by Scott Woods
With the dawn of the new millennium missionaries from all over the globe have set their sights on the sons of Ishmael. Islam is Christianity’s only serious competitor as the fastest growing religion in the world and has drawn the attention of savvy cross-cultural missionaries.
Editor’s note: We recognize that there are divided opinions among missionaries on the issue of C5 contextualization among Muslims. We invite replies from our readers, as we intend to publish a future issue with a specific focus on the ideas and practices related to this important debate.
With the dawn of the new millennium missionaries from all over the globe have set their sights on the sons of Ishmael. Islam is Christianity’s only serious competitor as the fastest growing religion in the world and has drawn the attention of savvy cross-cultural missionaries. This article is written with a desire to further the dialogue in missiological circles between C4 and C5 practitioners (see John Travis’ sidebar in EMQ Oct. 1998). In no way do I want to disparage anyone’s motivation in using a model for ministry. Many saints are laboring hard to find the key that will unlock the harvest among the sons of Ishmael. However, Paul encouraged the leaders of the church in Corinth to be wise builders. What we build will be tested with fire (1 Cor. 3:13). Interacting biblically and critically with other practitioners is essential as we look to the Lord of the Harvest for church planting movements among the sons of Ishmael. It is with this desire that I invite you to revisit the C5 model and relevant biblical passages.
How far is too far in contextualization? The word means to take the unchanging truth and make it understandable in a given context. We do it all the time in life. Children are told Bible stories in a way that allows them to understand the truth from within their context as little children. The goal in contextualization is not to make the gospel as Islamic as possible. Rather it is to communicate the unchanging truth to an Islamic audience so that it makes sense to them. How far can we go in accommodating Islam? This is a theological as well as a poignantly practical question for us missionaries to Muslims.
Today in missiological circles I see a different trend on the horizon. It is motivated by a number of reasons. In the past many missionaries were woefully ethnocentric, approaching host cultures as if they were totally lacking in positive characteristics. This has generated a sensitivity to look for things from Muslim cultures that can be redeemed to provide a launching pad for the gospel. The other motivation is the desire to see more Muslims reached. Greg Livingstone’s thesis in Planting Churches in Muslim Cities is correct. God wants to reach Muslims, but, by and large, they are not being reached. Therefore we must examine our methods for church planting among Muslims. Being both culturally sensitive and more fruitful in the Muslim milieu are God given desires to which the body of Christ globally would say “Amen.” In an effort to pursue these desires, many missionaries are flocking to the “cutting edge” of missiology by becoming a Muslim to win Muslims (or training Christians to become Muslims to win Muslims). C5 has been embraced by many with the hope of seeing successful people movements to Christ. Too often this has been adopted without looking critically from the Bible.
A brief overview of some of the C4 and C5 similarities and differences are necessary before we proceed. C4 and C5’ers are persuaded that we can use the forms that Muslims use while giving them new meaning. Dudley Woodberry wrote an excellent article, “Contextualization Among Muslims: Reusing Common Pillars,” delineating the redemptive forms in Islam for MBB (Muslim Background Believer) congregations. Both C4 and C5 would subscribe to vocabulary, diets, clothing and culture that is Muslim friendly. Neither model would support extraction of Muslim converts and placing them in churches that are culturally foreign. One of the major differences between C4 and C5 is identity. In C4, believers call themselves followers of Isa, whereas in C5 they say they are Muslims and may or may not say they are followers of Isa Al Masih. In practice C5’ers are encouraged to continue going to the mosque. Almost all C4 practitioners would say that a transition time of coming out of the mosque is best. Better still if the converts are the ones determining the timing of their exodus based on the Holy Spirit’s conviction and not as a result of the missionary’s impetus. C5 MBBs are encouraged to stay in the mosque and use it as a platform for reaching other Muslims. So C5 groups perform the shalat (while praying to Isa), recite the shahada (with a variation of the confession), fast during Ramadan, give the zakat (offering) to the poor and theoretically go on the Haj (though I know of no C5 believer who has ever done this.) C5 embraces Islam and the mosque by trying to carve out a niche within Islam for a community of MBBs. C4 embraces the local culture and forms of Islam while distinguishing itself from Islam as followers of Isa Al Masih.
A Look at Some of the Biblical Passages
One of the main passages used to support a C5 strategy for church planting among Muslims is 1 Corinthians 7:20. “Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him.” The theory goes that if a person was a Muslim he or she should remain a Muslim after coming to Christ. The context in 1 Corinthians 7 is addressing the issues of marriage and singleness; believers married to unbelievers; circumcision and uncircumcision; and finally slaves and free. The passage has nothing to do with dictating that people from a false religion should remain in their false religion so as not to upset the apple cart. C5 proponents could be accused of isogesis (reading their desired interpretation into the text) here. This passage makes provision for believers remaining in their familial and social status where they were prior to knowing Christ, but it is not encouraging believers to continue in their former religion. There is a difference between a Muslim’s religion and his or her cultural familial milieu. Too often those desiring to respect the family and social community end up defending the religion and theology that are contra-biblical. Culture should be embraced only to the extent that it does not cause syncretism. The mosque and Islam, though a portion of the fabric of society, do not make up the entire picture in terms of the target people. We must not use this passage to say people should remain as they always have without any exceptions. What is important is obeying God’s commands.
First Corinthians 9:19-22 has often been cited as support for a contextual-ized ministry. This is indeed correct as Paul engaged the people in a way that was relevant to each group depending on their contexts:
- Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.
The goal was to win more people to Christ by varying methods to fit each group. This is precisely what C5 proponents are arguing for. The tension arises in what Paul means when he says, “He becomes like a Jew to win the Jews.” Ethnically he already was a Jew. Does he become a Jew without any qualification? It says he became “like a Jew.” Does he embrace their system of beliefs? Is he still waiting for the Jewish Messiah to appear like the rest of the Jews? Do the rest of the Jews know where he stands in relation to his faith in the risen Lord Jesus? What one finds is his becoming like a Jew is that he took on the Jewish traditions and culture as much as possible consistent with maintaining a vibrant faith in Jesus and allowing people to see that at work in his life. This was all done so that as many Jews as possible would come to Jesus.
The problem with using this passage to support a C5 ministry strategy is that there is a vast difference between being culturally relevant and theologically accommodating. He becomes like a Jew, but he is not embracing all of Judaism. He looks like a Jew culturally and within the traditions as much as possible, but holds firmly to the truth and the other Jews know that he does. This is a critical distinction that C5 does not follow; the people know what Paul believes. Very few Muslims at the mosque or elsewhere know what a C5 person believes.
Also cited in support of C5 strategy is 2 Kings 5:18-19. Naaman asks for pardon when his master goes into the temple of Rimmon and he himself bows down to the idol. We would expect the prophet to say no, “you must not compromise your faith.” But instead Elisha says, “Go in peace.” Therefore the C5’ers believe that we have a scriptural precedence for continuing on in a false religion even after new birth. My contention is that this line of reasoning is an argument from silence and therefore is weak. What about the balance of the entire Old Testament where wrath and destruction consistently came upon God’s people because of their idolatry and “committing the harlot” with other nations and their false gods? This one verse is hardly sufficient to build a theology of incorporating Islam and the mosque in the believing community’s faith. Is it not more likely that Elisha’s response is allowing him time for a transition out of that environment with the Spirit’s guidance?
Perhaps, one of the most clear passages dealing with the dangers of syncretism and the believing community can be found in 2 Corinthians 6:14– 7:1:
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:
“I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
“Therefore come out from them and be separate,” says the Lord. “Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.”
“I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters,” says the Lord Almighty.
Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.
This passage is often misquoted when dealing with a believer wanting to marry an unbeliever. The context is about believers from pagan backgrounds continuing to worship in their former context. This is exactly what C5 proponents want us to embrace concerning the mosque as a strategy for reaching Muslims. Interesting to note we do not know why the new Gentile believers continued to go to the temple. They may have been afraid of their community, perhaps some still had faith in the idols there, or maybe they wanted to reach their pagan worshipping friends in the temple. Regardless of the reason for their existence in that community God’s command to them is extremely clear, “Get out!” Paul gives five rhetorical questions at the beginning of this passage—all of which are to be answered resoundingly in the negative. Separation from the worshipping unbelievers is God’s command.
Before my C5 brethren rebut this passage because it is not germane, let’s have a closer look. Perhaps some would think that this passage only relates to idol worshippers. These were pagan temples. Therefore, we should expect the Triune God to command believers to come out from idol worship. Islam worships Allah—the One and Only God—having similarities with our God. Most missionaries are practical, “if it works then use it.” But a heavy dose of caution needs to be administered to those who assume that the Allah of Islam is the same as the Triune God of Scripture. I am not talking about using the term Allah—both Christians and Muslims use it. But the person of Allah is very different. Ali Imran 3:54 has a description of the Islamic Allah, “And the unbelievers plotted and deceived, and Allah too deceived, and the best deceiver is Allah.” This is the god of Islam from their book. The Arabic word translated deceived is makara and has both a positive and negative meaning, here being the latter. John 8:44 says the Devil is the “father of lies.” Here we have the case of someone portraying himself to be God but really is a devil “parading as an angel of light.” Giving examples of MBB scholars that have studied the Koran and then come to this same conclusion may not pacify the C5’ers who have MBB’s that say their understanding of Allah is now complete with Isa. I do not agree that the god of Islam and our Triune God are the same person, just less understood by our Islamic friends—neither do most theologians. It would take this article too far afield, however, to prove here that the god of Islam and the Triune God are not one and the same.
Another reason I believe the 2 Corinthians 6 passage is germane to the Muslim convert’s case is that we often wrongly assume that Islam is practiced in its orthodox form. Most of its adherents practice Folk Islam and have a myriad of jinn, spirits and powers that they are trying to master, even though orthodox Islam teaches otherwise. Is this not exactly what was going on in the pagan context of 2 Corinthians? Should we be encouraging believers in Isa Al Masih to hold onto a structure that permits and at times promotes appeasement of the spirits when the Scriptures tell us clearly to come out?
Paul is sometimes portrayed as having used C5 strategy in entering the synagogue and evangelizing. This is a far cry from what happens in most C5 contexts. Paul came as the Pharisee of Pharisees to preach Jesus the Messiah to the synagogue members. Most C5’ers come into the mosque and line up in the shalat line. They are perceived as Muslims. They have no distinguishing mark that says they are followers of Isa. Even if they pray to Isa, the perception is that they are Muslims. Paul was clearly received (at times) within the Jewish setting, but acknowledged as a follower of the risen Messiah. Is this the same with our C5 MBB’s?
The assumption that since Judaism and Islam both contain some truth therefore we can compare these two faiths as a foil for ministry and use what Paul did is a poor one. It is true that Islam contains some truth. However the bulk of their faith and practice is incompatible with the Scriptures. In the first century people flocked to Judaism to know truth because that was where God had revealed himself. Today to know God we do not point people towards Islam because Muslims do not have special revelation about God without error.
The Creed also is fraught with problems for the C5 believer. “There is no God but God and Mohammed is his prophet.” The shahada cannot be confessed by a believer without compromising his faith. Mohammed is definitely not God’s prophet. I am not proscribing this as an evangelistic introduction. But the truth remains, if a person goes into a mosque people assume he or she is a Muslim and will recite this Creed. Even if he or she prays in his or her heart to Jesus, the community will perceive him or her as a card-carrying Muslim. Is this not compromise? Deceit?
To change the shahada and use a creed like, “There is no God but God and Isa Al Masih is His Savior” is excellent. Many C4 models are using something similar to this in their house church meetings. But changing the shahada (like some C5’ers have proposed) in the mosque is not likely unless the whole village converts. This is not the experience of most of us laboring in the trenches among Muslims and therefore should not be made the norm. Again, the form and creed can be used effectively but do we have to embrace the mosque and Islam to do that? Doesn’t this lead new converts into confusion? I know it does because we have a young man who is praying to Isa as well as reciting the shahada, asking both to show him the truth. We are not encouraging him to continue on in his old Islamic roots, but because of his habit and desire to cover all the bases he does. How much more so if we encouraged him to continue going to the mosque and doing his shalat there?
Personhood of Isa Al Masih
My final concern related to C5 is that of who the person of Isa is for new MBB’s. Is he Savior only or Lord? What difference is there from the perspective of a twenty-first century Muslim and a first century Jew as it relates to answering the question, “Who is Jesus?” His lordship is the same stumbling block for both. First century believers responded with the creed “Jesus is Lord.” C5 is blurring the lines of who he is. The 1998 report from the most advanced C5 work in the world claimed only fifty-five percent of the C5 convert leaders ascribe God as being Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Where does that leave the other forty-five percent of those leaders and the rest of the followers? Is this a need for discipleship as many C5 proponents are arguing for? Some C5 MBB’s, who later are confronted with the fact that Isa, who is Savior, is also Lord, find it hard to swallow. Couple that with the incentive to keep them in the mosque and there is added confusion. Missionaries may be able to train theologically astute students for the first generation, but things for each subsequent generation get more cloudy. Is the movement getting more orthodox or more syncretistic? If the foundation is not good the building will crumble. Already the case being propped up for praise as the latest and greatest thing for missions towards Muslims is fraught with many troubling signs.
C5 as a strategy embraces the mosque for doing evangelism as well as church planting. The mosque is pregnant with theology that says; “Jesus was not crucified;” “The Bible has been corrupted;” “Mohammed is Allah’s prophet;” “Salvation is by merit and not by grace.” Is this where new believers will find sanctification and edification? Most C5 proponents advocate a separate meeting for believers for these aspects. But will real spiritual growth take place? Is there deception in continuing to stay in the mosque and parade around as a Muslim surrendered to God through Isa Al Masih?
A clearer line needs to be highlighted by missionaries working among Muslims delineating the difference between culture and religion. We have from Revelation 7 and elsewhere the promise of every tribe, tongue and nation present in heaven worshipping Jesus. The promise is not extended to every religion. Religion and culture are not one and the same. Embracing the people without their mosque and religion seems to be the wiser and safer way of speaking the truth in love.
How does C5 deal with the 2 Corinthians 6 passage? The clear command is to be separate. Even though pagans are the specific context there, would Paul change his message to the adherents of Islam? Does this clear passage dealing with the dangers of syncretism just evaporate from our thinking in reaching the Sons of Ishmael? Regardless of how good our intentions are we must obey the Scriptures. C5 clearly crosses the line here and warrants concerns of syncretism.
God is indeed God and will sovereignly act as he chooses, even surprising us at times. However, as his people we must do all we can to build his Church with integrity and truth. Because our work will one day be tested by fire, my plea is that we will go back to the Scriptures and clearly understand what they are saying about his Church.
Livingstone, Greg. 1993. Planting Churches in Muslim Cities: A Team Approach. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.
Travis, John. 1998. “Must All Muslims Leave Islam to ‘Follow Jesus?’” EMQ, Oct. 34:4, 411-415.
Woodberry, Dudley. 1996. “Contextualization among Muslims: Reusing Common Pillars.” International Journal of Frontier Missions, 13, 171-186.
Scott Woods is a missionary in S.E. Asia for 4 years engaged in C4 church planting.
Copyright © 2003 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.