If you care about the church and care about missions, you can’t afford to be ignorant about Insider Movements.

That’s why I’m happy to introduce Dave Garner as today’s guest blogger. Besides being a friend and a man I greatly respect, Dave is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and Pastor of Teaching at Proclamation Presbyterian Church (Bryn Mawr, PA). With a keen theological mind and overseas ministry experience, Dave has been a strong voice in the PCA warning about the dangers of the Insider Movement Paradigm in missions.

The issues are complex, but Dave has provided an outstanding summary of the main concerns. Take a few minutes to read the post, and consider passing it along to your pastor, missionaries, or missions committee. Be sure to look into the links and the resources for further study.

—Guest Post by Dave Garner—

Introduction: The Real Work Begins

Because missions belongs to Christ, missions belongs to the Church. Under Christ’s loving headship, members of Christ’s Church must bear faithful witness to the Lord and Savior. In keeping with that calling, ignorance about missions we supply and support is both dangerous and culpable.

Taking a commendable step forward to greater effectiveness and accountability in worldwide missions, the 42nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, overwhelmingly endorsed the recommendations of the Study Committee on Insider Movements (SCIM). The most critical recommendation calls the Church to study the report on Insider Movements, “SCIM Part 2,”[1] so that congregations can ensure faithful gospel witness.

Now the real work begins. But, some may ask, what is the big deal? Why should we care about Insider Movements (IM) and the Insider Movement Paradigm (IMP) in missions? And what, if anything, should we do?

To fix the problem, we must understand the problem. IM theology and method are admittedly complex, and not all IM looks the same. However, certain shared features consistently bubble to the surface, airing IM’s true character. The following five points expose prevailing problems inside IM theology and method, and should help us to respond wisely to its practice and practitioners.[2]

1. IM calls believers to stay in. God’s Word calls believers to come out.

The goal of impacting one’s network of relationships is surely noble and even biblical. Jesus, after all, did call his followers to powerful influence: “You are the light of the world,” Jesus says. “Let your light shine before others” (Matt 5:14, 16).

Following the trail blazed by twentieth century Fuller Seminary church growth and mission mavericks, many today accuse missionaries of isolating new believers from their families and communities. Not all (not even most) of these gatherings of new believers deserve the ardent criticism. However, wherever ill-conceived insulation into so-called Christian “ghettos” occurs, such practices should stop. Monasticism and enclaving will not produce faithful disciples.

But the IM medicine becomes is worse than disease it diagnoses. IM responds to alleged extrication (withdrawal from one’s familial and social network to join a new community: the visible church) by validating peoples and their religions, and encouraging new Christ followers to stay right where they are – relationships, norms, religious practices, and all. These social and relational spheres of reference are seen as spiritually neutral and locally proprietary.

For IM, whatever impact the gospel produces ought not involve social, relational, or religious changes—or at least not visibly so. IM disciple-making encourages blend-in-and-keep-your-religion. Human diversity in its cultural and religious practices, it is claimed, needs preservation, not repudiation.[3]

Does such blanket affirmation of diversity do justice to the lordship of Christ and his call to his sheep? Is the Christian faith chameleon-like, so that it should blend into its surroundings? Besides the practical questions of its effectiveness, the IM insistence upon staying in meets with powerful biblical resistance. Scripture presents an extraction model of conversion that upholds the comprehensive scope of Christ’s lordship, renounces idolatry in all forms (mind, heart, and practice), and provides outsider apologetic witness for the gospel.

Following Jesus blazes with distinction and consecration. And it is in this out-ness of the faith that the Church grows and effective evangelism takes place.

Yet the IM model of influence combats such outing. In IM, it is more important to stay in—to remain wholly identified with your network and family—than nearly anything else. This stay-in orientation encourages several practices. To name a few,

  • Hide your faith so that you can stay in relationship with your family. Woo them with silence and kindness; do not offend them by your trust in Christ.
  • Avoid participation in visible churches because such participation will alienate you from your family and will be misunderstood by your community.
  • Continue your existing religious practices. Jesus is not concerned with where or how you worship him, but that you worship and trust him.[4]

Such decisions beg the question of how IM faith encourages becoming wholly identified with the Master, and jeopardize any viable meaning of Christ’s resurrected lordship (Eph 1:15-23).

For those who think such a socially alienating demand works at odds with gospel influence, let us not forget that the success of God’s kingdom rides on the shoulders of its King, who is Head of his Church. He neither needs nor solicits “better” ideas, including those of IM-ers. The Church, in fact, has always grown by its radical otherness, not by accommodation.

Accommodation and contextualization are not the same. Faithful contextualization begins with the gospel and then addresses the culture; accommodation starts with the culture and seeks to fit in the gospel. When this critically important orientation gets muddled or reversed, contextualization quickly turns to compromise.[5] Such a modification often goes unnoticed and usually goes unchecked.

Distinction, identity, and even suffering serve as the greatest apologetic for the gospel! Open discipleship creates the gospel’s in-roads. When the Church looks like the world around it, it becomes anemic and shrinks. When the Church looks like her Christ, it suffers and grows.

Demands for localized social and religious retention are completely at odds not only with the message of the gospel, but the expansion of the gospel. Only when the Church stands out can it effect change inside every people and culture.

2. IM makes the old trump the new. God’s Word makes the new trump the old.

IM proponents find certain conclusions of the soft sciences—cultural anthropology and sociology—irresistible and foundational. No matter the theological or practical issue involved, the IM compass stubbornly turns to its own true north: cultural diversity and local autonomy. IM-ers view pre-existing cultural and religious distinctions as the key to gospel diversity, and upholding this diversity ensures that the kingdom of God will prevail.[6]

Whatever the gospel does among peoples around the world then, it does with a view to keeping these people where they were and who they were. If a Jew, always a Jew. If a Muslim, always a Muslim. If a Christian, always a Christian.[7]

To see why this is so, we must drill down to IM’s theological footings. Its anchor-bolts fasten to a theological foundation of cultural and religious immovability. People do not change their identity; they stay who they are. It is impossible to change people in this way and immoral to try. Structured in this way, the Insider Movement suffers insider inertia; in this deeply critical (and spiritual!) sense, the Insider “movement” most ironically stands motionless.

The gospel, so construed by IM, does not call us out from our loves and our lives, making all things new; it adapts to, and then gradually—though imperceptibly to the outsider—transforms what I already know, believe, and practice. Surely aspects of religious habits will (and likely should) change in time, but irrespective of those changes, the shape of the gospel in my life is predetermined by my prior socio-religious context.

Even if we grant any credence to this anemic conception of sanctification, the IM die is cast. The old trumps the new.

By contrast, Scripture absolutizes the new creation, the new community of faith. The starting point for consideration of all thought, speech, and lifestyle changes begins with the comprehensive newness of life in Christ. His voice (John 10), his Headship (Eph 2; 1 Cor 11;), and his resurrection power (Eph 1) redefine everything. The new is not seen in light of the old; the old must be seen in light of the new. Christ’s resurrection authority demands it!

“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). Herman Ridderbos captures well the new life in Christ: “The believer has put on Christ (Gal. 3:27), and thus participates in the nullification in Christ of the old mode of existence and in the new creation of God revealed in him.”[8]

The old has passed away. Behold, the new has come (2 Cor 5:17).

3. IM claims that identity is a personal decision. God’s Word claims that identity is a divine determination.

Who am I and how do I see myself? The question of personal identity runs front and center in IM conceptions. Hardly an essay exists in IM literature that does not attempt to shed new light on identity questions. Despite the diverse interpretations concerning identity and identity categories, unquestioned in IM literature is the source of authority for such identity questions. Identity (personal, familial, social, professional, etc.) belongs to the human subject. I am who I say I am.

This rebellious commitment is fatally flawed and registers a jarring concern. God determines and declares who I am, even if I reject his Word. In unbelief, I assert the right to choose and relish my identity. In Christ, I discover the lie of such an idolatrous formulation.

Illumined by the Holy Spirit, I discover that I am not bound by my self-perceptions, but am now able to understand the Word of God and what it says about me. The blessed discovery? I am who God says I am. That I was fallen in Adam is a divinely revealed fact; that I am now redeemed in Christ is a divinely revealed fact and gift. This understanding completely and sweetly changes everything.

Muslim converts who reject the self-centered IM paradigm treasure God-given identity. Many refer to themselves as BMBs (Believers of Muslim Background) or CMBs (Christians of Muslim Background) rather than MBBs (Muslim Background Believers). Why? Because the BMB and CMB acronyms put Christ first. The Muslim convert is no longer known by what he was, but what he is. BMB and CMB put up front the new faith, the new identity, the new creation! It makes explicit the comprehensively new nature of the gospel and its grace-filled identity.

According to Scripture, our identity does not derive from what we were, but from what we are now. Our identity does not derive from who we think we are, but who God says we are. God has spoken. God in Christ has worked. He tells us who we were, and he tells us who we are.

Once dead in Adam, now we walk in Christ in newness of life (Rom. 6:4). We are in Christ. So Paul assures believers, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. [4] When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:3-4).

God defines identity. God graciously gives new identity in Christ. To borrow from a sweet gospel line in hymnody, “I am his, and he is mine.”

4. IM extricates the Church from the kingdom of God. God’s Word integrates the Church and the kingdom of God.

IM advocates have no tolerance for extrication. For followers of Christ to identify with a new community and to remove themselves or even distance themselves from their existing network is anathematized (see point #1 above). The problem, according to IM, is that in such a model of missions, evangelism and “salt and light” impact are removed. To be sure, we could find examples of inappropriate extrication, when for comfortsake or other illegitimate reasons, new believers have abandoned homes and relationships.

But IM advocates are guilty of a more sinister form of extrication – a systematic one, which rends the Church from the kingdom of God. Let me explain. Taking on an imaginative reading of Scripture, IM insists that what God is doing extends beyond the Church. Jesus does not turn people to Christianity, so to speak, but to an invisible kingdom. The kingdom of God delivers internal change rather than relational, cultural, and religious change.[9]

In other words, God does not call us to become Christians or to become members of a church; he simply wants our hearts. IM faith is personal and local, not corporate and universal. The kingdom of Christ, so configured, reigns in my socio-religious context and the organized, visible Church becomes optional and unnecessary. IM opens wide its indiscriminate Churchless doors, as it extricates the Church from the kingdom.

Herein lies the theological rub. God’s Word distinguishes Church and kingdom, but it never separates them. There is no gospel or kingdom work of God that is not also churchly work.[10]There is no true faith and no faithful work of missions that separates the believer from the visible Church. There is no biblical salvation that excludes the Church and its means of grace (preaching, sacraments, and prayer); or to put it in theological language, soteriology and ecclesiology function indivisibly. Jesus came and died for his Church.

As Paul states in Col 1:13, “we have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” This transfer moves us from unbelief and disobedience to redeeming faith and obedience; this transfer moves us from the realm of darkness to the realm of light and grace. What is that realm? The body of Christ, the kingdom of Christ, the Church of Christ. Jesus’ kingdom is exhaustively churchly.

So the Westminster Confession of Faith 26.3 reads, “The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion;(1) and of their children:(2) and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, (3) the house and family of God,(4) out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” (emphasis added)

Jesus is King “over all things to the church” (Eph. 1:22). The Church manifests the kingdom of Christ. Kingdom ministry is Church ministry. There is no other kind.

5. IM calls the established Church to stay out. God’s Word calls the established Church to go in.

Few would be brazen enough to demand expressly, “Church, stay out!” But what is not stated overtly appears implicitly nearly everywhere in IM literature. Churches and their historic confessions are intrusions at best, impediments at worst. In any case, the established Church is not welcome to the IM table. Why not?

As leaven in the dough (IM’s most popular metaphor), how the “gospel” grows in one culture will necessarily differ from how it does in any other culture. Theology and practice must grow from within, not be imposed. Theological understanding and confession ought to come from the bottom up and from the inside out. They must never come from the top down or the outside in.

IM “discipleship” effectively substitutes evangelism, preaching and teaching with facilitation (read, “passivity”). The risks of theological/cultural imperialism warrant a hands-off policy in missions, wherein the established Church should stay away and to let the Spirit do what he is doing on the inside. The established Church should not act as a big sister, but as a distant cousin twice removed: the greater the distance, the more effective the Spirit’s “ministry.”

The logic comes with warning. Imposing ecclesial dependence upon insider groups will squelch the Jesus followers from developing their own theology in their own way. Better to let them stumble in unbelieving error than to demand they look like the worldwide confessing Church. Put otherwise, it is better to let those in IM perpetuate idolatry and syncretism, than it is for the established Church to intrude by preaching and teaching biblical truth.

Not a hardy endorsement of the Church for whom Christ died and in which he has enacted his loving purposes! The resounding teaching of Scripture is that the universal Church is one under Christ. Intentional neglect by the established Church or defiant rejection of the established Church by the fledgling groups of believers: both fail to obey Jesus.

When the Church lies in the shadows, it militates against the Spirit of Christ. Why? Because the Spirit works freely by the ordinary means of grace he has given the Church. Rather than nebulous “facilitation,” bold preaching and teaching by the Church advance the gospel around the world. That is Jesus’ and the Spirit’s way.

The Church called out of the world is the Church that goes into the world with the Gospel.

Conclusion: Christianity is an Outsider Movement

The book of Hebrews puts the Church on notice: confess Christ boldly, openly, and uncompromisingly (Heb 4:14; 10:23)! Hebrews 13:13-14 points to the outside character of following Christ in most graphic terms: “So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.”

Lip service does not constitute confessing Christ. Faithful confession involves going “outside the camp” and bearing Christ’s “reproach.” True believers are not insiders; they are outsiders. How does such reproach come? By following him outside, and identifying with him sincerely and openly.

So goes Philip Hughes:

For the Christian there must be a real identification with Christ and his shame; he must enter into a genuine ‘fellowship of Christ’s sufferings’ (Phil 3:10), and be willing even, like the first martyr Stephen, to lay down his life for his Lord and Savior ‘outside the city’ (Acts 7:58). The recipients of this letter had gone forth ‘outside the camp’ to associate themselves with Christ and his cross; but now their resolve is weakening and they are being tempted to turn back in the hope of finding an easier and more respectable existence ‘inside the camp.'[11]

The context is clear. Jewish believers in Christ were not to return to the old religious forms, because of the completed work of Jesus, whose perfect finish is attested by his passing through the heavens.[12] To put it more clearly, if the gospel called Jews away from old Temple practices, it surely did not allow Gentile believers to carry on in their religious practices and exercise faith inside their own religions.

Not unlike the tensions in the early Church, the problems with IM are not just theological and methodological, but imminently practical. Let me name some contemporary kerfuffles. Will IM-ers have a Muslim wedding or a Christian one? Whom do the children of IM-ers marry? Muslims or Christians? To my knowledge, the track record indicates that IM-ers’ children marry Muslims. What type of funeral and which burial ground will IM-ers choose? The choices in many contexts are binary – Muslim and Christian. Unlike in the pluralistic west, in many such places, open syncretism has no chapels, chaplains or burial grounds.

Biblical Christianity is an outsider movement. Sincere faith very practically and poignantly calls believers out from the world, repudiates any clinging to the old, celebrates God’s gift of new identity in Christ, relishes the Church as the center of all gospel ministry, and calls the Church to shine boldly from the outside in.

Anything else is not pure gospel and dishonors the Lord Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church. Anything else produces colossal chaos, and concocts syncretistic soup. Anything else leads people down their wide roads of unbelief.

Now What?

The Insider Movement rejects core tenets of biblical Christianity and must not be ignored. The “what” of the PCA’s recent actions, therefore, begs the “now what?” How should churches and missions committees address IM? Several steps are necessary.

  1. Get sufficiently educated on the Insider Movement (IM) and the Insider Movement Paradigm (IMP). Read SCIM Part 2 (http://www.pcaac.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/2101-SCIM-2014-ALL-with-MRs-4-30-14.pdf), pp. 2101-2294. Read additional materials from “References for Further Study.”
  2. Create questions for missionaries and mission agencies concerning the theology and practice of Insider Movements. For starters, see SCIM Part 2, p. 2258 and the Affirmations and Denials, pp. 2126-2131.
  3. Pursue these theological and methodological questions with missionaries, who are serving in Muslim contexts or other contexts where the gospel is openly opposed.
  4. Pursue these theological and methodological questions with mission organizations, which serve in contexts hostile to the gospel.
  5. As churches and missionary supporters, make prayerful and careful decisions about any necessary follow up steps.


References for Further Study

Garner, David B. “High Stakes: Insider Movement Hermeneutics and the Gospel,” Themelios 37:2 (July 2012): 249-74; http://legacy.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/high_stakes_insider_movement_hermeneutics_and_the_gospel. [This article provides extensive footnoting for reference to original sources by IM advocates.]

Jennings, Nelson and Garner, David B. “Jennings and Garner on the PCA’s Response to Insider Movements, ” Reformation21 (June 2014), http://www.reformation21.org/articles/jennings-and-garner-debate-the-insider-movement.php.

. “Jennings and Garner: First Rejoinders,” Reformation21 (June 2014), http://www.reformation21.org/articles/jennings-and-garner-first-rejoinders.php.

. “Jennings and Garner Final Responses, Reformation21 (June 2014),http://www.reformation21.org/articles/jennings-and-garner-final-responses.php.

Mark, Philip. “Insider Movements Defined . . . Biblically,” Reformation21, http://www.reformation21.org/articles/insider-movements-definedbiblically.php.

Nikides, Bill. “The Emergence of Insider Movements,” World Reformed Fellowship (April 27, 2011), http://wrfnet.org/resources/2011/05/wrf-member-bill-nikides-emergence-insider-movements. [This article helpfully shows the affinity between emergent church theology and IM.]

Schweitzer, Bill. “Is the Insider Movement That Bad?”, Reformation21 (June 2014), http://www.reformation21.org/articles/is-the-insider-movement-really-that-bad.php. [While Medearis, the figure whom Schweitzer’s article addresses is not technically a part of Insider Movements, his theological paradigm and missions methods are largely indistinguishable from IM. Schweitzer’s article is useful in showing how the IM paradigm exceeds self-identified IM.]



[1] The actual recommendation from the Study Committee on Insider Movements (SCIM) states, “That the 42nd General Assembly make available and recommend for study ‘A Call to Faithful Witness, Part Two: Theology, Gospel Missions, and Insider Movements” to its presbyteries, sessions, and missions committees.'” We will label this report, “SCIM Part 2.”

[2] In order to streamline these five points, only essential quotations and footnotes appear. However, each of these summary points is demonstrated in various ways throughout IM literature and published critiques. See a list of “References for Further Study” at the end of this article.

[3] For IM advocates, such retention of social and religious networks is not merely an option, but the only pure manifestation of the gospel. For fuller discussion of this matter, see David B. Garner, “High Stakes: Insider Movement Hermeneutics and the Gospel,” Themelios (July 2012), 253-255. In addition, because following Jesus requires maintainingeach person’s own socio-religious identity and customs, one is hard pressed to find IM confrontation of unbelieving and idolatrous practices.

[4] Of course, this perspective raises several questions. Which “Jesus” do you believe if it is not the One that has called you to reject father, mother, sister and brother on account of him? What is faith in the revealed Christ if it does not demand open allegiance? Didn’t James teach us that faith without visible works is dead? Even the demons believe (James 2:14-26, esp. v. 19)!

[5] See SCIM Part 2, pp. 2156-2181, 2280.

[6] IM, in fact, claims that we only uphold the gospel with integrity by preserving cultural and religious diversity. See Rebecca Lewis, “The Integrity of the Gospel and Insider Movements,” International Journal of Foreign Missiology 27:1 (2010): 41-48, available at http://www.ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/27_1_PDFs/27_1_Lewis.pdf (accessed July 7, 2014). In response, see Garner, “High Stakes,” 249-274.

[7] To IM advocates and other students of missions (missiologists), the term “Christian” is a socio-religious category, not an essentially spiritual one. Thus, in a “Christian” culture, a person is a “Christian” whether or not he has believed in Christ for forgiveness of sin.

[8]Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. John Richard De Witt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975),212-13.

[9] For IM argument on kingdom, see, for example, Rebecca Lewis, “Insider Movements: Honoring God-given Identity and Community,” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 26:1 (Spring 2009): 19 (http://www.ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/26_1_PDFs/26_1_Lewis.pdf); Rick Brown, “The Kingdom of God and the Mission of God: Part 1,” IJFM 28:1 (Spring 2011): 5-12 (http://www.ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/28_1_PDFs/IJFM%2028%201_Brown.pdf); Rick Brown, “The Kingdom of God and the Mission of God: Part 2,” IJFM 28:2 (Summer 2011): 49-59 (http://www.ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/28_2_PDFs/IJFM_28_2-BrownPt2.pdf). For popular level resources, encouraging “Muslim followers of Jesus,” see Kingdom Circles (http://kingdomcircles.net/#) and Jesus and the Quran (http://jaq.org/).

[10] IM advocate and author Rick Brown formally makes this point, calling kingdom communities ecclesiae (“churches”). However, Brown’s seemingly acceptable treatment of church and kingdom gets comprehensively compromised by his theology of religions, in which he equalizes Christian and non-Christian “religions” and pits church polity against the kingdom of God. His lack of clarity on the visible church is equally troubling. See SCIM Part 2:2216-2220.

[11] Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 580.

[12] The approach taken here confronts simplistic parallelism drawn between first century Jews/Gentiles and contemporary Christians/Muslim, which IM advocates regularly assume and advance. The author of Hebrews rebukes Christians for returning to the old and familiar is precisely because those old religious and cultural forms have come to an end in the arrival of Christ. Forms of worship and practice are now defined by the lordship of the risen Christ. If return to Jewish practices, as revealed and commanded by God, is disobedient, then perpetuating other non-revealed worship practices could hardly be justified. Jesus does not accommodate himself to former—even God-ordained—religious practices, but replaces them with the explicit means of grace he has given to the Church. The Gospel does not offer adjustments to one’s religious commitments, but presents a comprehensive replacement of them. We will never apply the gospel properly to our lives when we insist upon norms and customs and seek to lay the gospel over them. We only address personal and cultural norms when we begin with the comprehensive demands of the gospel – in our hearts and our practices. Properly employed, J. H. Bavinck’s conception of possessio presupposes and applies the comprehensive lordship of Christ as a confrontation and capture of heart, mind, and life practices before it seeks to take appropriate any familiar habits into Christian living. See J. H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1960), 178-179.