The Study Committee on Insider Movements Minority Report - Concrete or Abstract?
June 10, 2014
Editors' Note: This week, in conjunction with the Jennings/Garner debate, we will be featuring a number of articles on the Insider Movement. While this issue is before the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America more narrowly, it is also a subject that affects the global missionary enterprise. Hence, we view it as something that ought to be carefully considered by all Christians.
The title "Realities on the Ground - An Additional Perspective" for Minority Report 2014 is misleading. What is set forth in this document is not a perspective that compliments or supplements the SCIM Report but rather one that is wholly contrary as it is founded on a contrary premise. What it claims to be "reality" is in fact based on abstractions.
This essay argues that the SCIM Minority Reports, 2014 in particular, has confused what is concrete and what is abstract and thereby present a perspective that is not simply confused, but false.
What is meant by "concrete" and "abstract"? The majority SCIM Report demonstrates concrete thinking by rooting itself in the self-authenticating Scriptures. This is done not simply by providing textual support for its propositions and by exegetical rigor. Rather, concreteness obtains when every rational observation (including anthropological and sociological) and every experience is interpreted through a Biblical grid. Nothing is left to chance or to autonomous interpretation.
Abstract thinking is demonstrated by the Minority Reports in that they are grounded not in Scripture but in autonomous categories labeled "realities on the ground". These supposed "realities" represent data interpreted not by Scripture but by autonomous categories. This can be seen in both the structure and the content of the Minority Reports. Both Minority Report 2013 and 2014 begin with elaborate presentations of data designed to convey the notion of fundamental "messiness". They suggest that the SCIM Report is abstract because it is tidy orthodoxy and that the Minority Report is concrete because it corresponds to the real world of ministry which is, in its essence, "messy." (1) This reversal is characteristic of abstract thinking as, "The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God." (Rom 8:7)
In spite of the Minority Reports' claim of foundational and pervasive messiness, the 2014 Report is still able to declare five "realities." These "realities" undergird and structure the entire document. This is further evidence of abstract thinking as messiness cannot resolve itself into rationality. Internal conflictedness is inevitable. These five "realities" do not represent a foundation of biblically interpreted data but rather an alternate foundation of autonomous observation.
"Is not Scriptural and confessional support pervasive throughout the document?" it may be objected. True enough. The Minority Reports may appear to be thoroughly biblical if measured purely on the basis of supporting references and truthful statements. However, if the interpreting priority of Scripture is marginalized and the Scriptures are merely used in piecemeal fashion to support autonomous interpretation of data and experience then the document fails to be biblical.
Consider the statements in the preface in which the authors lay out their approach. Here it is declared that "the gospel can and will spread and transform the Muslim world." (2296) This is an abstract statement. A concrete statement, on the other hand, would ask of the Scriptures what they have to say concerning the Muslim world. The Scriptures are clear that transformation is being accomplished in the Church by the Spirit, while creation as a whole (excluding the reprobate) "waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God." (Rom 8:19)
The preface proceeds to acknowledge that "the gospel is already beginning to take root around the Muslim world." This too is an abstract statement. The Scriptures tell us what is concrete; that the gospel took root in the world as a whole in history upon the establishment of the Covenant of Grace (WCF 7). Islam was superimposed upon this world but did not nor cannot change its basic soteriological structure.
"We rejoice in what God is doing" is another abstract statement of considerable significance. Not because the statement in isolation is false but rather because of what it is referring to, a report which "describes the movements of the gospel in the nine main regions of the Muslim world." The data and experience in this report is thus equated with "what God is doing" without subjecting this data to how the Scriptures would interpret it. A concrete comment concerning this report would ask which aspects, according to the Scriptures, are a cause for rejoicing and which are a cause for sorrow. (Phil 1:18; Gal 1:9)
And so the Minority Report 2014 continues, grounded in abstractions.
• "Christ-focused" is the operative term describing Christian identity (2307, line 5).
• Ambiguity is ascribed to Confessional statements such as "more or less pure" (WCF 25.4 and 25.5) and "The visible church . . . out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation." (WCF 25.2) (2301)
• Although "truth" derived from the social sciences is perceived as borrowed from God's truth and the Scriptures remain "our primary frame of reference", "the fallen human context" takes over as the operative frame of reference. (2302 lines 1-8)
• Ethics is necessarily affected by this confusion. For example, pragmatic "exposure to the gospel" becomes the rationale for marital faithfulness rather than God's law. (2303 lines 3-11, 2327)
• The contrast between Islam and Christianity is to a significant degree sociological rather than theological. This is structurally foundational to the entire document and fundamental to a lengthy fictional anecdote. (2308-2309)
• The Body of Christ is artificially divided along sociological lines as "insiders" and "outsiders". (2304 line 18) This dualism becomes the basis for urging believers to opt out of church membership, "A decision not to associate with a known local church may be motivated by the desire to show gospel love toward family and friends . . ." (2314 lines 4-5)
• The teacher's role is "to point believers toward onward growth in their disciples' Christ-focused identity, not to promote the indefinite retention of a false religious or "socio-religious" identity." (2306 lines 32-34) This is a substantially relativized version of the starkly clear and comprehensive Great Commission, "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matt 28:20)
• Included in this role of the teacher is the extrabiblical imperative that discipleship must occur "while remaining within Muslim society." (2307 line 11) Separation does not seem to be an option. This extrabiblical imperative extends to how genuine Christians are to be identified, "truly faithful and fruitful MBBs are those who . . . are called to bear witness within the Muslim world." "They are called to stay relationally (physically and socially) connected to their relatives and friends in their birth communities, focusing on developing relationships so that the gospel can spread rapidly and be honored." (2332) Thus, a particular strategy is absolutized.
• The role of the teacher is further clarified as mentoring, facilitating, helping, and warning about syncretism. Preaching is not mentioned as part of this role and is marginalized in the "essentials for a healthy beginning of a church plant." (2316 line 27ff) Similarly, in explaining the dynamic of the spread of the gospel in the first century preaching is omitted in favor of relationships within the social structure. (2318 lines 18-28)
• Membership in the visible church is misconstrued. Persecuted Christians function under a separate paradigm of membership which is defined according to an evangelistic strategy. (2318, 2320) However, in biblical ecclesiology there is no such dualism. All churches, including underground churches, are called to the same standards of practice, ethics, and polity.
• The authors' notion of common grace is set in conflict with the antithesis caused by the fall of man and the Covenant of Grace. (2321) This results in a relativization of the antithesis and a distorted view of culture. Therefore there is sparse acknowledgment of separation from the world as the fundamental position of the Church and therefore of the Christian.
• Acts 15 is interpreted through a cultural grid rather than a redemptive-historical one. (2323-2324) The principle concern of the Jerusalem counsel was not to maintain cultural diversity/sensitivity in the church but rather to establish the unity of the church in Christ and in his inaugurated kingdom.
Those familiar with the documents involved might ask, "Does not the Minority Report 2014 agree with the 'Affirmations and Denials' set forth in the SCIM Report?" The "Affirmations and Denials" while a product of concrete thinking is no less subject to misinterpretation than any other document. Abstract thinking, which is fundamentally autonomous, will necessarily misinterpret the A's and D's. They will only be understood properly when they are interpreted concretely, upon the foundation of the self-attesting Scriptures.
The Minority Reports invert what is concrete and what is abstract. "Life is easy in the abstract, but when we look at the reality on the ground things become messy and hard to put into our categories." (2386 lines 11-12; 2308 line 1) The authors have convincingly shown that their reality-on-the-ground approach is extremely difficult because it is abstract and does not comport with the world as God knows it. Dismissal of concrete biblical categories will necessarily result in confusion. Neither God nor his works are "messy" and the Scriptures shine a clear light of concrete reality upon the abstract world of autonomous categories. "Therefore I esteem right all Your precepts concerning everything, I hate every false way." (Ps 119:128 NAS)
Philip Mark is a longtime missionary in Muslim lands.
1. 2337 line 19. Also, "In summary, the Committee Report gives a great deal of attention to the absolutes of how things ought to be, and the Minority Report gives more attention to the reality on the ground." 2340 lines 17-19