Over the past few decades, a small-but-vocal community of Christian missionaries have begun saying, “No.” Those who say that one can remain a Muslim while faithfully following Jesus often advocate for hyper-contextualized approaches to missions that have become known as Insider Movements (IM).
Beyond merely acknowledging that one can remain a Muslim while following Jesus, IM proponents argue that many Muslims who place their faith in Christ should continue identifying themselves as Muslims. Advocates argue that some Muslims should continue attending the mosque, reading the Qur’an, and revering Muhammad as a prophet. IM strategists argue that by remaining connected to their communities and cultural forms, the potential for evangelistic opportunities and cultural redemption increases. Furthermore, they teach that, rightly understood, the Qur’an can support biblical theology, that Muhammad was a sort of prophet, and that the socio-religious identity of a Muslim need not be rejected upon professing Christ.1
As the second installment in a four-part series on Unveiling the Insider Movement, I believe that before investigating the fruits of IM, we do well to investigate the roots. If you are startled or shocked by the idea of a Muslim Jesus follower, you are not alone. You may be asking, “How did these strategists get here?” This is a good question, and this article aims to inspect some of the historical influences from the last fifty years that have provided some of the building blocks for IM strategies.
What is the missionary task? Matthew 28:18–20 is a good starting place to answer this question. Here, in this well-known passage, Jesus explains the task left to his eleven followers to consist of going and making disciples of all nations, teaching total obedience to Jesus, and baptizing in the triune name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The first stage of this task requires one to communicate the unchanging gospel within the changing contexts of the world.
Once the seed of the gospel is sown among the nations, however, it must take root and grow. In other words, discipleship takes shape within the dynamic contexts in which the nations are found. Thus, missionaries must be able to discern that which is biblically required from the forms in which biblical requirements are expressed. The outcome of this process allows the unchanging gospel to produce fruit in culturally appropriate forms.
Since the mid-seventies, this process has been referred to as contextualization. Consensus regarding the particulars of this process, however, has been elusive. Different practitioners and theologians disagree over the answer to the question, “What is gospel-essential, and what is culturally relative?” While most missionaries view non-Christian religious teaching and forms skeptically, IM advocates optimistically contend that even Islamic religious culture might be redeemed and reimagined.
As the contextualization discussion began to gain traction, questions regarding translation theory also rose to the forefront of missiological concern. In the 1970s, Eugene Nida and Charles Kraft rose to the fore as two prominent voices arguing for a translation theory known as “dynamic equivalence (DE).” This translation theory prioritizes the impact that a word, phrase, or idea will have on the receptor audience and aims to evoke the same impact as the original message would have had on its audience. As a result, DE downplays the importance of finding a cognate for the original biblical word in the receptor language.
One startling example of this comes from Charles Kraft himself. One participant in a seminar led by Kraft reported that Kraft suggests that, if one wants to communicate the biblical idea of a sheep and shepherd in a place where sheep are unknown, a local equivalent of the sheep must be found. If the cultural equivalent is raising pigs, then, Kraft argued that it would be appropriate to render John the Baptist’s reference to Jesus in John 1:36 as, “Behold, the piglet of God!”2
Such a suggestion both reflects the posture of some advocates of DE translation, and also displays the potential for theological confusion. Though the receptor audience might recognize a reference to pigs and piglets more readily than sheep and lambs, it is unthinkable in the biblical context to refer to Jesus as an animal that Levitical law deems unclean and unfit for sacrifice.
Beyond DE Bible translation, Kraft also began exploring what cultural forms might be potentially viable in-culture options for dynamic equivalent expression of discipleship and church. If the words of Scripture are less important than their impact on a receptor, perhaps too the forms faith might take should also be measured according to the impact they have within a culture. Kraft’s DE church idea was instantiated in the mid-eighties by an author named Herbert Hoefer. Hoefer wrote a book called, Churchless Christianity, that detailed his study of a phenomenon in South India of non-baptized believers in Christ (NBBC).
In the years since its original publication, Hoefer has observed theological reflection among these NBBCs such that he no longer refers to them as “churchless.” Though they do not associate with traditional Christian churches, nor do they feel compelled to practice baptism, these South Indian followers are loosely connected. Self-identifying as Jesu bhaktis, NBBCs repurpose a Hindu word for devotion or piety by allowing Jesus to be the focus of their devotion.
Though Hoefer’s work centers on Hindus, the implications of his observations are readily applied to other religions. Hoefer writes, “Since the formulating and implementing of these biblical principles will differ from culture to culture, so will our doctrine and practice of the church.”3 Taking a similar approach to contextualization as Hoefer, then, IM efforts among Muslims look to the mosque system and Islamic religious forms in order to consider how they might be redeemed to express the impact of the gospel.
Now, most missionaries would agree that the practice of the church will be expressed in dynamic forms deriving from the receptor culture. However, Hoefer here represents the posture of most IM strategists by including the doctrine of the church within that which can be manipulated by contextual forces. As such, Hoefer is unworried by the unbaptized status of Jesu bhaktis because they might simply have a different doctrine of ecclesiology. Likewise, for IM work among Muslims, the Mosque structure, prayers, and even the Qur’an can remain a part of the expression of faith in Jesus as contextual elements that aid in expressing faith in Jesus from within the culture.
Conclusion: A Different Theology of Religions
While contextualization of the gospel’s implications is a necessary process, the lack of consensus concerning the trans-cultural elements of biblical essentials has opened the door for a dizzying array of applications. Likewise, while one may struggle to find appropriate words in a given context to adequately translate the Greek biblical originals, this does not grant permission for total disregard thereof. Finally, though non-Christian cultural forms are regularly re-appropriated for Christian purposes (think of the Christmas Tree, Martin Luther’s use of pub-tunes for hymns, etc.), this does not mean that everything can be called into service of Christ.
These distinctions are often obscured by IM advocates who prefer to view non-Christian religion as mere socio-religious phenomena. Such benign language communicates a neutrality to things like the Qur’an, Muhammad, and Islam as a faith system. Thus, IM proponents often take a positive posture towards non-Christian religious forms, viewing them as potential vehicles of revelation to be restored and reoriented.
The Bible, however, does not dismiss other religions as mere socio-religious cultural artifacts. The Bible calls non-biblical religious practice idolatry. We who intend to communicate the gospel message that Christ has defeated all idolatrous systems do well to reclaim this language. Perhaps then it would be more apparent that the gospel does not make Islam compatible with Christ.
Before concluding this article, I want to be clear that I do not intend to call into question young believers in Christ who are wrestling with their Muslim background. I trust that the Lord very well might be at work bringing saving faith into the hearts of those who are immersed in Islam. However, I believe that when Christians encounter such phenomena, the appropriate work of discipleship is already exemplified in Scripture.
Consider the response of Priscilla and Aquilla to the fledgling faith of Apollos. (Acts 18:24–28) Upon hearing Apollos teach with a partial understanding of the gospel and baptism, Priscilla and Aquilla quickly took him aside and “explained the way of God to him more accurately.” While they doubtlessly rejoiced in his nearness to the fullness of revelation, Priscilla and Aquilla did not let Apollos remain ignorant of the fullness of God’s work. So too should missiologists undertake to celebrate any such faith in Christ among insiders while not allowing them to remain within an idolatrous religious system.
I could say much more regarding the historical background that has produced IM. However, these three developments between the 1970s and 1980s provide the roots which IM has come into full flowering. In the light of this history, the next article in this series will address some of the present-day fruits born of these roots.
Editor’s Note: This article is part 2 in a four-part series.
1. See Rick Brown, “Biblical Muslims: Insider Movements: The Conversation Continues,” IJFM 24 no 2 (Summer, 2007), 65–74; Rebecca Lewis, “Insider Movements: Retaining Identity and Preserving Community,” pp. 673–676 in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, eds. Ralph Winter and Steven Hawthorne, 4th ed. (Psadena, CA: William Carey, 2009); In addition to these articles, consider the compilation of multiple IM advocates found in the book edited by Harley Talman and John Travis, eds. Understanding Insider Movements: Disciples of Jesus within Diverse Religious Communities (Pasadena, CA: William Carey, 2015).
2. See the account of Kraft’s teaching recorded by Georges Houssney, “Watching the Insider Movement Unfold,” pp. 397–408 in Muslim Conversions to Christ, eds. Ayman Ibrahim and Ant Greenham (New York: Peter Lang, 2018), 398.
3. Herbert Hoefer, “Church in Context,” pp. 281–287 in Understanding Insider Movements, eds. Harley Talman and John Travis (Pasadena, CA: William Carey, 2015), 282.