Muslim Followers of Christ?—A Look Inside the “Insider Movement”
By Gregory Koukl and Alan Shlemon
It was like being in the middle of a “Twilight Zone” episode where you enter a room thinking it’s one place only to discover you’ve been transported to a different world.
There I was,1 at a missions conference in a large Evangelical church in the Midwest where I’d come to be taught—from seasoned missionaries with years of experience in the field—the most effective way to reach Muslims for Christ. What I heard next, though, left me speechless.
“I never ask a Muslim to become a Christian,” the missionary told us. “That’s because Muslims can enter the Kingdom of God as Muslims, and still remain Muslim”—Muslim followers of Christ, in a sense.
For 1400 years, he explained, the debate has been Christianity v. Islam, Jesus v. Muhammad, the Bible v. the Qur’an. But Jesus never asked a single person to become a “Christian.” Both Jesus and Paul spoke only of the Kingdom of God. Christians can enter God’s Kingdom, but Muslims can as well.2
When a second missionary mentioned “Muhammed,” he quickly added, “Peace be upon him,” the standard Muslim benediction for any reference to the prophet.
I looked around me, wondering if I was in a church or a mosque. I waited for a gasp from the audience, but none came, not even a murmur. I looked at a missions pastor seated at my table, but he didn’t flinch. No one seemed to note anything amiss.
Except for me.
Muslims for Christ?
This approach, known as the Insider Movement (IM), has been gaining momentum for decades overseas. Practitioners of this method work in foreign countries far from the eyes of the churches that support them. Many Christians, unaware of the movement, have unwittingly funded it with their donations. Only recently have American Christians been exposed to the details.
When I first heard of the IM, I found it hard to believe Christian missionaries actually embraced it. Then I met Anwar Hossein. Anwar was raised Muslim in Bangladesh. When he became a Christian in 1978, however, he was completely transformed by the power of the Gospel. Soon he was a church leader working with the Bengali Bible Society.
One day an American missionary came to Anwar with a proposal. He offered a strategic partnership—funded by Americans—to help Anwar reach Bangladesh for Christ. There was only one condition: Anwar had to become a Muslim again.
Anwar was stunned. I am no longer a Muslim, he thought to himself. I found Jesus Christ. I’ve been freed from the bondage of Islam. Now I’m being asked to return to the religion that enslaved me?
Anwar initially refused the offer, but eventually he was seduced by the promise of generous American funding. It was simply too good to pass up. But money wasn’t the only thing that enticed him. Missionaries in Bangladesh—as in all Muslim countries—were facing what seemed like insurmountable obstacles.
All Things to All Men
Ostensibly, the IM is driven by the desire to make the Gospel attractive and meaningful by communicating in a way that is least offensive and most persuasive given Muslim cultural and religious sensibilities. Missiologists call this contextualization. In Paul’s words, it’s an attempt to “become all things to all men” (1 Cor. 9:22). Potentially, the IM approach could solve real problems in the mission field.
First is the problem of dismissal. Muslims tend to dismiss the Gospel out of hand because of theological concepts they take to be blasphemous. For example, they think the term “Son of God” implies God had sexual relations with Mary to produce the child, Jesus. In addition, making anything equal with God, or suggesting that any created being shares kinship with God or qualities belonging only to Him, is a reprehensible sin called “shirk” that compromises the oneness (“Tawheed”) of Allah.
Second is the problem of failure. Western missionaries have been working among Muslims for decades with little to show for their efforts. There is tremendous pressure from mission agencies and their donors to get results. From a support perspective, nothing succeeds like success. Meager harvests—or no harvests at all—simply don’t inspire donors to persevere for the long haul. Funds begin to dry up.
Third is the problem of persecution. It is difficult—if not impossible—for former Muslims to live as Christians in an Islamic country. Threats, harassments, and persecutions become a way of life for them. Since apostasy from Islam is a capital crime in some Muslim countries, visible converts frequently forfeit their lives.
Fourth is the problem of extraction. Since a convert’s family is often the first (and most intense) source of persecution, these new Christians are driven out of their homes and often completely out of their communities, an exile that separates them from the very people who desperately need to hear the message of forgiveness the Christian is in the best position to provide.
The Insider Movement purports to offer a solution to each of these problems. The key to the approach is to keep new converts “inside” the Muslim socio-religious community3 where they can be most effective. They “self-identify” as Muslims, even though they are now followers of Jesus (who they refer to as Isa). This kinship with Islam takes different forms, depending on the IM advocate.4
As members of the Muslim community, “Muslim followers of Jesus” practice many of the same behaviors as other Muslims. Many “insider” Christians still pray at the mosque (though in their hearts they pray to Jesus) and study the Qur’an. They confess the Islamic creed (the shahada): “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet”—the first of the five “Pillars of Islam.” Indeed, some observe all the pillars: reciting the shahada, offering the daily prayers, giving alms, fasting during Ramadan, and completing a pilgrimage to Mecca (the hajj).
These are merely external behaviors, after all (the thinking goes), hollow religious forms that in themselves do not conflict with the Christian’s newfound faith. “Muslim” means “one who submits to God,” which is true of any follower of Christ.
As far as appearances go, then, insider Christians are often indistinguishable from Muslims, which is precisely the point: They are inside Islam, self-identifying as Muslims, not Christians. Instead of preaching Christianity, they preach submission to Allah (which they take as synonymous with “God”) in His Kingdom by believing in His Messiah, Isa.
A Muslim, then, does not have to abandon his religious or cultural identity to follow Christ. That’s the appeal. It’s an innovative approach to missions that avoids the problems of the past.
It’s not only safer for new converts, it’s effective (IM proponents claim). Since persecution is substantially reduced with this method, there is usually no extraction. The offensive elements of Christianity are side-stepped, new converts stay connected with their existing social networks, and Muslims by the thousands are responding, reports claim.5 Veteran missionaries are elated with the results, and satisfied donors are happily funding success once again.
One other “contextualization” needs to be mentioned, though.
The Word Abides Forever?
Surprisingly, Scripture itself has been one of the biggest stumbling blocks to Muslim missions.
“Seekers and believers from Muslim backgrounds,” one scholar explained, “regularly single out the term ‘Son of God’ as the biggest obstacle to reading the Gospel. Some will not even touch a Bible because they fear this blasphemous term is in it.”6
Self-described Muslim follower of Christ, Mazhar Mallouhi, expressed his passion to see the Scriptures put in a form Muslims could consider. ”In order for Christ to be naturalized among Muslims,” he said, “I see it as critical that the Scriptures be re-presented in a manner that they can fully understand and accept”7 [emphasis added].
That’s exactly what some translators have been providing, a re-presentation of God’s Word. To avoid alienating Muslims, many IM proponents have endorsed “Muslim-friendly” translations of Scripture—versions that replace terminology that’s offensive to Islamic sensibilities with more acceptable words.
All filial language pertaining to God, for example, is modified in these translations. To Muslims, any reference to the kinship of Jesus with the Father (e.g., “the Son of God”) is blasphemous. For this reason, God’s declaration at the Transfiguration (Luke 9:35), “This is my Son, whom I have chosen...” (NIV) has been changed to, “This is the beloved Messiah whom I have sent...”
In the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19) Jesus’ words, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (NIV), have been changed to “baptizing them in the name of God and His Messiah and the Holy Spirit.”
Even filial language referring to believers as God’s children is too intimate for Muslims and must be amended. Therefore, in the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2), the address “Father, hallowed be your name” (NIV) has been changed to “Our loving, heavenly Lord.”
In Luke 11:13, Jesus makes a powerful comparison between our human parents and our heavenly Father: “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (NIV). One IM translation, though, removes any reference to the Father. The replacement—“Lord of the world”—completely misses Jesus’ point.
On the surface, Muslim-friendly translations and other IM methods seem like innocent innovations, clever methods of spanning the cultural divide between Christians and Muslims. Adapting our methods is one thing. Changing our message, though, is quite another. Paul did the first. The Insider Movement is doing the second.
Sensitivity or Syncretism?
There is a big difference between contextualization and syncretism. Contextualization is a noble enterprise that seeks to clarify vital theological points, not obscure them. It puts truth in language meaningful to outsiders and leverages cultural forms into redemptive analogies, forming bridges of effective communication.
By contrast, syncretism takes a foreign theology, ideology, or religious practice and marries it with a contrasting belief system. It combines two religions into one. This blurring of distinctions between biblical Christianity and Qur’anic Islam8 separates the Insider Movement from the great tradition of Christian missions that came before it.
The Five Pillars, for example, are not benign behaviors devoid of meaning. Rather they represent the theological core of Islam, precepts and practices that distinguish Muslims from non-Muslims.
The shahada is a creedal confession, an explicit declaration of allegiance and submission to Allah and his prophet. The fast of Ramadan is not merely a dietary ritual, but a commemoration of the reception of a false scripture (the Qur’an) by a false prophet (Mohammed) from a deceiving spirit (an “angel of light”). 9
Paul wrote, “What fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial? ....Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate...and do not touch what is unclean” (2 Cor. 6:14–17).10 In this passage Paul invokes the prophet Isaiah (52:11) condemning Israel’s own syncretism with pagan theologies of their day.11
No genuine follower of Jesus has any business aligning himself in any way with these doctrines. They are off limits. When someone identifies himself as Muslim, he declares himself a follower of Mohammed and the Qur’an, not a follower of Jesus and the New Testament. It’s the difference between darkness and light.
Adulterating the Word
Paul assured the Corinthians he was “...not walking in craftiness or adulterating the Word of God” (2 Cor. 4:2). Instead, he preached “Christ Jesus as Lord” (v. 5), a title of divinity. He then recounts the persecutions he was willing to endure for this message (v. 8–12).
To adulterate means to debase or corrupt by adding inferior elements. This is precisely what IM “Muslim-friendly” translations have done. Paul fled persecution when he could (e.g., Acts 17:10), but he did not avoid persecution by distorting vital details of the Gospel.
Yes, “Son of God” and “Messiah” or “servant of God” all pick out the same individual, Jesus of Nazareth. But each phrase tells us something completely different—and vitally important—about Him.
That Jesus is the Son of God is not some tertiary doctrine. There is no more noble idea than that God became a man to suffer with us and for us. There is no more sublime a declaration of Scripture than that “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
That certain Christian concepts offend Muslims is no excuse to change the message. The phrase “Son of God” was no less offensive to Jews of Jesus’ time than to Muslims of our own time. Think of Jesus’ response when asked at His trial: “Are you the Son of God?” (Luke 22:70). He didn’t say, “Call me ‘servant’ instead.” He simply said, “I Am,” and in virtue of that confession was led away to crucifixion.
If Jesus Himself would not abandon this testimony, even in the face of execution, then neither can we. If we change, hide, or deny the very doctrines Jesus and the disciples were persecuted for proclaiming, then we’ve crossed the line. Better that we carefully explain the doctrine to dispel mistaken understandings of it than adulterate the Word of God to accommodate false religious ideas.
Modified translations introduce two additional problems for Muslim evangelism. First, it reinforces the most frequently raised objection Muslim’s raise about the Bible: the text is not reliable because it’s been corrupted through transmission over time. The charge is completely without merit—until now. Insider Movement translations serve to confirm Muslim suspicions about Scripture.
Second, a significant appeal of the Gospel is that we share with God the intimacy a father shares with his children—so much so, we can call Him “Abba,” the Aramaic for “Daddy” (Rom. 8:15). This is completely unheard of in Islamic theology. Muslims know nothing of friendship with God. Christianity, though, offers something entirely different and uniquely satisfying. We are able to “draw near” to God because of Jesus.12 This emotionally powerful appeal is completely nullified with IM translations.
Paul tells us the real battle we face in the world is not against “flesh and blood”—the actual humans we encounter—but rather against an unseen host, “the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). The weapons of this warfare are often false ideas—lofty things “raised up against the knowledge of God” (1 Cor. 10:5)—meant to either compete with the truth directly, or indirectly take the wind out of the sails of the Great Commission.
Currently Islam, representing the largest mission field in the world, is in the center of that battle. This religion dominates the land mass from North Africa to Asia between 10 and 40 degrees north latitude, what missiologists call the “10/40 window.”
The Insider Movement, though, is not the answer to winning this spiritual war. Billed as an innovative approach to contextualization, it has morphed into syncretism. It offers a policy of appeasement and capitulation under the guise of cultural sensitivity.
Samuel Zwemer, the famous 20th century missionary to Muslims, wrote, “The yawning chasm between the devout Moslem and the devout Christian...cannot be bridged by rickety planks of compromise. Syncretism would be equivalent to surrender.”13
IM is a broad movement and not everyone working hard to contextualize has fallen into excess, true enough. Compromise, though, often happens little by little, bit by bit. Those in the midst of it often can’t see the foundation crumbling. Instead, they become defensive and even belligerent toward dissenters.
Scores of field missionaries who’ve served for decades in Muslim countries—many as part of the IM movement—are raising the alarm about its dangers. Anwar Hossein, after two frustrating years of fruitless effort in the IM, left the movement and renewed his work with the Bengali Bible Society. He is now a vocal opponent of the IM, warning American churches of its excesses.14
Below is a list of affirmations and denials we hope will serve as boundaries to avoid those excesses and prevent missionaries from becoming casualties of the spiritual conflict in the future.
- We affirm becoming “all things to all men” culturally, in theologically benign ways. We reject syncretistic identification with false religious systems.
- We affirm using translations that are accurate, yet still culturally sensitive. We reject any attempts to make the message more palatable by adulterating God’s word.
- We affirm that faith in Jesus is the only way to enter the Kingdom of God, i.e., the Church. We reject that practicing Muslims have a part in God’s Kingdom.
- We affirm that Muslims can retain elements of their culture and still embrace Christ. We reject there can be a “Muslim follower of Jesus”—one who practices the foundational Pillars of Islam who is also a faithful disciple of Christ.
- We affirm that all genuine followers of Jesus be baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in obedience to Jesus’ command in the Great Commission. We reject any efforts to keep them “inside” in a way that prevents them from identifying with a local community of Christians.
If you are a donor to missionaries or organizations working with Muslims, ask specifically if they are involved with the Insider Movement or use any of its techniques. If so, ask what methods they employ. Be alert for terms in their literature like “insider,” “C5” or “C6,” and “Jesus mosque.” Try to verify any claims they make of dramatic numbers of conversions.
The Insider Movement, an approach without parallel in the history of missions, has proved an inadequate answer to the challenges of Muslim evangelism. In the assessment of one seasoned missionary in the field—with 20 years experience in 10 Muslim countries—it completely underestimates the deep demonic strongholds in Islam.15
By contrast, the Holy Spirit is working in an unprecedented manner among Muslims worldwide, according to well-documented reports. Converts to Christianity testify to dramatic visions, dreams, and other miraculous interventions by God that result in near-immediate, genuine, conversions.16
This harvest is taking place amidst the difficult, but faithful work of missionaries carefully contextualizing the Gospel in creative ways that are loyal to the text. Syncretism is not the answer. Rather, the only honorable, durable success is that which comes from “the manifestation of truth, commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2).