CT’s “Insider” Interview Prompts Questions and Concerns

“Worshiping Jesus in the Mosque: Inside the World of a Muslim Follower of Isa.”

That’s what the cover says on the latest issue of Christianity Today. Inside are several articles on the insider movement–so named because in these movements Christian converts stay within their original religious context and continue to identify themselves with the religion of their birth. The whole issue is worth reading. In it you’ll find a background piece on the C1 to C6 spectrum by Tim Tennent, a pro and con piece by “John Travis” (pro) and Phil Parshall (con), and a predictably middle of the road editorial that is “cautiously optimistic about this deep insider strategy.”

The cover story is an interview by the missionary “Gene Daniels” (not his real name) with a Muslim follow of Isa named “Abu Jaz” (also not his real name). While we can clearly learn from someone like Gene Daniels laboring in a difficult Muslim context, and while we must certainly rejoice to hear of Abu Jaz’s commitment to Christ, the interview also raises a number of questions and concerns. Let me raise three of each.

Three Questions

Question 1: What is the role of the church? Proponents of the insider movement are quick to point out that insider believers belong to the church universal (see Travis’ piece) and share in Christian fellowship with other insiders. And yet, doesn’t the Bible understand the church in more robust terms than this? What about church officers, weekly preaching, the administration of the sacraments, membership, and church discipline? Are these all adiaphora? Doesn’t Paul’s missionary strategy and Jesus’ Great Commission presuppose that believers will be gathered in visible, constituted churches?

Question 2: Why not try to form a more culturally sensitive expression of the Christian church? Abu Jaz speaks of the evangelical church in his country. So it doesn’t appear as if the insider strategy was chosen because their were no churches or because the church was not permitted. Rather, Abu Jaz left the church to reclaim his Muslim identity. He says that when he went to the evangelical church “[e]verything was different–their way of worship, the way they sang songs, the way they danced. Nothing was familiar to me.” He was also turned off because the pastor wouldn’t let him use traditional Islamic phrases and greetings. I’m sure each specific situation is different; I imagine sometimes these phrases are innocuous cultural expressions, and other times they may be loaded with a lot of religious freight. But if I were talking to Abu Jaz I’d encourage him to dream of a church that embraces some familiar cultural styles without jettisoning the idea of church altogether.

Question 3: Shouldn’t some things be strange when we are called out of darkness into light (1 Peter 2:9)? Abu Jaz bristles at the Christian church because it feels like “a very strange thing” to Muslims. For the same reason he can’t imagine not using the word “Allah.” On the latter point, I’ve read good arguments for and against retaining the term Allah. So my beef is not so much about the word as the notion that there is something wrong with a Christian church that feels strange to Muslims. As aliens and strangers in this world, the community of the redeemed ought to initiate us in new practices, new vocabulary, new rituals, and new ways of living.

Three Concerns

Concern 1: There seems to be a naive view of culture. Abu Jaz says, “The Church should reflect Muslim culture, not Muslim theology.” This sounds appealing, and many in the West advocate the same kind of principle, but cultural forms, practices, and habits often reflect our deepest held theological commitments, especially in Islamic cultures where separation of sacred and secular is a foreign concept. Muslim identity is a “thick” culture, which is precisely why the insider movement is appealing, but this also means the church must think very carefully about all the ways cultural identity is wrapped up in religious assumptions. No matter how charitably we read the statement, Abu Jaz has profoundly misspoken when he says “God opened my eyes to understand that all cultures are equal in his eyes.” God may find elements in every culture that please him (modesty, hard work, marital permanence) and elements that displease him (sensuality, honor killings, abortion), but it’s simply not the case that all cultures are equal in his eyes. Insider proponents can help the traditional church see its own cultural baggage, but they must not ignore the way God wants to challenge every culture (and some cultures more than others). When Abu Jaz assumes that because general revelation teaches us about God, therefore Allah was revealed to Muslims through general revelation, he overlooks centuries of deep assumptions woven into the language and the culture about who Allah is. He fails to consider whether these ideas should to be challenged, rather than simply embraced because Christians believe in general revelation.

Concern 2: There seems to be an overly casual attitude toward theological truth. When asked about “the theology of your movement” Abu Jaz responds by saying, “We do not use systematic theology.” He goes on to state that he knows about different Christologies and the early creeds, but the sense you get is that these hard fought truths are largely irrelevant to his context. If we are quick to fault American Christians for being ignorant and unconcerned about the history of the church and the Great Tradition, why would we give the insider movement a pass when it perpetuates the same attitudes? There’s no problem with new councils to discuss new challenges (as Abu Jaz recommends), but let’s not assume we can safely ignore the truths hammered out in earlier generations. We need to claim the history of the whole church and not imagine any of us can (or ought to) start from scratch. And besides, most of those truths were hammered out in what today is the Muslim world, not in America or Europe.

Concern 3: There seems to be an implicit understanding that the Holy Spirit will do what human teachers don’t. Abu Jaz and his interviewer make much of the fact that Muslim background believers are a work in the progress. They don’t come to an orthodox understanding of Jesus overnight. They may struggle with syncretism for awhile, but this is all part of the journey. I’m fine with this kind of “messy” discipleship, provided we are deliberately trying to teach people through the fog into clearer light. And yet, over and over Abu Jaz speaks of the Holy Spirit doing this work rather than human teachers. Maybe human agency is implied, but I’m not confident it is. For example, Abu Jaz stresses that the evangelist can choose which benefit of the cross to share (in an effort to meet Muslim felt needs) because gradually the Holy Spirit will explain the rest.

This emphasis on the Spirit taking the baton from us to lead the Muslim into all the truth about Jesus shows up often. It’s a misappropriation of the promise Jesus made uniquely to the apostles (John 16:13) and an underappreciation for the role of Spirit-gifted teachers in the discipleship process (Eph. 4:11-14). The early church was certainly Spirit-filled, but it was also devoted to the apostles’ teaching. To expect the Spirit to teach what we won’t does not honor the Spirit. Instead, it dishonors the work he has already done in leading the once-for-all apostolic band into all truth we need to know.

Christianity Today is to be commended for highlighting such an important issue for the global church. What is less encouraging is the cautious endorsement of the insider movement in their editorial and the many weaknesses evident in this featured interview. Let us pray for seminaries, denominations, pastors, missionaries, mission committees, churches, and parachurch agencies as they think through these significant challenges and try to avoid these attractive compromises.