Unveiling the Muslim Insider Movement (Part 4): Retaining the Motive, Rejecting the Means

Although advocates of Insider Movement missions are often well-meaning, we must reject their methods.

If you have followed along with this series, you are aware of the complicated reality presented by missions strategies among Muslims known as Insider Movements (IM). On one hand, Insider Movement strategy is promoted by brothers and sisters in Christ who desperately long to see Muslims come to a saving faith in Jesus. Likewise, they desire to see new cultural forms redeemed and employed as vessels of worship directed towards the one true God.

On the other hand, however, while these desires are laudable and proper, IM methodology requires compromise in ways that threaten the clarity of the gospel. In light of the previous three articles, I conclude that IM fails the test of Paul’s missionary commitment recorded in 2 Corinthians 4:1-2: “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.”

While disgraceful and underhanded are strong words that likely do not characterize most IM practitioners, the translation practices of some MITs could be accused of tampering with God’s word. Likewise, by intentionally redefining Islamic words and forms in ways that are not clarified nor attested within Islam, IM strategies exhibit more cunning than they do open statement of the truth. In this final installment, then, we will consider what is to be redeemed of IM strategies while also looking critically at five aspects that cloud rather than clarify the gospel of Jesus and its implications.

Motives versus Means

One thing that should be recognized from the beginning is that IM advocates are brothers and sisters in Christ who are deeply committed to seeing Muslims believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior. They are motivated by a proper urgency to see acceptable faith issuing forth in pleasing worship offered from the lips of image-bearing Muslims. The methodologies that are produced spring up from a desire to see barriers to faith removed. This is praiseworthy.

However, good motives are insufficient to justify improper means. Those who have tasted the goodness of the gospel are called by the one in whom all authority in heaven and on earth has been invested to be disciple-makers. Matthew 28:18-20 makes it clear that we are to make disciples by teaching obedience to all that Jesus commanded and by baptizing in the triune name of God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When IM calls into question the recognition of Jesus as the Son of God, their good motives fail to produce proper fruit. But what do we make of those stories of Muslims who profess faith in Jesus from within Islam?

Good motives are insufficient to justify improper means.

Phenomenon versus Prescription

One regular argument made by IM proponents in favor of their methodology is that it was a reality before it was a strategy. In other words, they claim that before IM strategists came up with their methods, they came into contact with Muslims who were following Jesus as Lord and Savior as Muslims. If this is something that God is doing among Muslims, they ask, who are we to stand in the way of it?

While this may appear to be compelling to one who is excitedly finding faith in an unexpected place, anecdotal experience is insufficient as a foundation for missions strategy. Furthermore, reverse-engineering a phenomenon and developing a prescription for ministry thereby is not in keeping with the biblical record.

For example, in Acts 18:24-28, Luke records a brief encounter between two believers—Priscilla and Aquila—and a man named Apollos who believed in Jesus and taught accurately, though partially. Rather than celebrating the faith of Apollos and allowing him to proceed with his partial understanding, Priscilla and Aquila took him aside and taught him the ways of God more accurately. Having been corrected, Apollos became a powerful advocate for the gospel as he declared it from the Scriptures as a refutation of Jewish teaching.

The phenomenon of Apollos’s faith was doubtless cause for rejoicing in Priscilla and Aquila. Yet they did not leave him in this incomplete state, nor did they encourage him to soft peddle the gospel among the Jewish detractors. When IM advocates claim that these insiders prove what God is doing among Muslims, they use extra-biblical phenomena as a foundation from which to prescribe extra-biblical mission aimed at crossing minimum thresholds of faith rather than robust discipleship. This leads to the third aspect of IM that needs to be rejected.

Discipleship Versus Minimum

Discipleship always occurs in a context. Thus, one of the necessary tasks of bringing the gospel into new contexts is contextualization. Contextualization is the process of planting the unchanging seed of the gospel in the soil of a culture while affording it the freedom to grow and produce fruit that is perhaps shaped in ways unique to the culture. By nature, then, contextualization is the process of separating the essential kernel of the biblical message from the extra-biblical cultural husk.

As a contextualization model, IM is vigorously in search of the kernel of the gospel. The difference between IM and other contextualization models, however, is that IM attempts to fit the gospel into an already existing Islamic husk. Rather than letting the gospel grow within the cultural soil of an Islamic society producing fruit that is informed by culture, IM seeks to insert the gospel into a preset cultural mold. When IM advocates question whether or not to translate the Son of God language in Scripture accurately and when socio-religious identity trumps being known as a Christ follower, it appears that at least some IM strategies allow Islam to exert more influence over the method than the Bible exerts over the context.

If, however, we take our missionary task from Matthew 28:18-20, we will no longer be content with seeking out the bare-minimum threshold for salvation. Instead, given the command to teach total obedience in the process of making disciples—not mere converts—of Jesus and baptizing them into the triune name of God and into the community of believers, the anti-gospel elements of Islam will be challenged rather than embraced. Yet, for many IM advocates, the minimalistic approach has won the day and has resulted in attempts at finding warrant for their models in Scripture.

If… we take our missionary task from Matthew 28:18-20, we will no longer be content with seeking out the bare-minimum threshold for salvation.

Exegesis versus Eisegesis

The fourth aspect of IM to be assessed is the attempted biblical arguments proposed in support of IM. One critic of IM, David Harriman, recently wrote about his investigation into IM exegesis saying,

Through my reading [of the IM literature], I discovered that the exegetical ‘case’ for IMs rested on a select handful of largely narrative Bible verses. As I read the insider exegesis, I found myself asking what I was missing. Was the case really this weak? Was Naaman really an ‘insider’ in the temple of Rimmon because he asked Elisha’s forgiveness for accompanying his elderly master, and bowing with him, when his master went into the temple to worship? Did Paul’s instruction to the Corinthian church to remain in the condition in which they were called—a passage about marriage, circumcision, and slavery—really justify remaining in a non-Christian religion?[1]

Though lengthy, this passage is worth quoting in full as it hits on two common texts used to justify IM strategies.

First, in 2 Kings 5:17–18, there is a narrative account of Naaman seeking the Lord’s forgiveness for fulfilling his duty to aid his master while his master participates in pagan worship in the temple of Rimmon. While Elisha tells him to, “Go in peace,” there is no indication in the text that this is an acceptable conflation of pagan worship directed to YHWH. Yet IM advocates make much of this passage as setting the precedent for encouraging Muslims to pray in the Mosque alongside of non-believing Muslims in Islamic fashion.

Second, in 1 Corinthians 7:17-24, Paul encourages the Corinthian believers to lead the lives that the Lord has assigned them before they were called in Christ. IM strategists have used this passage to argue that a Muslim socio-religious identity is part of God’s assignment of a station to a Muslim person and should be made compatible with faith in Christ. However, as Harriman notes above, Paul’s discussion leaves no room for including the Corinthians’ former idolatrous religious practices as part of the station to which they were called.

Finally, IM proponents attempt to biblically justify their position by arguing that the early believers remained in the synagogues and saw their faith in Christ as an extension of their former identity within Israel. To apply this to Muslims remaining within Islam, however, is to imply that the Qur’an and Islam are revelatory in the same fashion as Ancient Israel’s faith was. Furthermore, the argument itself doesn’t account for the fact that, though Paul taught amongst the Jews, he was regularly thrown out of synagogues for preaching Christ. His message to the Jews was not contextualized to avoid offense. Rather, it was a clear statement of the unsuitability of the old wineskins to hold the new wine of the gospel.

Conclusion: An Overly Optimistic Theology of Religions

While there are more issues that could be addressed, I believe the underlying failure of IM is its estimation of Islam as nothing more than a sociological phenomenon. In other words, IM practitioners treat Islam not as an idolatrous religion leading away from Christ, but merely as if it were comparable to a national holiday, cultural clothing, or foreign language. As such, they attempt to plant the gospel against the trellis of Islam, believing it to be a neutral support that can guide the growth of the fruit.

Rather than being a vehicle that is prepared for gospel transmission, then, Islam appears to be a religion that is designed to contradict and undermine the central tenets of Scripture.

In fact, however, the Qur’an teaches that Jesus was merely one of many prophets, one who was not divine, who did not die a substitutionary death, and who is not Lord of all. Islam teaches that sin needs no substitutionary savior and that humans need only baseless mercy from a God who is forever transcendent. Rather than being a vehicle that is prepared for gospel transmission, then, Islam appears to be a religion that is designed to contradict and undermine the central tenets of Scripture.

Despite the laudable desire to see Muslims come to faith in Jesus, IM as a missiological methodology should be rejected because it fails to recognize Islam as irreconcilable with the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ. While there may very well be new believers in Jesus who are yet wrestling with what that means for their Muslim identity, such phenomena do not constitute grounds for developing missions strategies that reproduce such confusion. Instead of seeking the bare minimum threshold of salvation, gospel work among Muslims should aim to disciple these brothers and sisters so as to see the way that Islam leads away from Jesus as our substitutionary savior and something to be discarded in light of the gospel.

In the end, I long to promote work among Muslims—and Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, and cultural Christians—that is able, with Paul, to declare confidently, “We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.”

Editor’s Note: This article is part 4 in a four-part series.

[1] David Harriman, “Epilogue: Force Majeure: Ethics and Encounters in an Era of Extreme Contextualization,” pp. 455–500 in Muslim Conversions to Christ: A Critique of Insider Movements in Islamic Contexts, eds. Ayman Ibrahim and Ant Greenham (New York: Peter Lang, 2018), 459–460.