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David B. Garner is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and Pastor of Teaching at Proclamation Presbyterian Church (Bryn Mawr, PA). Pastor, professor, and author, he has also served as a missionary, ministering in Europe and Central and Southeast Asia. From 2003-2007, he served as Director for TE3 (Theological Education for Eastern Europe), a regional theological training ministry based in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Column: Sine Qua Non by David Garner

Explaining the Gospel Away

June 12, 2014 •

The Heart of the Insider Movement Paradigm

Extreme practices of the Insider Movement Paradigm (IMP), like those missionaries who publicly convert to Islam in order to “reach” those in the mosque,[1] are rejected even by most IM advocates. But the concerns before the Church of Jesus Christ around the world are not merely fringe excesses in IMP, but its wide and prevalent center and what we might call its “soft” forms.

In a recent Modern Reformation article, Bill Nikides has captured core commitments of leading IM advocates:

Insider Movements (IM) are variously defined as "popular movements to Christ that bypass both formal and explicit expressions of Christian religion" (Kevin Higgins, "The Key to Insider Movements," Internal Journal of Frontier Missiology, Winter 2004). Another definition Higgins offers is that they are "movements to Jesus that remain to varying degrees inside the social fabric of Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, or other people groups." In other words, as John Ridgeway [formerly] of the Navigators relates, Insider Movements advocate "becoming faithful disciples of Jesus within the culture of their people group, including religious culture."[2]

Even mainstream forms of IM thinking make explicit the commitment to a “belief” in Christ that not only enables, but also encourages maintaining identity in one’s own religion and legitimizes continuing features of its practice. Such practices include mosque attendance, saying the shahāda (“There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet”), ritual washings, and practicing salāt (ritual prayers).

“Soft” IM will often deny promoting “indefinite retention” of Muslim identity and religious practice, but never repudiate such retention. Failure to forbid such retention appears universally in all forms of IM. Thus in the IMP, we find such self-labels sanctioned and even celebrated: “Muslim followers of Jesus,” “Messianic Muslims,” and “biblical Muslims.”

In some cases, these conceptions are considered transitional, but the IM hands-off approach to believing Jesus and practicing foreign religions gains acceptance because, as IM advocate Becky Lewis has put it, “no one should consider one religious form of faith in Christ to be superior to another.”[3] The logic? Christianity is not a religion, so Christianity is unconcerned with religions.

Making matters worse, IM advocates up the ante by insisting that IM is the work of the Holy Spirit. And who, after all, would dare obstruct the work of God the Spirit? Yet, the IMP does not operate with a biblical view of the Spirit’s work in and through the Church.

“That the Spirit of God can and does work in unexpected ways is without question (see John 3). That he works without consideration for Christ’s church as biblically defined is, well, simply unbiblical. After all, Scripture makes abundantly clear that Christ’s headship is linked directly to his church (see, e.g., Eph 1:22–23; 5:23), and the Holy Spirit works in absolute solidarity with the will of the Father and the Son (John 14:15–17, 25–31; 16:4–15; Rom 8:9–11). Moreover, the teaching given through the apostles, which underscores the centrality of the church over which Jesus is Lord, also reveals unique, nonnegotiable characteristics of that church, including biblical organization (Titus 1:5); regular assembly (Heb 10:24–25); baptism (Matt 28:18–20; Acts 2:38–39); the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:17–32); and preaching, fellowship, and prayer (Acts 2:42; 2 Tim 4:1–2).” [4]

Despite sustained denials by IM advocates, in these so-called “Spirit worked” movements, Jesus yields to the lordship of Muhammad. It is that simple and that disturbing.

As I have witnessed in Bangladesh, IMP applied inevitably produces Islamized Christianity. In other IM contexts, Jesus gets cloaked in Buddhism and to Hinduism. The religion is different, the syncretism the same. IMP does not produce biblical Christianity but an ungodly merger of truth and error. The offspring of such unholy unions will always be hideous, helpless and hopeless.

In God’s mercy, no doubt some impacted by the IMP will come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. But any accounts of such personal salvation reinforce the abounding patience and mercy of God, not the validity of the IMP. God’s work in spite of our foolishness does not warrant making a paradigm out of foolishness.

The Church Must Respond

Controversies in missions are nothing new. In fact, the particular controversies at play in the IMP have traceable historical predecessors. And the response, which was true then, is equally true now. The only antidote to these errors is the faith as revealed in Scripture, which are wisely and worthily summarized in confessional standards such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms.

The faithful Church worldwide must arise, boldly advance biblical faith, and forbid any winsome presentation of error to win the day. No matter how compelling it sounds, error remains unfaithful and unloving. The IMP debate must not get framed in some false dichotomy between sterile confessionalism and gospel charity, between fearful theological retrenchment and courageous gospel advance, or between binding the Holy Spirit and relishing his dynamic ministry. Such categorizations are not only unbiblical, but are wholly unfair, unhelpful, and unloving.

Further, now is no time to seek a “big tent” compromise or to view this debate as simply two equally valid yet differing opinions about missions. The IMP in all its versions operates with theological commitments incompatible with those of the historic Christian faith. For those still seeking a compromising synthesis of these two mutually exclusive points of view, Puritan Robert Traill warns, “such men as are for ‘middle ways’ in point of doctrine, have usually a greater kindness for that extreme they go half-way to, than for that which they go half-way from.”[5] To put it starkly, an unnerving sympathy exists within much current discourse to extend the tent pegs of theology for the sake of charity. Such theological latitude is neither faithful nor charitable.

Explain or Explain Away?

So how far will we go? When will we concern ourselves again with theological integrity in missions? Perhaps the Apostle Paul puts the questions best: “For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols?” (2 Cor. 6:14b-16a)

The IMP does not present the gospel faithfully and is therefore not faithful missions. We must not pretend, for any reason, that it is.  We must not become complicit—theologically, missionally, or financially—in any agreement of the temple of God with idols.

To love Christ is to long to see his redemption purely proclaimed and to see sinners truly claimed. Under the faithful direction of the Head of the Church, the faithful Church will love missions and do missions . . .  faithfully. It will never explain the gospel away, but for the sake of Jesus Christ and his Church, will tirelessly explain the gospel.

[1] David B. Garner, “High Stakes: Insider Movement Hermeneutics and the Gospel,” Themelios 37.2 (July 2012): 250. Online version:

[2] Bill Nikides, “Insider Movements and the Busted Church,” Modern Reformation 21.4 (July/August 2012): 36-39. For an online version, see (Accessed May 24, 2014)

[3]  Rebecca Lewis, “The Integrity of the Gospel and Insider Movements,” IJFM  27:1 (2010): 45, available at (accessed May 24, 2014). For full interaction with Rebecca Lewis, see Garner, “High Stakes,” 249–274.

[4] Garner, “High Stakes,” 269.

[5] Recorded in James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification: An Outline of Its History in the Church and Its Exposition from Scripture (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1867), 173.


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