For Those Involved in the Insider Movement Debate: Perspective from Church History and Scripture

by Tom Hale III

Perspectives from history offer potential ways forward in the ongoing debate about Insider Movements.

Heated debates about “insider movements” (IM) of belief in Christ within peoples resistant to Christianity have hurt well-meaning servants of God on both sides. Proponents of IM cite the importance of new followers of Jesus remaining “insiders” in their communities so that the gospel can spread farther; opponents insist that new believers must break with their former traditions, although doing so leaves them as outsiders, often forced to flee reprisals for leaving their religion and embracing a foreign faith.

Supporters of IM believe the principles set forth by the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, which removed barriers to the acceptance of the gospel by Greeks, were not intended as a “single use only” solution, but can be applied to other cultures as well. Of course, as the apostles saw in Acts 15, removal of barriers may also result in removal of key tenets of the faith—a descent into heresy—or  affirmation of non-Christian cultural practices may lead to syncretism, as non-Christian teachings or traditions are retained and added to faith in Christ.

Much is at stake. But the debate itself has distracted people from ongoing outreach. In order to gain a healthier perspective on how the IM debate is conducted, we must learn from both Church history and scripture. Church history provides us with a multitude of other debates or conflicts to study—or, as in the case of this article, to draw lessons from merely by observation without rigorous academic study.

Although the context and culture of a past age was totally different from our own, and we must beware of reading our world back into theirs, we can still learn from their experience.

Fifth-century Dispute between Cyril and Nestorius
For two reasons I have chosen the fifth-century Christological dispute between Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria and supported by the Pope, and Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople: (1) 1,500 years have passed and we can therefore examine the conflict’s long-term results and (2) debate no longer rages between followers of Cyril or Nestorius, leaving us free to take an objective view devoid of emotions or a sense of threat to our own convictions.

Please note, however, that I am not seeking to put the IM debate on the same level as the Cyril/Nestorius conflict (although it might turn out to be equally momentous). Cyril held that Christ’s divine and human natures were one, while Nestorius insisted they were separate. By extension, Nestorius suggested the title of “Christ-bearer” for Mary rather than the widely-used “God-bearer” supported by Cyril. But the theological aspect does not concern us here; instead, the long-term results are where we find lessons for the IM debate: about winning and losing and the time it takes to resolve issues, about the scope of possible victories or defeats, and about the relevance of victory or defeat to unity. From scripture, we learn about the importance of how we conduct our debates.  

A Closer Look at What Happened
After two years of increasingly hostile discourse with Cyril, Nestorius sought to clear his name by a council of bishops called at his request by Emperor Theodosius II at Ephesus. Two weeks after the intended start, a key contingent of Nestorius’ supporters had not yet arrived, but Cyril managed to convene the council without them and it condemned Nestorius.

Two years later, Nestorius’ main supporter was persuaded to agree with his condemnation, and two years after that Nestorius was exiled to Petra and then to Upper Egypt. He protested his orthodoxy until his death, around which time his last supporter in the Roman Empire also joined in his condemnation at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. But his views continued to be supported for centuries outside the Empire to the East.

Over the course of time, the Nestorians did wane. In Central Asia, which until about 1400 had a strong Nestorian presence, on more than one occasion I have heard Russian Orthodox believers cite the Nestorians’ demise as proof of their heretical theology. I lack sufficient understanding of their theology to pass judgment, and a church’s waning or waxing may or may not have any connection to doctrinal error or correctness. It also depends on when one measures it. Samuel Moffett notes that in the thirteenth century “the Nestorian church (as most of the early Asian Christian communities came to be called) exercised ecclesiastical authority over more of the earth than either Rome or Constantinople” (1992, xiii). The point is that conclusive resolution of this kind of debate does not happen in a single human lifetime, but over the course of centuries.

One reason resolution takes so long is that “words have wings” (Wheatcroft 2004, xxxi). While one may be able to persuade his or her opponents to change their positions, those influenced by one’s opponents’ earlier speaking or writing may not learn of their new position, or may not agree with the change of views. This is particularly true of insider movements, which began before and apart from the musings of missiologists. There will always be those beyond our reach and influence.

Despite the fact that Cyril’s victory was enforced by the full might of the Empire, Cyril ultimately failed to stop Nestorius. He succeeded in removing Nestorian teaching within the Empire, but he could not stop it from flourishing outside the Empire in the East. Similarly, although advocates or opponents of IM may successfully gain influence within a particular organization or denomination, they are not likely to succeed on a global level.

Consensus & Unity
What about those whom we can influence, within our own contexts? We may succeed in reaching consensus, and this consensus can be important to the unity of our group. For instance, the council of Ephesus ultimately served the unity of the Empire. Even though the Emperor (from Constantinople) supported his Patriarch and initially sought to challenge his condemnation by the council, he ultimately abided by the council’s decisions and eventually banished Nestorius. Not to have done so could have threatened the unity of his empire.

Although there is no national political element in today’s IM debate, it does threaten the unity of various organizations and potentially that of larger bodies as well. For this reason, in a particular bounded context, or even within as broad a group as possible, it is legitimate to push for a specific resolution in a specific timeframe and thereby to commit the group to one side of the debate or the other.

Yet reaching agreement is easier said than done; building consensus takes a long time, and global consensus takes longer than a lifetime, if it can ever be reached. For better or worse, there is no centralized authority among those engaged in the IM debate, to correspond either to the Pope or to the Emperor. Our Reformation forebears rejected such authority because of its abuse in the Middle Ages, and we are left with no authority to appeal to for a decision. Nevertheless, although we might do well to reconsider our views on submission to authority in light of scripture, we know that authority in any era has its limits, just as the fifth-century Roman authorities could not keep Nestorian theology from flourishing outside the Empire.

Consensus & Scripture
On the question of how to reach consensus, we would do best to follow neither Cyril’s nor Nestorius’ example. By all accounts, Cyril used underhanded means to defend his position, and Nestorius stubbornly stuck by his “Christ-bearer” formula in the face of even his friends’ better judgment.

To learn how to reach consensus, we must turn to scripture, where we find that not all ways of winning an argument are equal. We also find Jesus saying that the world will know we are his disciples because of our love—not because of our true doctrine. God cares as much about how we pursue truth and relate to our brothers and sisters as he cares about the truth itself.

This is not to reduce love to mere kindness, nor to remove truth from the discussion. On the contrary, a commitment to truth is a vital part of love because truth sets people free (John 8:32). But as Paul instructed Timothy, we should “gently instruct” those who oppose us, “in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 Tim. 2:25-26). This is strong language about those who opposed Timothy: calling them captives of the devil who will “do his will” is not exactly giving them a compliment! The reality is that the defense of truth leads to strong feelings, and we should not be surprised by that.

But the overall picture of Jesus’ and the apostles’ teaching suggests we should aim for a different response, the one of “gentle instruction,” seeking to win over our brother or sister (Matt. 18:15). In the debate about IM, all sides need to keep acting with love in mind, and make a commitment to refrain from attacks on character even in the midst of heated debate about truth. Plus, an approach seeking to win others over has the added advantage of being the most likely to succeed.

An obvious objection here is that Jesus himself took a confrontational approach with the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees, and that Paul and Peter used even stronger language than we noted in 2 Timothy 2:26 above.

Indeed, the example of our Lord and of the apostles cannot be taken lightly. Yet we have to understand their actions in the light of their teaching and, in the apostles’ case, in the light of their human fallibility. Just because Paul and Barnabas parted ways, for example, does not mean creating new ministry entities should be our first response if a colleague proves difficult to work with.

In a debate, we would do well to heed the call to “be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,” since our anger “does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:19-20). As Stephen Covey has aptly pointed out in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, we should be able to defend our opponents’ positions better than they can if we truly seek to earn a hearing. If we truly desire such an attitude, we can make it easier for ourselves by taking a long-term perspective, remembering God is in control.

To gain a long-term perspective, remember that God has a different view of time than we do. Almost five hundred years after their split, the Roman Catholic Church and some Lutheran churches were able to prepare a “Joint Declaration on The Doctrine of Justification” (1999). Although still not an actual agreement on doctrine, let alone a step to unification, nevertheless such a “declaration” would have been unthinkable in a previous century.

As the Apostle Peter says, “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Pet. 3:8). Peter was writing to explain why Jesus had not returned in the timeframe his followers had expected. However, it is only natural that we, whose vision is limited by our own mortality, should take a different view of time than God does. Indeed, the matter of a long-term perspective is of crucial importance. Nevertheless, the debate today still has a sense of urgency, and rightly so: truth matters, whether the issues demand a thousand years or a day to resolve.

The Tone of Love
I take no position about which side of the IM debate constitutes false teaching, because I am a concerned outside observer who sees merit in both positions. My fear is that the collateral damage from the dispute will be far greater than the benefit of either side prevailing: the love of Christ is the only answer for a dying world and yet we who follow him so easily fall into arguments devoid of Christian love.

The lack of love and the distraction of focus seem particularly distressing when we realize neither side will eradicate the other anyway—at least not in our lifetimes. Yet I am not seeking to stop the debate, nor even the controversy: too much is at stake to suggest such a course. Rather, I am calling for a radical change in the tone of the debate. By all means, we should debate—that is to say, not by all means, but by all acceptable, gracious means which can win over those with whom we disagree.

The pursuit of truth is of vital importance, but all too often, those who are most eager in its pursuit lose sight of grace. And our Lord was full of both truth and grace (John 1:14). Let us all seek a fresh filling of the Spirit to bring us closer to Christ’s example. And let us remember the truth spoken by Gamaliel in Acts 5:38-39—that anything which is not from God will ultimately fail, and that anything which is from God cannot, in the end, be overcome.
Jesus said the wheat and the tares (heretics?) should be allowed to grow together until the harvest, when the only righteous and all-knowing judge will decide between them (Matt. 13:29-30; Stassen 2006, 58).

The Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church. 1999. “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine Of Justification.” Accessed December 6, 2012, from

Moffett, Samuel Hugh. 1992. A History of Christianity in Asia. Volume I: Beginnings to 1500. New York: HarperCollins.

Stassen, Glen H. 2006. Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wheatcroft, Andrew. 2004. Infidels: A History of the Conflict Between Christendom and Islam. New York: Random House.


Tom Hale III lived in the former Soviet Union for nineteen years. He is now working on a book about issues of identity for Christians living among peoples whose access to the gospel is restricted or prohibited.

EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 1, pp. 66-71. Copyright  © 2014 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.



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