Evangelists and missiologists have long debated how best to contextualize the gospel within Islamic contexts. The debate over "insider movements" revolves around a key question: Should converts from Islam be allowed or encouraged to remain in their Muslim religious and social networks after conversion?
Past discussion on this topic has proven hurtful to Christians on both sides. However, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I believe we are finally going to see real changes in the way Christians write about fellow-Christians in regard to contextualization. This is good news in an arena where there has been a lot of bad news.
In an effort to promote reconciliation and facilitate healthy discussion, a group of 50 scholar-practitioners gathered in June to discuss the challenges of contextualization. Bridging the Divide was hosted by missionaries-in-residence Don Little and Benjamin Hegeman of the Intercultural Studies Department at Houghton College in New York. Attendees included five former Muslims and represented a wide spectrum of views on appropriate ways to reach Muslims.
Bridging the Divide's goal was to clear up misunderstandings, identify points of agreement and disagreement, and strive for mutual respect and understanding. Disputes over contextualization have a long history, and serious difficulties remain, but progress was made through face-to-face interaction, frank discussion, and a commitment to talk rather than throw darts at each other from a distance. As a participant, I saw three key signs pointing to this trend:
During introductions on the first night, many said they had come to listen. This paved the way for positive interaction. There was open sharing and prayer for one another throughout the meeting, and even tears of repentance over unkind things that had been said or written, often without understanding or accurate citation. Evelyne Reisacher, assistant professor of Islamic studies and intercultural relations at Fuller Theological Seminary, put it this way: "I've wondered before if we really love one another, but this time I've seen it in action." An engaged couple from Houghton College, preparing to serve in the Middle East, said they were privileged to witness how veteran workers modeled love and forgiveness.
A final declaration was drafted to summarize the issues that had both united and divided us. We expressed our repentance for the hurtful things we had written about each other in the past, as they contributed to a "divisive spirit" that was harming our ministry. We promised to encourage unity amongst ourselves and committed to "intentionally seek out opposing peer review for our proposed publications that attempt to characterize the views of those with whom we disagree." Ultimately, we reminded ourselves that as Christians, our ultimate end was to work together so that "all may know the gospel." (The full text of the declaration can be read at the end of this article.)
It is apparent from the declaration that the consultation succeeded in fostering greater understanding of opposite points of view on the C1-C6 scale used by many missiologists to describe Muslim background believer (MBB) affiliation with Muslim culture. The scale can be summarized as follows: C1: MBBs in churches radically different from their own culture; C2: same as C1, but worship is in the MBBs' mother tongue; C3: MBBs in culturally indigenous Christian churches that avoid cultural forms seen as "Islamic"; C4: MBBs in culturally indigenous congregations that retain biblically permissible Islamic forms (e.g., prostrating in prayer), investing these with biblical meaning; C5: Muslims who follow Jesus as Lord and Savior in fellowships of like-minded believers within the Muslim community, continuing to identify culturally and officially as Muslims; and C6: secret/underground believers.
J. Dudley Woodberry, senior professor of Islamic studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, expressed a desire for irenic interaction: "I see God working through the whole spectrum of identity, and having students on both sides of the issue doesn't bother me, but I am troubled by the tone of some of the discussion."
Kevin Higgins, international director of Global Teams, clarified his position on the C1-C6 scale. "I prefer not to use the C Scale, as it tends to suggest tight definable boundaries," he said. "But if I had to use it, I would say I know [God] uses and blesses churches or believing communities that are so-called C1, C2, and C3. I believe he loves C6 believers, though I don't know anyone who suggests this is his perfect will for the long term. The actual C5 movements I know of are best described as a mix of C4 and C5, since intentional gatherings of believers in some form of house-church model are a norm."
Another speaker, mission strategist Len Bartlotti, presented a number of theological "lenses" or ways of viewing C5 "insider" missiology in order to understand where proponents and critiques are coming from. Drawing a line on the blackboard as a continuum, he said that under an evangelical umbrella, Christians have different understandings of the church, the work of the Holy Spirit, conversion, history, Islam, authority, ways of doing theology, and approaches to other religions. For example, some insiders have a minimalist view of "church"—two or three gathered in Jesus' name—while others insist on organization, including elders, sacraments, leadership, and direction. Thus, one objection to insider movements is actually based on these differing presuppositions related to "church."
In reference to culture, Bartlotti said some would emphasize continuity and (in Richard Niebuhr's terms) the "Christ of Culture," relating to Muslims on their own terms; others emphasize the discontinuity of the gospel vis-à-vis Islam—Christ "against culture," and Christ "transforming" aspects of prior belief and culture. Bartlotti noted that one's views of history and the Holy Spirit also affect one's assessment of insider missiology. Some emphasize the Spirit's work in the "here and now" as the gospel breaks out into new contexts and cultural spheres. The opposite side sees the Holy Spirit at work in history: they value how the Spirit has guided the church "into all truth" via Christology, creeds, and the development of doctrines over time. Some view Islam in terms of its "essence" as a religious system, whereas others think of multiple "Islams" and how Muslims in local contexts vary in their religious commitment.
Finally, how do MBBs express their commitment to follow Christ? Yes, there is invariably a journey, a process whereby people individually or in groups move toward Jesus. But how they travel down that path, and at what speed, is often disputed, as are the "markers" of that new identity. Many at the consultation found themselves somewhere in the middle of the continuum on each issue.
Topics that generated the most discussion were ethics, translation, identity, and hermeneutics. A survey taken in preparation for the gathering revealed that there were roughly a dozen participants who were strongly pro-insider and just as many on the other side. Ninety percent said it was normal for believers to keep their Muslim identity for a time following conversion. Few participants felt it was ever acceptable for non-Muslims to convert to Islam in order to reach Muslims. No one thought it was a good idea for Christian workers to take on a Muslim identity for the sake of spreading the gospel.
Georges Houssney, director of Horizons International, pressed hard for directly translating theological terms that are offensive to Muslims, such as "Son of God" or "Heavenly Father," and instead giving explanations for such terms in the text itself or in footnotes. Houssney said this will help dispel misunderstandings by Muslim readers. Most participants agreed, voicing concern that whenever substitutes are found for those terms, familial connotation is lost. Finally, a majority said membership in a local church (an organized body of baptized believers, underground or known) is essential to long-term maturity.
Even in the wake of such a productive meeting, an ongoing question remains: How can we remain faithful to the Scriptures and yet be open to the wide variety of ways God is using to draw Muslims to himself? Perhaps the greatest contribution of Bridging the Divide was to encourage evangelical scholar-practitioners to engage with issues in respectful, face-to-face dialogue under an evangelical banner. The alternative is both ineffective and unpleasant. It is "trench warfare," using various media to lobby "mustard-gas shells" at one another in a way that leads to more acrimony than enlightenment, unity of purpose, and biblical understanding. Anchored in Scripture and engaged with culture, evangelicals of all persuasions have a strong motivation to bridge the divide and build bridges so that Muslims will find new life in Christ.
Warren Larson is associate professor of Muslim Studies at Columbia International University and former director of the Zwemer Center.
Bridging the Divide final report:
We gathered for the purpose of "Bridging the Divide" over the differences related to ministry practices in the Muslim world. Over these days we have prayed, worshiped and examined the Scriptures. We have examined case studies from the field and celebrated what God is sovereignly doing to call Muslim peoples to himself and a place in the body of Christ. We have spoken openly and honestly, showing love and respect to one another about our differences. Although serious differences remain and ongoing interaction is needed, we have sought to listen and learn and most of all to hear what God would say to us corporately as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. We have sought to be faithful to Scripture, and by the grace of God we have found agreement on certain issues, clarified misunderstandings and identified issues for further study, reflection, and dialogue. With mutual respect and in submission to God and his Word, our authority for faith and practice, we have come to agreement on a number of points and committed ourselves to continue the process that we have begun in these days.
To glorify the Lord and help to bridge the divide between us as we seek to extend the kingdom to Muslim peoples,
We repent of
Our careless and harmful and unconfirmed words, gossip, slander, and bitterness that we may have used against each other;
Our failures to seek to honor brethren above ourselves; and
Our contributing to a divisive spirit, since God has called us to be co-laborers in declaring his glory among the nations.
The insistence that the particular ways God has worked with our community are the only or preferred ways he must work with others in his great harvest ingathering; and
The practice of encouraging cross-cultural workers from a Christian background to take on a Muslim identity.
God is moving globally in a variety of ways to draw Muslims to Christ;
The primacy of the Word of God for all aspects of faith and practice guided by the Spirit of God for the people of God; and
Practicing fidelity in Scripture translation using terms that accurately express the familial relationship by which God has chosen to describe himself as Father in relationship to the Son in the original languages.
We commit to
Examine the Scriptures and our own hearts diligently to renew and transform our theological, missiological, and ethical understanding and practice;
Love those in the global community lifting up the Lord among Muslims, pursuing the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace;
Intentionally seek out opposing peer review for our proposed publications that attempt to characterize the views of those with whom we disagree; and
Promote unity and understanding between new and existing expressions of the church, the body of Christ.
To the end that all may know the gospel so that, when Jesus returns in power and great glory, as many as possible will enjoy the new heaven and new earth, for the glory of God alone. Even so, come Lord Jesus!
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
See our coverage of "Wycliffe, SIL Issue Guidelines on Translating 'Son of God' Among Muslims."
Previous Christianity Today articles on evangelism to Muslims include:
The Son and the Crescent | Bible translations that avoid the phrase "Son of God" are bearing dramatic fruit among Muslims. But that translation has some missionaries and scholars dismayed. (February 4, 2011)
Why We Opened Our Church to Muslims | A response to "Muslims in Evangelical Churches." (January 27, 2011)
Muslims in Evangelical Churches | Does loving your neighbor mean opening your doors to false worship? (January 3, 2011)
From Informant to Informer | The "son of Hamas" senses God in his life before coming to Christ. (June 8, 2010)