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(De)Franchising Missions: A Critique and Affirmation of Insider Movements

Missionaries debate the legitimacy of so-called insider movements. Insiders are people who confess Jesus as Lord yet pray in a mosque or temple. Insiders may retain many religious practices yet pray in the name of Jesus. The debate is couched in a classification system devised by John Travis. This article suggests that the classification system limits the debate, constrains self-theologizing, and supports an institutional model of Christianity. The system reifies the legitimacy of Western missionary institutions and safeguards prepackaged dogma. The debate over insider movements is the Achilles’ heel of the system and presents an opportunity for indigenous people to overcome hegemonic theological and philosophical frameworks, revolt into new theological spectrums, and open new forms of organization not centered in the West.

“Insider” Movements and the C1–C6 Framework

Years ago, I sat with a few Muslim friends who spoke a language called Chiyao. Dressed in whatever garments resembled prayer robes, many of the men wore lacy, Victoria’s Secret negligees purchased at the local market—a last stop for used clothing from the West. At the time, we were sharing a meal after a Friday prayer service. My language teacher, a respected imam, had preached and then requested for me to say a few words. After the liturgy, we had retired to a member’s home for food and conversation. Since my sermon had referenced the prophet Isa, the discussion evolved into a comparison of Christianity and Islam as understood by my friends. They discussed scriptural references and one imam remembered a text found in the New Testament that discussed how God was one. From the vaguely remembered Scripture, the man suggested that since God held the world together, surely the two sacred scriptures represented paths that approached the great mystery of God. This was no relativistic gesture to all religious forms but an admission to a perceived overlap among the two texts of Qur’an and Injil (gospel).

These same imams who orally sift the rationality of textual theology also live in a world that is deeply bioregionally biased. The fears and hopes of their neighbors further define the context of their religiosity. Many Yao imams push the limits of orthodox Islam and use Arabic scripts as objects imbued with spiritual power. I’ve seen Arabic texts soaked in water and drunk as a tea to ward off insanity. I’ve been offered textual firebreaks, in which Arabic prayers of protection inscribed on paper are put in a perimeter around residential spaces.

The comical scene of discussing the relationship between Islam and Christianity with men dressed in Victoria’s Secret gowns is made more strange for Westerners when the narrative turns away from talk of religious doctrine and is directed to the daily ministerial needs of people. The situation is conceptually ineffable to Western taxonomic systems. What religion is this? What are the central beliefs? For many missiologists, these situations are labeled syncretistic or folk. This missiological label has always been a dumping ground for people who do not fit within traditional religious groups.1

My initial dialogue and relationship with the mosque was not without consequence. Many people discussed my religious identity. I distinctly remember one day when I sat with a good neighbor who introduced me to a family member as “one of us, a Muslim.” The statement took me by surprise. It is always an interesting experience to be introduced. What will people say? How do they view me? Is the description accurate? What did my neighbor actually mean by labeling me as a Muslim? How would you have responded?

Recent dialogue concerning these issues of religious identity has circulated through evangelical magazines.2 However, a framework for classifying the situation has been developed and refined within evangelical mission organizations such as Frontiers—a missionary society targeting Muslims. In 1998, the pseudonymous author John Travis, a missionary among Muslims, wrote an article for the Evangelical Missions Quarterly that has continued to frame the discussion about contextualization and so-called insider movements to this day.3 Travis suggested six different categories to organize the response converts have to the gospel and the way the church is structured as the movement grows. Coming from a strictly Islamic context, Travis’s framework is rooted in regions where Muslims live within a society that is saturated with not only the religion of Islam but the culture of Islam as well.4 Travis labels his categories from C1 to C6 in which the ‘C’ denotes “Christ-centered communities.”

Essentially, Travis differentiates each group by separating religious belief and practice from supposedly secular culture and by categorizing believers along a gradient of ecclesiological structure. Assent to the core elements of the gospel is static through all six categories.5 A comparison between C4 and C5 reveals how insider movements are classified.

C4 communities actually incorporate religious elements into cultic practices. Consequently in Muslim contexts, C4 adherents may avoid pork, pray in an Islamic posture or use certain Islamic theological terms. Members of C4 communities will not be viewed as Muslims within the larger context but will call themselves “Followers of Isa.” For example, among some Muslim Yaos in Malawi, missionaries would organize all day events in which the Injil (gospel) would be read publicly, imitating the Islamic way of reading the Qur’an.

C5 communities differ from C4 in one key respect. These communities dissolve back into the local religious and social structure. In Islamic contexts, adherents maintain a Muslim identity, can attend the mosque, and critically practice other aspects of the local cultural-religious context. These members reject or reinterpret beliefs and practices that do not align with Christianity and actively share their faith with others. Other Muslims accept their presence but often view them as a bit “odd.” C5 communities describe what missionaries now call “insider movements,” in which members work within the religious structures of the mosque or temple.6

Proponents of insider movements suggest faith in Jesus can be expressed and contextualized in multiple ways.7 Again, as long as orthodox faith is attested by consistency of the core elements of the gospel, then faith can find fruition within the walls of a mosque.8

In 2000, Travis more fully explained the C5 model.9 The article focused entirely on the Islamic context and debated issues such as whether believers could say the shahada, whether they could attend the mosque, and whether missionaries could claim to be Muslims. In the article, Travis suggested that the majority of Muslims will never switch religions since “even nominal Muslims tend to see Islam as a single fabric weaving together tradition, culture, and customs related to dress, diet, family life, morality, worship, and in some contexts, even economics and politics.”10 Travis assured the reader that Muslim Christ-followers have a true evangelical faith but refrain from being called Christian.11

Additionally, Kevin Higgins tried to further refine the insider movement by looking at examples in the Bible to develop key points that differentiate these movements from syncretistic movements.12 Higgins suggested that missiology could redefine insider movements as:

A growing number of families, individuals, clans, and/or friendship-webs becoming faithful disciples of Jesus within the culture of their people group, including their religious culture. This faithful discipleship will express itself in culturally appropriate communities of believers who will also continue to live within as much of their culture, including the religious life of the culture, as is biblically faithful.13

From this definition, Higgins declared a healthy, orthodox insider movement could be ascertained by key spiritual indicators including prayer, breaking bread, and promulgating the apostolic truth. Further, Higgins believed the four “selves” should also be used to indicate a fully functioning movement.14

Fifteen years after Travis’s landmark article, insider movements continue to be debated. In a recent Christianity Today article, Timothy Tennant suggests the current debate over the validity of C5 communities centers around five questions: (1) Is there biblical precedence for C5 groups? (2) How does personal salvation relate to public identification of conversion? (3) Is it ethical to encourage followers to retain a Muslim self-identity? (4) Is this a new phenomenon or rooted in the Protestant Reformation? (5) Are C5 groups transitional or permanent communities?15


Critics and proponents of insider movements accept Travis’s taxonomy and do not consider folk religionists, who make up a large portion of all the world religions. However, even most Muslim authorities would scoff at the leaders and followers of Islam in northern Mozambique. Adherents of the world’s religions, such as Christianity and Islam, tend to marginalize the syncretist, and snub the overt mixture of religious systems, the lack of doctrinal knowledge, and the general illiterate, magical consciousness found in folk religion. The ritual speech acts such as the shahada, or “Jesus is Lord,” are foundational components of official religion that values doctrinal knowledge. Though a magical consciousness may undergird these verbalizations,16 they are embedded within a coherent, institutional system. But the performative, participatory world of the folk religionist is charged with magical ignorance. Travis’s classification cannot work with a non-systematic aggregation of practices and beliefs. Though I find the phenomenological description of insider adherents to be worthy of reflection, more critical assessments of classification models such as Travis’s framework must develop. Though open to self-theologizing, proponents of insider movements refuse to allow foreign adherents to meddle with the basic recipe of Christianity that has been franchised by Evangelicalism. A proponent of insider movements, Rick Brown, assumes all biblical interpretation leads a person to a singular conclusion: “When Muslims come to understand biblical truth, it is usually because they have been enlightened by God’s Word and been led by God’s Spirit, not because they have learned a body of doctrine. So it takes time for them to reach orthodox understanding.”17

In other words, true conversion is an unavoidable process that funnels people to a specific orthodoxy defined by the West. However, orthodoxy is far from homogenous, and evangelical dogma is founded on questionable bedrock.

Negatively stated, the current debate among missiologists about insider movements reveals a Western obsession with taxonomy that categorizes disputable concepts such as religion, Christology, and ecclesiology. Undergirding all discussion among evangelicals concerning insider movements, the discussion is based on an assumption that the world can be carved into religions, that assent to ontological doctrinal statements about Jesus—found in documents such as the Nicene Creed—are a sign of salvation, and that an ecclesiology is understood in mainly institutional form.

Positively stated, the syncretic process in which Jesus is adapted into new contexts, such as insider movements, represents a deconstruction of religious institutionalization, offering the West a chance to witness a Christology that is not obsessed with ontological pronouncements of being but a Christology that is postured to an oral, phenomenological way of being. The nomenclature of insider provides a helpful lens to review the nature of God’s kingdom, thereby flattening institutional religion and cultivating a people who do Christology in the way of faith instead of mimicking ontological belief statements shaped in the tradition of Western Christology.

Critique: Religion is not real

Ultimately, the heuristic device devised by Travis is laden with Western bias. Assumed within his framework, Christianity is a kind of institutional religion that can be divided into a separate sphere away from other religious ideas. From such a perspective, Jesus is the founder of religion. For this reason, C5 communities are debated since insider adherents blend two religions. The insider movement raises a fundamental question: what is the relationship of Jesus to religion? Instead of locating Christianity in opposition to other religions, insiders bring Jesus to pray in the mosque.

Religion is neither a useful concept, nor a practical reality; Christianity as a religion is a modern construction that confuses the role of Jesus as the Messiah. Many historians suggest Jesus was merely a revolutionary; Paul was the builder of the religion. We are so comfortable with the idea of religion, we assume the natural result of Jesus’ ministry was a new religion. However, recent scholarship has questioned not only the legitimacy of the concept of religion, but also the absence of a religious framework in Paul’s theology.

William Cavanaugh persuasively reveals the historic roots of religion as a concept that originated during the wars of the late Medieval era.18 By blaming war on “religion,” the political state managed to overthrow the power of the Roman church and create a secular space. Cavanaugh suggests:

What is at issue behind these wars is the creation of “religion” as a set of beliefs which is defined as personal conviction and which can exist separately from one’s public loyalty to the State. The creation of religion, and thus the privatization of the Church, is correlative to the rise of the State.19

Consequently, the concept of religion was created by the State to disenfranchise the authority of Christendom. Before the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, religion only referred to the practices of monastic orders. Cavanaugh cites Thomas Acquinas’s view that as a virtue, “religio is a habit, knowledge embodied in the disciplined actions of the Christian.”20

Religion as a modern concept was given a twofold meaning. First, by universalizing historical manifestations of religio, religion became a specific interior posture. Second, religio, as an interiorized disposition, could be categorized as a system of beliefs. With the rise of the secular State, the evolution of religion was defined as an interior assent to a system of beliefs that must be sufficiently benign not to challenge State authority. Religion was privatized. Referencing Thomas Hobbes, Cavanaugh suggests the Church was swallowed up by the State, thereby causing martyrdom to be impossible.21

I wish to dwell on Hobbes’ idea of martyrdom as it pertains to our present discussion. The Travis framework sits on a foundation that characterizes modern religion as a system of beliefs. All the various “C” groups can be called “Christ-centered communities” since they have “accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior.”22 Hobbes denies the possibility of martyrdom because simple doctrinal statements such as “Jesus is Lord and Savior” are without content. As a pronouncement of a privatized belief, it does not give the State a need to kill. Martyrdom is reserved only for individuals who hold practices and beliefs subversive to State authority. Ironically, it is Islam that befuddles Western missiologists with a seamless unity between mosque and State. In many Islamic countries, the idea of a distinction between State and religion, or culture and religion, is absurd and confusing. Is it any wonder Travis’s framework was developed in the Islamic context? A system of classification was needed to understand how Christianity could be franchised23 into the Muslim world. C1–C6 communities only work if we accept the validity of a concept called “religion.” If religion exists, then we can divide the world into religious and secular values, religious traditions, and cultural practices. Only with religion can we differentiate C4 and C5 communities.

Further, the system only gives lip service to the self-theologizing principle. As a religion, the recipe (system of beliefs) used in the franchised kitchen of evangelical Christianity must be maintained and protected. It is upsetting to me that the doctrinal recipe maintained is like a fast-food menu devoid of nutrition. Like a McDonald’s hamburger that tastes the same in New York City or Moscow, so formulaic doctrinal religion cultivates a global network of homogeny. Upholding the ontological Christology of Jesus as the cornerstone element of a system of beliefs, Western Christianity can remain without performative content and works to serve a way of life that is private—subservient to existing institutions of worldly power.

Critique: The church is not an institution

With the advent of Christendom via the great councils, the seeds of modern religion germinated long before the Medieval period. Though a secular state was not created until the seventeenth century, the church was infected with worldly, institutional power during the great ecumenical councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon, which in turn cultivated a demand for the secular. Since these councils, the Christian tradition has maintained a dominant thread of religious institutionalization. The advent of timeless creedal formulations was authorized by a Christological ontology.

Mary Douglas defines institutions as conventions that categorize the world by an ontological legitimation.24 First, conventions are groups that agree to rules for consistent coordination. Conventions offer the gears for momentum in production and social structure by creating stable boundaries and laws. As a form of differentiation, conventions require boundaries for regulation and outsider identification. Second, conventions are institutionalized by ontological legitimation. Ultimately, conventions become institutions by rationalizing a framework through abstraction to the ontic; the institutional culture is universalized. Practically speaking, the institution grounds its beliefs, values, and behaviors (i.e., conventions) into an explanation of the way the world is at bottom. Moreover, the authority of the institution is unified with this ontological essence and is universalized for all cultures and perspectives.

For centuries, the church has functioned as an institution. In fact, many may wonder why this is an issue to discuss. The church-as-institution runs counter to a kingdom ethic performed and announced by the wisdom of Jesus. However, in the current stage of the argument, the issue is how institutions—such as the church—classify the world around them. Institutions classify the world and funnel thought into specific categories. Again citing Mary Douglas, the institution squeezes “ideas into a common shape so that we can prove rightness by sheer numbers of independent assent” and “systematically direct individual memory and channel our perceptions into forms compatible with the relations they authorize.”25 The act of classifying is akin to brand creation within the world of marketing. By dividing the world into ontologically grounded labels,26 institutions hide their dominating presence. Citing Ian Hacking, Douglas describes how the process of classification runs “from people making institutions to institutions making classifications, to classifications entailing actions, to actions calling for names, and to people and other living creatures responding to the naming.”27 Consequently, institutions create a universe through taxonomy:

The instituted community blocks personal curiosity, organizes public memory, and heroically imposes certainty on uncertainty. In marking its own boundaries it affects all lower level thinking, so that persons realize their own identities and classify each other through community affiliation.28

Douglas provides a concrete taxonomic example that we can use analogously for our current discussion.29 The French classification of wines is a bioregional system. Wine is bottled as Bordeaux or Medoc, indicating a region. Without going into detail, the French system begins with a general region and divides down to the level of Chateau. The regions—defined as categories of geography—encapsulate grape varietals, winemaking traditions, and blends. More importantly, the taxonomy hides an institutional structure based on the small chateau. The system serves and protects local, historical institutions within the bioregion. In contrast, California wines are classified according to the varietal type. With the lack of local regulation and the advent of free trade, the wine industry in California is marked by the process of production and its quantification. Consequently, these large-scale industries do not wish to confine classification to local custom. Rather, classification is divided into types of grape: Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Syrah. Again, the system of taxonomy hides the institution; in this case, the institution is structured along free-market, large-scale industry. The California-based institution classifies by varietal, and thereby maintains an industry that does not support local production but modes of production that overcomes geography. Though the French institution maintains taxonomy, it cannot universalize since the institution is limited by a bioregional boundary. The California system, via ontological classification (i.e., varietals), provides an unbounded institution that is universalizing.

Many missiologists think we have overcome the institutional injustice of colonialism, which had more to do with state power than the gospel. However, when converts are organized into a classification system such as Travis’s, the colonial institution is hidden behind the taxonomy. By relying on false categories such as secular and religious, Travis’s categories rely on an institutional framework that pushes the way of Jesus into the private world by calling it religion. Furthermore, missiologists that support the institution of evangelicalism promulgate a type of taxonomy that reifies a system of quantification and levels all fields of theological diversity. Adherents must be defined, like wine varietals, as ontological types and not according to the local, bioregional systems already existing. In this sense, Travis’s framework provides a classification that stabilizes a non-indigenous church institution. The framework does not accept the inherent bioregional diversity of people but forces a world of quantification based upon a grid of evangelical theology. Similarly, the C5 category is nervously debated not because the adherent’s theology is wrong, but because the American missiological institution funded by evangelicalism finds difficulty in quantifying hidden believers. In essence, evangelical missiologists are like the large-scale, industrial-size California wineries; cultivation of adherents must be categorized by the varietal of believer or type of adherent for easier quantification and marketing. With a magical slight of hand, the C1–C6 paradigm redirects a dialogue away from self-theologizing. In so doing, modern evangelical missions resembles a franchising process in which the theological recipe is universalized, consistency of organization and taste are maintained, and choices are limited to marginal decisions that create an impression of freedom. By allowing clients to choose which type of condiment they want with their Christian Big Mac, the institution is reified and maintains authority.

A Constructive Response

I have spent most of my space critiquing the Western parameters of the insider movement. Briefly, I wish to affirm aspects of the insider movement that will lead to a way of Jesus that cuts across institutional religion. These comments are meant to be a proposal for further reflection. Put succinctly, insider movements represent creative spaces for reimagining traditional Christianity not as a religion but as people shaped by performative Christology and centered on the celebration of the kingdom of God uniquely symbolized in the act of hospitality.

Not a religion, but a people

Many theologians in the postliberal camp have suggested that a proper understanding of missions should be centered not on religion but on the formation of a people.30 For my purposes, I merely want to allude to Douglas Harink’s work in Paul among the Postliberals.31 Harink develops two key issues for our discussion. First, the Reformation doctrine of “faith in Jesus” needs to be, ironically, reformed. Gathering current scholarship, Harink suggests a better translation of pistis Christou as the “faith of Jesus” which makes sense of Paul’s larger theological paradigm.32 In this light, Jesus’ faith or loyalty to a way of life, to the bitter end, has soteriological significance. Said differently, the way of Jesus—his parabolic words of wisdom and shape of life—is justified via resurrection by his loyalty to the kingdom’s impossibility. Jesus’ loyalty revealed a Way of Life. Consequently, the modern soteriology of confessional assent to a rigid doctrinal statement is skewed; an anthropological reading of “faith in Christ” cultivates a human-centered focus on the person of Jesus and the human’s ability to “accept” him. Rather, soteriology must be reformatted away from a non-localized, abstract confession to a life pattern that is analogous to the way of Christ.

Second, Harink suggests Paul’s own mission of converting the Roman world did not include an understanding of religion. In other words, Paul did not see his work as converting people from one religion to another new one. Rather, Paul’s task was to form a people out of the local context. The cultivated people bears witness to Jesus by the “shape of its life.” Harink suggests the shape of this life is a culture formed, “in which social order and material goods are redescribed by being reinscribed within another, scriptural narrative and another cruciform, social practice.”33 In contrast, “faith in Jesus” works as synecdoche for a whole religious system of beliefs that effectively cognitivize the way of Jesus and maintain a religion instead of a skill-based discipline that forms people in the local context.

Not a human institution, but the kingdom of God

Is the above description still a kind of institution? During institutional periods of transformation, translation, and growth, authorities often attempt to disseminate a body of material that identifies the institution. For example, franchising a restaurant is ultimately concerned with strict adherence to the sacred recipes guarded in the ancestral center located and replicated through structures of authority. Likewise, religious institutions such as churches, mosques, and temples work to promulgate a consistent cosmos across diverse regions. From a human institutional perspective, insider movements represent two possible functions. First, such movements use guerrilla tactics for conversion and competition by disrupting another religious institution from the inside. This perspective hopes a fresh Christian movement will disrupt and destabilize the mosque or temple. Though there may be room for marginal contextualization, adherents assume the insider movement is a step towards proper ecclesial being34 and organization. Accordingly, the insider movement is risky. Members must maintain a strict, orthodox dogma with a veneer of foreign religiosity giving time for the movement to gain momentum. Nevertheless, there is the fear that unorthodox ideas and practices will infect the emerging movement and slow the momentum towards outward ecclesial being. The second perspective assumes the borders of the institution are interior to the believer. As long as a rigid confessional faith is maintained, then the borders remain within the heart. The adherent can still be counted as a type of Christian as long as orthodoxy is given assent.

Both views of insider movements are based on maintaining proper religious boundaries. However, a people shaped by the way of Jesus have a kind of anti-institutional ethic that runs within them. Beyond this essay there are rich resources for deinstitutionalizing Jesus, though for now I refer to my favorite source for uncovering a deconstructive ethic in Jesus. John Caputo asks, “Does the kingdom of God have borders or a border patrol?”35 Indeed, the parabolic word of Jesus upturns or turns inside out the institutional borders we create. Caputo suggests the hospitality of Jesus’ parable in Luke 14:12 exemplifies the genus of parables in which the “borders of the kingdom become porous, wavering in a kind of ‘holy undecidability’ ” by dissolving our categories such as Christian, Jew, and Muslim.36 The hospitality of the kingdom is like what I experienced among my Yao friends as we ate together; invitation of outsiders as insiders upturns our sense of institutional membership. In fact, membership to the anti-institutional framework of the kingdom requires a performance of hospitality that moves beyond cultural and religious boundaries.

In this light, insider movements reveal the possibility of kingdom upheaval. Religious taxonomists endanger the movement by classifying it and trying to control it. Much like a dead animal that is lifelike in the hands of a taxidermist, the taxonomist endangers adherents by forcing a classification on them that will suck out their lifeblood leaving only a lifeless form to quantify and nail onto the wall of the Western missiological hunting lodge. Christianity has much to learn from Islam. If we allow insider movements to self-germinate without the overshadowing theological dogma that is couched in abstract, religious language, then we may perhaps hear the kingdom of God come out of the mosque and rebuke our insider hubris.

Not ontological Christology, but performative Christology

The last ingredient I would suggest is rooted in orality. I would like to briefly sketch key areas for missiological reflection in scholarship on the divergent worldviews of orality versus literacy and on how the oral universe of many Folk Religionists may approach Christology. Though global, literate society is quickly overtaking oral culture, I still believe a majority of Folk Religionists operates in a non-textual worldview that literate society can learn.

First, the work of Walter Ong is well known and wide in scope. The characteristics of oral people provided in Orality and Literacy are helpful to gauge and uncover the cognitive difference between oral and literate people.37 Two aspects of orality interest me here. First, people who depend on the spoken word, and do not depend on the written word, live much closer to the “human lifeworld”38 and show a more situational, less abstract perspective.39 Powers of rationality are directed towards the concrete problems of life without the need of abstract classification systems. Without abstract analytical categories, knowledge is maintained via apprenticeship and not stripped from its locality. Further, knowledge professed is rooted in experience. Oral people are great phenomenologists.

Second, oral people have a more participatory framework, and this is exemplified in communication that is agonistically toned.40 As I write this essay, I am afforded a peace with my own thoughts. Able to work out my argument free from attack, I must only occasionally direct my writing towards counterarguments that I am consciously aware of. In the oral universe, communication is strongly participatory. Consequently, proverbs, sayings, and parables operate as counterstatements to a message that has already been pronounced. My own preaching in the mosque was most readily celebrated and accepted when I structured riddles and arguments into my oration. In effect, people would spill out of the mosque still debating the words spoken. There are clear connections here to Jesus’ way of communication in which he spoke to goad people into participation instead of preaching for audience assent.

These two aspects of orality are integrated in Ong’s basic premise—spoken words are sounds that “are not things, but events.”41 For a literate mind, this is most unusual. We are used to viewing our words as they are typed on a screen. We have so thoroughly ingrained chirography into our logic, we often visualize our thoughts as written words. Moreover, when we view our words as things, we can objectify them. From this one move, a process of objectification occurs and induces an ontologizing bias of ideas. For the oral mind, words are an event of participation. The event opens up a nonrepetitive moment when thoughts collide and the world becomes. As sounds, words fade off the echoing cliffs of our ears. Words happen in time, not space. In this light, orality foster a phenomenology of becoming, while literacy is one of being; words perform while texts exist as objects. It does not take much of a conceptual leap to see how a Christology of text focuses on the being of Jesus, while a Christology of sound performs Jesus. If the Word marked the beginning of the world, then the Word is first a spoken word, not a written word. We cannot objectify the Word by inscribing the sound and gazing at the naked scratches we have created on paper.42 In my mind, a concrete place to reimagine missiology is to develop a Christology that is centered on performance instead of abstract objectification of the written word. The oral folk religionists of the globe who do not fit into Western taxonomies are surely capable of helping us with such a task as they perform the Way within their own landscapes.


The way of Jesus not only deconstructs the ideological fences, doctrinal barbed wire, and institutional cattle guards of franchised Christianity—like the toppled Temple of the first century—but also rebuilds a technique of living that cuts through Western classifications by turning them inside out. Those who take the parabolic Word of hospitality into the mosque are practicing Christology by opening up Jesus’ wisdom, which cuts across the human institution. If the Word of God is a spoken word, then it is an event—not a doctrine nor an abstract thesis of the divine. Analogically, those who speak the Word of God in the mosque, temple, or church will invite the narrative of Jesus into their experience. Consequently, the C5 community is not a static state of being, but a becoming. The Word as event shows the inability to institutionalize, grab, ground, or inherit the kingdom. Does Jesus not show a christology instead of defining one? Does Jesus not embody the kingdom of God that refuses to maintain the boundaries of our limited religious imaginations?

In reflection on my own experience, I wonder: am I a Christian missionary who converted to Islam? Can I accept the label “Muslim” given to me? Perhaps I am one of those disciples that went to the mission field and lost my faith in Christianity but deepened my loyalty to the Way of Jesus. Named Muslim in Yao, I discovered a place where a people could be formed and inscribed with the sacred event of hospitality. All attempts to classify the event of the kingdom of God are crumbling towers of Babel. Perhaps now we may begin to postulate an insider movement within Christianity.

Kyle Holton worked for nine years in northern Mozambique among the Yao helping initiate a natural resource community center called Malo Ga Kujilana. In 2012 he and his family returned to the States. Kyle is a high school teacher in Little Rock, Arkansas. He has an MA in Intercultural Studies and an MS in Environmental Science, and his research interests involve interreligious dialogue, orality, and cultural ecology.


Abram, David. Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. New York: Vintage, 1996.

Caputo, John D. The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event. Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion. Bloomington: Indiana Unviersity Press, 2006.

Cavanaugh, William T. “ ‘A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House’: The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State.” Modern Theology 11, no. 4 (October 1995): 397–420.

Clapp, Rodney. A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society. Downers Grove: IVP, 1997.

Corwin, Gary. “A Humble Appeal to C5/Insider Movement Muslim Ministry Advocates to Consider Ten Questions.” International Journal of Frontier Missions 24, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 5–20.

Daniels, Gene. “Worshiping Jesus in the Mosque.” Christianity Today 57, no. 1 (January/February 2013): 22,

Douglas, Mary. How Institutions Think. Frank W. Abrams Lectures. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1986.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973.

Harink, Douglas. Paul among the Postliberals: Pauline Theology beyond Christendom and Modernity. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003.

Higgins, Kevin. “The Key to Insider Movements: The ‘Devoted’s’ of Acts.” International Journal of Frontier Missions 21, no. 4 (Winter 2004): 155–165.

Kelber, Werner H. The Oral and the Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul and Q. Voices in Performance and Text. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

Lindbeck, George. The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Posliberal Age. Louisville: Westinster John Knox, 1984.

Ong, Walter J. “Before Textuality: Orality and Interpretation.” Oral Tradition 3, no. 3 (October 1988): 259–69.

Ong, Walter J., with John Hartley. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the World. 30th Anniversary ed. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Parshall, Phil. “How Much Muslim Context Is Too Much for the Gospel?” Christianity Today 57, no. 1 (January/February 2013): 31,

PewResearchCenter. “Folk Religionists.” In The Global Religious Landscape (December 18, 2012). Demographic Study. Publications. Religion.

Tennant, Timothy. “The Hidden History of Insider Movements.” Christianity Today 57, no. 1 (January/February 2013): 28,

Travis, John. “The C1 to C6 Spectrum: A Practical Tool for Defining Six Types of ‘Christ-centered Communities’ (‘C’) Found in the Muslim Context.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 34, no. 4 (October 1998): 407–8.

________. “Messianic Muslim Followers of Isa: A Closer Look at C5 Believers and Congregations.” International Journal of Frontier Missions 17, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 53–59.

________. “Why Evangelicals Should Be Thankful for Muslim Insiders,” Christianity Today 57, no. 1 (January/February 2013): 30,

1 Though a report from the Pew Research Center suggests only 5.9% of the world are folk religionists, it is a subjective assessment to decide when an adherent has effectively blended beliefs to be defined as a folk religionist. Further, folk religionists often belong to other religions such as Islam or Christianity. Consequently, such a low percentage underestimates vast populations within the world’s religions. Even Pew Research admits to the difficulty. “Folk religions are challenging to measure. Less institutionalized and more diffuse than many other faiths, folk religions often are omitted as a category in surveys even in countries where they are widely practiced.” PewResearchCenter, “Folk Religionists,” in The Global Religious Landscape (December 18, 2012), Demographic Study, Publications, Religion,

2 See, e.g., Timothy C. Tennant, “The Hidden History of Insider Movements,” Christianity Today 57, no. 1 (January/February 2013): 28, and other articles in the same issue.

3 John Travis, “The C1 to C6 Spectrum: A Practical Tool for Defining Six Types of ‘Christ-centered Communities’ (‘C’) Found in the Muslim Context,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 34, no. 4 (October, 1998): 407–8.

4 In contrast, descriptive anthropologists, such as Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), and post-liberal theologians such as George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Posliberal Age (Louisville: Westinster John Knox, 1984), argue that all religions function as cultures.

5 “The C1–C6 Spectrum compares and contrasts types of ‘Christ-centered communities’ (groups of believers in Christ) found in the Muslim world. The six types in the spectrum are differentiated by language, culture, worship forms, degree of freedom to worship with others, and religious identity. All worship Jesus as Lord and core elements of the gospel are the same from group to group.” Travis, “The C1 to C6 Spectrum,” 407.

6 I will use C5 and insider movements interchangeably throughout the rest of the article.

7 See Gene Daniels, “Worshiping Jesus in the Mosque,” Christianity Today 57, no. 1 (January/February 2013): 22,; Tennant, 28; John J. Travis, “Why Evangelicals Should Be Thankful for Muslim Insiders,” Christianity Today 57, no. 1 (January/February 2013): 30,; Phil Parshall, “How Much Muslim Context Is Too Much for the Gospel?,” Christianity Today 57, no. 1 (January/February 2013): 31,; Kevin Higgins, “The Key to Insider Movements: The ‘Devoted’s’ of Acts,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 21, no. 4 (Winter 2004): 155–65.

8 Many proponents take the Jerusalem council of Acts 15 as suggesting how the early church made various accommodations to people of different religious background.

9 John Travis, “Messianic Muslim Followers of Isa: A Closer Look at C5 Believers and Congregations,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 17, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 53–9.

10 Ibid., 53.

11 Travis states:

C5 believers are Muslims who have been drawn to faith in Christ by the Spirit of God, often through reading the Bible on their own, hearing a radio broadcast, receiving a dream or vision, experiencing a miraculous healing in the name of Isa, or seeing the loving, patient, incarnational witness of a believing friend. C5 believers understand that good works and religious observance cannot remove sin; that the sacrifice of the Word made flesh, the Messiah, is God’s only provision for salvation (Ibid., 54).

12 Higgins, 156.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid., 159–60. Like other missiologists, Higgins lists the four selves as self-propagating, self-governing, self-supporting, self-theologizing. Such independent skills have often been used to show authentic, indigenous movements that have internalized the gospel and the responsibility to witness to it.

15 Tennant, 28. Critics of insider movements question the permissibility of overt foreign religious practice being used within Christianity. Further, many critics do not accept the instances of interaction with Judaism such as the Jerusalem council or Cornelius’s experience as normative and parallel to other religions. For many, Judaism holds a special place in salvation history and cannot be grouped with other religions. For a more thorough reading of key concerns from critics, see Gary Corwin, “A Humble Appeal to C5/Insider Movement Muslim Ministry Advocates to Consider Ten Questions,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 24, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 5–20.

16 David Abram, Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (New York: Vintage, 1996), 10, defines the magical perspective as: “Magic is participatory in a world of multiple intelligences with the intuition that every form one perceives…is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations that are very different from our own.”

17 Gary Corwin, “A Humble Appeal,”16.

18 William T. Cavanaugh, “ ‘A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House’: The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State,” Modern Theology 11, no. 4 (October 1995): 397–420.

19 Ibid., 403.

20 Ibid., 404.

21 Ibid., 406.

22 The phrase “Jesus as Lord and Savior” evokes the unique Christian shahadah in which assent to a specific doctrinal description of Jesus and justification is verbally confessed.

23 I use the language of “franchise” to demonstrate the behavior and organization of many Western Christian missionary structures. The word franchise is used in two senses. First, a franchise is an institution that operates behind a concept that markets a series of products that can be consistently identified with the franchise. Second, a franchise can be given as a kind of legal slip of permission that allows the concept to be promulgated by others while also extending the institution that operates behind the label.

24 Mary Douglas, How Institutions Think, Frank W. Abrams Lectures (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press,1986), 46.

25 Ibid., 91–2.

26 Ontological labels attempt to move beyond the task of Adam and the act of naming—a fundamentally linguistic act. Ontological labels classify the world into essences that cannot be translated. Ontological categories are as far down as possible since the description ultimately hits the wall of being. Consequently, when institutions label the world, they calcify a rigid system of essences.

27 Ibid., 101–2.

28 Ibid., 102.

29 Ibid., 105–9.

30 For a popular description focusing on the missional nature of the church, see Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997).

31 Douglas Harink, Paul among the Postliberals: Pauline Theology beyond Christendom and Modernity (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003).

32 Ibid., 25–30.

33 Ibid., 213.

34 I use the term ecclesial being as a way to refer both to the external organization of Christian religion as well as the assumed internal structure of faith.

35 John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event, Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion (Bloomington: Indiana Unviersity Press, 2006).

36 Ibid., 268. The host rejects the insiders and drags the outsider into the feast.

37 Walter J. Ong, with John Hartley, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the World, 30th Anniversary ed. (New York: Routledge, 2002).

38 Ibid., 42.

39 Ibid., 49 ff.

40 Ibid., 43 ff.

41 Walter J. Ong, “Before Textuality: Orality and Interpretation,” Oral Tradition 3, no. 3 (October 1988): 265.

42 Taking cues from Ong, Werner Kelber suggests that the tension of orality and literacy is present in our earliest gospel—Mark. Kelber hypothesizes that the various christological heresies of the fourth century were communities that adapted the oral wisdom sayings of Jesus. There is a tantalizing idea that Christian heresy originated out of the oral-literate division. Regardless, my sense is that the Word-as-event helps Western Christianity move beyond certain dualisms such as object/subject and pre-Easter Jesus/post-Easter Christ. Werner H. Kelber, The Oral and the Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul and Q, Voices in Performance and Text (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983).

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“A Light to the Nations”: Israel’s Mission to the World

Though different than programatic notions of mission, Israel’s calling and self-understanding lends itself to a conception of her mission in relation to God’s creation. Beginning with Isa 42, the article explores the nature of Israel’s missional existence during various periods of her history. The vision of Israel’s mission that emerges from the text resonates with the calling and self-understanding that Jesus gives his disciples, challenging the church to reimagine her mission among the nations.

“Did Israel have a mission to the other nations and peoples of the world? If so, what was that mission?” These are complex and difficult questions. So much depends upon what one means by mission. If by mission one means evangelism and conversion—“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19)1—then the answer is no. Evangelistic, missionary proclamation of the kind found in the New Testament is unknown in the Old Testament.2

On the other hand, there is in the Old Testament a clear sense of Israel’s self-awareness of having been “called” by God to be his agent in the world for the benefit of other nations and peoples. This is not to say that such self-awareness was equally strong in all parts of the Hebrew canon or at all times throughout Israel’s history.3 It is to say that, canonically speaking, Israel had a sense of God-given responsibility to “others.” Again, what that responsibility entailed for Israel is not spelled out precisely, but the sense of “calling”—to a purpose beyond the maintenance of her own existence—is certainly present in Israel’s Scriptures. In that sense, Israel did see herself as having a mission to the world. Perhaps the best way to get at that sense of having been called to serve God by serving the world is to start with a specific text: Isa 42:1–9.

God’s Sovereign Love and Care for All Creation

Isaiah 42:1–9 is the first of four passages in Isa 40–55 that scholars regularly identify as “servant songs.”4 In this first song, vv. 1–4 focus on the quiet but constant nature of the servant.5 Verses 5–9 then turn to the servant’s call and commissioning by God, beginning with these words in verse 5:

Thus said God, the Lord,

who created the heavens and stretched them out,

who spread out the earth and all

that it brings forth,

who gives breath to the people on it

and life to those walking in it.6

The song could not be clearer: the God who calls the servant is the Creator of heaven and earth and all humanity. That is the starting point for understanding Israel’s mission to the world. The world and all who live in it belong to God, who cares for all.

God resounds this affirmation in the second servant song when he says to the servant, “I will also make you a light to the nations, that my salvation will reach to the ends of the earth” (Isa 49:6b). As Childs observes, the servant’s “mission as a light to the nations forms the true climax of his divine calling as servant to the God of all creation.7 In a similar vein, the grand vision of Isa 2:2 // Mic 4:1 promises:

It will happen in the latter days

that the mountain of the house of the Lord

will be set over all other mountains,

and will be lifted high above the hills;

and all the nations will stream to it.

In the words of Gene Tucker, the vision “is universal in the expectation that all nations will come to Jerusalem to know the one true God, and the result will be peace.”8

Such creation-wide promises are in keeping with the many specific examples in Israel’s Scriptures of God’s loving care for individuals who were not Israelites. The two Egyptian midwives come to mind—two women who thwarted the genocidal intentions of Pharaoh by preserving the lives of newborn Israelite males. “So God dealt well with the midwives . . . and because the midwives feared God, he gave them families”(Exod 1:20–21).9 Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute who protected the two Israelite spies, was subsequently spared, along with her family, when Jericho was conquered and burned (Josh 6:22–25). A Sidonian widow was provided for by Elijah, who also raised her son from the dead (1 Kings 17:8–16). Na’aman, the Syrian military commander, was cured of leprosy by Elisha (1 Kings 5:1–19).

Perhaps the most famous non-Israelite to be blessed by God is Ruth the Moabite.10 Ruth was not “converted” by her mother-in-law Naomi; indeed, Ruth returned to Bethlehem with Naomi over Naomi’s objections. But Ruth soon integrated herself into the community, showing Torah-kindness to Naomi, accepting Israelite customs, and ultimately—with the help of God (Ruth 4:13)—conceiving and delivering a son who would become the grandfather of King David.

And then there are the people of Nineveh, to whom God sent Jonah, that slow learner when it came to grasping God’s providential care for all peoples. When the people of Nineveh repented of their sins, after Jonah had proclaimed God’s judgment to them, God relented of his intended punishment. Jonah was hurt and angry. Then, when the shade bush that God had provided for Jonah withered, Jonah was ready to die himself, not realizing that his concern for the bush was paralleled by God’s much larger concern for the 120,000-plus inhabitants of Nineveh and for their animals.

God’s Calling and Equipping Israel to Serve the World on His Behalf

In the next two lines of the first servant song this Creator-God identifies himself as “the Lord”—Yahweh, Jehovah—the One who has both called and sustained Israel:

I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness.

I have taken you by the hand and kept you. (42:6a)

Three things stand out in these two short lines. First is the self-identification of the God who does these things, repeated from v. 5: “I am the Lord.” Second, God has called Israel, “in righteousness,” for God’s own righteous purposes. Israel has not sought this commission; God has ordained it. Third, God has provided the care and direction necessary to bring Israel to the point where Israel can effectively, faithfully carry out her God-given task.

While the language is quite different, the theological import of verse 6a is similar to that of two other significant Old Testament texts, the first of which is Gen 12:1–3—the call of Abraham. There, as here in Isa 42, it is not a matter of someone looking for God; instead, God comes calling for Abraham. Likewise in Gen 12 there is the promise of God’s providential care, in this case the provision of both land and progeny for Abraham. Finally, and most importantly for our purposes, there is God’s stated intention to use Abraham as his agent for blessing others: “I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and the ones who curse you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:2b–3).

The other equally significant passage is Exod 19:1–6. Once again it is God who initiates the interaction with Israel, by securing Israel’s release from Egyptian oppression: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians” (Exod 19:4a). Once again it is God who has guarded and guided Israel: “I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you unto myself” (Exod 19:4b), which is the functional equivalent of “I have taken you by the hand and kept you.” Finally, as with the “servant” in Isa 42, so here God announces a mission for Israel: “you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6a). It is to the mission of the “servant” that we now turn.

God’s Inclusion of “Others” in Israel’s Community of Faith

Now this creating, calling, enabling God announces his special purpose for his special servant:

I have given you as a covenant for the peoples,

and a light to the nations,

to open eyes that are blind,

to free captives from prison,

from the dungeon those sitting in darkness. (42:6b–7)

Here, as elsewhere, the precise nature of the servant’s “mission” is more opaque than transparent. Especially difficult is the phrase “covenant to/for the people” (berit {am), which appears only here in the Old Testament. Taking the phrase in close parallel with the next phrase, Westermann paraphrases:

“I make you the covenant-salvation . . . for all mankind /

through you the nations are to experience light, illumination, and salvation.”11

Childs notes that “the one commissioned does not form a covenant, but rather embodies a covenantal relationship with the nations.”12 Hanson elaborates as follows:

The referent of “people” ({am) is most plausibly the same as that found in the preceding verse, namely all the inhabitants of the earth, a meaning supported by the parallel “nations” that immediately follows. When we recall the universal dimension to the Servant’s task in the preceding unit, the phrase strikes us as entirely befitting the spirit of Second Isaiah’s vision. The community called and upheld by God, by discharging the patient faithful witness assigned to the Servant, becomes the instrument through which the nations are drawn into the covenant relationship marked by God’s reign of justice, the covenant relationship of which Israel already had been a part because of God’s gracious activity on Israel’s behalf and which now was to be extended to the wider family of the nations.13

As for the phrase, “a light to the nations,” Hanson, in agreement with Westermann, adds, “The parallel phrase ‘a light to the nations’ amplifies the vision, that is, Israel is to become the instrument through which nations come to share the light of God’s salvation.”14

Two other prophetic passages are worth noting in regard to the inclusion of “outsiders” in the covenant-community of Israel, the first of which is Isa 56:1–8. This passage begins the third and final section of the book of Isaiah, a section often called Third Isaiah, with the promise that God’s salvation is coming soon and is coming specifically to the “eunuch” (vv. 4–5) and to the “foreigner” (vv. 6–7)—two groups who together represent all the “outcasts” whom God will gather to himself (v. 8). Specifically, as regards the “foreigner,” the prophet says:

As for the foreigners

who join themselves to the Lord,

to serve him, to love the name of the Lord

and to be his servants,

all who keep the Sabbath

without profaning it,

and who hold fast to my covenant

these I will bring to my holy mountain

and let them rejoice in the house of prayer.

Their burnt offerings and sacrifices

will be accepted on my altar,

for my house will be called

a house of prayer for all peoples.

For our purposes two things are worthy of note in this passage. First, those “outsiders” who had formerly been excluded from Israel’s worship assemblies (cf. Deut 23:3–6) are now welcome to participate fully in those assemblies—welcomed by Israel, presumably, as well as by God. But second, those former “outsiders” are now expected to “keep the Sabbath” and “hold fast my covenant” (v. 6b). In other words, they will have both the privileges and the responsibilities that God’s people Israel have always had.

The second prophetic passage to note is Zech 8:20–23:

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Peoples shall yet come, the inhabitants of many cities; the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, “Come, let us go to entreat the favor of the Lord, and to seek the Lord of hosts; I myself am going.” Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem, and to entreat the favor of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”

This passage comes as a climax to a series of oracles, beginning in Zech 8:1, that envision a restored, renewed Jerusalem, to which God will gather his people from “east and west” and in which everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, will live happily and securely. And not only will Israel, the original people of God, live there; but other peoples will stream to Jerusalem in order to “seek the Lord of hosts” and “entreat the favor of the Lord.” They will not have been actively “evangelized” by Jews; instead, they will seek out Jews and beg to accompany them, based on the now common knowledge that “God is with you.” But the net result will be their new identity as worshipers of Yahweh God, for “to seek God is to make him the object of one’s allegiance and desire.”15

It should be added that such acceptance and inclusion of “outsiders” in the community of Israel was not without precedent in Israel’s experience. When Israel left Egypt, “a mixed crowd also went up with them” (Exod 12:38; cf. Num 11:4). Commenting on this, Fretheim says:

They were a “mixed crowd,” consisting of more than the descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob. Many non-Israelites had been integrated into the community of faith, and other communities no doubt took advantage of the opportunity to choose freedom. . . . When the people of God are liberated, not only their own kind can come along.16

And when Israel prepared to celebrate the first Passover, what of these “tag-longs?” “If an alien who resides with you wants to celebrate the Passover to the Lord, all his males shall be circumcised; then he may draw near to celebrate it; he shall be regarded as a native of the land” (Exod 12:48). Again, Fretheim says:

This is not a new level of exclusivism but a recognition that Passover is a festival for persons who have faith in this God. These others are invited to join that community by being circumcised, a sign that they have made the confession of this “congregation” their own.17

Israel the servant who is to be “a covenant to the peoples, a light to the nations” is thus one with the Israel of the Exodus. Israel was to be that open, healing, redeeming community into which “others” were invited, accepted, and brought near to God.

The Final Result of God’s Action: Praise for Him Alone

In the final lines of the first Servant Song, God reaffirms his identity, claims “glory” for himself alone, and affirms the newness of this announcement to Israel:

I am the Lord, that is my name.

I will not give my glory to another

or my praise to idols.

Look, the former things have come to pass,

and now I foretell new things;

before they spring forth,

I announce them to you. (42:8–9).18

The song thus ends where it began: with a recognition of—and implicit praise for—the one true God who shares his glory with no one but who shares his beneficence with everyone. The true goal of Israel’s “mission” is the worldwide glorification of the Lord God; and it is on that note that the book of Isaiah ends:19

As for me, knowing their works and their thoughts, the time has come to gather all the nations and tongues; they will come and behold my glory. I will set a sign among them, and send from them survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud who draw the bow, to Tubal, Javan, and the distant coastlands that have not heard of my fame nor seen my glory. They shall proclaim my glory among the nations. (Isa 66:18–19)

Summary and Conclusion

We end where we began: with the question of whether or not Israel had a mission to non-Israel. If by mission we mean an organized program of foreign evangelism, the answer is no—no strategic plans or missionary trips; no para-church organization (think “missionary society”); no church planting teams willing to relocate among the “unchurched;” no benevolence programs specifically designed for non-Israelites.

And yet, there runs throughout Israel’s canon of Scripture an awareness that Israel did not exist simply for her own sake but for the sake of “s” also. Using Isa 42:5–9 as our template, we saw that:

  • Israel’s sense of mission began not with her perception of human needs but with God the Creator’s concern for his world and all who lived in it (Isa 42:5).
  • God called and equipped Israel to have a special role in his redemptive, restorative plan for all the world, a role that was sometimes designated “servant,” sometimes designated “kingdom of priests” (Isa 42:6a; cf. Isa 49:3; Exod 19:6).
  • God charged Israel with being a “covenant for the peoples”—a receptive, inclusive community of faith—and a “light to the nations”—showing the one true God to all who lived in darkness, thus drawing them to worship God themselves (Isa 42:6b–7).
  • The end result of such mission would be the worldwide recognition and celebration of God’s unique glory (Isa 42:8–9).

Such a sense of mission was more visionary than practical, more imaginative than programmatic, but it was no less real.

And it still is. Christ himself said that his disciples were “the light of the world,” and he called them to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:14, 16). To that mission Christ calls us even today.

Dr. Paul L. Watson completed his BA in Bible at Abilene Christian University, his MDiv at Yale Divinity School, and his PhD in Old Testament at Yale University. Paul taught at Erskine College, Pepperdine University, and the Institute for Christian Studies (now Austin Graduate School of Theology) before becoming senior minister for the Cole Mill Road Church of Christ in Durham, North Carolina. Paul served as preacher and elder for twenty-four years at Cole Mill Road, during which time he and his wife Kay made five teaching-mission trips to St. Petersburg, Russia. After his retirement from preaching, Paul began serving as professor of Bible for Amridge University. He and Kay continue to worship with the Cole Mill Road congregation, where they serve as co-chairs of the church’s missions ministry.


Childs, Brevard S. Isaiah: A Commentary. Old Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001.

Fretheim, Terence. Exodus. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991.

Goldingay, John. “Servant of Yahweh.” In Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, ed. Mark J. Boda and J. Gordon McConville, 700–707. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012.

Hanson, Paul. Isaiah 40–66. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995.

McComiskey, Thomas E. “Zechariah.” In The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.

New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes. Vol. 6, Introduction to Prophetic Literature; Isaiah; Jeremiah; Baruch; Letter of Jeremiah; Lamentations; Ezekiel. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001.

Oswalt, John N. The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40–66. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

Smith-Christopher, Daniel L. A Biblical Theology of Exile. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002.

Westermann, Claus. Isaiah 40–66: A Commentary. Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969.

1 Scripture quotations except for Isaiah will be taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

2 The apparent exception of Jonah is, in fact, not an exception, as will be discussed below.

3 For example, there is a higher concentration of “mission” messages in Isaiah than in Jeremiah or Ezekiel. As for historical development, Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, A Biblical Theology of Exile (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002), 135, argues that after the exile “Israelite communities recognize that they are tools of God’s transformative justice and mission.”

4 The relationship of these four songs to one another and the identity of the “servant” who appears in them are much debated. For the purposes of this paper it will be assumed that the servant in all four songs is essentially the same and that this servant is, in whole or in part, Israel. For the issues involved, consult John Goldingay, “Servant of Yahweh,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, ed. Mark J. Boda and J. Gordon McConville (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 700–707; Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah: A Commentary, Old Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001); John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40–66, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998); Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40–66,” in New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. 6, Introduction to Prophetic Literature; Isaiah; Jeremiah; Baruch; Letter of Jeremiah; Lamentations; Ezekiel (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 307–553; and Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40–66: A Commentary, Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969).

5 Westermann, 101, emphasizes the disjunction between vv. 1–4 and vv. 5–9, whereas Childs, 326, argues that whatever the redactional history of the two units, “the two passages clearly supplement each other” as they now stand.

6 Unless otherwise noted, all translations of Isaiah are those of Childs.

7 Childs, 385; emphasis added.

8 Gene M. Tucker, “The Book of Isaiah 1–39,” in New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. 6 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 69. For other examples in the book of Isaiah of declarations of God’s universal sovereignty and love, note the following:

  • Isa 11:6–9. The “peaceable kingdom” passage that promises, “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
  • Isa 19:19–22. One day “there will be an altar to the Lord in the center of the land of Egypt,” for “the Egyptians will know the Lord on that day, and will worship with sacrifice and burnt offering, and they will make vows to the Lord and perform them.”
  • Isa. 19:23–25. In the following two oracles, God promises that Assyria, Egypt, and Israel will be united, and God pronounces his blessing on them: “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.”
  • Isa 25:6–10. In this “banquet on the mountain” vision, “the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food . . . and he will destroy on this mountain the shroud cast over all peoples . . . he will swallow up death forever.”
  • Isa 42:10–13. In this passage, “the coastlands and their inhabitants” and “the desert and its towns,” the villages that Kedar inhabits” and “the inhabitants of Sela” are all invited to join in a “new song” of praise to the Lord.
  • Isa 45:20–25. Here God invites the “survivors of the nations” to abandon their worthless idols and “turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth. For I am God, and there is no other.”

9 Interestingly enough, Christian interpreters generally understand the two midwives to be Hebrew women, whereas Jewish interpreters regularly take them to be Egyptian.

10 Note how often Ruth is said to be a “Moabite” or from “Moab” (Ruth 1:6, 22; 2:2, 6, 21; 4:5, 10), as if to underscore Ruth’s foreign origins.

11 Westermann, 100.

12 Childs, 326.

13 Paul Hanson, Isaiah 40–66, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995), 46–47.

14 Ibid., 47. For the phrase “light to the nations,” cf. also Isa 49:6; 60:3; and Tobit 13:11.

15 Thomas E. McComiskey, “Zechariah,” in The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 1156.

16 Terence Fretheim, Exodus, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991), 143.

17 Ibid.

18 Some commentators take v. 9 as a misplaced fragment: “This saying about the former things and the new things gives the impression of being a fragment out of its proper context, the ‘you’ in the last clause having nothing to which it relates.” (Westermann, 101). Others see v. 9 as integral part of the unit: “Even v. 9 serves a coherent purpose in contrasting the former things that God the creator had once brought forth (v. 5; cf. 41:22) with the new things that are about to emerge. The shift to a plural pronoun reflects only a rhetorical device, consonant with the plurality of witnesses to the things shortly to come (43:10; 44:8).” (Childs, 326). On balance, the latter view seems preferable.

19 Note that the Psalter ends the same way: “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” (Ps 150:6; cf. Ps 86:8–9).

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Postmissionary Messianic Judaism and Its Implications for Christian-Jewish Engagement

Missio Dei’s standard copyright does not apply to this article. Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group (

This article is an adaptation of material from Postmissionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People.1 There is a common and long-standing assumption that the Jewish and Christian faiths represent two separate religions. From the platform of Messianic Judaism, it is argued that they are actually one people and one religion but a people and a religion that is inherently twofold in nature. The New Testament consistently assumes that Jews who accept Jesus as the Messiah and become his disciples will remain Jewish and continue actively and faithfully to observe the Torah. Assuming that this continues to be the call for Jewish disciples today, Christians should not seek to be missionaries to Jews in the sense of trying to persuade them to come out of Judaism in order to follow Jesus. Rather, they should affirm and embrace their distinctly Jewish identity. Of course, Scripture is also clear that Gentiles who accept Jesus do not need to become Jewish, a position that is clearly embraced today but was still in question in the first century. In short, God’s eternal plan is for Jewish disciples to remain Jewish and Gentile disciples to remain Gentile and together, in mutual fulfillment, to form two complementary sides of the people of God. In fact, the assumption that Judaism and Christianity are two separate religions, which developed in the decades after the writing of the New Testament, is tragically mistaken and represents the first major schism, or division, in church history. Therefore, Jewish-Christian relationships represent a starting point for promoting unity and reconciliation among God’s people.

Religious etiquette in the mainline Christian churches—as in the Jewish world—prescribes that Messianic Judaism is not a suitable topic for serious conversation. This is as true for theologians and clergy as for those in the pews. Most presume that Christianity and Judaism are two separate religions, historically related but now independent and self-contained. Therefore, Messianic Judaism—the attempt of Jewish Yeshua-believers to sustain their Jewish identity and religious expression as intrinsic to and required by their faith in Yeshua2—can only be a syncretistic system that disrespects two great religious traditions.

If, instead of entering the Presbyterian or Methodist sanctuary, one crosses the street and visits the local Pentecostal or Baptist congregation, one discovers that Messianic Judaism is no longer a forbidden subject. Some will likely voice critical or wary opinions, but religious etiquette does not prohibit the view that Messianic Jews are (or can be) good “Christians” who are merely pioneering new methods of Jewish evangelism.3

As a Messianic Jewish leader, I wish to challenge both of these perspectives. As a result, mainline and evangelical Christians will likely find my thesis equally unsettling. I run the risk of provoking the one and alienating the other. But I am convinced that the potential gain is worth the risk.

Postmissionary Messianic Judaism & Non-Supersessionist Ecclesiology

Despite its title, this is not mainly an article about Messianic Judaism. Instead, it is an article about the ekklesia—the community of those who believe in Yeshua the Messiah—and its relationship to the Jewish people. It is an article about supersessionism, and the ecclesiological implications of its repudiation. Supersessionism teaches that the ekklesia replaces the Jewish people as the elect community in covenant with God, in whom the divine presence resides and through whom the divine purpose is realized in the world.4 According to this traditional Christian view, the church is the New and Spiritual Israel, fulfilling the role formerly occupied by “carnal” Israel. In the decades since the Holocaust, many Christians have repudiated this teaching. However, it would appear that few have learned to read the New Testament in a non-supersessionist manner. Even fewer seem to have considered the ecclesiological implications of their new stance.

Christian communal identity is founded on two critical convictions: (1) the mediation of Yeshua in all of God’s creative, revelatory, reconciling, and redemptive activity, and (2) the church’s participation through Yeshua in Israel’s covenantal privileges. These two convictions are embodied in the church’s two-fold biblical canon. They constitute non-negotiable beliefs located at the core of the church’s existence. Nevertheless, the repudiation of supersessionism raises serious questions about these two convictions. If the Jewish people remain in covenant with God, with their own distinct calling and way of life intact despite their apparent communal rejection of Yeshua’s divine mediation, how can the church convincingly hold either of these two critical convictions?

It is difficult to squeeze these two convictions into a non-supersessionist ecclesiological framework. To alter the metaphor slightly, the church’s two central convictions and the repudiation of supersessionism are like three puzzle pieces that do not fit together. I contend that a fourth piece is required in order to complete the puzzle: a postmissionary form of Messianic Judaism. This is why I assert that this article is not mainly about Messianic Judaism. While I am arguing for the legitimacy and importance of Messianic Judaism, my wider thesis is that the church’s own identity—and not just the identity of Messianic Jews—is at stake in the discussion.

Unfortunately, the contemporary Messianic Jewish movement as a whole, despite enormous diversity, is not able to provide this fourth puzzle piece. Most of those who would call themselves Messianic Jews participate in Messianic Jewish congregations, but one also finds them in the church world. Many Messianic Jews seek to observe the laws of the Torah (i.e., the Pentateuch), whereas others treat these laws as national customs that are valuable but optional. What do all those who call themselves “Messianic Jews” have in common? All Messianic Jews believe that Yeshua of Nazareth is Israel’s Messiah, and that faith in Yeshua establishes rather than undermines their Jewish identity. However, no consensus exists as to what this faith in Yeshua means for their relationship to the church, or what this Jewish identity means for their relationship to the Jewish community and tradition.

As stated above, the form of Messianic Judaism that I believe is able to supply the missing fourth puzzle piece is postmissionary in character. What do I mean by this term? The word missionary evokes negative reactions from many at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It is often associated with a colonial mentality, a condescending patriarchal orientation that evades the challenges inherent in any authentic encounter with the “other.” However valid such concerns may be, this article is not an attack on the missionary endeavor in general and in every context. Instead, my argument that Messianic Judaism should assume a postmissionary form focuses on the specific and unique relationship between Yeshua (and his ekklesia), the Jewish people, and the Jewish way of life.

I employ the term postmissionary to capture at least three aspects of the type of Messianic Judaism that is needed for the emergence of an integrated, faithful, non-supersessionist ecclesiology. First, postmissionary Messianic Judaism summons Messianic Jews to live an observant Jewish life as an act of covenant fidelity rather than missionary expediency. In the early twentieth century Leopold Cohn, founder of the American Board of Missions to the Jews, was unconventional among Hebrew Christian missionaries in his continued commitment to Jewish practice. According to his son, however, his motive for this commitment was purely evangelistic:

He followed the method introduced by Paul, ‘To the Jew I became as a Jew’. Pork he would not touch, and it was not allowed at any time in our home. . . . The Mosaic law was adhered to. . . . The reason for my father’s dietetic asceticism was not that he felt himself under the law of Moses, but that by this method he was able to win Jews to Christ who could not have been won otherwise.5

A century later, some missionary-minded Messianic Jews approach Jewish practice in much the same way. If they could be convinced that Messianic Judaism was an ineffective evangelistic strategy, they would set it aside and search for something more effective. This is the type of Messianic Judaism which Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod chastises:

What I find painful are messianic Jewish congregations which adopt Jewish symbols and practices to attract Jews but are not committed in principle to Torah observance. These groups use Jewish symbols and practices to make the transition of Jews to gentile Christianity easier. Their aim is Jewish integration into a Christianity that does not demand sustained Jewish Torah observance indefinitely.6

Postmissionary Messianic Jews agree with Wyschogrod. Their congregations are “committed in principle to Torah observance” and “demand [it] . . . indefinitely.” The motivation is covenant fidelity, not missionary expediency.7

Second, postmissionary Messianic Judaism embraces the Jewish people and its religious tradition, and discovers God and Messiah in the midst of Israel. Messianic Jews with this orientation discern the hidden sanctifying reality of Yeshua already residing at the center of Jewish life and religious tradition. They understand their inner mission as the call to be a visible sign of this hidden messianic presence. Postmissionary Messianic Judaism does bear witness, but not to a reality external to Jewish communal life. It testifies to a reality already internal to Jewish life, existing independent of its witness, but manifested and confirmed through its witness. It believes that the mysterious messianic reality at the heart of Israel’s life will one day be acknowledged by the community as a whole, and that this acknowledgement—set within the context of a national movement of revived fidelity to the ancestral covenant—will prepare the way for the final redemption. Because it discovers God and Yeshua within the Jewish people and its tradition, postmissionary Messianic Judaism feels at home in the Jewish world.

In contrast, many other Messianic Jews treat post-biblical Jewish history, customs, and institutions with wariness or even disdain. They see even devout Jews who do not believe in Yeshua as lacking a life-giving relationship with God; only by accepting Yeshua as Israel’s Messiah can Jews draw near to God, and experience God’s saving power. These Messianic Jews never truly feel at home in the Jewish world, for they consider it a domain bereft of Yeshua’s sanctifying presence.

Third, postmissionary Messianic Judaism serves the (Gentile) Christian church by linking it to the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, thereby confirming its identity as a multinational extension of the people of Israel.8 While postmissionary Messianic Judaism’s inner mission consists of bearing witness to Yeshua’s presence within the Jewish people, its outer mission directs it to the church, before whom it testifies to God’s enduring love for the family chosen in the beginning to be God’s covenant partner. The church thereby participates in Israel’s riches without displacing Israel. In the process the church setting can become a second home—a “home away from home”—for Messianic Jews.

In contrast, many Messianic Jews find their primary home in the Christian church – the only setting where they recognize the presence of Yeshua. They feel away from home when among the Jewish people, who do not accept Yeshua. Therefore, their outer mission is to bring Jews to faith in Yeshua, so that the Jewish people can also become “home.” Whereas postmissionary Messianic Jews seek to represent the Jewish people to the church, Messianic Jews with a missionary focus make their primary concern representing the church’s concerns and beliefs to the Jewish community. A missionary-oriented Messianic Judaism has been a significant obstacle in the relationship between the church and the Jewish people. Postmissionary Messianic Judaism can serve as the missing link that binds the church and the Jewish people, so that the Christian church becomes a multinational extension of the Jewish people and its messianically renewed covenantal relationship with God.9

In summary, the form of Messianic Judaism required for an integrated, faithful, non-supersessionist ecclesiology is postmissionary in three senses: (1) it treats Jewish observance as a matter of covenant fidelity rather than missionary expediency; (2) it is at home in the Jewish world, and its inner mission consists of bearing witness to Yeshua’s continued presence among his people; (3) its outer mission consists of linking the church of the nations to Israel, so that the church can become a multinational extension of Israel and its messianically renewed covenantal relationship with God. The third aspect of its postmissionary character is dependent on the first two. Messianic Judaism can only perform its necessary ecclesiological role if it is an embodiment of Jewish covenant fidelity at home in the Jewish world. The church of the nations can only become an extension of Israel if its Messianic Jewish partner is deeply rooted in Jewish soil.

Postmissionary Messianic Judaism is the missing piece that completes the puzzle. With such a piece in place, the Christian church can affirm Yeshua’s universal mediation in a non-supersessionist manner, since its postmissionary Messianic Jewish partner enables it to recognize Yeshua’s mysterious presence throughout Jewish history. Israel’s covenant endures, the church draws nourishment from its Jewish root, yet Yeshua remains the Messiah and Lord for both Jews and Gentiles. The Christian church can now affirm its own identity as an extension of Israel in a non-supersessionist manner, since its connection to the Jewish heritage has become a concrete sociological reality rather than a spiritual abstraction. Postmissionary Messianic Judaism bears witness to the enduring importance of the Jewish people and its way of life for the identity of the Christian church, and likewise bears witness to the enduring importance of Yeshua’s mediation for the identity of the Jewish people.

In arguing that ecclesiology demands authentic engagement with the Jewish people and its religious tradition, I am urging that we rethink our presuppositions regarding the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, the church and Israel, Christians and Jews. The terms themselves express an underlying conceptual framework that envisions two separate religions, two separate communities practicing the two separate religions, and the members of those two separate communities. It is time to challenge the notion that Christianity and Judaism are two separate religions.10 We should heed the advice offered by Karl Barth a half-century ago: “The Church must live with the Synagogue, not, as fools say in their hearts, as with another religion or confession, but as the root from which it has itself sprung.”11 Some Christian thinkers are beginning to catch up with Barth. Thus, Richard John Neuhaus writes, “It is misleading, I believe, to speak of two peoples of God, or of two covenants, never mind to speak of two religions.”12 In reality, we are dealing with one people and one religion, but it is a people and a religion that is inherently twofold in nature. Sadly, what should have been an enriching differentiation became a bitter schism.

Healing the Schism: A Restored Jewish Ekklesia

In the fuller argument in my book Postmissionary Messianic Judaism, I argue for the truth of three interrelated propositions. First, the New Testament—read canonically and theologically in the light of history—teaches that Israel’s covenant, way of life, and religious tradition have enduring validity and importance, even when Israel proves unwilling or unable to explicitly recognize its Messiah. Second, the failure of the Gentile ekklesia to receive and confirm this truth contributed decisively to the rupture between the ekklesia and the Jewish people—a rupture that constitutes a debilitating schism in the heart of the people of God. Third, this schism was manifested first in the rejection of the validity and importance of the Jewish ekklesia and of its integration within the wider Jewish world, and the healing of this schism requires the restoration of such an ekklesia. The restoration of the Jewish ekklesia would link the Gentile ekklesia to Israel, and enable it to legitimately identify with Israel’s history and destiny without succumbing to supersessionism. The restoration of the Jewish ekklesia would also enable the Jewish people to appreciate Yeshua-faith as an indigenous Jewish reality, extending the reign of Israel’s God among the nations.

What would such a restored Jewish ekklesia look like? In the book, I assess Hebrew Christianity and Messianic Judaism according to five basic ecclesiological principles: upholding God’s election of the Jewish people, affirming Jewish practice, honoring Jewish tradition, taking its place as part of a bilateral ekklesia, and maintaining an ecumenical vision for the relationship between the Jewish people as a whole and the twofold ekklesia. These principles provide markers for identifying the sort of Jewish ekklesia whose presence can facilitate the healing of the schism.

As a postmissionary reality, the restored Jewish ekklesia will take its stand as part of the Jewish people. In its definition of Messianic Judaism, the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC) emphasizes the need to “place a priority on integration with the wider Jewish world.”13 This has far-reaching implications. The traditional Hebrew Christian model, which, as seen above, is essentially missionary in orientation, involves a ranking of one’s social identities, so that one’s core identity as part of the missionary body defines one’s attitude towards the other groups one also identifies with. Employing the nineteenth century distinction between religion and nationality, the Hebrew Christian’s core identity is religious (i.e., the “Christian” faith, held in common with other Christians), whereas his or her secondary identity is national (i.e., membership in the Jewish people). The Hebrew Christian attitude toward the Jewish people (the secondary grouping) is thus defined by its “Christian” convictions. For the restored Jewish ekklesia, on the other hand, Jewish identity will be both religious and national. Furthermore, it will find Yeshua himself within Judaism and the Jewish people. Therefore, its Judaism and its loyalty to the Jewish people will not compete with its Yeshua-faith and its loyalty to the Gentile ekklesia. The radical, unqualified identification of Jewish Yeshua-believers with the Jewish people and its religious tradition may trouble some Christians when they first encounter it. However, if they truly renounce supersessionism and recognize the ecclesiological implications of claiming a part in Israel’s heritage, they will embrace the new relationship with the Jewish people made possible for them by the reconstituted Jewish ekklesia, and rejoice in it.

At the same time, the Jewish ekklesia will, as the UMJC definition states, “bear witness to Yeshua within the people of Israel.” The Jewish ekklesia will not hide its light under a bushel. Its Yeshua-faith and its Judaism are not two separate realities, but one integrated whole. Its Yeshua-faith will affect every dimension of its life, including its participation in the wider Jewish world. However, its witness to Yeshua will be rendered in a postmissionary mode. Its postmissionary mode of bearing witness has three crucial features. First, the Jewish ekklesia will realize that it must first receive the testimony borne by the wider Jewish community to the God of Israel before it is fit to bear its own witness. It must hear before it can speak. It must learn before it can teach. What it receives, hears, and learns will affect the substance—and not just the form—of what it gives, says, and teaches. Second, the Jewish ekklesia bears witness to the One already present in Israel’s midst. It does not need to make him present; it only needs to point other Jews to his intimate proximity. The Jewish ekklesia bears witness to the One who sums up Israel’s true identity and destiny, who lives within Israel and directs its way, who constitutes the hidden center of its tradition and way of life. In the words of Joseph Rabinowitz, it bears witness to “Yeshua Achinu”—Yeshua our Brother, who, like Joseph, rules over the Gentiles while providing for the welfare of his own family who do not recognize him. For the Jewish ekklesia, all Judaism is Messianic Judaism, because all Judaism is Messiah’s Judaism. Third, the Jewish ekklesia bears witness discreetly, sensitively, and with restraint. It is always aware of the painful wounds of the past, and seeks to bear witness to Yeshua in a way that brings him honor from among his own.

As a postmissionary body, the Jewish ekklesia will also stretch out its hands to the Gentile ekklesia, and bring it into a structured ecclesial relationship to the Jewish people. It brings the church to Israel, rather than bringing Israel to the church. Yet, by bringing the church to Israel, it also brings Israel to the church. It represents Israel to the church, i.e., the church of the nations. In doing so, it bears witness to the church and the world of the reconciling power of Yeshua’s atoning sacrifice, and becomes a present sign of the future redemption. As the UMJC definition states, the Jewish and Gentile ekklesiai together constitute “a community of Jews and Gentiles who in their ongoing distinction and mutual blessing anticipate the shalom of the world to come.”

The restoration of the Jewish ekklesia, and a progressive healing of the schism between the church and the Jewish people, would have enormous consequences for the life of the ekklesia. The letter to the Ephesians speaks of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in Messiah as the archetype of the reconciliation that Yeshua brings to the world. Tragically, the Christian era brought intensified hostility rather than peace to Jewish-Gentile relations. This called into question from the outset the Christian claim to a mission of universal reconciliation. The restoration of the Jewish ekklesia would provide the Christian church with an opportunity for repentance and a renewal of its vocation in the world.

The restoration of the Jewish ekklesia would contribute to the healing of other schisms that have wounded the Christian church over the centuries. George Lindbeck has summoned the church to view itself in an Israel-like way—as a people, rather than as a voluntary organization ordered around a set of common beliefs.14 Lindbeck contends that such an identity would better enable the church to maintain a differentiated unity. In the world of American Protestantism such an identity would also counter the rampant individualism that undermines ecclesial community and prevents Christians from even recognizing schism as an evil. But how can the Christian church develop an Israel-like identity without falling into supersessionism? I have argued here that this can only occur through the restoration of the Jewish ekklesia.

The restoration of the Jewish ekklesia would provide the church with an essential resource for combating the dualism that has been its continual temptation through the centuries. Irving Greenberg sees this dualism as a consequence of Christian alienation from Judaism:

Each religion paid a price in dismissing the other. Christianity skewed toward dualism, minimizing the religious significance of carnal matters, the law, and the body.15

To the constant Jewish critique that the world was manifestly unredeemed (therefore, Jesus could be no true redeemer), Christianity responded by spiritualizing redemption (and dismissing Judaism as a “carnal” religion). The conjunction of anti-halakhic thinking and the dismissal of biology (Christians are children of Abraham in the spirit) encouraged an otherworldly focus and reinforced a dualism that often pitted the soul against the body and the flesh against the spirit. Rootedness in the land also was spiritualized away; no land was sacred, and only the heavenly Jerusalem really mattered.16

While its core message of the incarnation militates against such dualism, the Christian church has struggled to work out the implications of this message. Too often the spirit, the abstract ideal, and the universal have overwhelmed the body, concrete reality, and ethnocultural particularity. The fleshly presence of a Jewish ekklesia would serve as a constant reminder that God’s redemptive purpose entails the consummation and not the destruction of the created order.

That the Christian church needs the Jewish ekklesia to work out the non-dualistic implications of the incarnation supports a point more fully explored in my book: the church cannot adequately understand the meaning of the incarnation without grasping the ongoing significance of Yeshua’s Jewish identity.17 To grasp the ongoing significance of Yeshua’s Jewish identity, the church must realize the ongoing significance of the Jewish people. To realize the ongoing significance of the Jewish people, the church needs to have a living covenantal bond to the Jewish people—a bond established by the restoration of the Jewish ekklesia. The church serves a resurrected Jew whose glorification perfected rather than annulled his Jewishness. To appreciate that Jewishness, the Gentile church needs an earthly and corporate Jewish companion.

The Gentile church likewise needs such an earthly and corporate Jewish companion in order adequately to hear, understand, and respond to the Word of God in Scripture. Traditional Jewish and Christian teaching affirms the need for participation in the people of God in order to rightly receive the Word of God. If that people is twofold in nature, then Jews and Christians need to hear and study Scripture together. This is already happening in academia—but too often such “inter-faith” study presumes the perpetual separation of the two communities, and entails the bracketing of religious convictions in order to meet on “neutral” turf. To hear the Word of God properly, Jews and Christians must study together as one differentiated community. This requires the restoration of the Jewish ekklesia.

In sum, the restoration of the Jewish ekklesia promises a renewal of the Christian church’s reading of Scripture, understanding of the incarnation and its non-dualistic implications, and actualization of the church’s own identity and vocation. The ekklesia of the nations has much to gain from the restoration of the ekklesia of the circumcision.

The schism between the Jewish people and the ekklesia can be healed without coming to full agreement over Yeshua’s messianic identity. The New Testament implies that disagreement over Yeshua’s identity will continue till the end of the age, but it does not predict a schism with the same longevity. This is why John Howard Yoder can say of the schism, “It did not have to be.”18 “Schism” refers to the division of these two groups into separate religious communities. It also implies the enmity that has historically transpired between them—but the enmity can be overcome, as it has in twenty-first century America, and the schism remain. The healing of the schism means the establishing of a structured ecclesial relationship. This can occur if the church adopts a bilateral ecclesiology in solidarity with Israel that affirms Israel’s covenant, Torah, and religious tradition. While this is a necessary condition of the healing, it is not sufficient. Full healing of the schism will only occur when the wider Jewish community accepts the Jewish ekklesia as a legitimate participant in Jewish communal life.


I have argued that the Christian church and the Jewish people together constitute the one people of God, and, in a sense, the one Body of Messiah. The schism in the heart of this people has damaged each side, and resulted among Christians in a truncated vision of its own identity and the identity of its Messiah. To rediscover its own “catholicity,” the church must rediscover Israel, and its relationship to Israel.

In speaking of the schism between the Western and Eastern churches, John Paul II has stated that each church now breathes with only one lung. This is an apt metaphor, especially if we extend it by seeing the “air” breathed by the church as the Spirit of God. With only one functioning lung, the church’s capacity to receive and impart the Spirit is restricted. This metaphor is even more applicable to the primal schism that wounded the ekklesia in its infancy. The church must come home to Israel, if it would again breathe freely and deeply.

Mark S. Kinzer (PhD, University of Michigan) is a leading theologian of Messianic Judaism. He is Senior Scholar and President Emeritus of Messianic Jewish Theological Institute and Rabbi of Congregation Zera Avraham in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Mark chairs the Faith and Halakhic Standards Committee of the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council, and is the author of Postmissionary Messianic Judaism (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005) and Israel’s Messiah and the People of God (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011). He is a leading authority on Messianic Jewish-Roman Catholic relations, and has participated in the Messianic Jewish-Roman Catholic Dialogue Group since its inception in 2000.


Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. Edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Translated by G. W. Bromiley. 5 vols. New York: T&T Clark, 1961.

Cohn-Sherbok, Dan. Messianic Judaism. New York: Cassell, 2000

Greenberg, Irving. For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter between Judaism and Christianity. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2004.

Jenson, Robert W. “Toward a Christian Theology of Israel.” Pro Ecclesia 9, no.1 (Winter 2000): 43–56.

Kinzer, Mark S. Postmissionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005.

Lindbeck, George A. “The Church as Israel: Ecclesiology and Ecumenism.” In Jews and Christians: People of God, edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, 78–94. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.

________. The Church in a Postliberal Age. Edited by James J. Buckley. Radical Traditions. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.

Neuhaus, Richard John. “Salvation Is from the Jews.” In Jews and Christians: People of God, edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, 65–77. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.

Soulen, R. Kendall. The God of Israel and Christian Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996.

Wyschogrod, Michael. “Response to the Respondents.” Modern Theology 11, no. 2 (April 1995): 229–41.

Yoder, John Howard. The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited. Edited by Michael G. Cartwright and Peter Ochs. Radical Traditions. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.

1 Mark S. Kinzer, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005). Missio Dei ’s standard copyright does not apply to this article. Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group (

2 This is an informal definition of Messianic Judaism that has the advantage of encompassing most of those who would identify themselves as participants within it.

3 There are a few in both the mainline and evangelical churches who support Messianic Judaism because their reading of the New Testament has convinced them that Jewish Yeshua-believers should maintain their covenantal responsibilities as Jews. Messianic Jews are sincerely grateful for such visionary friends.

4 R. Kendall Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), distinguishes three types of supersessionism: (1) Punitive supersessionism (“God abrogates God’s covenant with Israel . . . on account of Israel’s rejection of Christ” [30]); (2) Economic supersessionism (As in punitive supersessionism, “Everything that characterized the economy of salvation in its Israelite form becomes obsolete and is replaced by its ecclesial equivalent”; however, in contrast to punitive supersessionism, “Israel is transient not because it happens to be sinful but because Israel’s essential role in the economy of redemption is to prepare for salvation in its spiritual and universal form” [29]); and (3) Structural supersessionism (the deepest level of supersessionism, this form entails a way of construing the underlying narrative of Christian doctrine such that “God’s history with Israel plays a role that is ultimately indecisive for shaping the . . . narrative’s overarching plot” [32]). Soulen contends that many Christians have renounced economic and punitive supersessionism, but have not yet grappled with the implications this must have for their overall theological framework.

5 Dan Cohn-Sherbok, Messianic Judaism (New York: Cassell, 2000), 40–41.

6 Michael Wyschogrod, “Response to the Respondents,” Modern Theology 11, no. 2 (April 1995): 237.

7 This does not mean that pragmatic concerns play no role in determining the shape of postmissionary Messianic Jewish observance. All Jews take such concerns seriously in the ordering of their religious practice. It also does not mean that postmissionary Messianic Jews lack an appreciation for the practical benefits of Jewish observance. My point here deals solely with what is considered by practitioners to be the most important reason for adopting such practice.

8 “If through Christianity hundreds of millions of people have entered into relationship with the God of Israel, Christianity must be, in some important sense, an extension of Judaism. . . . The God of Israel is not separable from the people of Israel. It follows that to be in relationship with the God of Israel is to be in relationship with the people of Israel.” Richard John Neuhaus, “Salvation Is from the Jews,” in Jews and Christians: People of God, ed. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 68.

9 As noted above, the Messianic Jewish movement is very diverse. I do not mean to suggest in this article that the movement as a whole can be divided into two distinct parties, the missionaries and the post-missionaries. Instead, my intention is to describe clearly what I mean by postmissionary Messianic Judaism, and to contrast it with some forms of Messianic Judaism that take a markedly different approach. Upon reading this section, it is possible that many Messianic Jews will not identify completely with either of the approaches I have described.

10 In his recent volume, Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), Daniel Boyarin argues that Christianity invented the category of “religion,” in part to clearly distinguish itself from the Jewish people and Judaism. While Christianity defined itself and Judaism as two rival religions, the Judaism that emerged from the Babylonian Talmud does not separate “faith” from “ethnicity, nationality, language, and shared history” (8). Boyarin contends that “the difference between Christianity and Judaism is not so much a difference between two religions as a difference between a religion and an entity that refuses to be one” (8; see also 214–20, 224–25). (Boyarin views early “Judaeo-Christianity” as a seamless network of communities that was gradually carved into two rival blocks by Christian and rabbinic authorities. The invention of the category of “religion” was one of the tools used to do the carving.) In Postmissionary Messianic Judaism, I speak about the Jewish people as a “religious community” embodying a “religious tradition.” By the use of these terms I am not implying that Judaism is merely a “religion,” but instead recognizing that the beliefs and practices that we commonly associate with “religion” have shaped Jewish identity and communal life through the centuries.

11 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, trans. G. W. Bromiley, vol. 4, part 3.2 (New York: T&T Clark, 1961), 878. Barth here uses the term “Synagogue” to refer to the Jewish people as an organized community with a distinct religious tradition. The term so used is problematic for many reasons, and will not be employed in my argument.

12 Neuhaus, 68. Robert Jenson writes in similar fashion: “The Church can regard neither the religion of old Israel nor Judaism as an ‘other religion;’ and that holds even if Judaism cannot return the recognition.” Robert W. Jenson, “Toward Christian Theology of Israel,” Pro Ecclesia 9, no.1 (Winter 2000): 43.

13 For more information on the UMJC and its definition of Messianic Judaism, see ibid., 291, 299–302.

14 George A. Lindbeck, The Church in a Postliberal Age, ed. James J. Buckley, Radical Traditions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 1–10; George A. Lindbeck, “The Church as Israel: Ecclesiology and Ecumenism,” in Jews and Christians, 78–94.

15 Irving Greenberg, For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter between Judaism and Christianity (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2004), 44.

16 Ibid., 223. Greenberg also describes the price Judaism paid for dismissing Christianity—but that is material for another thesis. I am writing this article for Christians, and am therefore focusing only on its side of the schism.

17 See Postmissionary Messianic Judaism, ch. 6.

18 John Howard Yoder, The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, ed. Michael G. Cartwright and Peter Ochs, Radical Traditions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 43–66.

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Navigating the Degrees in Christian-Muslim Dialogue: A Comparative Review of Lee Camp and Miroslav Volf

When considering Christianity and Islam, interfaith discussions often address issues of similarity and difference as definitive categories. Some suggest that the differences between the two are minimal and that the similarities must be emphasized for peace to be imaginable. Others claim radical disparities between the faiths and are convinced that the differences must be promoted to protect the integrity of the respective truth claims. Two recent books, Who Is My Enemy? Questions American Christians Must Face about Islam—and Themselves (2011) by Lipscomb professor Lee Camp, and Allah: A Christian Response (2011) by Yale professor Miroslav Volf, help us grapple with these issues profoundly and faithfully. On the surface, Volf can be seen as emphasizing similarity and Camp can be seen as emphasizing difference. While both acknowledge the faiths’ substantial similarities and irreconcilable differences, a comparative analysis of the books actually helps point the discussion beyond similarity and difference per se, toward respectful dialogue, mutual understanding, and genuine missional encounter. Despite the different purposes and emphases of the two books, the authors agree that peace initiatives between the communities do not require pluralistic compromises of core convictions or denials of the missional impulse, and both advocate a posture for Christian-Muslim dialogue that is defined by the Golden Rule and love of neighbor.


“So you see, there are only a few degrees of difference between Islam and Christianity.”

That’s what our Turkish guide said as he led our group to the apse of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, that magnificent structure that was once a church, then a mosque, and is now a museum. The Hagia Sophia was built in the sixth century and served as the central church of Eastern Christendom for the better part of a millennium. An altar once stood in the center of the apse marking the fact that the entire building pointed toward Jerusalem. In May of 1453, however, when the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II conquered Istanbul (then Constantinople), he went directly to the Hagia Sophia and declared that the thousand-year-old church was now a mosque. Over time, various Islamic elements were added to serve the new Muslim worshipers. For example, the altar was replaced with a mihrab (prayer niche) found in all mosques that indicates the direction of Mecca and thus the direction of Islamic prayer. From Istanbul, Mecca is located only seven degrees farther south than Jerusalem, so the mihrab was installed a few feet to the right of where the altar once was, thus slightly off-center as one faces the apse (see the picture above). For the next 500 years, therefore, Muslim worshipers lined up with the Mecca-facing mihrab, and thus slightly diagonal to the original Jerusalem-facing orientation of the building. Our guide was a master at telling this story, but he also couldn’t help but share his theological conviction that the spatial proximity of the altar and mihrab reflected the theological proximity of the two faiths, thus “there are only a few degrees of difference between Islam and Christianity.”

Interfaith discussions often cast issues of similarity and difference as definitive categories. Some suggest that the differences between Christianity and Islam are minimal (e.g., a mere seven degrees?) and that the similarities must be emphasized for peace to be imaginable. Others claim radical disparities between the faiths (e.g., a full 180 degrees!) and are convinced that the differences must be promoted to protect the integrity of the respective truth claims. Of course, whether one sees accommodating similarity or whiplashing difference is largely affected by one’s cultural and theological location. As an Islamic friend of mine once mused, Mecca and Jerusalem may be geographically separated by seven degrees when standing in Istanbul, but there is a full 180 degrees of separation between the two when standing in northwestern Saudi Arabia (and the political and theological analogies were not lost on us!).

Two recent books, Who Is My Enemy? Questions American Christians Must Face about Islam—and Themselves (2011) by Lipscomb professor Lee Camp, and Allah: A Christian Response (2011) by Yale professor Miroslav Volf, help us grapple with both the remarkable similarities and the profound differences between these two major world faiths. A full review of the books is not possible in the space provided, but I will offer some specific points of comparison between them that are important for interfaith dialogue. In the end, I will suggest that both help point the discussions beyond issues of similarity and difference per se, and toward respectful dialogue, mutual understanding, and genuine missional encounter.

Contexts and Objectives

I will begin with representative quotes from each book:

“To the extent that Christians and Muslims embrace the normative teachings of Christianity and Islam about God, they believe in a common God,” Volf declares.1 And again: “If . . . Christians and Muslims have a common God . . . they will have . . . overlapping ultimate values . . . [and] a common moral framework.”2

“The narrative logic of the Qur’an and of the New Testament are not ‘basically the same,’ ” Camp states. “The fundamental storyline of the two differs.”3 And again: “The founding narratives of Christianity and Islam are different . . .[they] proceed from two very different narratives.”4

Both Volf and Camp are theologians who write from the perspectives of personal faith and with the hope of contributing to respectful dialogue and peaceful relations between Muslims and Christians. Based on the quotes above, however, one could surmise that Volf highlights similarity between the faiths while Camp argues for difference, and those characterizations would be true up to a point. But such an observation also easily becomes a caricature that misses the rich nuances and deeper invitations of each book. Neither is a monolithic presentation of similarity or difference. For example, in his presentation of theological similarities, Volf also notes that “Muslim and Christian beliefs about God significantly diverge at points,”5 reflect “ineradicable differences,”6 and reveal “two rival versions of the Master of the Universe.”7 Likewise, as Camp describes “fundamental differences” between the two stories, he also displays deep appreciation for the “clear parallels between Jesus and Muhammad” especially with regard to shared convictions about the sovereignty of God and shared concerns for the poor, for justice, fairness, equality, and peace.8

To assess their distinct contributions, it is first critical to recognize their different contexts and objectives. Neither book claims to be a comprehensive comparison of the two faiths. Rather, each stems from a specific impetus. For Volf, Allah was written as part of a series of interfaith discussions that evolved especially after Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial 2006 Regensburg Address.9 In that speech, the pope implied that the “inner nature” of Islam reveals a posture of violence that reflects an antirational capricious God diametrically opposed to the rational peaceful God of Christianity. Volf asserts that such a dichotomy fails to stand up to scrutiny.10 This sets up his thesis that the God of the Bible and the God of the Qur’an are “sufficiently similar” in descriptions and commands so as to conclude that they are the same God (see more below). But it is crucial to understand that Volf presents these arguments as an exercise in “political theology.” In short, he is not focused on issues such as salvation and the world to come as much as he is seeking to build bridges that might help Muslims and Christians live together more peacefully in this world.11

Camp’s Who Is My Enemy? was written as part of a personal journey triggered by negative reactions to several lectures he delivered on interfaith dialogue.12 To his surprise, some claimed that his lectures undermined Christian faith and reflected dangerous naïveté about the violent and dominating intentions of Muslims. The reactions created in him the desire to investigate the issues with greater diligence, which eventually led to the writing of the book.

As with Volf’s book, Who Is My Enemy? is also a work of political theology, but one with different starting points and ending points. Building on his earlier book Mere Discipleship,13 Camp presents a political theology influenced by John Howard Yoder that promotes a turn-the-other-cheek pacifism and sharply contrasts the nonviolent suffering love of Jesus with the notions of “just war” and “redemptive violence” that developed in post-Constantinian Christendom. In Who Is My Enemy? Camp finds Islam to be a fascinating external dialogue partner in these otherwise Christian debates about war. After all, a common assumption is that Islam, like post-Constantinian Christianity, supports ideas of justified war and measured retaliation against enemies. In fact, from a Yoderian perspective, Camp provocatively suggests that mainstream, post-Constantinian Christian notions of just war are actually more Muslim than Christian. In more precise words, there is a “fundamental political difference” between the logic of Jesus and the logic of Muhammad, so that “the normative of Christian tradition, with its just war tradition, looks more like the Muhammad story than the Jesus story.”14 Camp implies that one must make a choice: one must either embrace the idea that Jesus followers are called to a life of radical pacifism, or admit that Jesus and Muhammad are significantly similar in their approach to war and justice. It is important to note that Camp is not advocating the kind of crass comparisons that pit Islam as a religion of war or justice versus Christianity as a religion of peace. But he does advance the idea that the “founding narratives” of Christianity and Islam present two fundamentally different means for achieving the shared goals of peace and justice: one shaped by the suffering love of one on a cross, the other shaped by the equitable leadership of one with a sword.15

Assessments of Camp and Volf

Is Camp’s analysis accurate? An assessment of the argument invites at least two caveats. First, as Camp is fully aware, a radical Yoderian-type pacifism is an influential yet minority position in the history of Christian thought and practice. In fact, theologians of the stature of Augustine have regularly insisted that war against enemies, while always lamentable, can actually be a form of just peacemaking and thus an expression of love for enemies.16 Secondly, Islamic history includes its own influential minority traditions that have promoted principled nonviolence.17 Consider, for example, the nonviolent activist movements of early-twentieth-century Kurdo-Turkish scholar Said Nursi in Turkey18 and Abdul Ghaffar Khan (the “Frontier Gandhi”) in India19 and the international movements currently inspired by Fethullah Gülen, who calls for Muslims to act “without hands against those who strike you, without speech against those who curse you.”20 One might even detect Yoderesque logic in the influential Sudanese reformer and martyr Mahmoud Muhammad Taha who opposed the legalistic and militant traditions that have developed in Islamic history and located Islam’s original and ideal vision (“founding narrative”?) in the inclusivist and nonretaliatory Meccan passages of the Qur’an.21 While Camp recognizes pious Muslim individuals who display remarkable commitments to peace,22 he does not adequately address movements and schools of thought such as these. The operative question, then, is this: Do these reform movements challenge Camp’s portrayal of Islam’s “founding narrative” and its political vision?

Volf casts a wider net than Camp, but at one point in Allah he also focuses on issues of war and retaliation against enemies. Like Camp, Volf acknowledges the prominence of just war ideas in Christian history and promotions of nonretaliatory kindness to enemies in Islamic history. All things considered, however, Volf finds the normative Christian command to “love enemies” to be, even in its just war forms, more definitive and proactive than in normative Islam, which tends to be more protective and defensive.23 I think similar nuance is also valuable when comparing the radical reform movements of both faiths.24 In a sense, therefore, Volf confirms Camp’s distinction at least as it relates to the love of enemies, but only as a sub-point within his wider appeal to the theological similarities between the two faiths. This is not to suggest that the point about war is less theologically significant to Volf than it is to Camp, but rather that Volf has wider objectives in his book.

What, then, can be said about Volf’s wider objectives? A primary philosophical challenge of his thesis relates to the concept of “sufficient similarity.” How does one determine whether the similarities between Islam and Christianity are “sufficient” to support the idea of a common God? What is sufficient? Where are the lines drawn, and who draws them? In many ways, such questions are unanswerable and can easily fall victim to semantic tail-chasing. But Volf remains focused on the normative traditions and employs persuasive historical and philosophical arguments to support the “same God” position.25 Volf also presents a deep theological argument that, if true, has profound implications for interfaith dialogue. Echoing the “Common Word” document, Volf underscores a teaching that is central to the three Abrahamic faiths: the twin commands to love God and to love one’s neighbors. This teaching is clear in the Shema and other parts of the Torah, in the teachings of Jesus and his promotion of the “greatest commands,” and in the teachings of Muhammad as recorded in the authoritative hadith.26 Unfortunately, history is filled with examples of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim individuals and communities that have failed to be faithful to such teachings. But if this central point of commonality is accurate, Volf claims, the consequences are “momentous” for the prospects of peace. In short, it means that a deep commitment to the distinctives of the faiths “no longer leads to clashes; it fosters peaceful coexistence.”27 Said another way, peaceful coexistence does not require pluralistic compromises of core convictions or denials of the missional impulse.28

On his side, Camp emphasizes the call of Jesus-followers to faithfully practice nonretaliatory suffering love to all, including enemies, regardless of the situation or whether peaceful coexistence or justice results.29 Volf would certainly agree with such an emphasis, but for Camp this is precisely what makes the Jesus story different from both the Muhammad story and the Christian just war traditions. Nevertheless, Camp can also plead with his just war “brothers and sisters” at least to apply the principles of that tradition thoroughly and rigorously, and thus avoid the violent abuses that have been so common in Christian history.30 He concludes that just war advocates, and by implication mainstream Muslims, who are motivated by “love of neighbor” can “serve an immensely positive role in peacemaking in our world.”31

Love of neighbor, therefore, becomes a hermeneutical key in both books. It is a litmus test that allows Camp to affirm peacemaking possibilities for just war traditions despite his strong Yoderian convictions. It also serves as one of the key theological litmus tests for Volf’s idea of sufficient similarity and the same God thesis. Volf further implies that the embodiments or practices of love of neighbor are more significant than what different communities might believe or say about God or one’s neighbors. From this, Volf delivers a thought-provoking twist of logic that I also find reflected in Camp’s presentation:

Are the Crusaders and the terrorist worshipping the same God? A Crusader shouts Christus dominus (“Christ is the Lord”) while cleaving the head of an infidel. A terrorist shouts Allahu Akhbar (“God is the greatest”) as he pulls the fuse of the bomb strapped around his waist. They are naming God very differently, and yet they are, alas, worshipping the same god—a bloodthirsty god of power, not the God of justice and mercy of the normative Christian and Muslim religious traditions.32

Said another way, Christians who strive to worship God by loving their neighbors have more in common with Muslims who do the same than with other Bible-reading, church-going Christians who embody a posture of animosity, violence, or fear-mongering. Volf concludes with a provocative nuance to his overall thesis: “No simple yes or no is possible in answering the question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Some do, and some don’t.”33


Much more should be said when attempting productive comparisons between Christianity and Islam.34 But Camp and Volf both provide helpful reference points for navigating the faith’s substantial similarities and irreconcilable differences. Both also advocate a posture for Christian/Muslim dialogue that is defined by the Golden Rule and love of neighbor.

In conclusion and from a Christian perspective, love of neighbor in Muslim/Christian interactions finds specific support in Jesus’ well-known parable of the Good Samaritan.35 In many ways, Samaritans were to the Jews of Jesus’ day what Muslims are to many Christians today. The parallels are striking. Jews and Samaritans, like Christians and Muslims, share complex historical connections to one another, and each claims to be the true worshipers of God.36 Samaritans, like Muslims, embraced only selected parts and idiosyncratic interpretations of the Jewish scriptures. Samaritans directed their faith toward a different “mountain” than the Jews.37 Furthermore, the Samaritans of Jesus’ day were often mistrusted and feared as terrorists and infidels. And yet when a lawyer questioned Jesus about “eternal life” and the living out of the “greatest commandments,” Jesus chose a merciful Samaritan to represent such a life in contrast to the social and religious purities of a priest and a Levite. In short, being neighborly and showing mercy gets at the heart of Jesus’ message in ways that religious identity and piety cannot on their own. Jesus could have made this point without bringing to mind the sensitive mixture of differences and similarities between Jews and Samaritans. But that is exactly what he chose to do and thus he forced his hearers to grapple with the surprising reversals of the kingdom. Jesus said to his Jewish audience, in effect, “Do you want to be a good God-fearing Jew? Then behave as did this merciful Samaritan.” I can imagine him saying today, “Do you want to be a good, faithful, missional Jesus-follower? Then behave as a merciful Muslim.”

As Volf and Camp illustrate, discussions about the degrees of similarity and difference, and all missional encounters, should begin there.

John Barton is a professor of philosophy and religion and currently serves as the Provost of Rochester College in Rochester Hills, Michigan. He and his family lived and worked in Jinja, Uganda, East Africa, from 1994 to 2002 as part of a church-planting mission team. While in Uganda, John completed a PhD in philosophy at Makerere University in Kampala. Barton has special interest in the study of world religions and is specifically active in initiatives related to Christian-Muslim interactions. Recent publications include articles in Philosophia Africana, Missiology, and Turkish Review.


Akyol, Mustafa. Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011.

Camp, Lee C. Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003.

________. Who Is My Enemy? Questions American Christians Must Face about Islam—and Themselves. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011.

Griswold, Eliza. The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.

Gülen, M. Fethullah. Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance. New Jersey: The Light, 2006.

Jenkins, Philip. Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses. New York: HarperOne, 2011.

Kelsay, John. Arguing the Just War in Islam. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Kurtz, Lester R. “Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s Nonviolent Jihad.” Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice 23, no. 2 (June 2011): 245–51.

Lewis, Bernard. The Multiple Identities of the Middle East. New York: Schocken Books, 1998.

Patel, Eboo. Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation. Boston: Beacon Press, 2007.

Prothero, Stephen. God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. New York: HarperOne, 2011.

Saritoprak, Zeki. “An Islamic Approach to Peace and Nonviolence: A Turkish Experience.” The Muslim World 95, no. 3 (July 2005): 413–27.

Stassen, Glen H., and David P. Gushee. Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. Downer Groves, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003.

Thistlethwaite, Susan Brooks. “Religion and Gender.” In The Religion Factor: An Introduction to How Religion Matters, ed. William Scott Green and Jacob Neusner, 149–65. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.

Volf, Miroslav. Allah: A Christian Response. New York: HarperOne, 2011.

1 Miroslav Volf, Allah: A Christian Response (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 123.

2 Ibid., 260.

3 Lee C. Camp, Who Is My Enemy? Questions American Christians Must Face About Islam—And Themselves (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011), 44.

4 Ibid., 103.

5 Volf, 33.

6 Ibid., 262.

7 Ibid., 13.

8 Camp, 46.

9 Soon after the Regensburg Address, an “Open Letter” was sent to the pope from a group of renowned Islamic scholars offering a reasoned response to the pope’s speech and assumptions. One year later, a larger group of the most prominent Islamic scholars in the world, commissioned by Jordanian prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, presented a more thorough response in a document entitled “A Common Word between Us and You.” Volf was one of the authors of a Christian response to the “Common Word” document, which became known as “The Yale Response.” His book Allah both reflects and extends that response. See Volf, 20–36.

10 The Regensburg Address ignores substantial streams of Islamic theology that have, from the religion’s earliest decades, emphasized the rational nature of God and a rationalist understanding of faith and liberty. For a recent treatment of these themes, see Mustafa Akyol, Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011). Also, if one wants to explore the connections between violent passages in the Qur’an and examples of violence in Islamic history, one also needs to do the same with the Bible and Christian history. One must contend with Philip Jenkins’s claims that “in terms if its bloodthirsty and intolerant passages, the Bible raises considerably more issues than does the Qur’an.” See Philip Jenkins, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 73. One must also contend with the claim of renowned Middle East historian Bernard Lewis that, at least until modern times, “there is nothing in Islamic history to compare with the massacres and expulsions, the inquisitions and persecutions that Christians habitually inflicted on non-Christians and still more on each other. In the lands of Islam, persecution was the exception; in Christendom, sadly, it was often the norm.” See Bernard Lewis, The Multiple Identities of the Middle East (New York: Schocken Books, 1998), 129. See also Camp’s helpful and concise discussion of violent passages in the Old Testament in Who Is My Enemy?, 48–54.

11 Volf, 13. This also has important implications for mission since peaceful coexistence requires that both faith communities are able to live out their missionary impulse in respectful and noncoercive ways. See Volf, 207–13.

12 Camp, 1.

13 Lee C. Camp, Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003). All remaining references to Camp in this article are references to Who Is My Enemy?

14 Camp, 46, 140. Camp is heavily influenced by ethicist John Kelsay who concludes that “just war” is “an aspect of the foundational narrative of Islam.” See John Kelsay, Arguing the Just War in Islam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 97. Likewise, religion scholar Stephen Prothero claims that “on the ethics of war the Quran and the New Testament are worlds apart.” See Stephen Prothero, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 45.

15 Camp, 105, 141–42, 153. In these sections, Camp provides powerful discussions of the meaning of the cross (beyond modern penal substitutionary theories) and explorations of why the Qur’an denies the crucifixion.

16 See Camp, 67–70; also Volf, 180.

17 Eboo Patel locates the “defining moment of Islam” in a certain reading of the story of the Treaty of Hudaybiyah and Muhammad’s peaceful return to Mecca in which the Prophet, despite threats of military attack, refused to carry arms and accepted humiliating terms in order to achieve reconciliation with enemy tribes. Patel claims this is the context for the Medinan 48th sura, “The Victory Sura” (see more below on Medinan and Meccan suras), which therefore connects Medinan “victory” with a nonretaliatory peaceful act and leaves the punishment of enemies to God in the afterlife. Patel finds analogies here to the modern nonviolent theologies of Martin Luther King, Jr. See Eboo Patel, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007), 139–41. See also Zeki Saritoprak, “An Islamic Approach to Peace and Nonviolence: A Turkish Experience,” The Muslim World 95, no. 3 (July 2005): 413.

18 For a helpful commentary on Nursi, see Akyol, 207ff.

19 See Lester R. Kurtz, “Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s Nonviolent Jihad,” Peace Review 23, no. 2 (June 2011): 245–51. As my friend Imam Achmat Salie shared with me, Khan’s pacifism was based exclusively on Muslim sources unlike his friend and colleague Mahatma Gandhi who based his ideas on a pluralism of sources.

20 M. Fethullah Gülen, Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance (New Jersey: The Light, 2006), 54–57. Gülen’s “pacifism,” however, still assumes a role for both the “greater jihad” (an internal spiritual struggle against one’s carnal self in which one seeks to remove all obstacles to one’s own spiritual development), and the “lesser jihad” (an external struggle that might, in rare and specific situations, include defensive combat in order to “remove obstacles between people and faith so that people can choose freely between belief and unbelief”). See Gülen, 171, 178. Gülen repeatedly emphasizes, against many other Islamic voices, that this external struggle is for the sake of others and their freedom, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, and not for oneself, or for one’s community per se, or in self-defense, and certainly not for coercive persuasion. As he told his followers when he was receiving death threats, “If I am assassinated, despite all of your angers, I ask you to . . . seek order, peace and love. . . . Regardless of what happens, we believers should be representatives of love and peace.” See Saritoprak, 423.

21 Jenkins, 84. See also Eliza Griswold, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), 110–11. There are many hermeneutical debates with regard to how the earlier, nonviolent Meccan chapters of the Qur’an relate to the later, more “political” Medinan chapters in which God grants “permission” to retaliate against aggressive enemies (22:39). Some have claimed that the Meccan pacifism was merely strategic (i.e., not “principled”) at a time when the Muslim community was a young minority group, and that the Meccan strategies were overruled (“abrogated”) by the later Medinan passages once the Muslim community had been established, thus representing a kind of progressive revelation from pacifism to power-politics. (This is the interpretation that Camp seems to emphasize, and it does seem to be a majority position; see pp. 106–7). Others claim the Meccan passages only address internal spiritual issues, while the Medinan passages address external, social, and political guidelines. Still others claim that the Meccan passages represent the universal, principled message of Islam, while the Medinan passages, much like similar passages in the Old Testament, represent specific, contextual situations that must be interpreted as such (see Akyol, 55–62; 88–95; 329, fn. 40; see also Saritoprak, 413–27; such an approach to the Medinan passages parallels how Camp interprets violent Old Testament passages; see pp. 48–54). Mahmoud Muhammad Taha represents a radical yet influential version of this latter approach. Analogies between Taha and Yoder are tempting but also should not be exaggerated. For one thing, Taha’s 1967 book A Second Message of Islam, written a few years before Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, reflects a kind of non-Yoderesque “contextual realism” that seeks to make the Islamic faith relevant to the modern world. But at least in the sense that Camp draws analogies between the Christian shift from pre-Constantinian to post-Constantinian political postures, and the Islamic shift from Meccan to Medinan postures (p. 65ff.), one can find parallels between Yoder’s claims that the original and authentic “politics of Jesus” have been distorted by the “Constantinian cataract” and Taha’s claim that the universal Meccan ideals of Islam have been distorted by certain theories of abrogation. Of course, the challenge in these Islamic debates involves the need to justify two sets of Qur’anic revelations (Meccan and Medinan), which are both given to the Prophet himself within a few years of each other, and whose identification and chronology is a matter of debate. In the Christian case, the debate involves the “founding narrative” of Jesus and the nonauthoritative story of Emperor Constantine who lived nearly three centuries after Jesus. In other words, a Taha-type position seems harder to defend than Yoder’s. But in the end, in the spirit of the Golden Rule, Christians should leave it for Muslims to make judgments about Islam’s difficult historical and hermeneutical issues (such as whether the Meccan passages are to be understood as principled or strategic, normative or contextual) and hope that Muslims will return the favor with regard to difficult issues in Christian interpretation and history.

22 Camp, 132–39. Also see the excerpt from Camp’s book in the present issue.

23 Volf notes that the New Testament reserves all violence against enemies for God alone (Rom 12:19; Rev 19:2) and commands Christians only to love enemies. Such “love” implies actively being for someone. So while Christians are commanded to be for their enemies (e.g., to act in their enemies’ favor), Muslims are permitted and sometimes even expected to be against those who wage war against them. For Muslims, kindness toward enemies would be considered more of a supererogatory act. Volf summarizes: “Though Muslims insist that we should be kind to all, including those who do us harm, most reject the idea that the love of neighbor includes the love of enemy.” Volf connects the command to love one’s enemies with the fact that Christians unequivocally affirm that God, though condemning ungodly behavior, nevertheless loves and potentially saves “the ungodly” (Rom 5:6–8). Muslim theologians tend to be more cautious about such ideas. See Volf, 182–83.

24 For example, Islamic pacifists, such as Gülen, seem to consistently stop short of what Glen Stassen and David Gushee describe as “rule-pacifism,” which is a more absolutist form of Christian pacifism that holds nonviolence as an obligatory rule that is never compromised regardless of the situation. But Gülen, it seems to me, closely exhibits what Stassen and Gushee describe as “discipleship-pacifism,” which not only avoids violence but actively practices peacemaking as a way of life. Stassen and Gushee point out that discipleship-pacifism is “slightly more flexible” than rule-pacifism, and they cite the well-known example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s anguished participation in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler as an example of the way committed Christian pacifists might determine that rare situations still call for acts of violence in service of greater peace. See Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downer Groves, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 166–67. I find Bonhoeffer’s discipleship-pacifism to be compatible with Gülen’s ideas of the “lesser jihad” as an external struggle that is pursued for the sake of others and only in the rarest and most extreme situations involves violence. See fn. 20 above. All of this, I believe, challenges what can often be an exaggerated polarization in Camp’s analysis between Yoderian pacifisms and Augustinian just war ideas. With the exception of more legalistic, absolutist, rule-oriented pacificisms, the differences between the various pacifist and just war positions are differences of shading along a continuum more than binary distinctions.

25 First, he finds significant allies in Christian theologians as diverse as the medieval Catholic cardinal Nicholas of Cusa and the often-intolerant Protestant Reformer Martin Luther. Both men lived in times of intense political tensions between the two communities and acknowledged significant theological differences between the faiths, but both also assumed that Muslims and Christians share a common God. Secondly, Volf attests that Muslims themselves have most often assumed the faiths share a single God. Despite passages that reflect distinction or even clash, the Qur’an directly instructs Muslims to approach Jews and Christians with the following assumption: “Our God and your God is one” (Al ‘Ankabut 29:46). Thirdly, Volf addresses the common Christian claim that the Muslim God cannot be the same as the Christian God because Muslims do not embrace the lordship of Jesus or God’s trinitarian nature. This seemingly substantial point quickly dissipates, Volf implies, when one remembers that most religious Jews also reject Jesus and the Trinity, and yet Christians still overwhelmingly insist that the God of the Jews and the God of Jesus is the same God despite substantial disagreements about God’s nature and work. Why not accept, then, that the God of Islam is the same God as well? See also Brad East’s interview with Volf in this issue of Missio Dei.

26 See Deut 6:1–9 and Lev 19:18; Mark 12:28–34. For references to the hadith passages and Muslim commentary, see Volf, 27–30.

27 Volf, 31.

28 Ibid., 209–13, discusses a “common code of conduct,” guided by the Golden Rule, for all forms of Christian and Muslim evangelism and mission. The code includes basic rules that ensure mutually respectful, noncoercive, and fair forms of witnessing. See also Brad East’s interview with Volf in this issue.

29 This is in line with Yoder’s emphasis on faithfulness over calculated effectiveness and acknowledges that nonviolence does not always “win.” See Stassen and Gushee, 167–68.

30 In Who Is My Enemy? and in Mere Discipleship, Camp chronicles the frequent historical compromises to just war principles and shows how inevitable such compromises seem to be and how frequently justifications are found for communities and nations to enact great injustices in “God’s name” (see, for example, Who Is My Enemy, 73). Of course, any “slippery slope” critique has limits since a similar argument could be made for any good and right principle or idea. Grace itself can be, and has often been, abused (Rom 6). In addition, cruciform nonretaliatory suffering love that Camp so persuasively promotes as foundational to the Jesus story can be, and often has been, misused and abused. To illustrate this, one need only cite John Calvin’s instruction to a woman who was a victim of domestic abuse at the hands of her husband: “We exhort her to bear with patience the cross which God has seen fit to place upon her.” Quoted in Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, “Religion and Gender,” in The Religion Factor: An Introduction to How Religion Matters, ed. William Scott Green and Jacob Neusner (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 158. Furthermore, advocates of just war often claim that historical abuses are precisely why just war theory is needed in order to oppose and correct such abuses. See Stassen and Gushee, 166.

31 Camp, 153. See Camp’s respectful engagement with the ideas of Daniel Bell and the latter’s argument that just war should be recovered by Christians as a discipline of the church. Camp, 161, fn. 10.

32 Volf, 119. See also Camp’s similar sentiment: “When the Crusader marked with the cross cleaves the skull of the infidel, when the conquistador bears the ‘Good News’ to the New World as he slaughters and kidnaps the natives, and when the American Christian dangles a cross from the end of the machine gun with which he kills Muslims, he denies the crucified Jesus too.” Camp, 146.

33 Volf, 123. Note that this statement is about “worship” and not just belief or reference. He continues: “To the extent that Christians and Muslims strive to love God and neighbor, they worship that same true God.”

34 In Allah, Volf addresses other important areas of dialogue that I do not reflect in this review such as considerations of God’s oneness and trinitarian thought, the Christian description “God is love” compared to Islamic ideas of God’s mercy, and others. There are also many other areas in which fruitful dialogue is possible. I find some of the following points of similarity and difference to be some of them. Points of Similarity: historical and genealogical connections to Abraham; ideas of theistic dualism between Creator and creation, as opposed to, say, ideas of monism, pantheism, and atheism; and shared ideas of historical and progressive revelation. Points of Difference: the related Christian doctrines of sin-nature, atonement, and the work of the Holy Spirit; the relationship of works and mercy/grace; the election of Israel in salvation history; and, maybe most significantly, the doctrine of kenosis and the idea that divine self-disclosure involves God emptying himself and making himself weak and vulnerable, denouncing worldly power and embracing humiliating suffering service seen most clearly in the cross. See also Keith Huey’s article in this issue.

35 Luke 10: 25–37; cf. Matt 22: 37–40; Mark 12:28–34.

36 Of course, many of these parallels continue today. See 2 Kings 17 for the Old Testament’s account of the Samaritan people. Samaritan accounts differ, but the traditional Hebrew account states that when the Assyrians took many Israelites into captivity, Gentile foreigners from Babylon and other places came in, settled, and eventually intermarried with some Israelites still in the land. By Jesus’ day, the mixed descendants of these unions were known as Samaritans and lived in Samaria in between Galilee and Judah.

37 Samaritan worship is associated with Mt. Gerizim in Samaria rather than Mt. Zion/Jerusalem. See John 4:19–20.

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“Christian Mission and Interfaith Dialogue” (Editorial Preface to the Issue)

Dr. Barton is a professor of philosophy and religion and currently serves as the Provost of Rochester College in Rochester Hills, Michigan. He and his family lived and worked in Jinja, Uganda, East Africa, from 1994 to 2002 as part of a church-planting mission team. While in Uganda, he completed a PhD in philosophy at Makerere University in Kampala. Dr. Barton has special interest in the study of world religions and is specifically active in initiatives related to Christian-Muslim interactions. Recent publications include articles in Philosophia Africana, Missiology, and Turkish Review.

How should mission affect interfaith interactions?

This question surfaced in a unique way in the days following the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. On December 16, 2012, two days after the tragic event that claimed the lives of twenty first-graders and six adults, local and national leaders gathered with the traumatized community for a nationally televised, interfaith prayer service. Among others, President Barack Obama and Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy participated, along with religious leaders from various denominations and faith traditions. Collectively, they prayed for peace and healing for the world, the nation, the community, and especially the victims and their families. Rev. Rob Morris, the young Lutheran pastor of Newtown’s Christ the King Lutheran Church, who lost one of the members of his congregation in the shooting, led the closing benediction at the prayer service. Within a few days, however, after mounting criticism from members and leaders of his Missouri Synod denomination, Morris offered a public apology for participating. Doing so, it seemed, violated the denomination’s prohibition against “joint worship” with other religions. Many believed that the young pastor’s participation in the multi-faith service unintentionally endorsed false teaching and condoned false religions such as Islam and Bahá’í.1

This was not the first time that such an issue had surfaced in the denomination. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Missouri Synod pastor David Benke participated in the huge interfaith prayer service in Yankee Stadium. It was later determined by denominational leaders that his participation in the service constituted syncretism and a breaking of the First Commandment (“I am the LORD your God”) by worshiping with “pagans” including Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus. In that case, Benke refused to offer the requested apology and was subsequently suspended from ministry for a year. Recently, Benke offered his support for Newtown pastor Morris. He said “I am on the side of giving Christian witness in the public square and not vacating it; if we don’t show up, who can receive our witness?” Significantly, Rev. Matthew C. Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and one of the key leaders who had called for Pastor Morris’s apology, actually offered a follow-up apology to Morris and the public for the way he handled the Newtown situation. “I handled it poorly, multiplying the challenges,” he wrote. “I increased the pain of a hurting community.”2

Whatever else can or should be said, this case clearly demonstrates the sensitivity of discussions about Christian mission and interfaith interactions. Challenging and overlapping questions surface such as the following:

  • How should disciples of the Christ interact and work with people from non-Christian religious traditions? What guidance does Scripture provide?
  • To what degree can we share in the religious life of a person whose doctrinal convictions are opposed to our own?
  • Where are the lines to be drawn between authentic witness and compromising syncretism?
  • Must interfaith interactions and friendships involve an evangelistic “end game”?
  • Can we discern the truths of God in non-Christian religious traditions?
  • Is there a moment, in interfaith dialogue, when we should “shake the dust from our feet”? How is that moment discerned?

We would be foolish to think that we can easily untangle the many strands of these questions and provide clear, precise answers that settle all the issues. We would be equally foolish to ignore or evade the questions out of fear or in hope that they will go away. Increasingly, authentic Christian living in today’s global environments requires a wrestling with the realities and implications of religious pluralism.

This issue of Missio Dei addresses issues of mission and interfaith dialogue specifically among the Abrahamic traditions. It does so through a collage of voices and considerations that collectively is more impressionistic than precise. It is hoped that these voices will stimulate thought, challenge assumptions, and provide theological resources as we all seek to discern and faithfully participate in God’s mission in contexts of religious diversity.

The issue begins with four articles of Missional Theology. In the first, Old Testament scholar Paul Watson draws our attention to the wide and complex contours of God’s mission in the Old Testament, balancing the themes of Israel’s distinctiveness with God’s deep concern for “the nations.” Watson explores how these themes inform an understanding of Christian mission in today’s pluralistic world. Next, Rabbi Mark Kinzer provides key excerpts from his groundbreaking book, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism (Brazos, 2005). Kinzer, a leading scholar of Messianic Judaism, offers theological insights for Jewish-Christian relations and identities that are as provocative as they are grounded in a careful reading of Scripture. His conclusions concerning an understanding of church identity and mission will be “unsettling” to some, but he provides a unique and faithful voice that should be taken seriously. In the article that follows, I consider Christian-Muslim interactions and provide an exploration of the faith’s “substantial similarities and irreconcilable differences.” By comparing and contrasting the contributions to Christian-Muslim dialogue offered by Yale’s Miroslav Volf and Lipscomb’s Lee Camp, I seek to provide tools to help us faithfully and lovingly navigate the issues. In the final installment in this section, Kyle Holton provides a challenging and potentially controversial look at the much-debated issue of “insider movements.” Based on his own long-term ministry in Muslim-majority areas of Mozambique and his critique of John Travis’s influential classification system for assessing insider movements, Holton seeks to “cut through Western classifications” and “(de)franchise” missions through an event-oriented understanding of faith and hospitality. While not all will agree with his conclusions, the article brings a level of insight and critique that is needed in these delicate and important discussions.

Three contributions form the section on Missional Praxis. In “Mission and Dialogue: An Analysis of Abrahamic Faith in the Academy,” Pepperdine professor Dyron Daughrity analyzes the interrelationship of mission and dialogue. Through a comparative analysis of thinkers such as Paul Knitter, Lamin Sanneh, and Father Vincent Donovan, Daughrity explores these issues in the context of his own work and interfaith developments at Pepperdine University. In a similar vein, professor Keith Huey describes what he calls a “Laboratory for Christian-Muslim Dialogue” currently taking place at Rochester College. The laboratory is in the form of a class co-taught by Christian and Muslim professors seeking not only to analyze interfaith dialogue but to practice it in the educational community. Huey describes the challenge of such an experiment, and the kinds of growth and frustration that the mostly Christian students experience as they seek to understand Islam and practice dialogue. In the end, Huey proposes that such processes challenge and clarify faith convictions and are mutually beneficial to those of both faith traditions. Next is an excerpt from Lee Camp’s important book Who Is My Enemy (Brazos, 2011). The excerpt explores the significance of shared hospitality and the way the hospitable kindness of some Muslim hosts informed and helped frame Camp’s own reflections on interfaith dialogue.

The Reflections section includes interviews of two significant Christian leaders of interfaith initiatives. Brad East, a PhD student at Yale University, interviews Miroslav Volf of Yale Divinity School whose ground-breaking work in Muslim-Christian interactions is reflected in several places in this issue. The interview provides insight into the development of Volf’s thinking since the publication of his book Allah: A Christian Response (HarperOne, 2011). In addition, Sara Barton of Rochester College interviews Lynne Hybels, author and co-founder of Willow Creek Community Church, whose reconciliation efforts among Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land reminds us not only of the fragile difficulties of such work, but also the call for all of us to be ministers of reconciliation who embody humility and practice the disciplines of listening and prayer. The section also includes a piece by Alan Howell not directly related to interfaith discussions but relevant for cross-cultural ministry in general.

Finally, the issue concludes with a section of Book Reviews. Josh Graves, author and lead minister at the Otter Creek Church in Nashville, reviews Carl Raschke’s provocative book GloboChrist: The Great Commission Takes a Postmodern Turn (Baker Academic, 2008), which, among other things, offers a reading of Muslim-Christian interactions, and Ben Howard reviews Graves’s most recent book, Tearing Down the Walls (Self-published, 2013), which analyzes the relationship between Christians and Muslims in the United States. The section also includes reviews of Dyron Daughrity’s Church History: Five Approaches to a Global Discipline (Peter Lang, 2012) and Fujino, Sisk, and Casiño’s edited volume Reaching the City: Reflections on Urban Mission for the Twenty-First Century (William Carey, 2013).

Through these various articles, reflections, and reviews, we hope to provide challenge and inspiration that assists and guides as we all seek to understand and embrace God’s mission, Soli Deo Gloria.

1 Sharon Otterman, “Pastor Apologizes to His Denomination for Role in Sandy Hook Interfaith Service,”