An Overview of “Understanding Insider Movements”—and its Five Pillars
Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from “The Five Pillars of the Insiders: A Collective Response to Understanding Insider Movements.” The entire response is available at the blog of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam.
The long-awaited volume Understanding Insider Movements has finally been released. It defines an “insider” as “a person from a non-Christian background who has accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior but retained the socioreligious identity of his or her birth.” While the Church’s aim, as it appears in the New Testament, was never explicitly to encourage new believers to remain as deeply as they could in their original contexts, the Insider Movements (IMs) approach seeks to strengthen and advocate for such a paradigm.
The English idiom “don’t judge a book by its cover” is very true in this book’s case, as one of its most attractive elements is its outward appearance. With a colorful cover, nicely designed, some may expect a comprehensive rigorous understanding of the so-called Insider Movements (IMs). Unfortunately, this is not the case. Once readers take a close look at the Table of Contents, they will be disappointed, as they will realize that the vast majority of the articles are written by authors well known for their support and advocacy of the IMs trend. There is no article which raises or treats the many missiological and ecclesiastical concerns that several Christian leaders, such as D.A. Carson, Doug Colemen, Kevin DeYoung, Fred Farrokh, John Piper, J. T. Smith, and J. Henry Wolfe, have voiced against the IMs paradigm. The volume, thus, is not actually about “understanding” the Insider Movements, but rather has the feel of propaganda, as it supports its anthropological discourses, advocates its missiological arguments, and promotes its ecclesiastical stances.
The editors of this volume, Harley Talman and John Jay Travis (pseudonyms), collected some 64 (mostly) previously published articles, particularly with the International Journal of Frontier Missiology, in addition to three appendices and a glossary followed by an index. They, however, made a very strategic choice, as they included articles by renowned authors, such as Andrew Walls and Archbishop Gregoire Haddad, who are not necessarily addressing Insider Movements or advocating for them. This choice brings an authoritative flavor to the edited volume, though their articles had nothing to add to the core discussion pertaining to the theological, missiological, and ecclesiastical stance of IMs advocates.
The reader soon realizes that there is no significant contribution by Insider converts. In a 679-page volume on Insider Movements, the voice of Insider converts is absent; instead, solely the IMs proponents’ perspective is expressed. This is a serious matter that affects and speaks to the credibility of the work. Thus, regrettably, the book reverberates with a monotone melody, and, to my mind, one that runs a little off-key and results in both confusion among those Christians unaware of the issue and considerable dissatisfaction among those who sincerely desire to engage an in-depth, rigorous, biblical, theological, and missiological conversation with its proponents and advocates.
In a short review as this, one cannot engage each article or argument found in the lengthy edited work, but thoughtful Christian leaders and missiologists should diligently work on engaging at least five major erroneous theses argued and emphasized throughout the book. I call these theses the Five Pillars of the Insider Movements. They are theologically dangerous and missiologically incorrect. I traced them throughout the book, and will emphasize these falsities here below:
1) The Prophethood of Islam’s Founder
Some of the IMs advocates argue that Muhammad could be possibly identified as a prophet in the biblical sense or “as having had a prophetic message or function of some sort,” because “what a person says about Muhammad is of great consequence in the Muslim community.” Consequently, according to IMs, we should allow the possibility that proclaiming the Shehadah, including affirming Muhammad’s prophethood in some ways “does not inherently preclude biblical faithfulness” (Chapter 53; of course this is in addition to the simplistic argument that Allah is God in Chapter 54).
2) Retention of Religious Identity
A very problematic argument set forth by IMs proponents insists that Muslims can be born again “without denying their identity as Muslims within their society,” as we are not necessarily “trying to change anyone’s religion.” In fact, according to the IMs paradigm, the meaning and nature of “religion” should be reconsidered and reevaluated to include “those who represent a combination of [various religious] lists” (Chapters 8, 21, 22, 37, 38, 39, and 55 and 58, especially 59, and to a lesser degree 20).
3) The Quran as Scripture
This erroneous thesis claims that the Quran still has a value for Muslim Insiders, and we should expect their communities to “include Islamic places and pattern of worship.” Furthermore, some IMs advocates argue that “no confrontational effort to replace the Quran with the Bible is needed,” as the Quran accepts “Jesus as a messenger from God,” “the Gospel as his message,” and, thus, the pillars of Islam “are all adaptations of previous Jewish and Christian forms” in a “refurbished” form (Chapters 24 and 25 and 43, 45, and 58, see also 16).
“Some Insider Movements advocates that the pillars of Islam ‘are all adaptations of previous Jewish and Christian forms’ in a ‘refurbished’ form.”
4) Transformation of the Language of the Biblical Text
IMs advocates suggest that it would be best if we change some terms in the translations of the Bible, like the ‘Son of God,’ as they should “be communicated in the language of Muslims, including their religious vocabulary,” as we adopt “effective styles and forms [that Muslims] can accept,” and as we use a new “Jesus hermeneutic” of the Quran (Chapters 24 and 25).
5) No Church, No Christianity, but Only Jesus
For IMs proponents the crucial matter is not a church or mosque, Christianity or Islam, as these are not the major concern: “churches are communities of Christ followers,” which could be found anywhere and even possibly “reside ‘inside’ a Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, or Buddhist cultural and religious community.” For IMs advocates, a church can “develop a distinct and Christ-focused ecclesial identity while at the same time affirming a Hindu/Sikh socioreligious identity,” as Christ’s body has invisible and visible churches (Chapters 19, 30, 38, 39).
These five theses serve as pillars, upon which the entire IMs paradigm seems to rest. They are dangerous not only in themselves, but specifically in their theological, soteriological, and missiological implications. While all these pillars have been addressed, debated, and even refuted more than once, the IMs movement continues to thrive in some missions circles.
“While all these pillars have been addressed, debated, and even refuted more than once, the IMs movement continues to thrive in some missions circles.”
Unfortunately, this edited volume demonstrates that the IMs advocates are still attempting to raise their voice apart from sound biblical interpretation and rigorous missiological and theological engagements, and despite cogent opposition. The decision to largely exclude the voice of IMs opponents and converts in this book is alarming, as it reflects the distorted and reductionist picture that the editors wish to portray.
The sheep are in danger. Many Christians who are not well educated theologically or are unaware of sound Biblical hermeneutics may consider the IMs paradigm as a new revival or a reincarnation of the New Testament Church, as various IMs advocates seem to believe. Those who deeply long to see the lost won to Christ can begin to compromise sound Biblical interpretations to apply a distorted paradigm. It is my conviction that Christian individuals and groups should work diligently to produce rigorous studies and scholarly works that show the danger and errors embedded in such a volume. That work can then be used to train missionaries and young churches around the world, so that they may avoid this deep pitfall. The task is huge, but absolutely imperative.
Ayman S. Ibrahim is Bill and Connie Jenkins Assisted Professor of Islamic Studies and senior fellow of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This review was first published in a slightly edited form in The Gospel Coalition website on December 18, 2015.