Looking at Insider Movements (1): Introduction

[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.]

By: Doug Coleman

Unless you’re a missionary, missions professor, missions pastor, or spend a lot of time with weirdo’s like us, you’re probably not so familiar with the latest missiological debate: Insider Movements (IM). After a recent book notice at Between the Times and a subsequent post by Dr. Ashford on IM and theological method, I thought it might be helpful to offer a fuller description, along with what I see as some of the key issues and problems. So, Bruce graciously accepted my proposal for a series of posts.

In this first installment, I’ll provide a little biographical info about my own motivations for studying IM, comment on the status of the current debate, and mention a word or two about some terminology. Subsequent posts will describe the main lines of IM, briefly examine key issues, and the final post will list some resources for those who might be interested in further reading on the topic.

While studying in the SEBTS 2+2 program under Dr. Eitel, I became acquainted with the topic of contextualization. Around that time, John Travis published his now well-known C-Scale[1] and the discussion took on a new focus. After spending six years in Central Asia ministering in Muslim contexts, I began PhD studies at SEBTS while on furlough. During some of my reading and research for seminars I became aware of this new thing called “Insider Movements.”

The more I read, the more intrigued I became. I was faced with some questions I had never before considered, saw some interesting interpretations of biblical passages, and decided to dig deeper to develop my own thinking and reach my own conclusions. Along with a growing concern that some critical biblical and theological questions were not being addressed, I also wanted to offer something that might be useful to others facing the same questions. Thus, a dissertation topic was born. But this is more than an academic or theoretical exercise for me. I have served in the Muslim world for more than a dozen years now, and I long to see many more of them come to faith in Jesus and live as faithful disciples.

I also want to suggest that this is not just a debate for those of us across the water from North America. Proponents are encouraging the IM approach among minority populations in the U.S. as well. And missionaries are introducing these concepts to churches when they return on furlough. So this conversation may concern you more than it seems at first glance.

Unfortunately, the IM debate has often been anything but brotherly. I’ve attended conferences both promoting it and denouncing it, and rhetoric on both sides has often not followed Dr. Keathley’s excellent advice. While I have developed strong views on the topic, and I disagree with IM proponents on many key points, those I have met I believe to be brothers in the Lord and genuinely desirous to see Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others come to know Jesus truly. I’m not on a crusade, and this series won’t be a rant against my IM-advocating brothers and sisters. But I do intend to give my honest critique, and I hope it will be helpful, irenic, and faithful to Scripture.

Before concluding, I want to briefly mention a word about terminology. Some IM proponents prefer a term like “movements to Jesus” rather than “Insider Movements.” Perhaps the terminology will change in the future, but the term “Insider Movements” is currently in common use, so it will be preferred here. Also, the literature can sometimes be confusing because “Insider Movements” refers both to the methodology-or paradigm-as well as specific “movements” in specific geographic locations. In these posts, the capitalized form (Insider Movements) will refer to the former while the lowercase alternative (insider movements) will refer to the latter.

Finally, while IM can be applied to various religious settings, most of the literature has focused on IM among Muslims. Because of this emphasis in the literature and my own personal experience among Muslims, these posts will not discuss other religious cultures.

[1] John Travis, “The C1 to C6 Spectrum: A Practical Tool for Defining Six Types of ‘Christ-centered Communities’ (‘C’) Found in the Muslim Context,” EMQ 34 (October 1998): 407-408.

Briefly Noted: Jonathan Benthall on Islam, Theology, & Politics

Islamic theology matters. Or so say the authors of seven recent books on Islam. In a recent edition of Times Literary Supplement, Jonathan Benthall provides a review of these recent books on Islam, theology, and politics.[1] Though these books differ in their perspectives, Benthall notes, “… all the books under review here indicate in varying ways that theology has to be one ingredient in our understanding of these difficult questions” (11). This brief post will also summarize Benthall’s comments on three of the books more relevant to this blog-those books written by John Renard and Miroslav Volf, and one that is edited by John Esposito and Ibrahim Kalin.

  • John Renard, Islam and Christianity: Theological Themes in Comparative Perspective (U. of California Press). Benthall tells us that this book is a study of the major theological tenets of Islam and Christianity. His method is to compare and contrast. For instance, according to Benthall: Renard claims, “The deity that Muslims worship is often thought of by non-Muslims as severe and judgmental; but many Christians have such a concept of God as well, whereas many Muslims believe that God’s mercy always takes precedence.” Renard also “compares the Christian understanding of Jesus as God’s Word made flesh with the revelation of the word of God in the Qur’an …” (11). Renard’s work may provide a glimpse into what Christians and Muslims believe, but on a sociological and descriptive and not a polemical and prescriptive level.
  • Miroslav Volf, Allah: A Christian Response (Harper One). Volf’s book explores theology proper, asking whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Volf’s aim is to frame the debate that has often become vitriolic. The book is a follow up to the 2007 “Yale Response” co-written by Volf and published in The New York Times, which supported the “common word between us and you” drafted by Prince Ghazi of Jordan and signed by 138 Islamic scholars. This “common word” claimed that love of God and neighbor are common to the Qur’an, Torah, and New Testament. As such, “the identity of the God of the Bible and the God of the Qur’an assumed by the drafters of the Yale Response is strongly endorsed by Volf in his new book, and he insists that, though before September 11, 2001 the question seldom surfaced in discussions of Christianity and Islam, it has now become vitally important” (11). [Note to reader: Christian Scholar’s Review recently hosted a review of Volf’s book by evangelical theologian Ben DeVan, as well as a response by Volf. See volume XLI, Number 2 (Winter 2012).]
  • John L. Esposito and Ibrahim Kalin, eds., Islamophobia: The Challenge of Pluralism in the Twenty-First Century (Oxford University Press) is a collection of articles by Muslim and non-Muslims from America and Europe. “Together,” writes Benthall, “the authors give a comprehensive, well-documented account of the historical roots of present-day Islamophobia in white supremacism and in the colonial manoeuvre whereby Muslim societies were both eroticized and stigmatized; also of the more recent tensions in Muslim-Western relations that were brought to a head on September 11, 2001” (12).

The other four books reviewed by Benthall are:

  • Chris Allen, Islamophobia (Ashgate)
  • Robert Lambert, Countering Al-Qaeda in London: Police and Muslims in Partnership (Hurst)
  • Charles Kurzman, The Missing Martyrs: Why Are There So Few Muslim Terrorists (Oxford University Press)
  • Scott Atran, Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What it Means to be Human (Allen Lane)

Again, I’ve not read these books, and have relied upon Benthall’s essay for this briefly noted. Hopefully these books will be helpful reads (though surely in unequal measure) for those of our readers who are interested in joining the conversation about Islam, theology, and politics.

[1] Jonathan Benthall, “Still a challenge for us all,” in Times Literary Supplement (Jan. 20, 2012): 11-13.

Insider Movements and Theological Method

This past week, I posted a book notice about Doug Coleman’s fine new book, A Theological Analysis of the Insider’s Movement.[1] Because the book notice prompted some vigorous discussion, I thought it might be helpful to post an excerpt from an essay I am writing on theological method. In the essay, I try to show how significant one’s theological method is for ministry and mission in general. In the excerpted portion, below, I try to show how a healthy theological method could help correct some of the missteps of IM proponents.

“In recent days, missiologists and missionaries have become aware of ‘Insider Movements,’ which represent a new phenomenon and a new strategy in Muslim evangelism.[2] Insider Movements (IM) are movements within the Muslim world in which Muslim background believers choose to remain within Islam as a means of reaching Muslims. Some of them acknowledge Christ as their Savior only privately. IM proponents argue that this type of contextualization allows the convert to overcome significant barriers in order to incarnate like Jesus and Paul. Further, they argue that Christ does not require a convert to change his cultural identity or religion, and that the convert is free to reinterpret passages of the Qur’an so that he doesn’t have to renounce it as a whole. In addition, many IM proponents seem to see Islam as similar to OT Judaism and therefore not inherently opposed to the gospel.

We believe that IM strategy is fundamentally flawed for various reasons, but for now we will seek to show why theological method matters in adjudicating this issue. As we see it, the fundamental methodological flaw in many IM advocate’s strategy is their starting point-the existential reality of a Muslim background believer. IM proponents appear to begin with the lived existential tensions of being a convert in a Muslim context. In such environments, there are many barriers, including the strong aversion to “changing religions,” which is tantamount in those cultures to changing ones ethnic, national, and familial identity. Further these environments are also persecution-heavy, a convert faces the very real possibility of losing his job and family and perhaps even his life. Proceeding from such a difficult starting point, some IM proponents find a way to those converts. In order to do so, some IM proponents hold to an overly privatized and reductionist view of salvation in which a person gives mental assent to Christ as Savior, but does not fully embrace or implement the doctrines of repentance and Lordship. Second, some IM proponents do not recognize the importance of the redeemed community for the working out of one’s salvation (although others, such as Kevin Higgins, strongly emphasize the role of believing communities meeting together separate from the mosque for the purpose of Christian community and discipleship). Third many IM advocates misunderstand Islam, which exists as a religion custom-built to subvert and overthrow Trinitarian Christianity. Its Aryan Jesus and its doctrines of tawhid and shirk make clear that the worst possible sin for a Muslim is to believe in the Christian doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation. In sum, these three doctrinal missteps occurred in part because of a flawed theological starting point-the existential reality of Muslim converts.

We argue that if IM proponents began with the entire canon of Scripture as their starting point, and took into account what can be learned from church history, they would arrive at a different conclusion while still caring deeply for, and being sensitive to, the existential burdens and challenges facing converts in a Muslim context. In taking into account the entire biblical teaching, we respond to the first misstep by offering the biblical teaching concerning Christ’s Lordship (Col. 1:13-23) and the necessity of human repentance (2 Pet 3:9; Lk 14:25-33). Indeed, believers in any global religious context must turn their backs on false saviors; they must repudiate tribal gods and witch doctors; they must reject their belief that the Qur’an is God’s revelation and that Muhammad is his prophet; they must cease to worship in spirit temples and ancestral shrines; they must turn their back on the worship of sex, money, power, and other metaphorical idols. This is a fundamental tenet of Christianity. We respond to the second misstep by offering a robust ecclesiology in which we are not only saved from our sins, but are saved for discipleship in the context of the believing community, a community that clearly distinguishes itself from other communities of worship. Indeed, God’s church is a sign of the kingdom and an instrument of the kingdom in a way that individual converts never can be (especially if those converts are still identifying themselves as Muslims and attending mosque services). The body of Christ, working together, bears robust and powerful witness to Christ. We respond to the third misstep by offering the biblical teaching on idolatry (Rom 1:14-32), in which Islam must be viewed as idolatrous and antithetical to Trinitarian Christianity and to the doctrines of grace.

One should note that the persecuted believers of the New Testament faced a similar situation in which they worshiped in the midst of rival religions. In particular, they found themselves in direct opposition to the cult of Caesar. Instead of blending in with the cult, they found appropriate ways to make clear their allegiance to Christ. They baptized, gathered together for worship, and refused to recognize Caesar as a god. Theirs was a faith which was forged the midst of strong Christian churches which clearly distinguished themselves from rival religious communities, such as the cult of Caesar. Although the (commendable) aim of IM proponents is to help new converts maintain familial and communal connections, IM unintentionally undermines the role of the church in nurturing faith, building community, and bearing witness to the kingdom, and it undermines the robust nature of the doctrine of salvation, which includes Lordship, repentance, and discipleship.

In summary, a healthy theological method recognizes the entire biblical canon and brings its full teaching to bear on any situation; further it allows the canon to be provide the framework and parameters in which we craft our ministry strategies, methods, and literature, rather than allowing a lived existential scenario to provide the framework and parameters.”

[1] For an exemplary biblical-theological assessment of the issues surrounding Insider Movements, see Doug Coleman, A Theological Analysis of the Insider Movement Paradigm from Four Perspectives: Theology of Religions, Revelation, Soteriology, and Ecclesiology, in the EMS Dissertation Series (WICU, 2011).

[2] For two insider descriptions of IM, see Kevin Higgins, “The Key to Insider Movements: The ‘Devoted’s’ of Acts,” IJFM 21 (Winter 2004): 155, and Rebecca Lewis, “Promoting Movements to Christ within Natural Communities,” IJFM 24 (Summer 2007): 75. IM advocates note that some IM believers have indeed been killed for their bold witness.mobile game online rpg