in good standing versus members who are under church discipline. It is difficult to see how a group that is intentionally blending into the mosque community can exercise meaningful discipline.

Historically, identification with a local body of believers has been practiced and demonstrated through the ordinances of baptism and communion. 25 While some IM gatherings regularly practice baptism, there are other IM strategies that dismiss the importance of baptism. Such proponents argue that many unbaptized Christ-followers reject baptism not because they reject Christ, but due to the fact that it severs ties with one’s former community and family. Thus, advocates such as Herbert Hoefer relegate the rejection of baptism to the realm of sociology rather than theology. 26

Likewise, since some IM strategies aim to see entire mosques dedicated to following Jesus as savior, Insiders often remain within the structures of the mosque system. As a result, the ability for such groups of Insiders to partake in communion is complicated by the fact that their gathering occurs in mixed company. If communion is not celebrated as a regular affirmation of the gospel and participation with the community, one wonders how the jamaat will differentiate a believer in good standing from those who are to be treated as Gentiles and tax collectors. 27

2.5  Summary: Jesus’ Church and IM Jamaats

In closing this section, then, we note that Matthew’s gospel and Jesus’s own words about the church are sufficient to challenge IM methodology on at least two key points: (1) Jesus as the long-awaited Christ, who is the Son of God; and (2) the local church as an identifiable body of believers who can practice meaningful church discipline. Beyond Jesus’s words about the church, however, at least two other aspects of biblical ecclesiology need to be considered. The following section will consider how IM strategies face challenges when confronted with Paul’s teaching about the church in 1 Timothy 3:14–16 and Galatians 2:11–21.

Watch for Part 3 coming soon!

Originally published on Training Leaders International. View the original article here.

Notes:

  1. Houssney, “Watching the Insider Movement,” 397–99.
  2. Kraft delivered a paper at a conference in Colorado Springs in which he explored DE churches. See Sam Schlorff, Missiological Models in Ministry to Muslims (Upper Darby, PA: Middle East Resources, 2006), 81.
  3. Bruce Heckman, “Arab Christian Reaction to Contextualization in the Middle East” (MA Thesis, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1988), 80–81; As quoted in J. Dudley Woodberry, “Contextualization among Muslims: Reusing Common Pillars,” in Understanding Insider Movements, 411.
  4. Woodberry, “Contextualization among Muslims,” 411, cites several Arab Christians voicing their concerns regarding IM. Unfortunately, he sidelines their theological concerns by paralleling their situation with the cultural debates over forms of worship between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians in the early church.
  5. Bartlotti, “Seeing Inside Insider Missiology,” 57–58.
  6. Bartlotti, “Seeing Inside Insider Missiology,” 56–57. Bartlotti argues that the concept of a spectrum is appropriate for many different doctrines within the church, where believers and groups of believers may differ on either side of a perceived middle-point on an issue while still maintaining evangelical faith. From that argument, then, he suggests the biblical spectrum for church as running from “Synoptic Jesus emphasis” to “Pauline emphasis.”  This spectrum concept infers that one’s choice on either end of a supposed ecclesiological spectrum is perhaps equally “biblical” and admissible.
  7. Bartlotti, “Seeing Inside Insider Missiology,” 57.
  8. artlotti, “Seeing Inside Insider Missiology,” 57.
  9. See Donald Hagner, Matthew 14–28 WBC 33b (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 474; Stuart K. Weber, Matthew Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 251; Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 714; John Peter Lange and Philip Schaff, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Matthew (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 298; Mark Dever, “The Church,” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel Akin, rev. ed. (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2014), 641.
  10. Weber, Matthew, 251.
  11. Adam Simnowitz, “Appendix: Do Muslim Idiom Translations Islamicize the Bible? A Glimpse Behind the Veil,” 501–23 in Muslim Conversions to Christ, eds. Ayman Ibrahim and Ant Greenham (New York: Peter Lang, 2018), 504. Simnowitz here refers to The Sublime Meaning of the Injil Sharif (Matthew) published in 2011. 28Adam Simnowitz, “Appendix: Do Muslim Idiom Translations Islamicize the Bible? A Glimpse Behind the Veil,” 501–23 in Muslim Conversions to Christ, eds. Ayman Ibrahim and Ant Greenham (New York: Peter Lang, 2018), 504. Simnowitz here refers to The Sublime Meaning of the Injil Sharif (Matthew) published in 2011.
  12. Simnowitz, “Appendix,” 514, concludes, “There is an egregious disregard for the Greek texts which results in highly interpretive and mistaken renderings.”
  13. Simnowitz, “Appendix.”
  14. Quoted from A. J. Droge, The Qur’an: A New Annotated Translation (Bristol, CT: Equinox, 2015). See also Qur’an 2:16; 10:68; 19:88–92; 21:26; 23:91; and 25:2.
  15. Droge, The Qur’an, 61 n192; Cf. 12 n138 and 225 n63.
  16. See especially Qur’an 2:59 and 7:162 for the qur’anic accusation that Christians falsify their revelation.
  17. John Jay Travis, “Insider Movements among Muslims,” 133–42 in Understanding Insider Movements, 137. See also Prenger, Muslim Insider Christ Followers, 266, who states, “The jamaats in these IMs desperately need a Muslim-idiom Bible translation.”
  18. Travis, “Insider Movements among Muslims,” 137 n26.
  19. Prenger, Muslim Insider Christ Followers, 256. Another example of an Insider appropriating contextual language in translation of the Bible is mentioned on p. 259 as Prenger discusses an Insider identified as Axel who has taken it upon himself to produce his own translation of Scripture that he disseminates page by page. It is unclear whether Axel has any training in original biblical languages, but it is clear that the only theological training he has received is Islamic training (232). One wonders then what would prepare him to make a translation of Scripture that is more suited to his Muslim audience other than his own sense of what the Bible means to say? It is worth noting that this same person is elsewhere quoted as saying, “The Isa that came to earth is not Allah. That is shirk. We would be making someone the same as Allah. He was human, and you cannot say that a human is Allah” (228).
  20. Hagner, Matthew 14–28, 534.
  21. See the works of Herbert Hoefer, Churchless Christianity, new ed. (Pasadena, CA: William Carey, 2001) and “Church in Context.” Cf. Timothy Tennent, “The Challenge of Churchless Christianity: An Evangelical Assessment,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 29 no. 4 (October 2005): 171–77.
  22. Prenger, Muslim Insider Christ Followers, 253. Prenger notes, “Small local fellowships, or jamaats, are the building blocks of all IMs represented by the 26 interviewed IM leaders. These groups form naturally within family, tribal, and mosque communities.”
  23. Prenger, Muslim Insider Christ Followers, 246.
  24. Prenger, Muslim Insider Christ Followers, 246–47.
  25. Jeremy Kimble, 40 Questions about Church Membership and Discipline (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2017), 63–67.
  26. See Hoefer, Churchless Christianity; see also, H. L. Richard, “Christ Followers in India Flourishing—But Outside the Church,” in Understanding Insider Movements, 151. It is worth noting that Hoefer’s study was done among Hindu Insiders, but Hoefer does compare the Hindu and Muslim rationale for not converting and receiving baptism, stating, “The sociological differences between the Christian and Muslim community are the major barrier.”
  27. It should be noted that Prenger documents some exceptions to this practice of attempting to reform the mosques. These exceptions have formed a “Sufi-style para-mosque system, outside the existing local mosque system.” Yet, as a Sufi-style para-mosque, baptism is described in Sufi-terminology so as to obscure its Christian meaning when an outsider inquires about the practice. See Prenger, Muslim Insider Christ Followers, 260–65.

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