Is the Insider Movement Really That Bad?
June 9, 2014
As I prepare to serve as a commissioner to the 2014 PCA General Assembly, I have been refreshing myself on the Insider Movement/s (IM) debate. I began with the study committee's report, a powerful case against IM that David Garner has ably defended. However, although I had read some pro-IM material in the past, I decided to read for myself what some consider the most attractive and compelling work, Carl Medearis's Muslims, Christians and Jesus: Gaining Understanding and Building Relationships (Bethany House, 2008).
The book is full of vignettes relating the author's amazing adventures witnessing to Muslims during his tenure in the Middle East. Given the large number of these stories, I was expecting at least some of them to end with the Christian missionary being shouted down if not arrested (after all, such things happen to missionaries working in England). Strangely, none of them do. Not one of his stories-- including the meeting with what Medearis calls the 'cousins' of the Taliban--give the slightest hint of persecution or even mild opposition.
The question is, why? Is Medearis just such an attractive figure that he can walk into a room full of Osama Bin Laden look-a-likes, preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, and get nothing more than hugs and kisses (and this is, by the way, precisely what he says happened on one occasion)? Or is he is preaching a message that is so "contextualized"--a word that is fast becoming a synonym for compromised--that hard core Muslim extremists just don't care whether it is preached in their country or not? To answer that question, I will let Medearis speak for himself on some of the key issues as stake.
1. Christians Should not Argue that Jesus is the Son of God
Everyone who knows anything about Muslim evangelism recognizes that the status of Jesus Christ is the issue. What does Medearis advise that we do about this issue? He writes, "I recommend that you don't try to argue that Jesus actually is the Son of God. Don't deny it either, but remember that God will reveal himself to each individual in a unique way; we are only participants in God's grand plan for this person. Arguing the deity or sonship of Jesus will only reinforce preexisting barriers until the time is right. God may be saving some information for later, allowing each person to digest the truth one piece at a time." (84)
Later in the book, Medearis presents some typical questions that Muslims might ask. Question 4 is "How Can God Have a Son?" Medearis offers some possibilities for dealing with the question, such as "To the Muslim, the idea of Jesus being transferred to earth as a 'word from God' or a 'spirit from heaven' is normal--that's what the Qur'an teaches." Another is: "It often works to explain that the Bible does not teach that God was a man who had a baby boy named Jesus." (108) We never quite get to the biblical suggestion which is rather more straightforward: "He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life." (1Jo 5:12 NKJ)
Finally, under his list of "Basic Dos and Don'ts", we are reminded "Try not to use the terms Son of God, Christian, or church." (172) We begin to see why Medearis's message does not attract a lot of opposition.
2. In Fact, You Can Call Jesus "the Pig of God" if the Context Demands it
Of course, the issue of whether we must insist that Jesus is the Son of God is just part of the larger issue of message or theological contextualization (as opposed to messenger contextualization, a biblical concept wherein the missionary lives in a way that avoids unnecessary offence). Medearis thinks that we should "...allo[w] the Holy Spirit to lead the new believers down the path most appropriate (and faithful) to their context," a concept that is not limited to the Muslim world. What, exactly, does he mean?
The illustration he uses borders on blasphemy, but I am repeating it here so you can understand the depth of the problem: "A friend of mine illustrated this point to me, asking, 'What if I told you that Jesus was the pig of God?' My jaw dropped. 'I'd be a little offended. That's contrary to Scripture.' 'Of course, but try telling that to a primitive tribe in [a non-Muslim part of] Indonesia.' 'What do you mean?' I asked. 'It's an illustration I had to use once,' he said. 'They don't have sheep in Indonesia, so I had no way to explain the sacrifice of Jesus for their sins, other than to use a wild pig as an example instead.' It hit me then: It was the reality of the sacrifice, not the textbook verbiage, that mattered." (97)
Such is the twisted logic of message contextualization. It negates the verbal inerrancy (meaning that the 'textbook verbiage' certainly does matter, God Himself having chosen each and every word in Scripture), perspicuity (the Bible's contents are sufficiently clear enough to convey the saving gospel to anyone, even to people in Indonesia), and sufficiency of Scripture (in this case, the Old Testament actually explains everything we need to know about sheep in order to understand 'Lamb of God.') Beyond that, contextual methodology always seems to ignore the absolute necessity of supernatural regeneration by the Holy Spirit, the only thing that enables people to understand and receive the gospel.
3. Christians Should Not Object to the Muslim "Testimony"
The first of the Five Pillars of Islam is the Shahada or "testimony" which states: "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet." This is a defining component of Muslim identity and theology; what does Medearis have to say about it? "On the whole there's really nothing disagreeable about this statement." (37-38) I suppose the untold number of Christian martyrs who for whatever reason did find something "disagreeable about this statement" must be kicking themselves now; if only they had known.
When Medearis explains things more explicitly, this is his rationale: "Don't attempt to argue with the testimony. In truth, the testimony is correct in that there is only one God, and his name, in Arabic, is Allah." (62) Of course, in the eyes of some Muslims, agreeing with this much essentially makes you one of them, so the hugs from the Imams are looking more explicable all the time.
4. Christians Should Not Object to the Muslim Concept of Allah
We might hope that, after giving the Shahada a pass, Medearis will at least say somewhere that we have to correct the Muslim's self-consciously anti-Trinitarian concept of God. Sadly, however, this is not the case. "In my reckoning, there is nothing helpful in telling a Muslim he or she believes in 'the wrong God.' What may be true, and definitely more helpful, is to show our Muslim friends how they can believe in God more fully in and through Jesus Christ." (30-31) He goes on to say, "Christians, when they first encounter the differences between the Muslim and Christian perceptions of God, are often tempted to begin introducing the 'Christian God.' I believe this is an unnecessary step--even a mistake." (39)
With these comments in mind, Medearis's perspective, when he was questioned by a Christian woman at an inter-faith dialogue, is highly telling: 'You didn't even mention the Trinity,' she said. 'True,' I replied, 'but it didn't come up in the course of the conversation...' 'But surely you do believe in the Trinity, don't you? And there are some other things you didn't mention that you should have, like the Atonement.' I knew I had to tread lightly. Everyone lives in a context, and it's good to be sensitive to the American Christian context as much as anyone else's context. So I simply said, 'You're probably right; I believe everything in this book,' and I held up my Bible, showing her that it appeared to be well-read." (177-178) So for Medearis, even the doctrine lying at the very core of the Christian faith is merely contextual; it would be a "mistake" to affirm it in one context, but you should at least imply that you believe it in another.
5. Christians Should Not Challenge the Inspiration of the Koran
Of course, the primary source for this false religion is the Koran itself. Medearis rightly points out, "...if a Muslim friend directly asks, 'Is the Qur'an a holy book from God?' you have a theologically heavy issue to deal with. Don't take it lightly; this is extremely important to a Muslim." Medearis has got that much right--the stakes are really high. So what should we say?
"First, realize that the Qur'an would never have been written unless God allowed it to be written. Although some might see this approach as a dodge, I would challenge them to think deeper: Look at the Qur'an as a book that can propel people to become curious about Jesus. I stress this always, because Jesus is the way, and any method or way to come to him is legitimate if the seeker actually finds Christ as the answer to the soul's burning need." (102) I appreciate Medearis making nice and explicit what we might otherwise have had worked hard to demonstrate: IM boils down to naked pragmatism. Any method--even if it involves affirming the Koran as an inspired, holy book from God--is "legitimate" if it works.
After proffering another equally artful dodge, Medearis finally mentions one rather extreme possibility: "The final option is to simply deny any supernatural credence to the Qur'an right up front, which I don't recommend. There are no long-term benefits in doing so, and 'winning' that point may cost in the long run." (103) I suppose things like "being faithful" or "telling the truth" do not amount to long-term benefits in the contextual calculus.
6. Christians Should not Ask Muslims to Convert to Christianity
Medearis relates the story of when he and a friend witnessed to a Saudi princess. At some point the princess asks, "Are you trying to tell me I should convert to Christianity?" Medearis quickly reassures her that they wish nothing of the sort: "'No, we're not.' I held up my hand for a moment." So if not converting to the Christian faith (which would seem to be what missionaries are there for), what does Medearis want the princess to do?
"You spoke to us about hope, about significance, about meaning. If you can find these things with Allah, in this kingdom, would you not be the truest form of Muslim? Would you not be truly submitted to God?' (95) Intrigued, the princess asks, "How can I have this kingdom?" Medearis continues, "Allah sent a prophet. The Qur'an tells us he is the word of God, that he is a spirit from God and sits close to God. His name is Isa, and he is near to God now..... The first thing Isa preached was that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. I believe that to be truly submitted to Allah is to be with him in spirit, in his kingdom, and I believe that Isa can open that door for you because he is near to Allah." (96) Although the princess prays to receive this kingdom, Christian baptism and church membership are not mentioned.
Beyond this example of a non-conversion conversion story and others like it, Medearis speaks in larger terms: "So the question is, would Jesus require a Muslim to 'convert' to Christianity? In actuality, Jesus never used the word Christian. For that matter, neither did Paul." (138) He concludes the matter with the observation, "We are never commanded, exhorted, or encouraged to use the word Christian." (138)
To recount, Medearis says that we should not argue that Jesus is the Son of God, nor correct the Muslim concept of Allah, nor object to the Muslim "Testimony," nor challenge the inspiration of the Koran, nor seek to convert Muslims to Christianity. No wonder the Taliban's "cousins" couldn't find anything objectionable in Medearis's message--the actual Taliban does not ask for anything more than this in their repressive anti-proselytizing edicts. Medearis anticipates our response to all this when he says, "I assume that some people will read this and believe that my approach is blasphemous." (85) 'Heretical' is technically more accurate, but this is otherwise the most astute assessment to be found in the book.
To answer the larger question the article poses, yes, the Insider Movement really is that bad. IM undermines the Christian faith at a number of crucial points, and it should be denounced by orthodox denominations in the most unambiguous terms possible. I would therefore urge my fellow PCA commissioners to vote for the committee's report as delivered, and refrain from sending the extremely confusing signal of also recommending the (pro-IM) Minority Report.
William M. Schweitzer (PhD, Edinburgh) is an ordained minister in the PCA, and serves as a church planter in Gateshead, England.