Insider Jesus: Theological Reflections on New Christian Movements

Written by William A. Dyrness Reviewed By Doug Coleman

What might God be doing and intending in this new global religious world? This is the question William Dyrness asks in Insider Jesus. The specific focus of his inquiry is what has been commonly referred to as “insider movements,” or “movements to obedient faith in Christ that remain integrated with or inside their natural community” (p. 1).

Dyrness aims not to describe or evaluate these movements but to provide a theological perspective for thinking about them. While he notes the soteriological implications and questions these movements raise, Dyrness believes more fundamental issues are at stake. Beneath the soteriological concerns are “conflicting cultural codes and multiple conceptions of religion” (p. 2). This, says Dyrness, is where the conversation should begin.

The major claim of Insider Jesus is that varied contexts and religious diversity provide “hermeneutical spaces where new understandings of the gospel can emerge” (p. 3). Previous efforts in contextualization were helpful, but Dyrness suggests this approach needs fresh examination, one that exhibits a new appreciation for and appropriation of differences that result from interreligious encounters.

Dyrness attempts to argue this claim in six chapters. The first chapter provides an overview of the development of contextualization, especially since the 1960s, and the problems it addresses. Particularly problematic, says Dyrness, is the Reformation’s emphasis on the cognitive aspect of religion (belief in truth) which “encouraged a particular intellectual imperialism that was inclined to pay little attention to indigenous wisdom” (p. 9). This imperialism negatively affected later evangelical efforts in contextualization. The second chapter offers a theological perspective on culture in light of God’s purposes for creation and the re-creative work of Christ. While he notes the effects of sin, Dyrness argues for a rather positive view of cultures and God’s work in them. This means we can use cultures as “the starting point and framework for any expression of the gospel” (p. 39).

The third chapter discusses religion directly, specifically various biblical attitudes towards religion. Here Dyrness argues that the Old Testament attitude toward religion was ambivalent and emphasizes that God’s dealings with Israel and His work through Christ make up the center of the story but do not define the periphery; that is to say, God very well may be working outside of this central story. In discussing the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, Dyrness begins to explain what he means by “hermeneutical spaces,” which he defines as an encounter between culturally and religiously different people in which both must work out the meaning of God’s new work in Christ.

Chapter four includes a number of case studies. These range from pre-colonial Latin America to Hindu and Buddhist areas of Asia, to the Muslim Magindanon people of the southern Philippines. Dyrness sees these movements as modern hermeneutical spaces where new followers of Jesus must work out the implications of the gospel in their original setting. In chapter five Dyrness argues for a reconceptualization of mission in light of this idea of hermeneutical spaces. Essentially, this new understanding of mission will leave room for new forms of faith to be explored.

In the final chapter Dyrness commends an approach like that of Gamaliel (Acts 5) which is careful to honor the ways the Spirit may be at work. Here he points to the idea of “dual belonging” that is emerging from those within these movements (p. 139). He also notes four common elements from case studies that he believes contribute to emergent forms of church among these movements and demonstrate that the Spirit is at work in them.

Until relatively recently, the public discussion about Insider Movements consisted largely of short articles. Many of these dealt with biblical and theological issues in a rather cursory manner. Insider Jesus is a significant contribution that helpfully draws attention to some of these more fundamental issues and attempts to treat them more substantively. This alone makes the book worth reading.

Insider Jesus is also helpful at a number of specific points. First, Dyrness’s summary of the history of contextualization, particularly his comments on the Western concept of religion, helps readers understand some of the significant differences and challenges Western missionaries face in other contexts. Second, the case studies in chapter four give insight into some of the major issues these movements face, particularly the issue of identity and how to think about one’s previous religious and cultural heritage. Third, Insider Jesus provides an example of a more comprehensive framework one might employ to conclude that the Insider paradigm is biblically faithful and viable (assuming one agrees that the various pillars and posts of the framework are sound).

Nevertheless, I am unpersuaded by a number of the key arguments Dyrness employs. First, while Insider Jesus is generally more substantive than many previously published articles, the discussion of key passages is too thin and the conclusions unconvincing. Acts 15 has long played a key role in the Insider discussion; it plays an equally significant role here. Dyrness dismisses Timothy Tennent’s claim that the four stipulations of the Jerusalem Council were intended to separate Gentiles from their former religious identities. In support, Dyrness simply asserts that any first-century person would have found this impossible to do (p. 61). I have argued at length elsewhere that there are good exegetical reasons for the four prohibitions of Acts 15. I suggest their intent was to instruct Gentile believers to avoid idolatrous practices associated with pagan religions (see Doug Coleman, A Theological Analysis of the Insider Movement Paradigm from Four Perspectives: Theology of Religions, Revelation, Soteriology, and Ecclesiology, EMS Dissertation Series [Pasadena, CA: William Carey International University Press, 2011], 135–39). Dyrness’s reading and application of Melchizedek and Paul’s speech in Acts 17 are similarly unconvincing (see Coleman, Theological Analysis, 39–41, 54–65).

Second, at various points Dyrness draws conclusions that seem not to follow from their premises. For example, he claims that religious traditions reflect a response to God, or the gods, or powers that humans encounter. He then draws the conclusion that “they must be in some way capable of being included in God’s project of renewing and restoring the earth” (p. 39). However, this simply is a non-sequitur. Similarly, Dyrness points to what he considers to be the work of the Spirit in Insider movements and implies, therefore, that God approves of someone remaining connected to a previous religious community, even participating in Hindu temple rituals or mosque prayers with the majority community. This, too, does not follow. While the line between religion and culture can at times be very difficult, if not impossible, to discern, I have argued that 1 Corinthians 8–10 suggests believers must at times make these distinctions in regard to specific practices (see Doug Coleman, “The Idol’s Temple and the Insider Movement Paradigm: An Examination of 1 Corinthians 8–10,” Global Missiology 3.12 [2015],

A number of other points of disagreement could be noted, but space does not permit further discussion here. Nevertheless, in spite of these substantial disagreements, Insider Jesus reflects the kind of conversation that should be held on a topic as significant as Insider movements.

Doug Coleman

Doug Coleman
International Mission Board
Richmond, Virginia, USA

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