Looking at Insider Movements (5): Evaluation (Part 2)

By: Doug Coleman

The previous post dealt mostly with the issue of theology of religions, although it touched on the issue of possible revelation in non-Christian religions. In this post, I want to briefly comment on a few key passages frequently referenced by IM advocates.

Proponents often note the watershed decision of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. They rightly note that Gentile believers were not required to “go through” Judaism (i.e., be circumcised) in order to be saved. Therefore, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others should not be required to go through “Christianity” today. I can only offer two extremely brief responses. First, if by “Christianity” IM advocates mean a Western cultural form of the worship of Jesus, I agree. But IM on the one hand, and Western cultural Christianity on the other, are not the only alternatives. Second, IM advocates are making Acts 15 answer a question that was not being asked. The early Gentile believers were not saying, “Can we remain in our Gentile pagan religious system and community if we modify some of our beliefs and behavior?” No, they were saying, “Must we take on circumcision?” In other words, the Acts 15 discussion was not about what must or mustn’t be put off, but about what must or mustn’t be put on.

Regarding Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 7:20, 24-that each man should remain in the state in which he was called-I think IM advocates fail to interpret this in light of Paul’s instructions later in the same letter. IM advocates rightly note that the immediate context of 1 Cor 7:20-24 does involve some religious matters (after all, Paul mentions circumcision in 1 Cor 7:19). However, Paul strongly and unequivocally prohibits continued participation in pagan religious activity in 1 Cor 10:20-22. Therefore, unless Paul is hopelessly self-contradictory or schizophrenic, his exhortation to “remain” in 7:20 cannot refer to remaining in pagan religious activity.

This brings me to the suggestion that 1 Cor 8:10 refers to a former pagan, now turned follower of Christ, who is at least in part remaining within his pagan religious community. In other words, he’s still dining at the pagan temple, but Paul doesn’t condemn the practice in itself, only because it harms a weaker brother. I’ll note a few possible interpretations here (you’ll have to read the dissertation if you want all the background). (1) The situation in 8:10 is not actually happening, but is hypothetical. (2) The dining is actually occurring but it is a social-not religious-occasion, so the stronger brother is free to eat if he can do so without causing a weaker brother to stumble. (3) The dining is actually happening, and it is wrong, but Paul doesn’t outright condemn it outright in 8:10, only later in chapter 10 (because he is mainly concerned with brotherly relations in chapter 8 and/or he employs a rhetorical strategy that saves the stronger condemnation until later).

The key point to note here is that none of these interpretations are compatible with an Insider approach. Again, in 1 Cor 10:20-22 Paul clearly and unequivocally condemns participation in anything that constitutes idol worship. So, do Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and other non-Christians worship idols? As much as I would like to, I don’t have space to fully address that here. In short, I think the answer is “yes.” If you’re really interested, you’ll have to read at least a few pages of my dissertation.[1]

Finally, I need to say a few words about the analogy between early Jewish believers and Muslim Insiders. First, while there is no clear consensus on exactly when all Jewish believers completely separated from the Temple and synagogue or from the Jewish religious community, history indicates that many of them did stay closely connected for a lengthy period, for various reasons. However, while IM proponents acknowledge some discontinuity between Judaism and Islam, I think the discontinuity is overly minimized. I think Scripture portrays a much more radical discontinuity between the faith of Judaism/Christianity and all other faiths, however politically incorrect such a view may be today.

I believe the exhortation of Hebrews 13:13 (“let us go to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach”) is particularly important for this discussion, especially in light of this analogy. Again, if you’re really interested you’ll have to check the dissertation for all the supporting documentation and discussion (pp. 210-223), but I believe the author of Hebrews was calling Jewish background followers of Jesus to make (or maintain) a decisive break with the religious community and system of Judaism. If this was essential for first-century Jewish believers, how much more so for those who come to faith from non-Christian religions today?

There’s so much more to say, but that’s why I wrote a dissertation.

[1] Doug Coleman, A Theological Analysis of the Insider Movement Paradigm from Four Perspectives: Theology of Religions, Revelation, Soteriology, and Ecclesiology (Pasadena: WCIU Press, 2011), 59-61.

[Editor’s Note: Doug Coleman is a SEBTS alum who lives and works in Central Asia. His SEBTS dissertation was recently published as A Theological Analysis of the Insider Movement Paradigm from Four Perspectives: Theology of Religions, Revelation, Soteriology, and Ecclesiology (Pasadena, CA: WICU Press, 2011). We asked Dr. Coleman to publish a critique of the Insider Movement here at BtT, in the form of a six-part blog series.]

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  1. RA   •  

    Great analysis. Acts 15 conclusions stated in the letter to the churches includes 4 things which if kept insure that a Gentile believer could no longer participate in old religions and there would not be any grey area between the two faiths over religious practices. For the Jewish background believers, they had to overcome prejudices about “unclean” gentiles.

    The net result was something new; not Judaism, not paganism but gatherings of “followers of the Way” where it did not matter ethnicity, race, sex or upbringing to become part of God’s People! I like your analysis.

    I too feel there is often a sloppy analysis of Acts 15, and a poor exegesis of the context of 1 Cor 7.

    These were new fellowships of people identifying themselves with a new community, different than anything else. They were not removed from culture, but they were distinct from what they were previously. The transition from unbeliever to believer in Jesus is not seamless, there are points of distinct change in loyalty and identification.

    Additionally to ignore that these groups were meeting in separate groups apart from their old religions, is to forget the obvious, the letters were written to churches made up of people who were now “aliens and strangers” to what they were previously.

    Rightly you point out that Jewish background believers were drifting back to Judaism and deserved a strong reproof!
    Conversion is still a good word to describe the change in their lives. As a result many were in fact ejected from their former communities, not extracted, because they had a higher allegiance to Jesus.

    There is no need to go backwards in missiology to pushing for western customs to be a part of the Gospel but let’s not overreact the other way and blur the lines of old and new ways of life in Christ resulting in syncretism.

    Thanks for your work and publishing your ideas. They are very good and timely.

  2. Doug Coleman   •  

    Thanks for the comments and observations. The four prohibitions of Acts 15 received significant attention in my dissertation. That is a complex discussion, far too involved for the short blog posts.


  3. HL Richard   •  

    Doug, I appreciate your care in considering the issues and particularly your exhortations regarding the tone of discussions. It seems to me that the subject of “religion” needs to come into focus much more clearly. In its modern meaning related to the world religions, this is a completely extra-biblical concept that we are reading back into biblical texts. Currently there is no agreed definition for what religion is, although evangelicals in particular assume that it is a meaningful term. We need to wrestle with the Enlightenment root of our current usage; religion as a compartment of life which can be neatly defined. This is not acceptable in a biblical worldview, but we apply that dichotomized thought to Islam and Hinduism etc., saying that the culture is okay but religious practices are not. It is easier to recognize this error than to cure oneself of the Enlightenment disease. Anyway to go further with this would be starting a competing blog on your site, so I must leave matters at this inadequate and suggestive level. Thanks again for your work.

  4. Doug Coleman   •  

    Thanks for your comment. You raise an issue that is often mentioned, and very important. I agree that it can be difficult to determine whether an act or idea is simply cultural or religious (and you seem to be suggesting that the distinction derives from the Enlightenment rather than Scripture). However, it seems that there are other cases in which the distinction is much clearer, such as participating in a pagan sacrificial feast in Corinth. In 1 Cor 10 Paul seems to draw a clear line on this.

    Again, only if the issue at hand in 1 Cor 10 is NOT analogous to participation in mosque worship (or corporate worship at a Hindu shrine, or Buddhist temple, etc.) can we conclude that continuing participation in these clearly religious practices is biblically permissible for followers of Jesus.

    Other practices may not be so clearly religious, and in those cases it may take much discernment and consultation with the body of believers to reach a conclusion.


  5. Ed Pollasch   •  


    A copy of your blog was just sent to me 6 months after it was originally posted thus the delay in responding. I would imagine you are responding to the IM position due to things you have read or heard from those who take this position. What I can tell you from personal experience is that some of what you say is inaccurate as to those I know who work in IMs for your analysis is not complete.
    For one thing, I know for certain that the gospel remains firm in its presentation within the IM. There is absolutely no fudging on this– I have personally witnessed it in an adversarial context with Muslim leaders. Secondly, the number one criteria of new followers to Christ among the IM workers I know is they demand or require an allegiance to Jesus. They realize nobody, no matter who they are or from what religious background, can be a true follower of Jesus without a willful change in allegiance or loyalty.
    As we examine Christianity in America I find that those I know working in the IM are more Biblical than the watered down approach to evangelism in this country. I’m not suggesting everyone who advocates the IM is perfect in how they approach ministry to the most difficult groups but please don’t lump them all into one camp. You would not do that to all who profess Christ nor should that be the case here.
    Your comment regarding Acts 15 is worded to arouse a reaction from Christians. To say, some in the IM suggest that followers of Christ do not have to go through “Christianity” is very much taken out of context. If what you mean is they need not go to a building with a cross on the roof, then that is true. The followers of Christ may not call themselves “Christians” but they definitely are connected to Christ. And, given the political-religious climate of the countries many of these Christ-followers live in, they would go to a “church” if allowed.
    The bigger issue though is how does the gospel spread if not relationally. I find it interesting that American churches often plant churches by transferring a large of people from one location (mother church) to another (daughter church plant). Yet, church plant leaders tell us that when this happens evangelism and discipleship often become programmatic and ineffective. Is it any wonder why the IM came along.
    I think your analysis of I Corinthians 7-10 is too simplistically stated. Yes, the Apostle Paul says we should not participate in pagan religious activities. But for a Muslim to go to a Mosque to be with his friends or a Hindu to go to a Temple does not mean they are worshiping an idol or participating in a religious rite. Would you condemn the Christian who goes to a Sunday football game? Football may not be a religious rite per se but it is certainly close to being an idol for many so-called pagans in America. Your complete analysis of I Corinthians 7-10 would be an interesting read but I wonder if you have examined the American religious institute in light of this Scripture?
    I don’t mean to sound disrespectful to you for I am certain you are scholarly and sincere in what you have researched and written about. What I can tell you from personal experience is I don’t believe you have seen the entire picture of those working the IM position, nor have you witness those whose heart has been radically changed by Jesus and are leading movements of Christ followers in places no one else could enter.
    Truly, blessings on you! Ed

  6. Doug Coleman   •  

    Hi Ed,
    Thank you for the comment. I just happened to see it today.

    First, as I noted at the beginning of this series, the blog posts here are only an extremely cursory summary of a very few issues I examined in the dissertation, so it is not surprising that the analysis here may appear incomplete.

    Second, I note in my dissertation that the IMP is not monolithic. It would be virtually impossible to interact with every single expression of it on the field, as every expression is likely to be unique in some ways. However, I do not believe this prevents us from speaking of the IMP as a paradigm and interacting with some of its fundamental tenets.

    Third, I do not believe that I accused IMP proponents of changing the gospel. That’s not to say that I haven’t wondered whether this has happened in some cases or in some ways, but I’m not prepared to make that charge at this point. If you believe I have said this, please point me to that. In my dissertation I speculate that there are probably some true believers in some of the movements. But, I also believe remaining in Muslim *religious* practices together with the Muslim *religious* community is incompatible with faith in Jesus.

    Fourth, I do not find anything in Scripture that requires a follower of Jesus to always avoid mosque premises. However, I do find passages of Scripture that I believe prohibit a follower of Jesus from participating in the worship conducted at those mosques. By the way, I agree that for many Americans sports can be idolatrous. However, I do not believe it falls in the same category as mosque worship. In other words, a follower of Jesus can attend sporting events, enjoy them, and not commit idolatry. The fact that some spectators have essentially made sports their idol does not mean that it constitutes idolatry for everyone else. However, I think Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 10 indicates this is not the same for participating in non-Christian worship, even if I reinterpret or restate some of the prayers, etc.

    Finally, I think one of the fundamental problems in the IM paradigm is the suggestion–largely introduced by Charles Kraft–that allegiance to Jesus can be expressed within virtually any system. I argue in the dissertation that allegiance to Jesus is in a number of ways intended to be exclusive, especially in terms of our religious worship and our worship community. This is addressed at some length in the dissertation.

    Again, you may find some of this inadequate. If you are really interested in knowing whether I have sufficiently understood or described the IMP, you will need to read the dissertation in its entirety.


  7. Doug Coleman   •  

    By the way, Ed, I think one of the reasons the IM debate has been so caustic is folks on both sides regularly impute motives. I have intentionally strived to avoid this.

    My comment on Acts 15 was not intended to arouse a reaction from anyone. These comments interact with what IMP proponents themselves have said in their own writings. In more than one or two places do IMP proponents say in their own words that one of the key arguments for the paradigm as a whole is that followers of Jesus do not have to “go through ‘Christianity'” in order to enter the kingdom of God. For example, see this explicitly stated on p. 18 of this article by Rebecca Lewis (http://www.ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/26_1_PDFs/26_1_Lewis.pdf). Lewis connects this claim directly with Acts 15, by the way, so I do not believe I have taken this out of context at all. I simply attempt to present and analyze this claim, not provoke. Honestly, I fail to see what is “arousing” in what I have written. If you can help me understand how this might be understood as provocative, I will consider stating this differently in the future.


  8. WT   •  


    I just read this blog after reading a review of your dissertation by Greer and then your response. I realize it is way after the fact, but I wanted to comment here.

    After having worked in an extremely conservative Islamic society for more than 14 years over the past 20+ years, I am very concerned about the complete failure of every model of church I have seen here (2 countries but same culture). Lately I have explored the idea of IM. I don’t adhere to many of the arguments of the movements and its proponents, but I have watched my believing brothers languish without any community to share their beliefs with. Most believers live a secret life, those who come out are killed or severely persecuted. There are a few who have come out and then essentially left their culture, either by embracing a near culture that has an indigenous Christian community or by leaving their country completely (extraction!)

    We face a huge dilemma, “how do believers thrive and grow in their lives when they have no fellowship and have been rejected by every part of their society?” I understand the Biblical and Theological concerns are huge. You and I share an almost identical educational and work experience, so we are on the same page. But I also see that the way I viewed the world from my Western theological experience was relatively limiting. So I have tried to remain faithful to my very high view of an Inerrant, fully authoritative Bible while also trying to understand how to help my brothers here.

    I don’t envy your task of digging deep into the literature and the deep theological issues you took with your dissertation. But for my own experience, I believe it is essential that we step out of our own historical prejudices and try to address the practical issues that I have watched crush believer after believer to the point where there is no single church among this people group of more than 30 million and only a scattering of believers who rarely, if ever, share their faith. I realize we cannot raise practical issues above Scripture, but what is the solution? I think the proponents of IM tend to over-spiritualize it and justify their advocacy of it with proof texts or misinterpretations. I also think the opponents focus on how the others are theologically and Biblically wrong but provide no real solutions.

    Any thoughts?

  9. Doug Coleman   •  

    Hi WT,
    Thank you for your comment. Sorry for the delay in responding. I just now saw your reply.

    The issue you raise, I believe, is one of the reasons some folks move towards an IM approach, although I suspect there are many others. Some contexts are extremely challenging, and as you describe, believers have languished in sometimes terribly difficult situations. At risk of sounding like I am avoiding the question, I must confess that it would be premature, and perhaps presumptuous, for me to suggest possible options for your context without knowing much more about it, or even living there myself. I doubt a public blog is an appropriate place to have further discussion. If you would like to communicate via email, Dr. Ashford can provide you with my email address. Feel free to contact him if you would like to correspond privately.

    By the way, I’m not sure I would completely agree with your final comment that opponents “provide no real solutions.” Granted, in some of the critiques which opponents have written they perhaps haven’t offered alternatives, but this is not the purpose of critiques per se. In some of their other writings they have recommended approaches to work among Muslims. Of course, the question of whether one considers those proposals viable would be a separate question.


  10. Hi Doug,

    Thanks for sharing with us on this important topic. I have recently published a short article on the (possible) historical origins of IM thought, and wanted to share it with you:
    Duane A Miller, Nazareth

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