Thursday, August 16, 2012

Responding to John Piper's Response to "The Insider Movement"

The following brief clip has been dubbed "Piper Responds to the Insider Movement".  I have noticed it being kicked around the internet.  I know that it isn't popular to critique John Piper (especially not fun for a big fan like myself), but I feel it is important for someone to do so.  Take a look at the video (about 6 minutes) and then my responses below:

Piper Responds to the Insider Movement from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

There is No Insider Movement
First of all, you can’t “respond to the Insider movement”. It isn't one thing.  This is a foundational problem underlying so much anti-contextualization rhetoric.  Consciously or unconsciously, opponents have created a kind of straw-man that they call “The Insider Movement” as if we all have membership cards or secret handshakes.  But, this simply isn’t the case.  There is much variety of philosophy, theology, missiology and praxis among those who pursue contextualization in mission.  I have found the Cape Town Commitment's statement to be extremely well-crafted and helpful:


So called ‘insider movements’ are to be found within several religions. These are groups of people who are now following Jesus as their God and Saviour. They meet together in small groups for fellowship, teaching, worship and prayer centred around Jesus and the Bible while continuing to live socially and culturally within their birth communities, including some elements of its religious observance. This is a complex phenomenon and there is much disagreement over how to respond to it. Some commend such movements. Others warn of the danger of syncretism. Syncretism, however, is a danger found among Christians everywhere as we express our faith within our own cultures. We should avoid the tendency, when we see God at work in unexpected or unfamiliar ways, either (i) hastily to classify it and promote it as a new mission strategy, or (ii) hastily to condemn it without sensitive contextual listening. 

In the spirit of Barnabas who, on arrival in Antioch, ‘saw the evidence of the grace of God’ and ‘was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord,’ we would appeal to all those who are concerned with this issue to: (1) Take as their primary guiding principle the apostolic decision and practice: ‘We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God’ and (2) Exercise humility, patience and graciousness in recognizing the diversity of viewpoints, and conduct conversations without stridency and mutual condemnation.


Of course, Piper prefaces his comments about IM by saying “this is what I mean by it” and then providing a description of an IM that includes genuine followers of Christ staying in the mosque, continuing to read the Quran (possibly as inspired), self-identifying as Muslims, etc.  This is certainly a kind of IM, but it is also pretty misleading to not clearly articulate that there is a tremendous amount of variety and difference of opinion on these particulars.  Not everyone who pursues contextualization in the Muslim context would practice these particular forms.  However, by referring to this as a response to “The Insider Movement” (see point 1), there is the suggestion (intentional or not) that this is really what all insider movements are about.

Normal Christianity = Western Christianity
Piper correctly points out that an American banker who comes to know Christ has to change very little of his external cultural forms in order to enter the American Christian community.  Piper says that this is because the American culture is so “uniform”.   What he neglects to point out is just how much of an “insider movement” the American church has been all along.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not suggesting that American church forms have been contextualized to the culture with a tremendous amount of intentionality or missiological insight.  But nevertheless, the contextualization is clearly present.  What American Christians think of as “normal” or “standard” forms of church life or Christian spirituality are forms, rituals, holidays, symbols and theologies that have been either entirely derived from or else heavily conformed to the prevailing culture.  This is simply beyond dispute.

This points to one of the most significant underlying faulty premises of the critics of insider movements.  They presume the orthodoxy and the normative nature of the American/Western Church (and its forms), setting it up as the standard against which all deviations are naturally viewed with skepticism.  They hope to frame the debate as “Normal Christianity” versus “The Insider Movement” and they are largely successful because they are not challenged to demonstrate that the American Church has really arrived at exactly what Biblical faith in Christ should look like.  Moreover, they are not challenged to defend biblically their own approach to cross-cultural mission which we may accurately deem as “outsider movements” – i.e. the systematic extraction of new followers of Christ from their birth communities and colonization of new lands/cultures with Western brands of Christian expression.


Insider Movements vs. Outsider Movements
Piper’s problem is clearly with particular forms that are sometimes used by some IM proponents.  He mentions several things that he doesn’t think are good ideas.  Personally, I know enough about this debate within a Hindu context to know how unwise it is to weigh in on the particulars of the Muslim-context debate.  But, I wish Piper were willing to clearly articulate that “staying in one’s birth community” is a fundamentally good and Biblical ideal.  I wish he were better about distinguishing disagreements regarding particular forms as a fundamentally different debate than the question about “insider” versus “outsider” movements. 

The C-Scale: Here We Go Again
Piper gives credence here to the infamous C1-Cwhatever framing of contextualization debate.  I have expressed elsewhere that I believe John Travis’ scale to be built upon faulty premises.  In short, the scale presumes that rightward/upward movement eventually leads to syncretism, heresy, etc. (whether that happens at C3, C4, C5 or C16 is debated but it certainly happens).  Further, it presumes that leftward/downward movement is inherently safe, orthodox, and God pleasing.  However, people who take the time to actually understand syncretism and heresy and not just hurl them around as epithets will realize that neither requires intentional efforts of contextualization in order to exist.  What is more, the C-scale cannot at all account for the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ (either as a historic reality or as a model for cross-cultural engagement).  These inherent deficiencies to the C-scale call us to discard it as some kind of prescriptive tool to determine “how far we should go”.  Actually, I don’t think this was Travis’s purpose to begin with.  Thus, Piper’s statement about “drawing the line” at C4 isn’t helpful because it assumes the validity of the scale.  What I wish he would have said was something like, “I am unabashedly for the ‘staying in’ trajectory of insider movements, but certain forms that some of them adopt seem to be problematic.  For example . . .”  Further, I wish he’d say something like, “I am unabashedly against the extraction and colonization tactics of outsider movement proponents.”

Is All Persecution Against Christians Persecution for Christ's Sake?
Piper mentions that “all the Muslim converts” that he met at Cape Town 2010 were very upset about insider movements.  First, let me say that I was there too and that Piper clearly didn’t talk to all of them.  In fact one of the plenary speakers was a Muslim-background disciple of Jesus who even presented an insider movement model.  Piper also mentions the persecution argument.  Now this is a very sensitive thing, to be sure.  But let me just say that we should not assume that every Christian who is persecuted is actually persecuted because of Jesus.  I want to be clear again to say that I cannot comment about the particulars of the Muslim context.  But in my (non-Muslim) context, most (not all) of the persecution that we observe against Christians has nothing at all to do with Jesus except in the minds of those being persecuted.  I want to also say that I have never met a practitioner of contextualization who is motivated by a desire to avoid genuine, anti-Jesus persecution.  Such people probably exist and I would strongly oppose such motivation.  In my personal experience, the IM road has led to increasing persecution as those followers of Jesus who seek to stay in their birth community are attacked by outsider movement Christians.  Let me be clear: there is real persecution and plenty of it which is the shameful fruit of rebellion against the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  But we also need to admit that there is plenty of wicked persecution that emerges from all kinds of other motives.

Honesty, Integrity and Biblical Faithfulness
Piper says that “honesty, integrity, and Biblical faithfulness” should be our guidelines.  I couldn’t agree more.  However, too many opponents of contextualization overtly condemn IMs as lacking integrity and honesty.  I reject this idea.  As a cross-cultural worker pursuing a kind of IM, I am motivated strongly by a desire to communicate with the lost with more clarity, truthfulness, and integrity.  I believe that outsider movements are inherently dishonest (though not always intentionally) because they communicate through their methods of colonialism and extraction that the gospel and Christ-following is something other than what it really is. 

Piper says that he wants to hear from “our missionaries” who he believes to be the real experts on this issue.  I appreciate that.  But I hope that Piper doesn’t simply mean that he wants to listen to missionaries that agree with him and then amplify their voices.  Further the notion of creating a policy that draws the line at “C4” is unwise for the reasons I have already stated.  If there are particular forms that his church wants to oppose, they should make those decisions themselves, but please discard the notion that “C4” or “C5” or “The Insider Movement” are tangible and fixed things that can be prohibited.  That’s just not true. 

A Final Thought
Let me close by saying that I appreciate much of what Piper brings to the Church and that I think his statement here is charitable, humble, and marked by wisdom.  I don’t think he fully grasps this issue and the particular nuances that I have articulated above, but he admits as much at the beginning of the video.  It is problematic however that so many opponents of IMs are flooding the internet with a lot of misinformation, bigotry, ignorance, personal attacks, and other general silliness.  And everyone who “retweets” such drivel is culpable. This isn’t a simple issue.  And there are a tremendous number of people who are talking about it that should rather be listening and learning.  Actually, we could all do with a little more listening and learning. 

12 comments:

  1. Thanks for your thoughts on this. I got ref'd to your blog by Circumpolar and have offered my own opinion of this issue at my blog, islamdom.blogspot.com.

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  2. Don't feel too badly about disagreeing with Piper. He's also very mixed up on soteriology. He has said, "These are just some of the conditions that the New Testament says we must meet in order to inherit final salvation. We must believe on Jesus and receive him and turn from our sin and obey him and humble ourselves like little children and love him more than we love our family, our possessions or our own life. This is what it means to be converted to Christ. This alone is the way of everlasting life.” John Piper, Desiring God, 5.
    He also denies that a Christian can have 100% assurance of salvation in this life.
    John Salvesen

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  3. Cody, this is a great post and here i am reading it again. i really agree with your assessments, and i think this coming week will be a big one for this discussion. love to talk more. hope to see you in europe next year.

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    1. Oh got it, the whoredom thing. Thanks, brother, for the shout out! BTW right now, Europe looks off my radar. But Canada, Philippines, Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda are looking good. You going to be in any of those places?

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  4. Hey Cody!
    Love reading your blog brother. I'm glad you responded to this video. I think you're right to point out that John admits his own limitations at the beginning of the video. There's a lot of fuzzy definitions and broad brush strokes out there regarding this issue. I'm working in Indonesia right now. I'd love to chat with you some time re:contextualization.

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    1. Thanks for reading. Stay tuned, we have a review of the Half Devil, Half Child film coming soon. Blessings!

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  7. Did this go through? http://www.amazon.com/Ignorance-Apathy-Insider-Movement-Theology-ebook/dp/B00CPTJCDK/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1387818391&sr=8-3&keywords=insider+movement

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