Insider Movements - Gutting the Bible
June 10, 2013
Hindu-Followers-of-Jesus? Messianic Muslims? Is this something that we should be excited about? Or does it represent the most serious threat to the gospel that the modern missionary movement has yet encountered? David Garner's article "High Stakes: Insider Movement Hermeneutics and the Gospel" (1) is important because it gets under the skin of certain innovations in missions and to the heart of what they are missing - an organic, all-encompassing, gospel-centered hermeneutic. The message of the Bible, not only in its whole, but also in each of its parts, is the story of God's redemption of his people in Christ Jesus.
I have spent most of my life among missionaries and institutions dedicated to reaching Muslims with the gospel. Ours is a unique frontier of Christian presence in the Muslim world, an Evangelical subculture, a sort of 'eco-system', if you will. A variety of perspectives and approaches have been cultivated in this eco-system for good and for ill, including what are known as Insider Movements (IM).
Garner traces one important strand of IM back to the laboratories of Fuller Seminary, specifically to the work of Donald McGavran and Charles Kraft, who brought together the emerging field of cultural anthropology on the one hand with a renewed call for world evangelization on the other. They thus redefined the task of missions using the categories of social science. From this starting point, IM advocates "have found ways to affirm a broader range of religious and cultural neutrality" (Garner). Garner comments on how this social-science orientation is shaping how the Scriptures are being read and interpreted - with devastating consequences. He finds a helpful reference point in the writing of Rebecca Lewis (2), a child of both Fuller Seminary and the missionary frontier eco-system, who has become a spokesperson for mainstream IM. Garner points out that, for all of its religious and cultural neutrality, IM is universally dogmatic: he writes that, for Rebecca Lewis, "IM is not simply a biblical position but the biblical position".
Garner interacts with Lewis's interpretation of Scripture in three areas, each worthy of careful study: the Israel of the OT, the Samaritans of John 4, and the NT church (Jew and Gentile) of Acts 15. Lewis argues that the Scriptures portray contextual 'veneer' over an underlying gospel message. This veneer consists of the various religious and cultural forms of believing communities found in the Scriptures. Since these cultural expressions of biblical history are merely a veneer, then Islam or any other modern religio-cultural expression can also serve as a veneer for the gospel. According to her hermeneutic, the veneer must not be mixed with the underlying gospel message. Thus the clarion call of IM can sound like "don't add traditions to the gospel," (3) which seems to echo Christ's own teaching, Pauline theology, and the solas of the Reformation. But what exactly constitutes the veneer of "traditions," and what does Lewis mean by "the gospel"? Would Jesus, Paul, and the Reformers agree?
The question we should be asking of IM is whether what Lewis calls cultural expressions are not themselves integral to the story of God's redemption. For instance, is the OT sign of circumcision relegated to the veneer of a temporary external Jewish identity mark (Lewis) or is it central to the unfolding plan of redemptive history fulfilled in Christ and thus inseparable from the gospel itself (Garner)? Does Jesus's interaction with the Samaritan woman affirm cultural neutrality (Lewis) or is it a proclamation of his arrival "to usher in the promised new age" (Garner)? Is the conclusion reached by the counsel of Acts 15 that Jewish religious forms should not be permitted to trump Gentile religious forms (Lewis) (4) or was it an action demonstrating "the epochal transition that Jesus Christ the Son of God inaugurated" (Garner)? Does the apostolic era represent a period of cultural upheaval that is to be reproduced repeatedly in each missionary advancement (Lewis) (5) or was it "foremost a period of theological upheaval in which the OT worship forms are replace by the substance of those forms - Jesus Christ himself" (Garner)?
We should avoid the mistake of construing this discussion as a debate about one plausible interpretation of Scripture against another. There is no alternative to submitting to the Scripture's own interpretation of itself. Bringing a humanly-engineered interpretive grid to the Scriptures is fatal, as it introduces a higher authority over the Scriptures themselves. It is, in fact, gutting the Bible, and thus allows Satan to have his way with the church.
Garner argues that Lewis' cultural-anthropological reading of Scripture dangerously "mistakes theological substance for cultural diversity." The implications of Lewis's interpretive grid are far-reaching, leading to creed and practice totally foreign to historic Christianity (6), which Lewis nevertheless maintains is beyond critique. "No one should consider one religious form of faith in Christ to be superior to another"(7), she opines. As Garner points out, for Lewis, "retaining Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu religious practice is not only okay; it is the only way in which the integrity of the gospel is maintained."
So how are we to distinguish between the IM cultural veneer and gospel core? The answer is subjective, according to Lewis's interpretive grid, since the Scriptures themselves are culturally bound. The distinction between cultural veneer and the gospel must be locally and individually derived. If the answer is indeed local and individual, then what can be affirmed regarding the universal Christian church? Is there no such a thing as a Christian identity, whether corporate or individual, as distinct from all others? Is there no such thing as a distinctively Christian ethic?
It is incomprehensible to speak of Christ's Lordship, biblical authority, and spiritual transformation in him apart from the explicit life demands that Jesus and the apostles expound--demands that norm our religious and worship practices. Culturally determined religion produces inevitable disunity; divided religions produce a divided church, something that defies the entire thrust of divine revelation. (Garner)
Whether we follow this IM hermeneutic downstream as Garner does, or whether we start with the monstrosities that I have observed down-river and work our way upstream, the conclusion is the same:
In bequeathing ultimate authority to cultural analysis, IM advocacy has redefined the content and the conduct of the gospel, as well as the means to advance this "gospel." And in it all, this redefinition has made such a "gospel" biblically unrecognizable. In answer then to the prevailing question of this essay, we lament that the "gospel" that such IM construction preaches is not the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, but "a different gospel--not that there is another one." Gal 1:6b-7a (Garner)
Thus organizations and individuals are able to maintain a formal commitment to biblical inerrancy, infallibility, and authority and yet, by hermeneutical slight-of-hand betraying an alternate supreme authority, deliver interpretations utterly foreign to historic Christianity.
Lewis cries "foul" in her response to Garner's article, claiming that true IM is not missionary strategy but merely descriptive of what is happening in certain contexts. (8) In every instance of IM that I have observed, the origins can be traced to Western influence and ideology. However, let us assume there are cases of IM where there has been no trace of Western involvement. Western ideologues have created cultural-anthropological categories to identify them. In short, they have re-interpreted what it means to be a Christian.
So how do we stem the tide of this IM hermeneutic and contain the damage? Garner rightly notes that "IM has hatched into a mature, practiced, sanctioned conviction. Its pervasive practice around the world by untold numbers of missionaries, mission agencies, and persuaded nationals has created a missiological, ecclesiological, and existential crisis." The missionary eco-system and the Fuller hermeneutic have become inseparable. Garner refers to Bangladesh as one example of the many IM field-labs, mentioning Rev. Edward Ayub, moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Bangladesh, whose anguished appeal I have heard echoed by many other national leaders: "we don't need this new teaching and we don't want it." (9) Paradoxically, IM's extra-biblical grid has resulted in a new form of colonialism, the very thing that IM seeks to correct.
I have witnessed the shock of these leaders when they first discovered that conservative evangelical churches in the West are naively funding the devastation of their churches. And even after these Western churches have been made aware of this issue, many continue to supply funds and personnel to the front lines, hoping that by sheer force of good intentions the crisis will somehow be controlled. To their credit, a few churches and agencies have taken concrete measures, insisting on improved training and increased accountability while calling for other to follow suit.
But is this the solution? Will greater accountability really be able to control the frontier eco-system? Or will the system simply adapt and carry on? Will well-trained workers really be able to change the eco-system from the inside? Or will they simply be absorbed into it? If ultimate authority is being derived from another source outside of the Scriptures themselves, as Garner argues, then the prospect of any substantial change without dealing with this source looks quite bleak.
Fortunately, despair on this front does not translate into the least sense of hopelessness. For the promises of God are not tied to any movement, no matter how noble its origins and objectives, but rather to the church, the bride of His Son. However, "Defense alone never builds Christ's church. We do the church no service by only fencing ourselves in with theological barricades, acting as sentries at dogmatic gatehouses. Each generation, building on its forefathers, must seek to restate the truth of Scripture constructively, usefully, and persuasively. . . At all times, the advance of theological truth must undertake just that: gospel advance." (10) The great and glorious ingathering that will complete the church, upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Himself as the Cornerstone, will in no way be defeated by even the most subversive of strategies.
Philip Mark is a long-time missionary in Muslim lands.
1. Themelios 37.2 (2012): 249-74.
2. Specifically "The Integrity of the Gospel and Insider Movements", IJFM, 27:1 Spring 2010: 41-48.
3. Lewis, together with many IM advocates, interprets Paul's anathema of Gal. 1:9 to be against a message that urges conversion of anything but the internal, personal, and private. "He called any 'gospel' that denies the power of Christ to save those from every people group, without proselytism, 'a different gospel, which is really no gospel at all.'" "Integrity," p. 46.
4. Lewis rewrites the conclusion of the Acts 15 counsel, "God who knows the heart shows that he accepts Muslim and Hindu believers by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as He did to us . . . therefore we should not make it difficult for people in other religious cultures who are turning to Christ." Lewis, "Integrity," p. 47.
5. Lewis concludes, " . . . Paul was setting a template for how the gospel penetrates radically different cultures." "Integrity," p. 47.
6. Some examples of aberrations that I have observed in the field connected to IM indoctrination are; repeating the Muslim creed (including the affirmation of Mohammed as God's prophet), denial of the pre-existence of Christ, use of the Quran in 'worship', prayer in the direction of Mecca, marriage to Muslims, a self-identity as Muslim, sacrificing animals during the Muslim festival, etc.
7. Lewis, "Integrity," p. 46.
8. See Lewis's posting on the Themelios article.
9. For a fuller response from Rev. Ayub see here and "Observations and Reactions to Christians Involved in a New Approach to Mission," St. Francis Magazine, 5:5 October, 2009: 21-40.
10. David B. Garner ed., Did God Really Say?: Affirming the Truthfulness and Trustworthiness of Scripture (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Publishing, 2012), p. xxi.