Thoughts on Dave Garner’s “Insider Movements: Why Should I Care?”

Doug Coleman Insider Movement 2 Comments

If you follow the Insider Movement discussion/debate, you know that the PCA has addressed the issue at its recent annual meetings. Popular blogger, author and Presbyterian pastor Kevin DeYoung has mentioned IM several times on his blog. DeYoung recently shared a guest post from Dave Garner, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. (Garner previously wrote an extensive article on IM and hermeneutics here.)

While I appreciate Garner’s efforts, and I’m generally sympathetic to much of his content, I think he oversimplifies at points. This could very well be due to the limits of the blogging medium, but I think the oversimplifications may create some problems or barriers in the discussion. At a minimum, I think they contribute to the ongoing accusations—by both sides—that they are misunderstood or misrepresented. In light of this, I would like to offer a few thoughts on certain aspects of Garner’s post.

Garner’s first point states: IM calls believers to stay in. God’s Word calls believers to come out.

Both of these statements are true, but more needs to be said. The difference between IM and other biblically faithful contextualization efforts is that IM stresses remaining in the socio-religious culture. Biblically faithful contextualization can allow for retention of numerous cultural elements while rejecting the idea that followers of Jesus continue to actively participate in the religious life of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc., even if they modify their participation. So, in a sense, biblically faithful contextualization argues against extreme forms of extraction as well. God’s word does call believers to “come out,” but this does not mean a total severing of familial and social networks (and Garner seems to affirm this in his post). By the way, I recognize my comments here will immediately raise the question of whether religion and culture can be separated. I cannot address that here, but hope to do so in the future.

In discussing this first point, Garner makes three short descriptive statements of IM. I think the first of these two are potentially misleading. First, according to Garner, IM says, “Hide your faith so that you can stay in relationship with your family. Woo them with silence and kindness; do not offend them by your trust in Christ.” After extensive reading of IM literature, personal dialogue with IM proponents, and attending multiple conferences promoting IM, I have not gotten the impression that IM proponents are saying this. Of course, it may be the case that Garner has heard or read something I haven’t. I have heard, and read, IM proponents encourage bold identification with Jesus—while maintaining distance from “Christianity”—and continued identification with “Islam” (or whatever religion is dominant). In fact, IM proponents often become frustrated with this accusation and claim that multiple “Jesus followers” have been martyred because of their bold identification with Jesus.

I am not suggesting this approach is biblically faithful. In fact, I argue elsewhere that this ongoing involvement in the religious life of a non-Christian religion is biblically problematic. (Yet, this doesn’t mean Jesus followers necessarily have to identify with “Western Christianity.”)

Second, according to Garner, IM says, “Avoid participation in visible churches because such participation will alienate you from your family and will be misunderstood by your community.” I can see how Garner might get this impression of IM, and some IM proponents may be encouraging this, directly or indirectly. However, I’m not sure this is the most accurate way to represent what IM is really trying to say. For example, Kevin Higgins argues that Insider believers should follow the model of early Jewish followers of Jesus who continued participating in the Temple life but also met separately house to house. (See page 158 here.) I do not believe the analogy between modern Insiders and early Jewish believers is biblically or theologically valid, but Garner’s description is perhaps not entirely accurate, at least not of all IM proponents.

Third, according to Garner, IM says, “Continue your existing religious practices. Jesus is not concerned with where or how you worship him, but that you worship and trust him.” I think this is a more accurate description than the first two. IM proponents would probably object to the way Garner states it, and they would probably want to add a number of qualifications and nuances, but in the end Garner’s third description seems to be the inevitable implication of the IM paradigm.

Garner’s third major point says: IM claims that identity is a personal decision. God’s Word claims that identity is a divine determination.

I think I understand what Garner is attempting to communicate, but again I don’t think this is quite accurate. In fact, I think a number of—perhaps most—IM proponents would suggest that “Muslim” is a God-given identity since God is the one who is sovereign over birthplace, family of origin, etc. (For example, see here.) Therefore, many IM advocates would probably see themselves as strongly affirming Garner’s second sentence rather than the first. I think there are a number of problematic elements with the IM conclusion in that regard. However, in order to fairly assess a claim, it must first be accurately understood.

Garner’s fourth major point states: IM extricates the Church from the kingdom of God. God’s Word integrates the Church and the kingdom of God.

As I have noted elsewhere (here and here), I think there are some significant problems with the way the IM paradigm tends to understand and employ the concept of the Kingdom of God. And I agree that IM tends to minimize, forget, or ignore the relationship between the Kingdom and the church. However, perhaps a more significant issue is the way Kevin Higgins places all religions within the Kingdom of God in some sense (see pages 83-88 here).

There are a number of positive elements of Garner’s post, and I appreciate his effort to call attention to some of the theological issues related to IM. My remarks here are not meant to indicate my disagreement with his overall conclusion or imply that Garner intentionally misrepresents IM.

Doug ColemanThoughts on Dave Garner’s “Insider Movements: Why Should I Care?”

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