If you’re like me, you’ve experienced a fair bit of fatigue concerning the contextualization debate among evangelical circles over the last couple years. Sometimes it seems the issue is getting more and more polarized, with some calling the other a heretic, although there is still hope that all the sides can come together. In any case, I’m kind of tired of reading the same old arguments and trying to cover the blitz of articles coming at us.
So if you want to get caught up on the most recent articles and thinking, and are trying to find a common path that we can (almost) all agree on, then search no more. Inside/Outside: getting to the center of the Muslim contextualization debates, by J. S. William tackles all these issues and more. (I also want to brag that Circumpolar’s Abdul Asad is quoted a couple times in the article.)
While not trying to advocate a certain stance per se, J. S. William summarizes the C5 arguments, clears up common misunderstandings about them, and tries to get past the surface arguments to the heart of the matter. In bold is an extended outline of the 38 page article – with my own personal (and sometimes tangential) comments of the point at hand:
- Introduction – There is a firestorm of controversy around the idea of “Muslim followers of Jesus.” Unfortunately there is often more heat than light.
- Basic Positions on the Debate – There is a difference between “insider” and “C5,” although the terms are often (mistakenly) used interchangeably. Both sides have similar levels of experience, expertise, and conviction. Critics range from total rejection (sometimes very mean-spirited criticism) of C5 to respectful engagement with it.
- Points of Confusion – What the debate is NOT about.
- C5 means Christian missionaries saying they are Muslims – Practically no one does this and no one advocates it.
- C5 is about avoiding the persecution Jesus promised – C5ers do not try to avoid all persecution. The point is that persecution, when it does happen, should be because of someone’s faith in Jesus and not for the wrong reasons. Many insiders themselves suffer for Christ. C6 follower of Christ may temporarily hide, but this is not desirable and usually due to extreme circumstances.
- Like the Emergent Church, IM waters down doctrine and/or redefines orthodoxy to the extent of subsuming orthodox Christian doctrine to orthodox Islamic doctrine – The real association between the two is the asking of questions like, “How do we reach a resistant sector of the global society with the Gospel? Is it perhaps our methods that are flawed?” IMO, the church in every generation needs to self-asses if they are biblical.
- IM does not encourage believers to gather as a “Church” –What we need to do is define the biblical term “ekklesia.” C5 proponents want ekklesia. There can be missional reasons for a MBB going to a mosque.
- All Muslims believe and practice the same thing, so to be an Insider is to believe and Practice those same things – Islam is extremely diverse. What does it mean to be a Muslim? The answer varies considerably. See the posts: “I am an Atheist and a Muslim” and Islam is Not a Civilization.
- Only one approach is necessary – C5 could definitely be wrong or at least unnecessary in some contexts.
- IM advocates manipulative language in order to sneak in Muslim accommodation and undermine Christian orthodoxy – This charge is subjective and judgmental.
- Areas of remaining tension and discussion – What the real issues are:
- Can meaning and form be separated from one another? Moreover, is it appropriate and necessary to translate words and forms based on “meaning units” (dynamic equivalency) rather than “word-for-word” or “form-for-form” conversion of terms? – The principal of dynamic equivalence actually has broad, deep support among evangelicals. Fundamentalists are usually against it.
- Are meaning-based translations that seek alternative terms from those that have historically offended and distracted Muslim audiences able to maintain accuracy and faithfulness to the intended-meanings of the text? – This is a tough call. The “Son of God” translation issue for Muslims is extremely complicated, and it may never have a clear answer.
- Are there significant numbers of true followers of Jesus who continue to identify themselves as Muslims? Is it important that Western outsiders verify and evaluate this? – Yes many Muslim followers of Jesus exist, although just because something happens doesn’t mean it has God’s approval, nor that it needs Western approval.
- Is following Jesus a “religion”? If so or if not, what does this mean for our understanding of a religion such as “Islam”? – This is a key issue. I have actually written a “Worker Scale” (a la the C Scale) that shows 4 different paradigms how we as evangelical workers understand the theology of engagement with other Religions: 1) Destruction Model “Christianity destroys Islam”, 2) Replacement Model “Christianity replaces Islam”, 3) Redemptive Model “Christianity redeems/changes/transforms Muslims”, 4) Fulfillment Model “Christianity fulfills Islam”. I’m thinking of posting or publishing this W Scale soon.
- What are the elements of genuine Christ-centered discipleship? What role do tradition, historical Christian confessions, foreign missionaries, and the Holy Spirit’s leading have in bringing someone into genuine conformity to Christ-likeness? – The process of discipleship is messy, it is messy in every context, but it is a process nevertheless. The point is to get MBBs firmly grounded in their identity in Christ and in the Bible and in community with one another. But how MBBs eventually work out their socio-religious identity and how they deal with idols in their culture is a process they need to be prepared for, not just told what to do by a cultural outsider.
- To what extent does a follower of Jesus need to visibly relate to the global body of Christ and traditional churches in their regional area but outside of their typical community? – “Most likely, this debate has more to do with the question of “when” not “if.”” They key is to view all movements as transitional in nature. How many years did it take until “Christianity” was formed in the 1st or 2nd or 3rd Century Mediterranean world? As Bosch says in Transforming Mission, “Either the movement disintegrates or it becomes an institution, this is simply a sociological law. Every religious group that started out as a movement and managed to survive, did so because it was gradually institutionalized” (52).
- How should Insiders view and talk about Mohamed? – See the post Was Mohammed a prophet? for various ways people try to answer this question. Continued allegiance or faith in Mohammed will obviously not help MBBs grow spiritually. MBBs need to be grounded in Christ and Word alone. But how they talk about him when witnessing is a different matter. Syncretism is a serious threat for all of us, not just MBBs. Each culture has it’s idols: Mohammed, Islam, or the Mosque could all be potential idols for MBBs.
- Conclusion – Although we will not totally agree with one another (I disagree with myself at times), Rom. 14-15 teaches us not to judge one another. Love and humility is needed. JS William closes the article by offering seven statements he hopes we can all agree on (I include them in their entirety):
- We aim to see vibrant, Jesus-loving and Jesus-centered communities that are faithful to the Scriptures and living out their discipleship in their community.
- We aim to see people meaningfully connected to their unbelieving social networks, without denying or diminishing Jesus' centrality, for the sake of the Gospel.
- We aim to see strong, robust, transformed families.
- We aim to live out the biblical calling of teaching, rebuking, warning, and loving new believers as Christ is formed in them.
- We aim to be listeners and learners in the midst of that process; we know we bear cultural baggage and we want as much as possible for the Gospel to be implanted within the new culture and to avoid setting a foreign cultural standard.
- We believe that those who are joined to Jesus will suffer in this fallen world and will suffer especially for their devotion to Jesus. Though some might look to avoid pre-mature persecution, we do not believe persecution can be completely avoided nor that it should be. "All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." (2 Tim 3:16).
- Though our time-frames differ for accomplishing it, we aim to see Jesus-centered communities from Muslim backgrounds connected to and embraced by the global body of Christ.
So go ahead and read the whole thing for some light, leisurely reading during the holidays.