Can the Jerusalem Council shed light on the insider movement issue?

A Response to Kevin Higgins’ article  “ACTS 15 AND INSIDER MOVEMENTS AMONG MUSLIMS: QUESTIONS, PROCESS AND CONCLUSIONS”  presented at the 6th Korea Mission Leaders Forum.[1]

Author: Hyoun Mo Lee[2]

Section:  Practical Theology, Missiology & Intercultural Studies

It is a privilege for me to have this opportunity to respond to Kevin Higgins’ article, as he is one of the scholars supporting insider movements among Muslims. Higgins’ article attempts to discover the core issues surrounding the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15 and to examine the process of how difficult problems between the Apostles and early Christian leaders were resolved. I believe his analysis sheds additional light on the on-going current debate surrounding insider movements among Muslims.   

Acts 15 is an appropriate text as a Biblical foundation regarding current debates on insider movements among Muslims, of which the church must deal with the surfacing conflict of Gentiles forming a new religious and cultural identity outside the first century Jewish community. But, because Higgins’ article assumes familiarity with other published papers, I will not confine my argument only to his article

I view the recent heated debates on insider movements as something positive. It is encouraging to see that missiological breakthroughs did take place among many unreached people groups (UPGs) due to the worldwide revival movements in the late 20th century and now we begin to talk about the closure of the mission task. However, upon closer look, we see that the greatest challenges still remain. The major three religious blocs—Islam, Hindu and Buddhism, where most of the UPGs are found—have not experienced any meaningful breakthroughs. Where breakthroughs have occurred it has been predominately among pluralistic Catholics in Latin America, tribal cultures in Africa, and the former communist areas where the pre-existing religions were greatly damaged by its influence. For the closure of the mission task, it seems that we now enter into the unavoidable challenging aspect in those key religious blocs. Evaluating the mission effort up until now, we sense that the limitation that traditional methods are facing require new methods or approaches. With this background, the insider movement approach is potentially a new breakthrough we desire to see. 

The C1-C6 spectrum developed by John Travis ignited the debate about insider movements. Most of the arguments (debates for and against) are made in regard to the spectrum and mainly focused specifically on (defining) the C4-C5 debate. Rebecca Lewis argues that the insider movement is not a matter of higher contextualization, and needs to be dealt with separately from the C-5 model. The major issues raised by those who are against the C5 model can be outlined as follows: First, can we consider those who continue to remain in the mosque and retain their Muslim identity as saved? In other words, is it possible for them to be genuinely saved while they confess Muhammad as God’s prophet and have no understanding of the Triune God? Secondly, is there any Biblical support for insider movements? Is it possible to see Jewish believers in Acts as an example of an insider movement? Are we interpreting the Bible in a reductionist way or as John Piper indicated, are we making a mistake by minimizing the Bible? Thirdly, are insider movements or C5 model a transitional process whereby MMBs (Muslim Background Believers) or MBs (Muslim Believers) are absorbed by Christianity in the end, or remain separately consistent movements? Are insider movements syncretistic or will they simply become accepted as a branch of Christianity?

           The debate is now being extended beyond the realm of strategy to include the central issues of Christian theology such as soteriology and ecclesiology. What is necessary for the Muslim’s salvation? Is someone saved if he or she believes in Jesus as Savior and the forgiveness of sin by His redemptive work on the cross? Or does salvation also entail an understanding and recognition of the Trinity? Is it a recurrence of the debate on the core of the Gospel, which appeared in the early contextualization arguments? Is salvation individualistic or communal in its dimension? What is the church? Can we say that a church exists even in a Mosque if a group of believers are in it? While the debate is becoming more intense, the two parties are exchanging pros and cons. In general the methodologies adopted in such debate are Biblical, theological, and historical approaches. In addition to these approaches, a pastoral (or ministerial) dimension is needed as well.

Among the hotly debated arguments, Kevin’s admirable article suggests a way to resolve the issue, based upon an excellent Biblical approach. This article is well organized with well-stated apologetic arguments. In fact, some of the Biblical basis that pro-C5 people suggest are Acts 15:1-29 (especially 15:19), 1 Corinthians 7:20, 1 Corinthians 9:19-22, 2 Kings 5:18, 19, etc. Timothy Tennant, who teaches missiology at Gordon Cornwell Seminary, argued that all those verses were inappropriate as a Biblical basis for insider movements. He argued that the conclusion of Acts 15 was the separation requirement of the Gentile’s religious identity. He went on to state that the C4 model, which allows people to maintain their cultural identity, is valid, which C5 is invalid.[3] He pointed out that the dividing line between C4 and C5 was religious identity. In response to this view, Higgins made a different interpretation. The key point in the verses 1 – 5 is not a cultural one, but a matter of soteriology. And four essentials James suggested in Acts 20 are not a matter of religious identity but a matter of unity demanded for church fellowship. I think that Higgins’ argument is based on solid academic exegesis

At this point we face an important problem. What is essential for a Gentile’s salvation? What is the core of the Gospel that cannot be excluded? Is what we, the Church, present as the core essentials of salvation valid? Or could they be Western traditions? Is it enough to believe Jesus as the Son of God who is the Savior and died on the cross to save? Or do we have to believe in the infallibility and complete adequacy of the Bible to be saved? In the Trinity as well? Tennant seems to require understanding of the relationship between soteriology and ecclesiology by referring to a faith based on only the simple individualistic dimension and redemptive faith based on the ecclesiological dimension (tradition) (here, he seems to refer to the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed)? But, I cannot easily agree. That seems to be a burden that even the Western churches with their long history could not bear. Rather, the core value of Evangelicalism is its emphasis on the simplicity of the Gospel that can be easily adapted even for uneducated people, but if various requirements are mandated only for Muslim believers, it seems to be based on negative prepositions we have for Muslims. If we base salvation upon what the Holy Spirit does in Acts, then Peter declares Cornelius and his household saved without any further demands. It seems to be valid if we accept the fact of their salvation when the Holy Spirit comes to them according to what is written in the Acts. When the Holy Spirit came to Cornelius, Peter declared them saved without any further demands.     

Higgins argues that the Jerusalem Council did not cast any doubt whether the Gentiles were saved or not but aptly addressed unity between the Jewish and Gentile churches. This is a matter of acceptance of a new tradition formed by new churches. The issue is to find the lowest common denominator for unity whereby mutual acceptance is realized. However Tennant insists that maintaining Muslim identity after a conversion with genuine faith confession cannot be valid. That is to say, maintaining the name “Muslim” as one’s religious but not cultural identity is not appropriate. Higgins points out that the early Christians kept attending the Jewish religious rituals in the Temple even with the new salvific identity and thus a dual identity is possible from this point of view. He continues to argue that the new believers formed their unique Christian faith as an insider movement within Judaism until they were expelled from the Temple by the [other] Jews.


The major point of this issue is that we may have different positions according to whether we understand C5 as a continued expression of the orthodox Christian tradition or as a new movement standing outside the pale of Christian orthodoxy. It is a radical argument if we see it as a new movement standing outside the Christian tradition. Pro-insider-movement people argue that it is nothing new but that insider movements have existed all along throughout the redemptive history of God. I view it as a new movement, but in the long run it will be judged by its fruits. There is a demand for dialogue concerning the requirements of contextualization theology. Though it may be a new movement, in order for the unity of the global Christianity we may still need a least common denominator besides the faith confession. We need to have communication between outsiders and insiders, and patience in acknowledging the insiders’.

I agree with Higgins’ proposal regarding the process. We may need a historical approach in this. It is true to say that there are some difficulties when we have a closer look at insider movements. The statistical data proposed by Phil Parshall in 1998 is a representative object with which the insider movements is criticized. Indeed this is an important problem that should not be overlooked. However, it is a problem that needs improvement, but not something that should be abolished. Besides this, there are many other pitfalls. The arguments relating to how to reinterpret the Qur’an, Muhammad, the Shahadda, etc., contain dangerous propositions. However substitution of a baptismal concept for Muslims and reinterpretation on the Muslim’s “seasonal” ceremonies have long ago been proposed and some of them have now been accepted. We may need to establish boundaries and continue dialogue to overcome what has been pointed out as negative ones in insider movements.    

Let’s try to look back from a historical point of view. Observing church history, Western orthodox Christianity was always concerned about syncretism. In African mission history, local Africans were not nominated as priests. Westerners refused to elect African priests because they came from a heathen background and were uneducated. Now we admit that this is a failed case of Western mission, which is indeed based on an unhealthy superiority complex.  When the debate on contextualization first appeared, a number of Evangelicals immediately responded negatively, protesting that it would open the door to syncretism. Even when 1/3 world mission movement emerging, some of those (the western) Evangelicals reacted negatively because of concerns about syncretism. Recently when the C4 model was introduced for first time, some theologians defined it as syncretism and refused to accept it. Of course, we need to admit that the western orthodoxy has sustained the truth of the Gospel successfully. If it were not for this caution and warnings by western orthodoxy, the attempts described as above might become syncretistic.

As Higgins indicates, the issue of insider movements is one that will continue to require much discussion, observation and evaluation, which should be done by field practitioners. Therefore we should not throw it away with a presumed negative reaction. In debates of Tennant, John Piper, Corwin, etc, their arguments seem to have appropriate and reasonable concerns. The responses by Travis, Higgins, and Joshua Massey have also greatly improved. Thus I consider the on-going debate until now to be a healthy and constructive one. Something now missing is a religion-theological debates. Evangelicalism seems to be weak in religion theology and its history is relatively short. But, recently important voices are coming out of evangelical theological camp. David Bosch and Leslie Newbigin reaffirm the uniqueness of Jesus as the only way, but indicate that the grace of God has not been confined within the history of the Israelites. This is a weighty argument that opens up some new possibilities. A new study seems to be needed with fulfillment theology in a religio-cultural context. As a matter of fact, the insider movement has the presupposition based upon the concept of Jesus’ fulfillment in its approach. Evangelicals have not been in a positive position on the fulfillment theology. However, we may need to take a fresh look at this.

             Insider movements have much room for debate both now and into the future. Other problems of insider movements may arise as we deal with the Hindus and Buddhists. I would promote a positive and constructive approach regarding the insider movements. Then, we may see that the approach has the potential to offer major breakthrough for the closure of the task today.

[1] Kevin’s this paper was actually presented at ISFM conference held at Atlanta in US on September 2006.

[2] Dr. Hyoun Mo Lee is working as a professor at Baptist Theological Seminary in Dae-Jeon, Korea.

[3] Translator’s note: The Jerusalem council ceased pursuing the Gentiles’ own religious identity therefore argued that cultural identity to be preserved as in C4 model while not maintaining their religious identity as in C5 model.