In the midst of the explosion of Christianity around the world, some strange and unusual expressions of faith are emerging.
of other religions are following Jesus in great numbers–while remaining in the religious community they grew up in! Some Muslims believe in and follow Isa al Masih (Jesus the Messiah) while continuing to go to their Mosque and practice Islam. Hindu and Sikh followers of Jesus meet in Yeshu Satsangs (Jesus Gatherings) while remaining in their religious communities.
Some missionaries are very disturbed by these insider movements, as they are called, fearing syncretism and suspecting these are cults. Others see this as a great movement of God’s Spirit. William Dyrness does not seek to make a judgment about particular controversial groups of believers so much as seek to give a theological basis for understanding what might be going on. This is what animates Dyrness’s category-breaking and category-making book, Insider Jesus.
Gerald McDermott asked a similar question in Can Evangelicals Learn from World Religions? Even though evangelicals and fundamentalists have a reputation for believing they have a corner on the truth, McDermott thought the answer was yes. We can find practical wisdom and even some spiritual insight in them. Why?
McDermott based his view on Jonathan Edwards’s notion of revealed types. These fall halfway between general revelation (nature and human nature) and special revelation (the Bible and Christ). Such types were “a system of representation by which God points humans to spiritual realities” (p. 104) extending to nature and history (and culture?). So, for example, marriage points to the union of Christ and the church (Eph 5).
After all, if God is Lord of the whole earth, if he made every human, made humans for relationships with each other and with him, and if God is at work sustaining everywhere, if everything good has its origin in God, then the work of Christians is to participate in what God is already doing around us rather than take action independent of God (which by definition is sin).
Dryness contends (going a step beyond McDermott’s question of other religions to ask about the full-orbed cultures in which they reside), the Bible tells us “God is everywhere active in such cultural processes, upholding the order of things, sustaining its processes, and seeking, wooing, and calling by the Spirit those who will worship him” (p. 36).
One episode in the Old Testament that Dyrness does not take up is illuminating to his case. After the Syrian army commander, Naaman, goes to Israel to be healed of his leprosy by Elisha, he acknowledges the Lord as the one true God deserving worship. But then Naaman makes an interesting request. He asks Elisha to forgive him in advance for going into the pagan temple back in Damascus with his lord, the Syrian king, and being required to bow in worship there.
What is Elisha’s response? Does he say that this is forbidden, that this is an impossible mixture of the true and the false, that Naaman must completely reject his pagan past and embrace only Israel’s God? No. Elisha recognizes that Naaman is in a difficult situation. If Naaman refused, he would be exiled or executed. Elisha thinks it is better for Naaman to continue to worship the Lord in Damascus among his family, friends and colleagues, and give witness to the God of the universe, even in a less than ideal situation. He does not require Naaman to turn away from his whole culture and heritage. He grants the request and tells the commander, “Go in peace” (2 Kings 5). Is this perhaps similar to the situation of many in the insider movements?
Dyrness does ask a very interesting question, however. Were perhaps many of the first-century Christians insiders within Judaism? Didn’t they continue to go to the synagogue and the temple, and to follow the Old Testament (their only Scriptures for many years)?
The book also helpfully includes fascinating case studies from recent history and is full of many provocative questions. Overall Dyrness raises significant implications about how we see our own culture and our own faith as well as Christianity around the world. As a result he has provided us with one of the most important and thought-provoking books of the year.
Next: Insider Jesus 2: Did the Reformation Make a Misstep?
2 thoughts on “Insider Jesus”
I recently finished this book myself, Andy. It fascinating and very helpful, I think. I appreciate Bill’s call for discernment, while operating within a fundamental trust in God’s Spirit to continue the work he has begun and to make the rule of God grow. An important perspective in the book, I think, is re: our need to be humble, as outsiders, about our own ability to discern what young believers should and should not do in their contexts as they seek to live as followers of Jesus. Sometimes, as Jesus warned us, suffering is inevitable because of the offence of the gospel. But we need to be careful about rushing to judgment of other believers in their own circumstances.
Kudos to IVP for contributing to the work of the church another thought provoking, enlightening and encouraging book.
Hi Terry. Yes, I think you are right about humility. We just don’t know everything that is going on inside people or everything the Holy Spirit is up to.
I think the kinds of things Bill is writing about has parallels for some attitudes of evangelicals toward Catholics from five or six decades ago. And how those attitudes have changed, being (for the most part) more open and, yes, humble.
And I think it was Philip Jenkins, maybe in The Lost History of Christianity, who proposed a thought experiment. If a sixth-century Christian were transported to the 21st century and shown an evangelical worship service and then Muslim worship in a mosque, which would the sixth-century person say was Christian and which wasn’t. Probably the Muslim worship would be much closer to what the time traveler was used to, as Muslim worship originally shared much in common with Christianity of the era. All of which to say is, some (not all) of the differences today may be due to how Christian forms have changed. So, again, as you say, humility may be in order, as we think about what the Holy Spirit can do in a Muslim setting.