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Inside out

Missions, agencies and churches wrestle with controversial Muslim friendly translations of the Bible and fallout from 'insider movement' tactics

Inside out

(Ilyas J. Dean/PAK/Newscom)

Scott Seaton was a Presbyterian pastor in Atlanta in 1998, minding his own business, when he read an article in Evangelical Missions Quarterly about the "insider movement" in Muslim-majority countries-part of evangelists' efforts to be more culturally sensitive to Muslims they are trying to win to faith-for example, planting churches that aren't like Western chapels, but reflect local sensibilities, like sitting on the floor instead of in pews. The movement then was controversial, and 13 years later is increasingly so-and more widespread.

Insider movement adherents urge Muslim converts to retain their Muslim "culture," even continuing to call themselves Muslim, retain some Muslim practices, and remain in a mosque while acknowledging Jesus Christ as Lord personally, and most likely privately. At its extreme, individuals within the movement have published translations of the Bible that remove phrases supposedly offensive to Muslims, like "Son of God," which some Muslims claim is offensive because it insinuates that God had sex with Mary to create Jesus.

When Seaton read the piece, he chucked it aside. "It's on the other side of the world," he said to himself.

But a few months later, one of the missionaries his Presbyterian church supported in a Muslim-majority country met with him to tell him about her work of making the gospel accessible to Muslims. What she was saying sounded a lot like the situation described in the EMQ article, he told her. "That's us," she replied. Seaton was surprised. He asked what he might find most controversial about what she was doing, and she told him it was probably the translations she and others were working on, which changed the familial language between Jesus and God. So Mark 1:11, where God's voice thunders from heaven, "You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased," would be translated, "You are my messiah, with you I am well pleased."

When Seaton related this story to me, he said, "You've crossed your Rubicon at that point. We in the [Seaton's denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America] have been unknowingly supporting this."

The insider movement is a growing challenge for churches and missions groups, one that they are just beginning to confront as they question missionaries in the field and learn to draw lines against apparent departure from biblical orthodoxy. In the years after Seaton's conversation with the missionary, the matter grew more pressing, more widespread. In 2001 Seaton became the head of Muslim ministry for his denomination's Atlanta-based mission agency, Mission to the World (MTW). In 2003, Milton Coke of Global Partners for Development approached the missions agency about supporting a Bengali (or Bangla) language translation that he and others were working on to reach Muslims in Bangladesh. According to Seaton,"They really wanted MTW's imprimatur."

But the mission agency balked, believing that the translation changed the familial language between God the Father and God the Son. MTW sent Seaton along with two others to Bangladesh with Coke to investigate. Seaton said his suspicions were confirmed, and MTW refused to support the work.

Coke and others working on the Bible in Bangladesh published their translation in 2005, though it had no copyright information that would identify the group or individuals behind the Bible. But in a June 8, 2005, email to supporters, Coke wrote about the new Bibles: "10,000 copies printed this month in India are in danger of falling into hostile hands, so please pray these can be moved and quickly distributed through our network." He also referred to "traditional Christian attacks" on the translation.

Later that month, The Bangladesh Bible Society published in a Bangladeshi newspaper a legal notice-essentially a formal letter of protest-voicing its displeasure with the translation, saying it had been done without the society's consultation or approval. The ad said the "controversial" translation "could lead to misunderstanding. . . . Our client has serious objection to such activities and is, therefore, asking the people involved in production and distribution of the aforesaid version of the Holy Bible to desist from further translation, printing, publishing, or marketing the same and to retract from market all such controversial and objectionable copies." It was signed by Massod Sobhan, a lawyer for Sobhan & Sobhan, on behalf of the Bangladesh Bible Society. Critics believe that Westerners financed the translation.

Coke, reached by email for comment, declined to answer questions on the record for this story. Global Partners for Development Form 990 for 2004, though, lists him as the only paid employee of the organization and shows income to the organization just prior to when the new Bibles were printed rose from $580,000 to $780,000.

Proponents of insider movement efforts hold up Bangladesh as the paragon of the approach, and say it has brought thousands of Muslims (in a country that is nearly 90 percent Muslim) into saving faith. But critics say these efforts have confused Bangladeshis."If I have to continue to live and obey the same culture-if I have to pray like a Muslim, if I have to keep the fast, if I have to go on pilgrimage to Mecca, then there is no difference, and why did I accept Jesus then?" said a Bangladeshi believer in a documentary on the Asian church called Unheralded released last year.

That sort of cultural and religious confusion angers Joshua Lingel, the director of i2 Ministries, which trains missionaries for Muslim evangelism. "The worst thing you can possibly do is take the very best Christians in the world who are willing to lay blood on the altar and make them Muslims and Islamicize them in the process," he said.

Labib Madanat, the team coordinator for the Arab Israeli Bible Society, the Bible Society in Israel, and the Palestinian Bible Society, said he believes some of the "imams who are Christ followers" are "sincere" believers. But he noted that insider movement efforts have been less effective in Arab Muslim countries, and said he is pessimistic about long-term success: "I am concerned that a genuine desire to cause many Muslims to come to faith in Christ would become a trap eventually leading generations to steer away from the truth. I call for dynamic relationships with Muslims applying courageous humility and positive confrontation. We need to change-not the Bible."

Muslim-background believers are perhaps the stoutest critics of both the Muslim-friendly translations and the insider movement admonition for Muslim converts to maintain their Muslim identities. At the Third Lausanne Congress on Global Evangelization last year in Cape Town, South Africa, where 4,000 Christian leaders selected as delegates from around the world gathered, Pastor Sasan Tavassoli, an Iranian American and a Muslim-background believer, met with other Muslim-background believers from across the Middle East to discuss the insider movement's effects on their ministries and on the Congress itself.

Tavassoli penned a letter on their behalf to Lausanne's program directors: "Many of us [Muslim-background believers] feel hurt and betrayed by the lack of freedom that we have sensed in various contexts of this congress to express our views or to report adequately about our experiences of ministry among our own Muslim people groups. We feel that our voices are not heard," they wrote. "We believe that much of the intellectual support and zeal for the promotion of the 'insider movement' among evangelicals, are coming from the West or at least Eastern non-MBBs [Muslim-background believers] who are mostly speaking from an outsider perspective about an 'insider movement.'" Other prominent Muslim-background believers who have become vocal critics of the insider movement include Patrick Sookhdeo of the Barnabas Fund and Georges Houssney of Horizons International.

Churches are just beginning to address the issue head-on. Seaton is now pastor of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Va. In late March, the Potomac Presbytery, a regional governing body in the PCA, passed an overture at Seaton's urging titled "A Call to Faithful Witness." It states that translations replacing the words "Son of God" and "God the Father" with non-familial language are "harmful . . . bringing confusion to people in need of Christ." It urges Presbyterian churches "to assess whether the missionaries and agencies they support use or promote Bible translations that remove familial language in reference to persons of the Trinity, and if so, to withdraw their support." Seaton wanted the overture to be more than a "we don't like this" statement, so it also states that churches should "support biblically sound and appropriately contextualized efforts to see Christ's church established among resistant peoples."

In Minneapolis, Bethlehem Baptist Church, where John Piper is senior pastor, raised the issue in a letter last year to its global partners, posing questions about the extent of cultural contextualization in evangelization.

Frontiers, a mission agency for the Muslim world that has Bethlehem as one of its prominent sending churches, also is wrestling with the issue. Its top fundraiser, David Harriman, left the organization last fall after working there 18 years because he believed insider thinking had crept into the organization, and he couldn't "sell the product" to donors any longer. "I became increasingly uncomfortable with the way in which we were framing a lot of stuff," he told me. "At the very least, there was profound confusion."

The leadership affirmed the organization's commitment to the Bible as the ultimate and inerrant authority for its work, but Harriman said certain practices had changed. Church-planting in Muslim contexts gave way to a more individualistic personal affirmation of faith, he said: "There's a profound need for Frontiers to find clarity."

Harriman doesn't believe Frontiers was directly involved with any of the Muslim-friendly translations, but said he "facilitated" fundraising for one, The True Meaning of the Gospels and Acts, an Arabic translation by Mazhar Mallouhi (who calls himself a "Muslim follower of Christ") that changes the familial phrases: "Your father who is in heaven" is rendered "God your supreme guardian," for example.

"If Frontiers was unaware, shame on Frontiers and shame on me for not knowing," Harriman said.

Bob Blincoe, the U.S. director of Frontiers, said Harriman was "misguided" and that Blincoe had "answered his objections adequately." Blincoe told me that Frontiers would not "play loose with the terms of the Bible." When I asked if Frontiers would use translations that changed the phrase "Son of God," he responded by saying that Wycliffe Bible Translators does translations, not Frontiers. He had spoken to Wycliffe's president Bob Creson about the issue. "They're trying to be faithful to the Scriptures-but helpful," he said. "I do not want to hear anybody say that Frontiers or any other organization that is worthy of the name missionary is compromising the gospel to make it somehow easy or smooth for the gospel to go down in people's hearts."

One of Wycliffe's translators, Rick Brown (though Wycliffe would not say whether he remains affiliated with the organization because of policy not to disclose personal information about staff or ministry partners), has been a proponent of changing the phrase "Son of God" to "Messiah" in order to remove a stumbling block to Muslims. In the Spring 2000 edition of the International Journal of Frontier Missions, Brown alluded to organizations that objected to such translations: "On the day of judgment, will those who might have heard and believed the Gospel stand up to accuse such Christians of hindering their salvation? Only God knows."

When I asked how the organization renders the phrase "Son of God" in Muslim contexts, Wycliffe issued this statement: "Wycliffe and our partners have very specific ways of checking translations to ensure that 'Son of God' is accurately translated and communicated that in no way diverts the reader from the true meaning of the phrase. It is critical that the deity, authority and position of Jesus be accurately communicated and that they be communicated in such a way that also does not hinder potential for a growing understanding of the Trinity," the statement read. "This may mean using the term 'Son of God' in the text and then including explanatory footnotes. Or, it may mean using an equivalent or similar term in the text (one that will not result in wrong or harmful misunderstanding of the meaning) with footnotes that further explain the meaning."

Seaton believes all Christians should urgently seek more clarity on such matters. "The reason we're in this mess is the church hasn't been the church," he said. "We have to begin with a posture of self-critique and repentance."

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously reported for the The New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @emlybelz.