The Insider Movement Rage

June 05, 2014

by David Garner

Missions is not what it used to be, because the study of missions and missions theories, called missiology, has taken a life of its own.

In recent years, the attention of the international Church has been turned to controversial approaches in missions birthed in the missiological think tanks. One of these paradigms, that rages with both interest and resistance, is called Insider Movements or Jesus Movements.[1] Fellow writer on, David Hall, has already introduced Insider Movement thinking and offered a biblical response. Here we continue what Dr. Hall has begun.

In short, the Insider Movement Paradigm fails to take the authority of the Bible seriously.[2]

Core ideas of Insider Movement thinking have been in the missiological hopper for decades, but only in recent years have the theology and practice of the Insider Movement Paradigm (IMP) burst into public discourse. In the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), Insider Movements and related Bible translation debates took center stage at the 39th General Assembly by an overture entitled, “A Call to Faithful Witness.” With this overture the Assembly voted to establish a study committee.

Having begun its work in Fall 2011, the Study Committee on Insider Movements (SCIM) has produced a two-part analysis: (1) Part One on Bible translations that alter filial and familial language for God, and (2) Part Two on the Insider Movement Paradigm. Part One of the report was received enthusiastically at the 40th General Assembly. Part Two of the report will be presented in June 2014 at the 42nd General Assembly.

Cross-cultural engagement is surely complicated. It always has been and always will be. But the challenges to cross-cultural missions come not only to the missionary, they also come from him.

The Dangers in Disciple Making

Disciple making is not an option. It is a biblical mandate, coming from the One to whom belongs all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt 28:18-20). As the risen Son of God in power (Rom 1:3-4), Jesus’ word really is our command.

Since true faith exercises both lips and legs, those converted love to tell the story and love to obey the story’s Master, Jesus Christ the Son of the living God. The pure gospel is truly amazing. Its exclusivity and preciousness make proclamation of the Way, the Truth, and the Life a stunning privilege and stirring obligation.

But as history attests, gospel witness perpetually faces grave dangers. Fox’s Book of Martyrs classically recounts the cost of discipleship and celebrates God-given courage in the face of Christ’s enemies. Recent news profiles a pregnant woman in Sudan facing execution because she refuses to renounce her Christian faith.[3] Events such as this occur around the world on a daily basis. Health dangers, political pressures, language and culture adaptations, family tensions, and travel perils heap additional stresses upon missionaries. The price tag of professing Christ can truly be high.

But more perilous than any of these is a missionary’s failure to communicate the true gospel truly: “the danger namely that in striving to commend Christianity to the heathen and to remove their stubborn and abounding difficulties in accepting it we really accommodate Christianity to heathen thought—in a word we simply explain Christianity away.”[4]

B. B. Warfield continues, “The supremest danger which can attend a missionary in his work . . . [is] the danger that he who has gone forth to convert the heathen may find himself rather converted by the heathen.”[5]

The words strike forcefully precisely because the menace is real and the consequences are disastrous. The greatest temptation in missions comes when our “striving to commend Christianity” in the face of stubbornness and “abounding difficulties” presses us to relegate our affirmed commitment to Scripture’s authority to the sidelines.

The step from loving the lost to affirming their idolatry is never more than a word or deed away, but departure from the revealed truth decimates authentic ministry. It is only when Scripture weighs squarely on our methods in ministry that testimony of Scripture’s authority means anything at all. Confessing Scriptural authority is not the same thing as carrying out that authority. Affirming biblical authority is not identical to applying it.

I should flesh this out a bit more. When decisions about what I say or how I say it fail to apply Scripture’s self-interpreting authority (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.9), my decisions about these words and methods rest on some authority other than the Bible’s.

And here is the threat that disturbed Warfield and should disturb us. The pressures to perform or even to win unbelievers, when unchecked by biblical truth, can sway the well-intended missionary (or minister) away from biblical moorings.

Whether due to pragmatism, personal fears, economics, inadequate theological preparations, or cultural anthropology, compartmentalized biblical authority will always lead to error. That is, when we apply biblical authority selectively, we assess things like culture, religious practices, and identity according to non-biblical (sociological, cultural anthropological) categories. The Bible serves as a tool in our interpretive hands, rather than a comprehensive authority for analysis of cultures, religions, and peoples. [6] In no time, contextualization becomes concession. Adaptation becomes compromise. The Jesus proclaimed becomes one other than the biblical Lord. The Christian becomes as the heathen.

From Missions to Missiology: The Insider Movement Paradigm

Since the time Warfield’s troubled remarks took to paper, the crisis has multiplied exponentially. No longer are Warfield’s worries missionary problems; they are now missiological ones. Such change is worse than mere numerical expansion. The very practice Warfield warned against is now promoted as missionary method, and one common expression of such method is the IMP.

Applying creative cultural anthropological constructions, missiologists argue earnestly that good missions makes diversity of peoples, cultures, and religions[7] ultimate and virtually non-negotiable.[8] In these paradigms, preserving cultural and religious diversity reigns over pursuing confessional, theological solidarity. Esteeming differences overshadows the transcendent word of God concerning what is true of men and women worldwide.

In anticipation of common pushback, let me point out that I absolutely do not contend for transcendent abstract theological principles. Quite to the contrary, Scripture presents concrete and theologically rich historical realities: the historical creation of male and female in the image of God; the historical covenant made with mankind in Adam; the historical fall; and the historically redefining life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These, among other biblical, historical realities, define peoples and cultures everywhere and must exhaustively shape our interpretation of them.

Yet the IMP does not give these biblical transhistorical and cross-cultural realities their meaningful weight. Instead it makes interpretive and methodological decisions about culture and religion based altogether upon the soft sciences – anthropology, sociology, and other forms of ethnography. It silences the Scripture’s authoritative voice. Its reliance upon other non-biblical authorities is functionally despotic.

And now under this totalitarian framework of cultural anthropology, the new Gumby standard has broken the biblical backbone of missions. What Warfield considered a sad anomaly has turned into a sophisticated, relativistic, and elastic methodology. Disobedient practice has morphed into missions models.

The Insider Movement Paradigm presents a sustained yet slippery example of such raging innovation in missions. [9]

Originally Published on Place for Truth.

[1] For detailed analysis of this approach, see David B. Garner, “High Stakes: Insider Movement Hermeneutics and the Gospel,” Themelios 37.2 (July 2012): 249–274. Online version: Available online.

[2] See David Hall, “Update on the Insider Movement,” (May 29, 2014): Available online.  Advocacy of the Insider Movement Paradigm, in its varied manifestations, comes for a variety of reasons and depends on multiple sources of analysis and input. But in all its forms, the Insider Movement Paradigm qualifies, marginalizes, and sequesters biblical authority. Other authorities consistently eclipse Scripture.

[3] Faith Karimi and Mohammed Tawfeeq, “Appeal Filed for Sudanese Woman Sentenced to Death for Her Christianity,” (May 22, 2014). Available online. (accessed May 24, 2014).

[4] B. B. Warfield, “Some Perils of Missionary Life,” in John E. Meeter, ed., Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield (Vol. 2; Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1973): 505. Warfield gave this as an address to prospective missionaries. The entire address runs from pp. 497–516.

[5] Warfield, “Perils,” 498.

[6] To be clear, this concern in no way dismisses the appropriately applied input of the soft sciences. But these uninspired and humanly interpreted inputs must always take their place at the feet of Scripture.

[7] The relationship between culture and religion is complex, but in no way operates outside the scope of Scripture’s authoritative voice. J. H. Bavinck says, “Religion is culture made visible,” The Impact of Christianity on the Non-Christian World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 57. Bavinck states elsewhere, “The practices dominating social life can never be detached or even thought of apart from their religious basis,” An Introduction to the Science of Missions, trans. David Hugh Freeman (Philadelphia: P&R, 1960), 175.

[8] Of course effective missions require great on the field adaptability, but this flexibility must be governed by the Scripture’s own “macro–historical and –cultural outlook,” which “transforms and redirects life in the first century Mediterranean world. . ., and establishes the continuity necessary for meaningful transhistorical and cross-cultural contacts,” Richard Gaffin, Jr., Gospel In Context 1.1 (1978), 22.

[9] Despite the common retort from IM advocates that their work describes rather than prescribes, their prolific writing advocating their viewpoints and methods counters such a claim. “Description has openly become prescription,” David B. Garner, “High Stakes: Insider Movement Hermeneutics and the Gospel, Themelios 37.2 (2012): 255. The online version of this essay can be found here.

Read More On insider movement, Missions

David Garner

Dr. Garner (PhD, Westminster) is associate professor of systematic theology and vice president for advancement at WTS.

Next Post...

Treading Through the Tenets: Of Metaphysics and Marriage

June 01, 2014

by Scott Oliphint