Lost in Translation:
Insider Movements and Biblical Interpretation
2010 i2 Insider Movement Conference
People of the Book
We are all privileged and perplexed to live in interesting times. So much has changed already in my half-century. When I came to Christ back in 1973, the one and only thing I did not expect to shift from under my feet was my grasp of God. I had searched for so long, endured disappointments and disillusion along the way. But now, with Jesus, I could rest. For the first time, I knew what the world really looked like. How foolish. But then I, like many of you, was restless and lost. I needed the shalom that only God in Christ could give. I did not know that I was entering God’s kingdom in the midst of revolution. So very much has changed in terms of how we understand ourselves, God, and his work in the world. Much has been exciting and soul-feeding. God is alive and he is very much on the move. I am particularly thankful for the explosion of growth in the Church outside of the West, often deep in the guarded heartland of the enemies of the gospel. There is shalom for certain, but there is also a cacophony of voices, all of which militate for new ministries, new directions, new ideas through which to stoke the fires of evangelism and kingdom growth. This, of course, is not really new. It is how it was at the beginning of the gospel age.
Some of this chaotic activity is a very positive sign of God’s love, because it means that God is moving out in many ways and many directions. But sometimes, and I think perhaps this time, there are serious problems, issues that do not simply stem from God’s incomprehensible grace assaulting our limited understanding. Sometimes, and I think perhaps this time, we have taken his wonderful provision and injected, with the best of intentions, and full of faith, ideas that are not worthy of him. We listen to God as hard as we can and sometimes we just get it wrong. But because our zeal is real and our faith all-consuming, we do not like to admit it. I am taking a course in Peacemaking. It is a timely provision. We touched last week on the primary need for Christians to confess their sins and faults. So far so good, but the difficulty is in the details. We admit being flawed in general. When it comes down to specifics, confession alludes us. We are so sure, you see, of what we have seen and tasted that we cannot consider being wrong about this or that specific idea or ministry. It is understandable isn’t it. We have invested our whole beings into our ministries. So both good and bad ideas stubbornly stick to us.
Even though all we sinners go astray, God’s provision to us is an irreducible standard, a plumb line and gauge that remains beyond our prejudice, however we manage to distort it. It is the Word of God, perfect, complete, and infallible. Of course we tinker with it. We applies layers, glosses and accretions on it, ostensibly to better explain it, but also often to bend it to our wills. Try as we do to make it say what we want, however, it always comes back home to God’s actual design for it. No one can ultimately destroy the Word of God, though I do think we can manage to hide or obscure its meaning in our efforts to make it more useful. That is something of what the Reformers called the perspicuity of scripture. It means that the scripture is simple and clear enough to be understood even by the simplest of us (and the distance from the simplest to the cleverest of us is not far in God’s eyes). It also has another side. It means that no matter how much we tamper with its intended meaning, God’s intentions survive to reassert themselves. In other words, no matter how hard we try to make it say what we want, the truth of its words survive to triumph in God’s visible people, the Church. Even when we bury it, it finds its way back into the light.
This weekend, we are here to consider one of the most exciting and most contentious ideas in ministry, insider movements. Survey the literature, popular or academic; analytical or anecdotal and you will see disagreement; not simply with regard to peripheral matters, but concerning the basics of what we believe and how we express it. . Every side of this issue is presented. The experts, the bystanders, the outside observers, the participants, and I will assert, the victims all testify. How then do we then consider this? I propose that there is no better way to proceed than with Bibles in hand. As a follower of Jesus, a Christian, I believe that the key to the insider movements’ viability is in not in four books, one of which is the Injil. It is in the one and only one authoritative text, the Bible. Everything stands or falls on that.
In a way, however, that just brings us back in a circle to where we started. Everyone involved in this issue leans on the Word for their justification. Nevertheless, I think our best hope is to examine insider proponents’ scriptural foundations, carefully and in detail. What scriptures do insider thinkers use, and how? Perhaps new for meetings such as this, what scriptures do they omit? I think as we look at all of these angles, we will learn more about what they are thinking and why. As we do so; as we offer our observations and critique, our own presuppositions and prejudices are also revealed. Let me be very clear before we dive into the meet of this. I strongly believe that insider movements represent a fundamentally flawed initiative, based on a fatally deficient understanding of scripture, but I do not assume a place of privilege or power in saying this. I know that I can be just as wrong or deceived as the next human being. My ideas are there to be judged just as their’s are. I simply propose taking a good look at a wide range of insider writing in order to see what it says about the thinking’s scriptural justification. Achieving this is no simple task and requires us to consider many factors. Some of these are relatively straight forward (though they have their own complexity). Others are riskier and should be considered hesitatingly. What I refer to with the latter is the possible sources of someones hermeneutic, the lens through which they interpret scripture. Since they do not reveal these things directly in their own writing, we cannot assert them except reflectively and suggestively.
One last preliminary point. I see two principle issues involved in the insider use of scripture. The first is their interpretation of the Bible as a central foundation for their methodology. The second is the issue of how they treat the Bible in translation. We are here to focus on only the first of these tasks today. The second must await another time and perhaps a better guide. Well, having set the table, let’s proceed onto the meal.
How Firm a Foundation?
What texts and what interpretation do insiders use in order to explain and justify their thinking? Since most insiders laboring in the field, whether that means indigenous insiders professing Christ, missionaries, or professors teaching it, do not leave audit trails explaining how they justify their ministry with scripture; we have to rely on the writing we have available from missiologists, writers, missions directors, teachers and the like. In order to prepare for this conference, I read everything I could get my hands on. I have included a list of sources consulted in the written transcript of this address. The only exception are observations gleaned from having interviewed scores of insiders directly in the field on two continents. My regret is that I have not time enough to address every passage cited. I have other papers which address some of these in greater detail however.
My first observation is that the overwhelming majority of biblical texts cited are narrative. That should not be a surprise in one sense. Almost 40% of the Bible’s content is narrative. This, of course, implies taking special care whenever we try to derive doctrine or practice from narrative since teaching points, if any, generally are not unambiguously stated, but we will cover that a bit more later. Second, insider writers appear to be extremely selective in which stories they use. A number of these stand out because they are so often presented. Third, the selections of texts appear to be based on how well this or that story illustrates the presence of either an insider movement or at the very least insider thinking supportive of insider movements as an idea. Finally, considerable effort is made by insiders to not only justify these movements biblically, but beyond that to locate insider movements within the Bible itself. This merits careful consideration. It is one thing to find biblical justification for something you wish to attempt in the here and now; it is quite another to locate it verbatim in the there and then too.
Kevin Higgins profiles the pagan prophet Balaam being in a relationship with Yahweh. Though he practiced divination as a pagan, he communicated directly with Yahweh. Higgins concludes from this that they were in relationship. 2 Kings 5 is an especially popular text used by insiders pointing to Naaman and the Temple of Rimmon as proof that God approves of people living as believers inside their home cultures and religions. “The text is an example of a follower of another religion who becomes a believer in the true God and yet continues to worship the true God within the religious life and practices of his prior religion. Not only is it a description, but also the text includes the clear blessing of the prophet upon the practice. In this text we find at least one case where God blesses “remaining inside.” “Naaman continues to worship the True God, but does it while attending a pagan temple with his king who worships the god Rimmon. Muslims can continue to worship the true God inside the mosque.” Higgins also contrasts the unbelief of the Hebrew prophet Jonah with the faith of the pagan sailors that throw him overboard. He characterizes the fact that the terrified sailors prayed to Yahweh that they were “in relationship to Yahweh.”
Within the Gospels, Higgins refers to the Magi in Matthew 2 twice as an example of pagans who were led by God accurately by God. “God actually SPOKE to the pagan wise men and He did it THROUGH the pagan star and religion. God revealed truth through the star. So, God can speak and lead Muslims in the Quran and through Muhammad. There was a word from God in the star. There are words of God in the Quran.”
John 4 and the Samaritans is also mentioned several times, particularly by Kevin Higgins. “After their conversion recorded in John 4, they worshipped in spirit and in truth. But they did so in Samaria (in their prior place of worship) just as Jesus worshipped the Father in spirit and in truth in Jerusalem, in the Temple.” In another piece, he elaborates again on this theme and relates it even more tightly to insider movements and Muslims. “The Samaritan village became believers as a group. Jesus encouraged them to worship in Spirit and Truth, and not worry about the place. When He left, they remained and now followed His Way but as Samaritans. Muslims can keep their qibla (facing Mecca and the shrine built by Ibrahim), worshipping the Father in Spirit and Truth, coming to faith in groups, and remaining Muslims.”
Within the New Testament, Acts is referred to most often, with three texts highlighted for the most extensive treatment: Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10-11); The Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) and Paul in Athens (Acts 17). Higgins beyond all other insider champions has a great deal to say concerning all three.
As far as the Council of Jerusalem is concerned in Acts 15, insiders tend to see it as a model of contextualization that deals fundamentally with issues of identity and practice. Therefore, the decision to absolve Gentile believers from the burden of circumcision is seen as a matter of not burdening them with Jewish cultural baggage. Likewise, like “Messianic” Muslims, Jewish followers of Jesus could maintain most of their outward Jewish forms. This, in turn, is universalized into a rule, or at least a set of principles that should be followed when Christian teaching crosses ethnic-cultural boundaries. “The principles debated at the Council of Jerusalem…are as applicable today as they were then-converts can follow Christ without abandoning their culture for that of another.” The implications of this are that circumcision and the Law of Moses primarily concern matters of Jewish culture. Charles Kraft asserts in this regard that “When the Judaizers insisted that Gentiles needed to be circumcised, they were in effect demanding that Gentiles submit to ‘cultural conversion.’”
John Ridgeway has an interesting take on the actions surrounding the council. He believes that it demonstrates to us that every religious community is susceptible to syncretism. He refers, of course, to the imposition of what he believes were Levitical prohibitions against drinking blood. This is then equated to western syncretism such as churches employing marketing methods. His point, which he believes is Luke’s point as well is his clear enough. Since every religion is syncretistic, there is no reason to either impose your own brand of syncretism on another or exchange your original syncretistic religion for another. What matters is that you work as salt and light where you are; within your own community.
With regard to Paul on the Areopagus in Acts 17, Kevin Higgins launches into his explanation by reassuring us that he knows that Paul is not happy with the religious worldview of the Athenians. The way he does so is interesting. “Contextualization …does not imply that the missionary or “insider” leader assumes everything in a culture is pleasing to God. Acts 17 forces us to wrestle with the issue of sin and darkness in other cultures and religions, including our own.” Nevertheless, Higgins sees Paul’s actions as an affirmation both of the Athenians’ religiosity and the OBJECT of their devotion. To be sure, Higgins notes that their faith is imperfect, but he sees their understanding in positive terms. “The men in Athens worshipped the true God even though they did not know Him 100%. Paul did not preach a new or different God. Paul quoted THEIR writers.” He concludes from this that “Paul believed all cultures and peoples were created by God so that they could seek Him and find Him.” Then he applies it to insider movements. “Muslims worship the true God even if their knowledge of Him is not 100% complete. The Quran can be quoted and it has truth in it. God has created Muslims so that they can seek Him and find Him, and He designed their culture to help them find Him.” He appears to justify this last statement concerning the Qur’an by noting that “while Paul never cites Scripture directly in this encounter, he does speak biblical truth, using (pagan) poets and writers to support the biblical doctrines he proclaims. According to Higgins therefore, there is truth from God in Islam and in Muslim culture; that is what Acts 17 proves. His point is not that paganism could save its adherents; nor can Islam. Nevertheless he believes that Christ can build on the truths found in other religions and transform people without removing them from these faith systems. The point for us to keep in mind is that he bases his opinions on these specific scriptures. So too does Bernard Dutch. As far as he is concerned, what Paul did was build a bridge for the gospel “with redeemable elements of Athenian paganism.”
The fundamental gloss for every text in Acts according to insiders appears to be cultural. Rebecca Lewis, for example, bridges from a description of the Samaritans in John, noting that “in Acts we see the Samaritan believers remained in their own communities and retained their Samaritan identity (Act 8:14-17). But at first the disciples did not understand that just as they could remain Jews and follow Jesus, the Samaritans could also remain Samaritan.” Why could they do so? Because, as she notes, “The gospel is not seen as a threat to the community, and an insider movement develops as the gospel flows into neighboring relational networks. Because believers remain in their families and networks, insider movements honor God-given community. Bernard Dutch accuses modern Protestants of forgetting the lessons learned in Jerusalem. “After two thousand years and a Protestant ethos that emphasizes theology over community, it is easy to think in only theological terms and completely overlook the massive communal identity issues being addressed in the Jerusalem Council decision.” Is that what really happened? Did theology triumph over scripture? Have we missed the point to which the council pointed? Wait for it. We will come back to that soon.
They’re Digging in the Wrong Place (Raiders of the Lost Ark)
Well, now that we have carefully surveyed insider biblical justification; what can we conclude? Have insiders proven their case? Are there actually insider movements in the Bible? In my opinion, they have neither proved the existence of biblical insider movements or justified the current practice from biblical proofs. Let me do this. First, let’s take a look at scripture and particularly the genre of narrative and address commonly accepted practices for interpreting biblical texts. Then we will revisit some of the passages briefly and present alternative interpretations. Following that, let’s see if we can understand why the two versions differ so strongly. What, in other words, are the bases of the different views? Unfortunately we cannot look in depth at each passage cited by insiders or give an exhaustive treatment to their exposition. We can however highlight key passages, focus on the degree of validity of their expositions, and compare their results to the most commonly accepted practices for biblical interpretation.
This of course does not mean that everyone does not have his own experts and it cannot guarantee that experts have it right anyway. I simply want us to connect to generally accepted practices adopted by evangelical believers from a wide variety of traditions. These also contain warnings concerning interpretive practices to avoid. For example, Don Carson cautions us about a “selective and prejudicial use of evidence.” In other words, do not just use verses or passages that you think support your point. Consider all of the texts that relate to the thing you are considering. Likewise, do not use the text in a way to which it was not intended. It fits within a context that follows the redemptive flow of the whole Bible. How do you know whether you are doing that or not? Take a big picture look at the terrain. See where the text fits in the larger scheme of things. If you are trying to take your smaller scripture stream and divert it so that it now flows up hill, you are going in the wrong direction. Then there is what he terms, “world view confusion”, something that takes place when you inappropriately allow your own present experience to distort the meaning of the ancient text. Consider “conceptual parallelomania”; what happens when an expert in a specialized field such as psychology, sociology etc., examine texts and believe they have a firmer grasp of scripture than they do based on their field of speciality. “Many of the specialists who fall into these fallacies are devout believers who want to relate the Bible to their discipline. They think they have a much firmer grasp of Scripture than they do; and the result is frequently appalling nonsense.”
Having created my own nonsense from time to time, I take his point.
Graeme Goldsworthy points to a problem that should caution all of us. He calls it “evangelical pragmatism”; the case of taking “good and important truths” and letting them crowd out “the central truths of the historic events of the gospel.” This happens when the present experience of a Christian , rather than the finished work of Jesus becomes the hermeneutical norm. The result is that whenever we experience success, we conclude that we must be acting biblically. T. Norton Sterrett cautions against formulating doctrines by inference. Make sure that you have a considerable weight of clear instruction, rather than murky passages or stories where you are uncertain of the central point before you build a doctrine. Along with this, have a healthy skepticism concerning your own speculation.
Fee and Stuart give advice for handling narratives. For example, they note that Old Testament narratives do not usually teach doctrine. What they typically do is illustrate a doctrine taught somewhere else. In other words, when they do look for doctrine in the story itself, they are, to use Indiana Jones words, “digging in the wrong place.” If you think the story is pointing to a doctrine, don’t build your foundation there; find the better ground. Be cautious in your approach. Really grasp the context surrounding the story, but make sure that you start with the story in order to understand it, not outside elements, and start with those that come from the immediate context. Starting from the other side of it, Dennis Bratcher states that “Actions of biblical characters do not directly present us with norms for our behavior today, although they may illustrate the consequences of a particular behavior.” Excepting Jesus in the statement, I see wisdom in his care.
I take as a final caution the words of Gerald Bray to heart. “In the early church there were many who tried to use the Bible for their own purposes and who contextualized it in the culture of their time. Today these people are lumped together as ‘gnostics.’ Bray goes on to exhort readers of the Word to pay attention to what the text really says, seeking to understand it thoroughly in terms of what its original writers, hearers and readers would have understood.
Consider Balaam and Balak recounted in Numbers 22-24. Balak is the son of Zippor, king of Moab. Balak, fearing Israel’s encroachment on his land, ordered Balaam, living at Pethaw in the land of the people of Amaw (in Mesopotamia) to curse the Israelites. Contrary to Balak’s plan, however, Balaam is compelled by God to testify in Israel’s favor. Even when Balaam determined to disobey God’s instructions, his donkey would not allow him to. Eventually Balaam saw that it was no mere animal that stood in his way, but the angel of the Lord who corrected Balaam and set him on a path to testify to the pagan king of God’s judgment on Moab and favor for Israel.
Is this an endorsement of a peace treaty between Yahweh and pagan religion?Can we say that Balaam is a faithful follower of Yahweh, though he remains formally within paganism? Clearly he had some respect for the true God. He refers to the Lord speaking to him in 22:8 and states that he could not go beyond Yahweh’s command in 22:18.
Decisively, however, the Bible judges him as a false prophet, Num 31:16, where he caused Israel to act treacherously with Yahweh; a self-serving opportunist who sought to benefit from his disobedience to God (2 Pet 2:15; Jude 11). Jude, in fact, lumps Balaam with Cain and Korah; not the company insiders strive to keep I hope. Interestingly, it is only Origen in ancient tradition who gives his life a positive spin, seeing him as an ancestor
of the magi. By contrast, most early Christian interpretation identifies him as a forefather of the Libertines and Nicolaitans. Surely the text’s principle purpose is, rather than demonstrating some strange approval of Balaam’s religion, it clearly celebrates the inability of the nations to hinder God’s purposes lived out in Israel. Everything that transpired in the Book of Numbers cascades from the promises made by God to Abraham.
How about one of the favorite stories insiders use from the Old Testament, Naaman and the Temple of Rimmon from 2Kings 5? Is the point that people can and should worship the true, triune God from within their non-covenantally-based religions as insider suggest? Does Naaman’s story indicate that God theologically approves of this? The background in the passage immediately militates against the insider interpretation. Rather than concerning itself with a generous God that countenances Naaman remaining within paganism, the context concerns Israel’s serial prostitution with pagan gods. Their unbelief is contrasted to the covenant-keeping nature of the God they ignore. Naaman unambiguously embraces faith in the covenant god of Israel, so we know that he is no syncretist. He is not asking for permission to worship one of the gods of the nations, Rimmon. Naaman appears to be asking permission to enter the temple as his master’s aid-de-camp. God does indeed address the nations in the text, but with a twist. He shows ultimately that God will deliver the nations from slavery to sin; that his salvific power will triumph over moral and physical consequences of our fallen state, ultimately bringing shalom to humankind. It is in this sense that Elijah send’s Naaman as a forerunner or pathfinder into enemy territory, secure with the knowledge that God is with him.
The context helps explain Elisha’s “shalom.” God is not approving of Naaman’s remaining within paganism. He is, rather, asked for forgiveness by Naaman. Naaman knows that he will probably never return to Israel and he recognizes that he will have no opportunity to worship in a covenantal community. He is in a difficult place and he has a tender conscience. As Paul House recognizes, Elisha decides not to heap more guilt on Naaman for his present circumstances. Gary Corwin suggests that it more appropriately points to a long-standing principle within non-C5 convert communities that time and certain compromises are expected in the transition to a new identity that is located outside of Islam. Corwin notes, however, the insider community’s ignoring of God’s expectation of exclusive outward as well as inward reverence. This is a vital context omitted that alters the whole direction of the text.
As for the sailors who prayed to God when Jonah disobeyed him; was God approving of their genuine faith? Is that what he was saying? We know from the passage in Jonah 1 that the sailors fear the god Yahweh; they call to him to not punish them for the sins of Jonah; they throw Jonah into the sea and, when things have calmed down, offered sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. Higgins summarizes this as their being in a personal relationship with God. Are they therefore religious dual citizens? Rather than reading anything into the story, consider the facts. We can see from their actions that they are indeed religious and obviously believe that Jonah’s god Yahweh exists and has power. As I have said elsewhere, “This does not imply that they had suddenly become monotheists. There is nothing at all in the text to indicate that they did any more than add Yahweh to the number of gods to which they sacrificed.”
Moving to the New Testament, what about the Council of Jerusalem and the Gentiles? Who are the participants who made the decisions that resulted, and what was the main issue in play? Was it fundamentally an issue related to contextualization or did something else dominate? As for background, we get a sense of who the players were when we read Acts 15 along with its backdrop, Peter’s visit to Cornelius, his consequent conviction that God has expanded and redefined the people of God to include the Gentiles in equal part, and Galatians which describes the opponents to including the Gentiles without requiring covenant circumcision. What we do find is that they are not Pharisee Background Believers (PBB), as Brian K. Peterson names them, a curiously neutral as well as anachronistic term, or even just as blander “Jewish believers.” These terms popularized in insider literature just obscure the intention of the passage. Rather, Paul refers to them as the circumcision party, because they located the core of the faith in the older convenantal practice of circumcision rather than ahead to faith in Christ. In other words, circumcision was being promoted as a ground or condition of salvation. John Stott’s point is decisive. These Judaizers believed that “they must let Moses complete what Jesus had begun.” In other words, they had everything backwards. They even had Christ pointing away from himself to something greater, salvation in a covenant identity as the visible, physical, material Israel of God. Christ would in this scheme facilitate their entrance into the realized Jewish nation. The Council of Jerusalem responded to this as a renunciation of genuine faith, not just a mere Torah-observant expression of it. It was, to be blunt, false religion, a cul-de-sac, a dead end, a counterfeit and a fatal one at that. Paul condemned them, not as weak believers, but rather as “sham-Christians; people that presented themselves as believers but whose actions put the lie to their claims (Gal 2:4). They were false brothers who were not what they seemed to be; who were secretly trying to destroy the work of the gospel, and doing it deliberately. Their fruit was heresy. These were the people that forced the glorious, prophetically-fulfilled church-wide decision in Acts 15 to admit Gentile believers with baptism but without circumcision; the only additional requirement being four Jewish prohibitions probably linked to their association to pagan religious practice, in a way also similar to the advice Paul gave the Corinthians.
This all formed the backdrop to the momentous, one-of-a-kind decision. This was no intramural debate between genuine believers about contextual tactics . It along with Pentecost was the defining moment in the breaking out and universalization of the gospel. It was the flower now fully in bloom. It was also the assertion that the spread of the gospel by the one, visible, united, covenantal family of God would be its defining mission. It was and is a principle foundation for ecumenism. Timothy George summarizes this point. Paul would not work together with false brothers, even though they claimed to be fellow Christians, because their theological position was antithetical to the gospel message itself.”
Timothy Wiarda asks two diagnostic questions regarding this text. First, to what extent did any of the participants in the original debate view circumcision and the Mosaic law as matters of culture? Second, was the theological decision that emerged from the council conceived of as universal (applicable for all peoples, both Jews and Gentiles) or local (restricted to one cultural community)? In answer to the first question, we note that circumcision, taken within its context, was tightly linked to the Jewish nation and the relationship to their covenantal God. Circumcision was not just an ethnic boundary marker. It was a historical sign and seal of promised blessings found exclusively within that covenant. It was therefore considered redemptive, a matter of life or death. In the second case, the fact that Peter proclaimed that the law was a yoke that “neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear” suggests that the matters discussed were not principally one of developing a culturally-specific or customized local theology. This is a very far cry from the mere cultural, contextual debate embraced by insiders. Nor does it present a cookie cutter pattern for diversity that includes world religions. It is the trumpeting of salvation by Christ in faith alone exclusively in one people according to all of the Scriptures. It cannot therefore be reasonably used to justify people loving Jesus and remaining in their non or unbiblical religions. Beyond even this is a supreme irony. In using Acts, insiders chose a text that showed the church’s commitment to removing barriers, not to contextualization within religions, but to table fellowship. This I find ironic because the methodology they champion erects barriers that actually prevent such fellowship.
How about Paul’s address on Mar’s Hill in Athens in Acts 17? Is it proof that god erects gospel bridges using pagan material? Is it an affirmation that pagans know God really, if imperfectly? Can it legitimately be used as a justification for using the Qur’an to explain Christ? Higgins appears to believe that Paul quotes Gentile philosophers as a tacit approval or admission of their genuine belief, thereby justifying messianic muslims remaining within Islam. I cannot see how he and others arrive at this conclusion since the passage does not end with some sort of inclusive acceptance of religions either equally or on some sliding scale.
Even though Paul proclaims the universal ancestry of humankind, he moves from that common perspective to proclaiming that this common world would be judged according to its relationship to the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. In other words, Paul is not using his reference to Greek philosophy as a way of accepting people’s non-covenantal religion or as a way of saying that one can be saved regardless of religious affiliation. Rather, he clearly uses a common local reference in order to communicate clearly the exclusive claim of the gospel – and it works.
The Greeks clearly understand what Paul is up to. We know that because they react to his idea with either derision or genuine interest. Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this” (Act 17:32). At the end of the day, the Greeks, their religion and their philosophy could never lead to salvation. It was always headed on the wrong road. Paul, rather than allowing these pagans to continue on their road to ruin, intercepted them
at the crossroads created by his address and tried to persuade them to follow the path to life.
The Dog that didn’t bark in the nighttime (Silver Blaze)
At the conclusion of the Sherlock Holmes short story “Silver Blaze,” Holmes is asked how he solved the seemingly insoluble theft of a disappearing horse. Holmes replies that it was the barking dog that gave the criminal away. When Dr. Watson noted that there was no barking dog, Holmes replied that it was the absence of a dog barking in the nighttime that gave him the clue that unlocked the mystery. In other words, it was not what he saw or heard that convinced him; it was in what he did not hear. Similarly, though it is characteristic for those of us engaged in missiology to wrangle over the interpretation of passages put forth by insiders to justify their positions, that often diverts our attention form noting what texts are left out. Now, insiders may claim that this is a fruitless and unfair demand. After all, the Bible talks about so may things. There is no way to harmonize an idea with all of them. True enough, but altogether unnecessary.
I suggest that there are a great many neglected passages that bear directly on this matter. So, if we seriously wish to ascertain whether or not insider movements are a biblically justifiable construct, we need to examine a great deal more in scripture than is supplied by its proponents. Those of us that write in fields such as theology, biblical studies and missiology know that our work is judged to be academically credible on the basis of our objectivity and fairness. In order to do that, we have to look at things from many angles, to include the vantage points of our critics and texts that can militate against our positions. This I believe is a serious, and perhaps egregious omission in insider literature. We should hear barking dogs but we don’t and that fact should alert us.
Who are some of these mute canines? In the first place, they would include texts and trajectories that place the isolated narratives in larger perspective. If the Bible really is one story and not simply the collation of fragmented ideas presented by liberal theologians, like piles of paper stacked up neatly in front of a giant shredder; then it should have themes uniting all of the narratives into one narrative, one river from the confluence of its many streams. For example, what is the grand theme that unites the stories? Is it not redemption in Christ? Isn’t this the theme that dominates passages such as Acts 15 or John 4? Can we seriously believe that cross cultural adaptation a culturally dominated understanding of religion is intended as the heart of these passages? Isn’t the bigger picture and the clearer picture the redemptive story? Likewise, my survey of insider literature testifies to an almost complete absence of texts referring to the mechanism recognized in both Testaments as the vehicle for bringing the truth to the world, the idea of covenant.
In my opinion, this is fatal to the insider project. Its absence undergirds so much of the misinterpretation of texts. The reason that insiders can look at Acts’ concerns for showing how the definition of the people of God transcends historic Israel through its Jewish-Gentile dynamic and see Christianity’s relationship to Muslim followers of Jesus is that the latter show no evident appreciation of the covenant as a central defining paradigm for the Bible. Associated with this is the insiders’ neglect of passages focusing on the core sin of idolatry. Why does the Bible devote so much time on this from Genesis to Revelation? Read the texts. It is not just because people are all a little ignorant about God. Rather, it is because people are made in God’s image, but are fallen. Because they reflect God, they create. We are builders after all. We also relate because the triune God is relational and we reflect that to one another. But we do all of this as fallen sinners. It means that we do craft things, but the things we build are not alive and they do not bring glory to the God who is there, to quote Francis Schaeffer.
They reflect us. We are so good at manufacturing counterfeits in fact that we must have a direct revelation from God to move us away from our impulse to move away from God. In the Bible, this takes the form of the covenant that outlines the one true way in which people can relate to God and in each other through him. So often when we think and talk about insider movements, we speak of false religion and fallenness as extreme expressions. Our ancestors in the early church have much to say to us about this. They recognized better than we that bad ideas are the worst when they look very much like good ideas with a few modifications. The early church recognized these as ideological “angels of light”, not to be dialogued with, but rather to be spurned. They had to be rejected, not because there was no truth in them, but rather because we sinners would latch onto the parts that were not, and these would corrupt our faith, just as bits of Canaanite pagan religion eventually corrupted the Israelites. They also knew that big ideas had cores and essences. The externals could look good and familiar, but their hearts wicked and deceitful things. The truth lived on in the Bible through a people, a family and the story of its relationship to God is the Bible. It was the one thing that preserved the truth from a universe of counterfeits, signposts all pointing to the wrong destination. So God gathered a people for himself; a family that he chose to love. And it was in the fulness of time that it brought us to the point of it all, Jesus Christ our Lord. That would have been good enough, but God even trumped himself. In the fulness of time, he expanded his family so much so that it wrapped itself around the world. This is the idea of covenant in the light of the resurrection and it does not harmonize with insider movements and their fragmented stories. This is also why my greatest desire in this matter is not to extend the olive branch to those with whom I disagree. Rather, it is to invite them to fully identify themselves with God’s visible family, his olive tree, his people, the Church of Jesus Christ.
Insiders highlight biblical stories that suggest God’s working in the world among the nations, but they overlook the vast and overwhelming part of the Bible that equates religion outside of the covenant with wilderness, exile and death not light. Outsiders are indeed honored in the Bible; like Rahab who sides with God’s anointed covenant people, but the point is that she becomes one of them; she is adopted into the covenant. The one thing that the Jews had trouble wrapping their heads around was that the land, the law, and their ethnicity were not the prizes to which the covenant pointed. They were waypoints. These all pointed beyond themselves to the Lordship of Christ and their own membership in the global family that united with him. The end game therefore was not the law, but everlasting life in Christ as part of his resurrected, renewed, recreated family. The mistake Judaizers made was in focusing on the means (the covenant and its outward forms) rather than the end (union with Christ as part of his body). This family is what our older, more distant relatives called the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. It was one because Christ only has one body, a fact we remember whenever we celebrate the Supper together. It was holy because it was a family distinct from all others in the world, distinct in its covenantal self-identity, its ethics and its unique relationship to the head of the household. It was catholic, both because it extended all over the world and through time and it was apostolic because it carried the exclusively divinely revealed words of life from its savior to the world with out addition or subtraction, from the beginning to now.
I like the way Tom Wright tells the story:
In the Christian canonical Bible there is a single over-arching narrative. It is story which runs from creation to new creation. The great bulk of the story focuses quite narrowly on the fortunes of a single family in the Middle East. They are described as the people through whom the creator God will act to rescue the whole world. The choice of this particular family does not imply that the creator has lost interest in other human beings or the cosmos at large; on the contrary, it is because he wishes to address them with his active and rescuing purposes that he has chosen this one family in the first place.
This I believe highlights the heart of the matter regarding the insiders’ poor hermeneutic. On reflection, I think two factors account both for the crystallization of insider methodology and the strained manner with which they treat scripture. These two are the immediacy of life-changing personal experience and the movement’s interaction with popular notions of missiology, social science in general, history, and theology. To put it simply, insider movements are the product, in my opinion, of immediate personal religious experience and contemporary ideas. To make the point even more strongly, both poles of opinion in this matter gravitate around these two factors. It is not simply a matter of one group being open to ideas and the other not, any more than it is the fact that one group uses the Bible or prays and the other does not. Nor is it primarily an issue of Christian peacemaking, though enough sin exists on all sides that we probably have plenty to repent of. The issue is saturated with intelligent, creative people on all sides of the issues. No one’s response is the symptom of a brain drain. I think the heart of this seeming morass is exegetical, hermeneutical and theological. We cannot be either helped or hindered by each others’ personal experiences and observations enough to resolve any of this.
My plea is that we sit down, not in small, intimate enclaves in order to attempt conflict resolution, though that can be done as a way of developing better relationships; but that should not divert us from an even larger task. Our differences at the end of the day are fundamentally theological and doctrinal, regardless of how I or we understand the motives or circumstances that shaped them. The early church set a pattern for such difficulties, as we see in Acts and later in the early period of church patristics. Diverse parts of the visible church gathered together to debate and decide key matters of doctrine in open sessions. Read the eyewitnesses talk about these gatherings. They were not pretty, to be sure, but they did focus on a close examination of the Word. They did address how to read, understand, and apply biblical texts to ministry. Don’t let Adolf Harnack or other modernist historians fool you. These gathering were not philosophy-dominated tragedies showcasing the triumph of Greek ideas over Hebrew revelation. They were serious, in the best sense of the word, gatherings that were saturated with scripture. I do not know what that sort of thing would look like in our world. We have no Emperor moderating. We are children of our past and that means that we are products of family divorces or estrangements. We represent, sad to say for me a champion of the Reformation, a fracturing of the body. Nevertheless, we must Focus on the word. “There is one body and one Spirit-just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call-one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:4-6).
The biblical world view admits no understanding of religion as a cultural expression, in some sense neutral with regard to truth, or separated from faith and belief. Again, Wright exposes the difference between the world of the Bible and our understanding of religion. “The biblical metanarrative challenges the view of Christianity, or biblical Judaism, as a ”religion” in the post-enlightenment sense, and I suspect that many Muslims, Hindus and others would want to do the same. Insofar as post-enlightenment thought suggests that truth lies in Deism, and that all ”religions” are different humans expressing their own ideas about or experiences of the one distant and unknowable god, most genuinely religious people and groups are bound to object. Once that point is grasped, it becomes clear that if the biblical narrative is true, the Muslim one is not, and vice versa; and the same for Hinduism, Buddhism and so on.” it is in this respect that the omission of didactic passages drumming on idolatry are most felt. Their absence creates a very false sense of the drift of scripture; like biblical theologies that only profile God’s love and not his jealousy.
As far as insiders’ handling of scripture, it is hard to avoid seeing their contemporary experience looming above everything else, to include scripture. Over and over again, one is faced with the overwhelming presence of conviction, but not a conviction rooted as much in scripture as it is in the certainty that what the proponent has experienced is true. Of course, I could be wrong about this, but the writing is so insistent that what the insider champion has seen is real and good. The expositing generally appears to follow that. The insider proponents don’t simply use scripture to justify their modern methodologies. They merge scripture with their experience. Insider movements consequently are not similar to biblical examples they are identical. Consider Dudley Woodberry’s “To the Muslim I Became a Muslim.” He writes, “If Paul were retracing his missionary journeys today, would he add, “To the Muslim I became a Muslim?” He of course equates being a modern day Muslim with being a first century Jew or Greek. The comparisons are not approximate apparently; they are exact. Kevin Higgins pronounces that “every movement to Jesus is in some way an insider movement. Every movement to Jesus is inside some culture or some aspects of a culture.” Another article introduces us to an insider, Dawud, in a most interesting way. They ask, “Was Dawud a first-century Jew or a twentieth-century Muslim?” Brian Petersen, writing primarily about insiders within Hinduism, in describing the Judaizers present at the Council of Jerusalem, refers to them as PBBs, Pharisee Background Believers.
What should we make of this? In one sense, it sounds healthy as it allows us to inhabit another time and space so that we become part of the gospel story ourselves. Unfortunately, by fusing the horizons of the past and present in the way that insiders do, they create something far riskier. They equate the two and you cannot do that. I do take I.Howard Marshall’s advice to not make the two horizons so distinct that you cannot apply its truth to your own situation, but that concept of balance has to reign. You can apply the lessons from one time to another for certain, but you can not turn ancient Judaism, the early church and the like into dramas involving insiders, outsiders, or any other modern social science categories. You end up silencing the ancient voices altogether because you keep speaking over or for them; something my wife accuses me of-and that is wrong too. By doing this, we also deny the scripture its privilege of distance and difference. It no longer is allowed to critique us. We domesticate it. It does not matter that they remind us that they know that mistakes are made in pursuing this course or that each insider community is different. It does not matter because the fusing of horizons always trumps the offhand admission of mistakes in execution. Once you assert that Abraham, Jesus, Peter, and Paul were champions and contemporaries, every criticism becomes noise doesn’t it. At some point, this heavy-handed use of narrative that fuses the horizons of the biblical text and our experiences begins to look as though this resembles less an attempt to build a biblical foundation for ministry than it does to validate an experience, ideology, methodology or all three.
Since I have already highlighted the dangers of trying too hard to get into someone else’s head, I know that as I share this, I have to address others’ possible thought worlds and motives tentatively. I therefore only say this as a means of suggesting that insiders consider the process by which they arrived at their biblical interpretation. I do not however feel it necessary to apologize for suggesting it. In the first place, I have only done so after having read very extensively the literature put forth by insiders and I must say that whatever impressions I have, I have gained from the writings themselves. Second, I know that what goes around, comes around. The same caution applies to me and you. Guard your heart and check your motives for the position you take. Allow the Word and the Spirit at work in you to scrub you clean and fill you with Gospel truth.
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