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Robert Priest presently serves as Professor of Mission and Anthropology at TEDS, our Free Church seminary. Priest received his MDiv degree at TEDS. After completing his doctorate and teaching elsewhere for a few years, he returned to TEDS in 1999.

We are today living during a time of a moral tsunami. One of the major tidal waves in this tsunami is homosexuality. Both the culture and the law are bending under the weight of the waves. As Christians we live under the Lordship of Christ under the authority of the Scriptures, we seek to live and respond in a manner that is Christlike and faithful. At last year’s EFCA Theology Conference, we addressed the broader theme of “The Theology of Human Sexuality” with a focus on homosexuality.

Though many have been addressing this issue, there has not been much said or done among missiologists. Priest recommends that change. Because of the calling and gifting of missiologists, they are in a unique position to address the issue of homosexuality, and to provide a significant voice to the discussion and to make an important contribution to the church.

Priest provides “Five Reasons Missiologists Should Focus Attention on Homosexuality.” I include Priest’s five reasons, along with a key excerpt from each of the longer statements.

First, it is the very purpose and nature of missiology to focus on variable cultural contexts around the world wherever ministry occurs. And one of the most dramatically influential cultural trends of our contemporary world, conditioning the contexts in which ministry occurs, is the trend towards new moral sensibilities, norms, and socio-legal arrangements involving homosexuality.  

Second, how Christians engage this topic affects the credibility of our witness. . . . missiology as a discipline retains a central focus on how to engage others through a positive witness of the gospel, how flexibly to work with people in the messiness of life, and historically has developed in relation to contexts outside of Christendom, where influence came through suasion, not political control.

Third, while missiology works to be biblical and theological, it nonetheless also retains a central focus on empirical and inductive research related to human realities.   Missiology is thus arguably the only discipline within theological education that systematically focuses on contemporary variable human realities, and that does so through a sustained use of social science methods and through sustained interaction with the wider theories of the human sciences. And this is precisely what is needed in this discussion.

Fourth, because of its comparative and global focus, missiology is well positioned to explore the extent to which our current conversations (both within our church settings, and in society at large) are parochial and based on culturally contingent assumptions. . . . No other discipline within theological education is better positioned to help us think about the global and comparative, than is missiology. But to draw from its strengths here, missiology must first become intentional about working on this topic.

Finally, missiology has been the theological discipline more than any other which is attentive both to possibilities of syncretism with cultural ideology on the one end, and healthy contextualization on the other. . . . That is, at the very core of the missiological mandate is the sense that culture and human context is something to be responded to both critically and positively, in the light of Scripture, but while being attentive to the possibility that our received interpretations of Scripture sometimes are less than faithful to Scripture, and may require further scrutiny and consideration.

Priest followed this post by addressing “Three Challenges to Overcome if Missiologists are to Appropriately Engage Homosexuality.”  He believes that missiologists could bring “real strengths to the topic, and that such a contribution would benefit the wider church.” In order for missiologists to benefit the wider church, Priest identifies hurdles to overcome, “three challenges we must address” in order to contribute to the discussion of the topic and to engage meaningfully with people.

Here are Priest’s three challenges in summary form:

Challenge #1: Inhibiting Forms of Spirituality. Many of us have been socialized to a form of spirituality that, once embraced, inhibits us from thinking about, talking about, writing about, and researching sexuality.

Challenge #2: The Lack of Prior Foundational Work. The topic of sexuality, and especially homosexuality, has been largely missing from our missiological course offerings, research agendas, professional meetings, and publications. This means that we have not been carefully nurturing the understandings that would position us well to contribute to the public debates of our society and of our churches.

Challenge #3: The Current Politicized Context.  It is often difficult for scholarship to proceed in the way scholarship should when a topic is highly politicized.

In Priest’s third challenge he writes, “If missiology is to address these realities in a way that is truly helpful, in addition to ‘intentionality,’ it will require at least three things,” which he identifies as “courage,” “patience,” and “respect.”

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with Priest, or some of both?

Question:

I am trying to find out something about the new Muslim friendly translation to be done by Wycliffe/SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics). What is this about, and do you have any information about this?

Response:

This is an important question. It is very important to note that there are two interconnected issues, and we must extricate them so that we can appropriately respond to each individually and then also the two together, because they are related. The one issue is that of ministry to Muslim Background Believers (MBB) and the Insider Movements (IM) focusing on contextualization (C1-C6). The second is focused on the question you raise, that of translation, specifically the divine familial language.

First, a translation for Muslims has already been done for part of the Bible that attempts to be culturally sensitive to translating “Divine Familial Terms,” such as “God the Father” and the “Son of God.” What has happened is that due to numerous questions and concerns and people/churches pulling their financial support from Wycliffe they have stopped promoting and translating so that their translation theory can be appropriately addressed by experts.

Second, most from Wycliffe/SIL who have been a part of this up to this point are missiologists, not biblical scholars or theologians. Though they may understand the dynamics of translation and though they may understand the importance of understandability of translations in the receptor language, they are often less sensitive to the importance of a word and the use of a word across the canon. “God the Father” and the “Son of God” are such words/expressions.

Third, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) has put together a panel to serve as an Independent Bible Translation Review with the following task:

In the light of certain controversies about Bible translation, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), as a respected and trusted global evangelical association, has been asked to form a panel to independently review Wycliffe and SIL International’s translation of “God the Father” and the “Son of God.” The panel’s mandate includes reviewing SIL’s translation practices; setting boundaries for theologically acceptable translation methodology particularly in Muslim contexts; and suggesting how to practically implement these recommendations.

The Panel consists of the following scholars/experts:

  • Milton Acosta, Old Testament
  • Donald Fairbairn, Early Christianity and Historical Theology
  • Atef Gendy, New Testament
  • Ida Glaser, Biblical and Islamic Studies
  • Rob Haskell, Systematic Theology
  • Karen Jobes, New Testament
  • Ghassan Khalaf, Biblical Studies and Theology
  • Melba Padilla Maggay, Social Anthropology
  • Scott Moreau, Intercultural Studies
  • Kang-San Tan, Mission Studies
  • Roland Werner, African Linguistics & Theology
  • Dudley Woodberry, Mission Studies
  • Robert Cooley, Panel Moderator

This Panel met in November 2012, is scheduled to meet a second time early this spring, with an anticipated final report due in April of this year.

Finally, D. A. Carson has written a book on this issue: Jesus the Son of God: A Christological Title Often Overlooked, Sometimes Misunderstood, and Currently Disputed (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012). As with most everything Carson writes, it is excellent.

Christianity Today has printed a number of articles about Insider Movements. I will include highlights from articles the rest of the week.

We begin with Timothy C. Tennant who addresses the history of Insider Movements: “The Hidden History of Insider Movements,” Christianity Today 57/1 (January/February 2013)

Tennant refers to the original article I included in yesterday’s blog post written by John Travis, and he includes the C-1 to C-6 spectrum with a brief explanation (consider this a review). Note that one of the important things he identifies is that C, contextualization, focuses on three areas: “the language of worship, the cultural and/or religious forms used in both public life and worship, and self-identity as a Muslim or as a Christian.”

The debate has persisted for some 20 years. Missiologist John Travis helped give shape to the debate with his foundational report, “The C1 to C6 Spectrum: A Practical Tool for Defining Six Types of ‘Christ-centered Communities’ (‘C’) Found in the Muslim Context,” published in Evangelical Missions Quarterly in 1998. In it, Travis correctly noted that Muslim-background believers, known as MBBS, are not all alike, but contextualize their new faith in Christ along a spectrum. The letter C reflects differences based on three main areas: the language of worship, the cultural and/or religious forms used in both public life and worship, and self-identity as a Muslim or as a Christian. The spectrum runs like this:

C-1 refers to a “traditional church using outsider language.” Outsider language is a language originating outside Islamic culture. These believers call themselves Christians.

C-2 refers to a “traditional church using insider language.” This church is the same as a C-1 community but worships in the language of the Muslim population (such as Arabic or Turkish).

C-3 refers to “contextualized Christ-centered communities using insider language and religiously neutral cultural forms.” These churches adopt the language of the surrounding Islamic community and embrace nonreligious cultural forms, such as folk music, dress, and artwork. A C-3 church would filter out any religious forms specifically associated with Islam. The majority of members are MBBS.

C-4 refers to “contextualized Christ-centered communities using insider language and biblically permissible cultural and Islamic forms.” These churches adapt Islamic forms as long as Scripture does not explicitly forbid them. C-4 communities accept Islamic terms for God (Allah), Islamic prayer (salat), and the Gospels (Injil). Most C-4 churches follow the Islamic practices of avoiding pork and abstaining from alcohol. C-4 believers normally call themselves “followers of Isa al Masih” (Jesus the Messiah) or members of the Isaya Umma (“Community of Jesus”). The Islamic community would not view C-4 followers as Muslims.

C-5 refers to “Christ-centered communities of ‘Messianic Muslims’ who have accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior.” These followers of Isa remain legally and socially within Islam. The Muslim community views them as Muslims. They reject or, if possible, reinterpret features of Islamic theology that are clearly incompatible with biblical faith.

C-6 refers to “small Christ-centered communities of secret/underground believers.” These are believers living under the threat of persecution and retaliation from the government or their family or community if others knew they followed Jesus. They worship Christ secretly. If discovered, C-6 believers would almost certainly face prison or death.

Most mission workers accept C-4 as an acceptable form of contextualization. But the pressure point is over C-5 believers, which, according to Tennant, “are not actually Muslim-background believers, but Muslim believers.”

Most mission workers today accept C-4 as the most appropriate form of contextualization. The current debate has largely centered on C-5 believers. They are not actually Muslim-background believers, but Muslim believers. They retain their Muslim identity. They regard Muhammad as a prophet—not in the “final” sense that Muslims claim, of course, but as a man who led the peoples of Arabia out of polytheism and into monotheism.

Tennant highlights five issues regarding the current debate about C-5 believers.

First is biblical precedence. Scholars seriously debate if the Acts 15 Jerusalem Council decision regarding Gentiles applies to insider movements and, if so, how does it apply to both the cultural and religious identity of Gentiles.

Second, scholars debate the relationship of personal salvation to identifying with the larger church and other Christians. And they wonder how much a true Christian movement needs to confess historical Christian doctrines in order to truly be Christian.

Third, there are many who ask if it is ethical to encourage followers of Jesus to retain their Muslim self-identity—the key difference between C-4 and C-5.

Fourth, scholars debate whether C-5 groups are a new phenomenon, or whether they are merely an extension of issues rooted in the Protestant Reformation.

Finally, scholars debate whether C-5 represents a valid, permanent movement in the Islamic or Hindu world, or whether they are an acceptable transitional bridge that will eventually lead Muslims and Hindus into explicit Christian identity.

Amid the debates, one thing is clear: Christ-loving movements are growing in countries where a traditional church has been absent or long gone. Both theologians and on-the-ground leaders will need to reflect with care on the C-1 to C-6 debate as the gospel takes root in new contexts.

I conclude with a few questions to consider.

  • Have you or the church where you are a member discussed Insider Movements?
  • Of these five key issues, what do you consider most important? Least important?
  • What, if anything, would you add?