How Islamic Can Christianity Be?
Editors' Note: Christians didn't discover the need for missions in the Muslim world on September 11, 2001. The Middle East is the homeland of our faith, too, the site of many great acts of God's miraculous redemption. Long before the Twin Towers fell in Manhattan that clear fall day, Christians debated why the church has struggled to gain a hearing for the gospel where the call once sounded freely. Yet in the last decade, the debate has intensified as we agonized over the depth of many Muslims' hostility toward Christianity. Missionaries and academics have wondered aloud whether the problem extends beyond Western politics, military intervention, and spiritual bondage to the very way we present the gospel. Could our methods be to blame? Could more sophisticated contextualization unlock many more hearts for Christ?
These are the questions we asked experienced pastors and missionaries to answer this week. Whether you're planning to take the gospel overseas yourself or supporting those who do, we hope these articles will help you make wise, informed decisions about this great missionary challenge of our generation.
- Leading Muslims to Jesus: Questions to Consider by L. D. Waterman
"It was the best training that I have ever had on Muslim evangelism." My friend went on to tell me that we had been doing it all wrong, that we needed to change our strategies. Be doing so we'd see many more Muslims come to Christ. When I inquired as to what she was referring to, she explained how we can introduce Muslims to Jesus through the Qur'an and how Muslims don't have to stop being Muslims in order to enter the kingdom of God.
My wife and I had been working with Muslims for years and were aware of this training, commonly referred to as the Insider Movement. I listened to my fellow missionary and then began to share my concerns. I watched her countenance change. I felt like a spiritual killjoy. She was sharing her excitement about Muslims coming to faith, and all I could do was criticize the approach.
On reflection, I was probably a little harsher than I should have been. After all, when I first read about Insider Movements, I had the same reaction she did. I was hopeful and excited. I thought to myself, Could this be the tool that causes a spiritual awakening in the Muslim world? Over time, as we continued our ministry to Muslims in the Middle East, I realized the answer to my question was "No, it will not."
The Insider Movement (IM) remains a hot topic in missions circles. IM ideology is often identified, but not necessarily affiliated, with organizations such as Common Ground, Jesus in the Qur'an, or Common Path Alliance. This issue is extremely complicated and extremely important, making it difficult to write about. I seek in this article to clarify the Insider Movement, highlight its positive aspects, and address some of its dangerous practices. Tomorrow I will offer some counsel for those doing ministry among Muslims.
What Is the Insider Movement?
Rebecca Lewis, a proponent, defines the IM as follows:
Insider movements can be defined as movements to obedient faith in Christ that remain integrated with or inside their natural community. In any insider movement there are two distinct elements:
1. The gospel takes root within pre-existing communities or social networks, which become the main expression of "church" in that context. Believers are not gathered from diverse social networks to create a "church." New parallel social structures are not invented or introduced.
2. Believers retain their identity as members of their socio-religious community while living under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible. (emphasis original)
This definition is broad and can be interpreted many different ways---which is one of the difficulties in pinpointing the teachings of the movement. However, many supporters are united in their agreement that the opposition favors importing Western culture and making everyone Western-style Christians. In contrast, those opposed to IM seem to assume that proponents are syncretistic heretics. Such overly broad generalizations make productive dialogue impossible. In my experience, meeting with those who are engaged in ministry to Muslims and talking frankly about the issues has been most beneficial.
Those of us who criticize the movement need to highlight the good things IM proponents seek to accomplish. The IM advocates I've met are wonderful people. I sympathize with many of their goals and ideas. They do not seek to destroy the body of Christ. They are winsome, intelligent people who love the Lord and want to see Muslims saved. They strive to communicate the gospel and remove as many obstacles as possible. In the process, they have helped the wider church body take contextualization seriously. For that we can be thankful.
However, we need to address the dangerous practices within the movement, which varies to some degree from person to person and country to country. Therefore, my critique may not apply to all IMs. Nevertheless, the following key issues need to be addressed.
Muhammad is not a prophet.
Some within the IM recognize Muhammad as a prophet of God. They argue that we can say he was a prophet with a little "p" because he made true claims (there is one God, there is a judgment day, and so on). Some argue that God used Muhammad to bring monotheism to the Arabs---a kind of John the Baptist for the Arabs. This is a dangerous concession.
We can talk about Muhammad being a prophet with a big "P" or a little "p," but in Islam, a prophet is a prophet. If I told my Muslim friends that I believed Muhammad was a prophet of God, they would respond by throwing their arms around me and saying, "Welcome to Islam my brother!" Rejecting Muhammad as a prophet does not require denigrating him before Muslims; it means we should not say more than necessary. Of course, Muhammad will inevitably come up in our conversations with Muslims, and we need to be prepared to respond appropriately. We can be respectful and identify the positive contributions he made to society without agreeing that he is a prophet.
The Qur'an was not inspired by God.
One IM practitioner told me he encourages Muslims to read the Qur'an correctly. By doing this, he claims, they will find Jesus. He and many other IM advocates believe the gospel can be found within the Qur'an, if you correctly interpret the text. But the gospel cannot be found in the Qur'an, because the Qur'an did not come to us through the inspiration of God as found in the Bible. While we may identity seeds of truth we can use to make in-roads for the gospel, faith in Christ cannot be built from within the Qur'an.
There is also an arrogant attitude---almost imperialistic---involved in this assertion. Imagine that a Muslim comes to you and says, "Jesus prophesied that Muhammad would come after him and lead us to the truth." Muslims actually make this claim. They quote John 14 and 16 and say that the Greek word for "helper" actually means "praised one," which is a form of the name Muhammad. Muslims argue that, read correctly, the Bible will lead us to Islam. Of course, we know this is completely false and offensive. Why, then, would we think we can impose that same type of thinking upon the Qur'an and be any less offensive?
Don't continue to call new followers of Jesus Muslims.
IM practitioners seek to keep new followers of Jesus within their socio-religious networks. For support their cite various texts in the Bible (1 Corinthians 7:17-24, 9:19-23; 2 Kings 5:15-19). Therefore, a Muslim who follows Jesus remains a Muslim.
Before we criticize this controversial method, let me explain the reasoning. The word Christian is misunderstood among Muslims. For some it is synonymous with the West and what the West represents, including the Crusades. For others it simply means Roman Catholic. In other words, for Muslims to become "Christians" means that they have abandoned not only their religion, but also their culture and family. They may need to leave their city or country, preventing them from testifying to Christ before their people.
I am sympathetic to the concerns of IM advocates on this issue. I agree that Muslims who follow Christ shouldn't be required to take on the name "Christian." However, we should carefully think through the implications of this alternative.
We find among many IM advocates a belief that Islam can be redeemed---we should not abandon the religion but rather change it from within and welcome it into orthodoxy. In a limited sense, yes, some things can be reformed. For instance, Muslims fast, pray, and give alms---actions that, in the proper context, can be biblical. However, Muslims do these things to receive merit, attempting to earn God's favor. Therefore, these things will need to be redefined and "de-legalized."
How Islamic can Christianity be? Can a Muslim who now follows Jesus fast during Ramadan? Can a Muslim who follows Jesus use the Islamic prayer stances? Where do we draw the line? These are tough questions. Part of me says, "Make 'em all Christian just like me!" But I know that's the wrong response. Muslim-background believers (MBBs) need to have the freedom to try to redeem as much of their former life as they can. Some may be more willing than others. We should support them in this endeavor by continually praying for them, pointing them to the gospel, and guarding them from syncretism and heresy. We can help MBBs lace some of these former practices with Christian meaning and use them as a tool to share the gospel with other Muslims.
Concerning identification, I sympathize with the IM in its desire to help Muslims find an appropriate title. While the word Christian can have a very negative connotation among Muslims, encouraging MBBs to retain the title "Muslim" can be confusing at best and deceptive at worst. Advocates for using the title "Muslim" argue that it literally means "one who submits to God." This is semantically true. However, the word connotes much more---namely, one who follows the religion of Islam by confessing, "There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet."
I never encourage MBBs to retain the title Muslim. Nor do I encourage them to take the title Christian. I explain what has happened to them because of Jesus. I explain to them the dangers of both titles. Some choose to take the title Christian. Some choose another (believer, follower of Jesus, etc.). Some choose to retain the title Muslim and attempt to fill it up with new meaning because they strongly believe they now truly submit to God through Christ. Whatever they choose, I'm chiefly concerned that they adopt a biblical self-identity and Christ-honoring gospel witness. In other words, do they know who they are based upon Scripture and the gospel, and do they witness to Christ?
Don't reinterpret the Father and Son.
Recent Bible translations for Muslims have created a frenzy by moving "Father" and "Son" language about the Trinity from the text to the footnotes. This debate is not as easy as it appears from the outside. Bible translation is an exceedingly tedious, and often messy, process. In Arabic, the words father and son can have literal or figurative meaning. Other languages have only one meaning for "father" and "son," causing confusion and anger among Muslims who believe God can have no offspring. What if the only understood meaning is physical and sexual? How do we translate without losing or grossly misrepresenting the biblical meaning?
I would prefer that the divine familial terms stay in the text with a footnote or parenthetical note to explain its meaning. However, I also realize the decisions about how to make the Bible comprehensible in other cultures are not easy or made lightly. Again, we would all benefit by sitting down face-to-face with people who are involved in this process to learn their motivations and practices.
Don't forsake the church for the kingdom of God.
Some in the IM prefer to talk about Muslims "entering the kingdom of God" as opposed to "joining" Christianity. In their view, the gospel is not about practicing religion but entering God's kingdom. I applaud the motive of trying to remove the cultural baggage often attributed to Christendom. However, emphasis on the kingdom of God can downplay the importance of the church. Some proponents of the IM make no effort to help MBBs see their place in the universal and historic church.
We should view as suspect any form of church planting that does not seek to connect believers with the universal body of Christ and promote unity. Jesus prayed in John 17 that his followers would be one. To be a follower of Christ is to be a member of his body. We cannot accept Jesus and reject his people. This doesn't mean believers in the Islamic countries have to memorize the Apostles' Creed or the Westminster Confession of Faith (although I think every Christian would benefit from doing so). But as believers, we have a rich resource in the saints who have gone before us. We should not rob our Muslim friends of that blessing.