The Hermeneutics of Insider Syncretism

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On this week’s episode of the Christ the Center podcast (#263, “Insider Movements“), Dr. David Garner is interviewed about his recent article in Themelios, “High Stakes: Insider Movement Hermeneutics and the Gospel,” analyzing the hermeneutics underlying the Insider Movement, a sociological and anthropological approach to contextualizing evangelism without calling on people whose identities are tied to other world religions like Judaism, Islam and Hinduism to disassociate themselves from those religious, cultural and family ties, but to work inside them and transform their approach to those religions in light of the teachings of Jesus. While it is noble to attempt to find a way to minimize the risk of loss or danger a Jew, Muslim or Hindu (for example) may face upon becoming a Christian, it is unfaithful to the Jesus they claim to follow if they would settle for living to distort their new-found faith with the teachings and practices of the religion with which they have previously been associated. Living to syncretize Christianity with non-Christian world religions is not a faith worth living for or dying for.

This movement is clearly in contradiction with the teachings of Jesus to those who would follow him. Jesus carried his cross and died on it for those who believe, and he calls on believers to take up their cross, follow him, and be willing to live publicly for him and, if need be, accept rejection by leaders of other religions, communities and families, even if such rejection includes dying for him.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matthew 10:34-39 ESV).

I know it’s easy for me to say, and to criticize those who would find a way around it, but I too have a cross of self-denial to carry if I am to follow Jesus. I must kill my own sin (a struggle which involves suffering and risk of social rejection on my part), and publicly acknowledge Jesus as my Lord and Savior and associate myself formally with his people, the Church (Hebrews 10:25), serving him with my time, talent and treasure–loving, forgiving and giving to my brothers until it hurts. Should the time come that the culture or community in which I live demands that I deny my Lord Jesus Christ, I am called upon to defy such a demand and willingly suffer the consequences in reliance upon the grace and goodness of God, knowing that if such is happening to me, it is no more than what he sacrificed for me.

One of the interesting things about this movement which Dr. Garner points out in the article and the interview is that the intellectual source of such innovation in world missions comes from the same root as the church growth movement–Donald McGavran (d. 1990) and his School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary (formerly the famous School of World Mission).

Donald Anderson McGavran (December 15, 1897–1990) was a missiologist who was the founding Dean (1965) and Professor of Mission, Church Growth, and South Asian Studies at the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. A child of missionaries in India and later amissionary himself (1923–1961), McGavran spent most of his life trying to identify and overcome barriers to effective evangelism or Christian conversion.

McGavran identified differences of caste and economic social position as major barriers to the spread of Christianity. His work substantially changed the methods by which missionaries identify and prioritize groups of persons for missionary work and stimulated the Church Growth Movement. McGavran developed his church growth principles after rejecting the popular view that mission was ‘philanthropy, education, medicine, famine relief, evangelism, and world friendship’ and become convinced that good deeds – while necessary – ‘must never replace the essential task of mission, discipling the peoples of the earth’. [HT: Wikipedia]

While McGavran’s efforts in his time were more theologically conservative and a reaction against liberal missionary trends, a student of his named C. Peter Wagner built on McGavran’s principles and create the church growth movement which has brought us such phenomena as seeker-sensitive worship and the modern megachurch. Incidentally, he is also the one who coined the phrase New Apostolic Reformation for the worldwide sweep of Charismatic and Word of Faith theology with a special emphasis on the restoration of the apostolic office, which movement in America has recently frightened the political Left because so many who would fall under this umbrella have modified the theonomist views of R. J. Rushdoony (for more on that, see this) and declared that they would “take dominion” over every sphere of influence in America.

Syncretism in the name of saving one’s life is no way to spread Christianity. A new generation around the world must hear the age-old truism: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” [paraphrasing Tertullian, Apology chapter 50].

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