Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Insider Movement: A New Culture War?

If anybody can find a theme across the diverse topics of my blog's essays, perhaps it would be that we erroneously rely too much on our culture for our faith.

Obviously, many of us see the world around us through a cultural lens.  Naturally, then, we unwittingly allow the society in which we live to frame every facet of life.  This is true for those of us living a post-modern, post-Christian life in North America, and those living in the jungles of Irian Jaya, the savanna of Burkina Faso, or the Russian tundra.

We see those cultures, and they see us, through metrics that have been developed by the people group with which we're most familiar.  We look at the economy, lifestyle, and religion of another culture through our own.  And we look at our own faith through the lens of our own culture, because we assume our culture is worthy of being a lens.

Again, this is all natural for us to do, and we all do it to varying degrees.  But just because it comes naturally to us doesn't mean it's right.  That's one of the reasons I harp against seeker churches and contemporary worship music so much.

The more educated we become about the different ways different people groups accomplish - or fail to accomplish - similar objectives, the more we can pick and choose the things that work, and discard the things that don't.  We also, as it happens, generally become less ethnocentric as we realize that the reasons some cultures are more "successful" than others are far more complex than our sound-bite media here in the United States simplifies them to be.

Unfortunately, knowledge tends to puff us up, doesn't it?  The more sophisticated we become in our navigation of cultures, we risk falling into a trap of focusing on culture so much, we forget that cultures themselves are not pure forms of organic socialization.  No culture on the planet is 100% wholesome; without the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we're all depraved heathens, and our cultures reflect the degree to which God's holiness has been honored by a people group.

When it comes to international, cross-cultural missions, which historically has been the purview of Westerners, we've run the gamut, from trying to foist Western ways on indigenous tribespeople, to letting local norms dominate our approaches to ministry.  However we've done it, we've let a culture of some sort dictate the Gospel; either ours, or theirs.

And just as forcing jungle people to wear pants and long dresses was misguided 150 years ago, the way some missionaries are trying to evangelize across cultures today appears equally so.

The Insider Movement and Its New Champion

Last summer, I wrote several essays on the increasingly popular movement in evangelical missiology called "contextualization," or "C5," or "Muslim Idiom Translations," or the "Insider Movement."  Technically, experts argue that each of these terms pertains to specific nuances in modern cross-cultural missions methods, but they all tie in to what some missionaries to Muslims are doing in their efforts at converting people from Islam to Christianity.

Basically, some missiologists want to grant Muslims a blanket dispensation and give them a free ride when it comes to proclaiming their faith in Christ.  To put it bluntly, if you're Muslim and want to be saved by faith in Christ, it's OK to claim Christianity but still follow the practices, traditions, and lifestyle of a Muslim.  You can still worship in mosques.  You don't need to proselytize openly.  You don't need to identify yourself as a Christ-follower to anybody you don't want to.

It's all safe, low-key, duplicitous, and relatively popular.

Actually, it all sounds like the kind of lifestyle many American churchgoers heartily embrace for themselves, doesn't it?  Allowing people to remain in their familiar cultural surroundings - while subversively saying they worship Jesus Christ - is what many churched Americans do.  And is likely one of the reasons why contextualization and the Insider Movement have been able to flourish for so long under the radar of many stateside evangelicals.

Last summer, however, it all kind of hit the fan, when my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, became one of the most significant evangelical organizations to sit down and analyze what Insider Movement advocates are teaching.  For a fairly exhaustive article on the subject, click here to read PCA pastor and theologian David Garner's thoroughly-researched views.  Thankfully, a committee established by the PCA to report on the Insider Movement decided that these new paradigms for missions contain basic rationales that are biblically flawed.

Insider Movement proponents, however, apparently remain unbowed.  Their intransigence on the subject is on full display in the current edition of Christianity Today magazine.  With articles entitled "The Hidden History of Insider Movements," "Worshiping Jesus in the Mosque," and "Why Evangelicals Should be Thankful for Muslim Insiders," the legacy periodical Billy Graham founded may be attempting to legitimize theories of ministry earnestly opposed by plenty of evangelicals.

Longtime readers of my blog know I'm no fan of Christianity Today.  I used to be a subscriber of their print edition, but a number of years ago, when CT's editors called for a re-think of conventional Biblical justifications for capital punishment, I realized what the magazine's growing list of detractors were saying was true.

CT was going liberal.

This month, their three articles bend over backwards to portray the cultural challenges of evangelizing Muslims.  CT's editors even try to remove the Biblical implications of what's at stake by belittling those of us who disapprove of their view.

"Many Christians have taken positions on insider movements without ever having met or spoken with someone who belongs to one," CT's editors point out, as if one's understanding of the Bible can't compete with cultural context.  In other words, Christianity Today justifies their legitimizing of Insider Movement beliefs as concepts that can stand alone outside of what we know from God's Word to be true about His Gospel.

And here I've thought the Gospel of Jesus Christ is applicable to all cultures through all time periods and places.  Is there a caveat for Muslims that's been left out of my Bible?

What the Bible Says About Our Faith in Action

Let's ignore for the moment that respected missionaries who evangelize among Muslims still oppose the Insider Movement.  Let's ignore for the moment that converts to orthodox, evangelical Christianity from Islam also oppose the Insider Movement.  Instead, what does the Bible say about those who believe Christ's Gospel?

"And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life."  Matthew 19:29

Not a whole lot of wiggle room about staying in one's former, false religion, is there?

One of the Scripture passages used by Insider Movement advocates is 1 Corinthians 9:19-22, in which Paul says, "Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.  To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law.  To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some."

Now, taken out of context, it could be interpreted that the apostle is saying that, in order to win people to Christ, we need to adopt the very sins in which they're comfortable, or endorse the viewpoints that the unsaved endorse, or live the lifestyle that the unsaved live.  Yet is that what Paul is saying?  After all, earlier in this same letter to the Corinthians, Paul also wishes that believers in Christ never marry, but isn't that more hyperbole than doctrine?

We don't necessarily take every psalm verbatim, since the psalmists wrote in poetic and allegorical prose.  In the same way, we can't take the gregarious tone of Paul's writing and interpret it in a biblical vacuum.  So we read the 1 Corinthians passage with an understanding of Paul's exhortation to not let our cultural blinders - even those blinders we wear in our Christian culture - prohibit us from recognizing and reaching out to the lost around us.

To the extent that advocates of the Insider Movement recognize the unique worldview of Muslims, and seek to bridge the gaps in their understanding of the personhood of Christ, I would say that they're honoring Paul's charge to us in 1 Corinthians.  However, in their enthusiasm to inhibit their own cultural baggage while they evangelize, aren't Insider Movement proponents ceding too much Christian doctrine, and enabling Muslim "converts" into a sloppy theology based more on culture than commitment to Christ?

Discipleship is Messy, But Who's Causing Some of the Mess?

If we're not teaching that Christ is our All, and if we don't believe that Christ Himself saves people, not our personal testimonies, then we're not spreading the Gospel, are we?  If we let "converts" wallow in comforts like religious tradition and family acceptance, and marginalize what a personal stand for Christ looks like, how is that any different than letting "converts" in the United States continue to frequent brothels, if prostitution was their habit before coming to know Christ?

When we allow cultural standards to dictate what faith in Christ looks like, how do we know the genuineness of that faith?  By how the Fruits of the Spirit are manifested in their lives, right?  Love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, meekness, and self control.  How does feigning allegiance to one's former faith fit into the Fruits of the Spirit?  How does failing to separate one's self from the corrupting influences in one's former faith?

This past December, in an editorial, Christianity Today endorsed the Insider Movement by pointing out that "discipleship is messy."  They wrote of the Insider Movement as encouraging "new believers to remain in their culture as long as possible, as long as Scripture doesn't explicitly forbid the practices in question."

So, we're going to let rules determine what people can and cannot do in their newfound religion?  How is that any better than the false religion they're supposed to be leaving?  Christianity is a faith of grace, and while I'm hardly an expert on grace, I do know that Christ loves us despite our sins, but if the Holy Spirit lives within us, we're supposed to want to love Christ in return.  And when you love somebody, you generally want to demonstrate that love in some tangible way.  But does that include rules?

How does the Insider Movement help new believers "worship God and enjoy Him forever," as we covenantalists believe to be our reason for living?  How can encouraging people to hang on to false practices, false relationships, and other religious pretenses help them discover freedom through Christ's grace?

Indeed, discipleship can be messy, and it's not easy.  But denying people the ability to experience the fullness of the Gospel to which they've supposedly been converted doesn't make much sense, does it?

Granted, in our Western culture, we do it all the time to ourselves.  But our excuse is that we're really in love with our culture, oftentimes more than we're in love with Christ.

Going to the opposite side of the cultural spectrum and teaching "converts" from Islam that it's OK to do the same thing may not be worse than the cultural Christianity from which the Western church has suffered for years.

But look at how much it's helped us.

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