Written by Steve Taylor
Friday, 15 February 2013 00:00
The current issue of Christianity Today reveals that its editors have taken a bold stand. After devoting prime space within the issue to an interview with a leader of the “insider movement” and two position pieces, CT’s editors confess themselves to be “cautiously optimistic about this deep insider strategy” (Christianity Today [January/February, 2013], p. 69). They explain their optimism:
[W]e believe this is an effective way to introduce large numbers of Muslims or Hindus, for example, to Christ – especially when their cultural and religious setting makes it nearly impossible to hear the gospel as good news, rather than a foreign religion or an American import.
And even though CT editors go on to explain their “cautious” concern for the dangers of syncretism and to suggest a policy of interconnectedness to minimize the dangers, the reaction to this editorial is likely, sadly, to be immediate and negative in many quarters. If the experience of Wycliffe Bible Translators on the closely related topic of Muslim context translations is any guide, CT will lose readers and supporters because of their stand.
Fearful Worries of the Faithful
The initial worries of the faithful are at least understandable. Foundational truths of the Christian faith, some of them directly related to the gospel message itself, seem to be jeopardized. But when the cries of alarm persist — after patient explanations have been given — and even grow into charges of heresy and base motives, one has to suspect some deeper factors at work.
The cycle of rising fear in these controversies seems to be fed by an interplay between two different Christian communities: the American (or Western) evangelical community intent on insuring that the gospel be preached and embodied in precisely the same terms as it itself has experienced it; and the historic indigenous Christians communities in the Muslim world who have eked out a precarious coexistence in Muslim -dominated contexts by embracing clear — and sometimes impenetrable — theological and cultural boundary markers. The former group is alarmed that massive missionary dollars are not immediately producing duplicate fruit, and the latter is threatened by the all-too-real challenge of navigating a hostile world without familiar boundary markers and populated by hybrid creatures who worship and pray to Jesus but who still act and think like Muslims (or Hindus) in other areas of life. In our global village, these two groups talk, reinforcing fears.
These fears are not equal, however. Western evangelicals are frequently blind to how acculturated and syncretized our gospel really is. Whether that Western Christian be a Baptist minister who insists that every Christian have a certain conversion experience, or a Reformed theologian who insists that the mystery of the Three-in-One and the glories of the Five Points be an irreducible part of saving faith, or a Pentecostal preacher who insists on a certain experience of the Spirit, or simply the satisfied church member who sees no conflict between the gospel of salvation by grace through faith and American consumerist lifestyle, there is a tendency to forget God’s wonderful forbearance as he first calls us into fellowship with his dear Son and then brings us along to ever fuller and more faithful understandings of himself.
Christian communities in Muslim lands have weightier burdens: they have to contend with a long history that has divided Christians from their Muslim neighbors. The Muslim conquest, the Christian Crusades, centuries of strained relations capped by the mischief of (Christian) colonial powers, and Sharia Law have made direct evangelization impossible. For these Christians, Insider Movements present an unexpected and agonizing dilemma: embracing Jesus-believers who are still tainted by syncretism with the dominant culture means diluting a hard-won theological identity and risking the charge of subversive meddling in the religious-cultural identity of the dominant culture; yet denouncing these believers is to preemptively gag the mouths of those who, quite unexpectedly, are just beginning to lisp “Jesus is Lord!” The horns of this dilemma can only grow sharper; and Christians caught on them need our prayers, not our fearful warnings.
Creative Wisdom of the Faithful God
Perhaps we all need to be reminded of the fact that the Bible reveals a God who’s the ultimate Insider! Oh, yes, he is by nature on the Outside, “high and lifted up,” but he has chosen to become flesh and dwell among us—but not just as the universal “every-man” but rather born, quite particularly, “of a Jewish woman, under the law ” (Gal 4:4). And in that identification with us, he humbled himself further by becoming obedient to death, even to a law-cursed death on a cross. Once begun on the “Human Project,” God gives every indication of intending to see it through to the Inside, to its most desperate point (Rom 5:20). Though hinted at in the content and very shape of the Bible, the extent to which God was willing to go still caught every sentient being in the universe off guard. For had they been able to anticipate his creative wisdom, Paul reminds us, “they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory” (1 Cor 2:7-8).
This very pattern was played out in the arguments of the early church. Having already been surprised by the character and mission of God’s actual Messiah (in comparison to the expected one), they searched the scriptures in vain for clear, irrefragable indication that Gentiles could be saved as Gentiles (i.e., without conversion into the cultural-religious identity of Jews). Put another way, the question was “Can Gentiles be saved as Insiders, without leaving their cultures?” On the negative side, there were some apparently clear scriptures linking the Abrahamic promises and entrance into God’s eschatological sanctuary to circumcision (e.g., Gen 17:12-14, Ezek 44:6-9). When the church, almost twenty years after the resurrection of Jesus, finally took steps to officially welcome Gentiles as Gentiles in, they did so not on the basis of clear Old Testament teaching but on the basis of what God was surprisingly, but undeniably, doing in the ministries of Barnabas, Paul, and Peter (read Acts 15:1-21). James, the leader of the Jerusalem church did finally appeal to Scripture, but not for delimiting proof, but for corroboration (Acts 15:15 :“with this [i.e., God’s unanticipated work through Peter] the words of the prophets agree”; note further how James’ appeal is aided by the wording of the Septuagint [the Greek translation] over against the original Hebrew of Amos 9:11-12). But this official decision hardly settled the issue; the subsequent story in Acts and the Epistles reveals that the dangers of syncretism continued to be real—on both sides! Yet God seemed pleased to let his people struggle through this issue.
And perhaps he still is! Once again the unexpected is happening. In many parts of the world, Satan has constructed the almost perfect Maginot Line against the Outside: he has preemptively warned captive peoples about the errors of Christ-faith and anathematized language useful for description of that faith (such as “son of God”); he has promised safety to the Christian remnant only if they will repress their evangelistic impulses and he has drenched the entire history of relationship in tragedy and ambiguity. But Yahweh has dropped in behind the defenses, on the Inside, as if to say, “If my messengers can’t be heard, I will go and introduce myself personally.” And here is the beauty of it: God, once again, is not asking us to lead the charge; he is not even asking us to welcome these Christ-believers into the church (they do not even self-identify as Christians yet!); he’s just asking us to pray, remain connected, and to be ready to join his mission when appropriate.
Christianity Today has made the right choice, don't you think?
Stephen Taylor is Associate Professor of New Testament. He is a missionary kid fascinated with the question of the relationship between culture and understanding the Bible. Steve is married to Terri who is also intimately involved in global issues; and together they have five kids. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/stephen-taylor