by Joshua Massey
Even the most sincere followers of Christ can easily misunderstand C5.
Imagine for a moment that your best friend has been given the responsibility of writing your biography. Will he or she be able to properly describe your love life, with all its nuances, unspoken thoughts and feelings? Is there anyone who could accurately put your private story into words on paper? The heart is infinitely complex, as is any love relationship. How much more difficult is it to describe the fullness of a love relationship between humanity and God? Add to this complexity an even greater hurdle: the lover and the readers of his story are rooted in two radically different cultures. Such is the challenge of describing a C5 Muslim follower of Jesus (the lover) to most Christians (the readers) today.
Even the most sincere followers of Christ can easily misunderstand C5 when judging it from: (1) Greco-Roman Gentile categories of orthodoxy, instead of a Jewish understanding of Christ’s mandate; (2) a distance, rather than in light of personal relationships with C5 Muslim believers; and (3) church-centered rather than Christ-centered missiology.
Greco-Roman Categories vs. Jewish Understanding of Christ’s Mandate
It is difficult to overestimate the powerful influence of Greco-Roman thought on Gentile Christianity today. As Andrew Walls observes,
Jewish identity has always been concerned either with what a person is and what he does rather than what he believes. But when the Christian faith [i.e., Jewish Messianism] began to penetrate the Hellenistic Roman world, it encountered a total system of thought [with] a certain inbuilt arrogance, a feature it has never quite lost… Basically, it maintained that there is one desirable pattern of life, a single “civilization” in effect, one model of society, one body of law, one universe of ideas. Accordingly, there are in essence two types of humanity: people who share that pattern and those ideas, and people who do not. (1996, 18)
Christian penetration of this total Greek system of thought put its traditions of codification and organization to work for the service of the gospel, ultimately resulting in “orthodoxy” (Walls 1990, 19). Conformity to codified doctrine determined by the ecumenical Councils of Nicaea (325) and Chalcedon (451) became supremely important—no matter how foreign or strange such doctrine would have sounded to Christ’s Jewish apostles.
Could it be that many of us today are so constrained by our own Greco-Roman theological constructs that we are quick to filter every expression of cross-cultural love for God through an elaborate grid of doctrinal codifications to determine whether or not they are “orthodox”?
When one empirical study of a large C5 movement reported that more than half of the Muslim believers interviewed said God is “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” concern was expressed about those who said otherwise, especially because (1) the movement was more than fifteen years old; (2) many respondents were leaders; and (3) they had access to the New Testament (Parshall 1998, 406). Understanding God as triune was surely common among Gentile Christians in the fourth century, but only after, in Walls’ terms, the gospel had penetrated and permeated a rather arrogant Greek system of thought culminating in the development of Chalce-donian “orthodoxy.”
Given the severe penalties over the centuries for those who did not conform to the elaborate and highly nuanced language of doctrinal fidelity (Moffet 1998, 174), it is surprising to learn that church history provides little evidence to suggest this understanding of God was widespread or common in earliest Christianity. The fact that not one biblical writer felt it necessary to extrapolate that God “is” Father, Son and Holy Spirit should cause us to pause in the above-mentioned evaluation of the C5 movement. Are we evaluating movements of Christ-followers by asking questions the apostles never asked, using criteria the apostles never used?
As the gospel permeated Greco-Roman society in the third and fourth century, Gentile church fathers, enmeshed in the world of neo-Platonism, began to ask questions early Jewish Christians never asked. They found answers in the Scriptures that the apostles likely never saw, because their questions were so radically different (see Walls 1991, 53). Walls illustrates the dynamic role of worldview when the “Jesus Act” is seen in the human auditorium of life:
Everyone in the packed auditorium can see the stage, but no one sees the whole of it. People seated in one place can not see the entrances left… Seated somewhere else, the view is obstructed by a pillar, or an overhanging balcony. As a result, though everyone sees the same play and hears the same words, they have different views of the conjunction of word and action, according to their seat in the theatre. (43)
What each person sees in the Jesus Act is clearly governed by where we are sitting. People view the part of the stage most open to them from their seat in the auditorium. As the C5 interview results illustrate, the orthodoxy we take for granted based on what we think is the “plain meaning” of the text from our theater seats is not as obvious to them from their seats. Perhaps the more amazing fact of that study is that more than half of those interviewed did affirm “Allah” as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
Judging at a Distance vs. Personally from Relationships
As for confidence in our theological conclusions as meticulous students of Scripture, we must humbly admit that, according to Jesus, honoring popular interpretations of Scripture can sometimes be the root of our inability to see clearly, “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me” (John 5:39, 40). While we must test all things by Scripture, Jesus’s statement here suggests that intensive study of Scripture itself will not guarantee a correct perception of its meaning or intended application. Without the Holy Spirit’s quickening, Scripture can be a series of endless parables about which we can be “ever hearing but never understanding; ever seeing but never perceiving.” Christians of all persuasions may sincerely believe they have seen and understood, but it is “the hour of our visitation” which truly tests us. The ways of God, unlike doctrine, cannot be put into a tidy, codified box.
In a forthcoming essay on insider movements, John Travis, architect of the C-Spectrum (1998), rightly states that our theology of mission to Muslims “can only properly be developed through a dynamic interaction of actual ministry experience, the specific leading of the Spirit, and the study of the Word of God.” This can be clearly seen when Peter, Paul and James offer case studies and experiential evidence—together with theological explanation—from their own ministries in the Jerusalem Council meeting. There the early church decided that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised in order to experience salvation in Christ (Acts 15).
An important point often missed by C5 critics is that first and foremost, C5 is not a strategy to reach Muslims, it is a reality effected by the Holy Spirit among numerous Muslim peoples. In other words, Muslims meet Christ as Savior and Lord and are transformed as they study the Bible and strive to obey all Christ’s commands. However, unlike C4 Muslim background believers (MBBs), C5 Christ-followers don’t see their Muslim identity as part of their background. Walls speaks of “Greek” as a cultural, not an ethnic term, and so too “Muslim” is a cultural term. Ironically, the Muslim culture enjoyed by most C5 believers is far more “Jewish” than the “Christian culture” in most Gentile churches today. Therefore this culture is much more similar to the piety and liturgy Jesus and his apostles observed than that of Gentile Christians today (Acts 21:20, Wood-berry 1996, Massey 2004, Neusner 2000). C5 Messianic Muslims do not want to turn their back on their culture or their nation (Walls 52).
Just as in New Testament times many Gentile Christians were ready to submit to circumcision in order to achieve full status as God’s people, many Muslims have been willing to convert to “Christianity”—especially those who were only nominally Muslim or disillusioned with Islam. We will discuss below the dynamic freedom of Muslims to do this. Nonetheless, a growing number of Muslim followers of Jesus have chosen not to follow the way of the Jewish proselyte. They want to follow Jesus as Muslims.
When you personally meet some of these believers, their Christ-centeredness is unmistakable. Like Peter who saw the Holy Spirit poured out on Gentiles, we are forced to reevaluate our Christianizing tendencies, even as Peter and James were forced to reevaluate their Judaizing tendencies. Reading empirical case-studies on paper might help, but that is no substitute for actual ministry experience with C5 Muslim believers.
It is terribly easy to misunderstand what God is doing among C5 movements of Christ-centered Muslims if we attempt to evaluate them from a distance, based solely on the feeble attempts of witnesses to describe (orally or in writing) a C5 Muslim believer’s love-relationship with Jesus. Rather, we must get to know some C5 Muslim believers ourselves, hear directly from them how they have handled the challenges of following Christ as a Muslim, and see their passion to draw their fellow Muslims to the throne of Christ.
Christ-centered vs. Church-centered
Although the C-Spectrum was originally developed to describe six kinds of Christ-centered communities found in the Muslim world today, C5 nomenclature was quickly adopted by those whose theology of mission is more Christ-centered than church-centered. They were more focused on encouraging Christ-centered “insider movements” of Muslims within Islam than merely context-ualizing Western Christianity. They were more convinced that Jesus wants his disciples to plant the leaven of God’s rule and reign directly within Muslim communities, letting it rise through society to permeate the very Islamic institutions that guide the faith of Muslim peoples.
Advocates of C5 insider movements are equally concerned about the dangers of syncretism and lazy tolerance, but they are also more concerned about true Christ-centeredness than with conformity to Gentile Christian traditions and doctrinal codifications developed centuries after the apostolic era.
Unlike many Jewish missionaries of his day, Jesus did not ask Samaritans or Gentiles to convert to Judaism. Jesus did not call people to religion, but to himself. What mattered most was faith in him, worshiping God in spirit and truth, submitting to Christ’s rule and reign as God’s only anointed King. Christ-centeredness has less to do with religion, and everything to do with Jesus.
We tend to assume that if people come to Christ, they will also be “with us.” Aren’t we his disciples and representatives? However, we must never forget that the kingdom of God is not about us.
A christocentric view asserts that the fullness of divine revelation and the finality of humanity’s redemption ultimately centers upon Christ. And because Muslim peoples are sitting in different seats in the human auditorium to view the Jesus Act, they may not see all that our Western church fathers saw, or add all that we added to the Palestinian Jewish original. But as they obey Jesus’ commands and follow him as Lord, they will see him incarnate within their own society as Christ is introduced into areas of thinking and brought to bear upon ideas that we can scarcely glimpse (John 14:21).
The “Christian” Direction of C4
C4 advocates appear to accept the fact that the kingdom of God is not about “Christianity,” since they generally avoid the term “Christian” because its meaning has been irreparably damaged in Muslim lands. However, despite all its contextual friendliness, C4 attitudes toward Muslim identity reveal underlying beliefs about the direction Muslims should go: “out” of Islam, though not necessarily “into” Christianity. Theoretically, this works nicely and gives Muslims permission to withdraw from all “biblically impermissible” Islamic forms (or at least from forms the missionary can’t permit). Sociologically, however, things aren’t so nice or neat.
When a C4 MBB shares his faith, Muslims may ask, “Are you Christian?”
“Oh no!” he replies, “I am a follower of the True Path” [or something else creative].
“Oh,” the Muslim responds, “you’re a Muslim!”
“Well, uh, not actually,” he replies and masterfully crafts some acceptable identity for his context—or does he? Actually, it can be extremely difficult to establish the necessary trust in relationship if one waffles on such basic questions about religious identity. Like most Christians, Muslims do not have a religious category for Christ-followers who are neither Christian nor Muslim. You must be one or the other.
Furthermore, many C4 MBBs spend years going back and forth between Christian and Muslim communities like a sociological chameleon, trying to maintain acceptance in two different worlds. C4 identity (being neither Christian nor Muslim) is a very difficult position for MBBs to maintain. The more they behave like Gentile Christians, the more they will be trusted by C1–3 believers but distrusted by Muslims. Unfortunately, the more they retain their Muslim culture (e.g., diet, dress, beard, language, liturgy, etc.), the more suspect they tend to be in Christian communities. Theoretically, C4 MBBs should not have to enter C1–3 communities at all. Practically, however, their paths tend to cross more often than C4 advocates would prefer, and so begins the process of Christianization which inevitably pulls Muslims “out” of their community and “into” some form of Christianity.
C5 Muslims, by contrast, don’t have to bother with such religio-cultural gymnastics. They know they are Muslims, and they know they have been transformed by the Spirit of God. Like the Hellenistic-Roman world, the Muslim world represents a total system of thought which must be penetrated with the gospel of the kingdom, rising through Muslim society like leaven. C5 advocates believe that after thorough study of the Bible, Muslim believers are best equipped to make judgments about what is biblically permissible or not. Rather than cloud their judgment with centuries of Gentile interpretations of Scripture through a Greco-Roman filter, cultural outsiders (pro-C5 missionaries) keep pointing C5 Muslim leaders back to prayer and the Bible for answers, confident that the Holy Spirit will “guide them into all truth” (John 16:13). This does not imply that C5 advocates never point Muslims to specific Scriptures for study, for the New Testament surely provides precedent for such directive discipleship. Nonetheless, efforts to promote true indigeneity are not just limited to various forms of worship, liturgy, sacramental rites, literature, art and architecture. Instead, their understanding of Scripture itself is also a prime candidate for indigeneity as C5 advocates encourage Muslim believers to view the Jesus Act from their seat in the human auditorium.
C5 Muslim believers are, of course, rethinking and redefining Islam according to the authority of the Bible. Some are even calling their Muslim countrymen “Back to the Qur’an,” since most unbiblical Islamic beliefs are more rooted in Islamic traditions (hadith) or in poorly interpreted verses of the Qur’an. Once Muslims see that Qur’anic verses alluding to corruption in the Bible were rightly and only leveled against entrepreneurial Jews selling thrice-targumated phylacteries (Sura 2:79), they can better understand why the Qur’an commands all Muslims to believe the Bible, and many other verses proving the Bible could never have been corrupted (5:47, 10:94, 4:136). Though scholars of textual criticism may beg to differ (Ehrman 1993), the Qur’an itself is proving to be a powerful apologetic in the hands of Muslim believers for restoring Muslim confidence in the inerrancy of Scripture.
Rethinking Islam in the light of Scripture is no simple task, but our role as outsiders is not to do their thinking for them—i.e., if we really want to promote indigeneity by discipling their nation (and not just a few individuals within their nation). The fact is, as outsiders, we are scarcely qualified to rethink Islam since most of us were never reared to “think” Muslim in the first place. Our role is to keep pointing them to Jesus and the Scriptures, and to resist the temptation to filter their reality through our own tradition. Walls notes:
This is likely to mean the appearance of new themes and priorities undreamt of by ourselves or by earlier Christian ages; for it is the mark of Christian faith that it must bring Christ to the big issues which are closest to men’s hearts; and it does so through the structures by which people perceive and recognize their world; and these are not the same for all. (24)
For example, when C5 Muslims were translating Mark’s Gospel into their language, they were perplexed at how to handle the parenthetical statement in Mark 7:19, “Thus he declared all foods clean.” Clashing with their own worldview about dietary cleanliness, which agrees with the Torah and Jesus’ own dietary practice, they wondered if this was a later insertion by Gentile scribes, what Bart Ehrman calls “an orthodox corruption of the Scripture” (1993). Did Jesus abrogate the Law? Is there any evidence that his Jewish disciples began eating non-kosher foods after this teaching? The most difficult thing for them to imagine, of course, was: How could Jesus have declared swine flesh clean? No one pointed out to them that the context of hand washings in Mark 7 indicates that Jesus wasn’t declaring treif foods kosher, but rather that kosher foods weren’t ritually defiled if touched by ritually unclean hands (Stern 1991, 160).
Nonetheless, they found another way to deal with that verse. After much prayer and thought, they decided not to omit the phrase but to translate it directly. When the foreign translation consultant (committed to an insider model of letting them call the shots) asked how they arrived at this conclusion, they said, “It was simple: pork is not food for us. Do you eat fried scorpions, beetles and locusts when you visit Thailand? No, because that is not food for you, just as pork is not food for us.” Does God’s declaration that reptiles are clean in Acts 10 mean we should all eat snakes and lizards to demonstrate our freedom in Christ?
In the study quoted above, nearly half of those interviewed did not describe God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. However, these same Muslim believers do not hesitate to baptize new followers of Jesus “in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit,” just as Jesus commanded. Perhaps fifteen years of baptizing in this way was the defining factor that led them to conclude that this threefold formula does describe God. If so, they seem to be well ahead of our Greco-Roman church fathers, given the length of time it took them to draw such conclusions.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for those of us separated by language, history and culture is to recognize each other in Christ. Herein may lie the greatest difficulty for critics of C5. Those of us who whole-heartedly endorse C5 do so because, like Peter and James mentioned above, our theology has been informed by an unexpected field experience, personally knowing C5 Muslims who deeply love the Lord Jesus and desire to spread this saving knowledge to fellow Muslims. Critics don’t have such relationships, and so base their objections on various biblical points of reference without having seen “the Holy Spirit poured out upon them.” Case studies can be helpful (Jameson and Scalevich 2000; Travis and Workman 2000; Dutch 2000), but they are ultimately not an effective substitute for such personal relationships, even as many Judaizers remained unconvinced after the testimonies of Paul, Barnabas, Peter and James (Acts 15:1-29, 21:18-26). Furthermore, after seeing how some have abusively used and even published confidential case studies of C5 work, many are understandably hesitant to distribute such reports widely.
If our own history is any indication, this Messianic Muslim movement won’t be tidy. The christological controversies of the fourth century were so heated that scholars are quick to acknowledge that their so-called “settlement” involved “personal feuds between bishops and theologians, conflicts between traditionalism and unrestrained speculation, and the politics of Roman emperors who needed a united church to preserve a united empire” (Rusch 1980:17).
We must therefore give Muslim followers of Christ the same freedom enjoyed by our Greek fathers to work out their own theology of how Christ-centeredness will transform their worldview. It may be as different from ours as the fourth century Gentile Christian translation was from the Palestinian Jewish original. So let us not oppose them or be suspicious of their Christ-centeredness, “for whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). Rather, let us embrace them with open arms “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).
Finally, let us guard against the kind of dogmatic judgmentalism that fueled the agendas of Judaizers, who couldn’t see beyond God’s work in their own religio-cultural history. Though convinced their arguments were solidly biblical, Ebionite Jewish Christians ultimately missed an amazing era in redemptive history as God’s kingdom broke forth among Gentiles. Let us not similarly miss what God is doing among Muslim followers of Christ today.
Dutch, Bernard. 2000. “Should Muslims Become ‘Christians’?” International Journal of Frontier Missions 17(1): 15-24.
Ehrman, Bart D. 1993. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament. New York: Oxford University Press.
Jameson, Richard and Nick Scalevich. 2000. “First-Century Jews and Twentieth-Century Muslims.” International Journal of Frontier Missions 17(1): 33-39.
Massey, Joshua. 2000. “The Amazing Diversity of God in Drawing Muslims to Christ.” International Journal of Frontier Missions 17(1):5-14.
_______. 2004. “Living Like Jesus, A Torah-Observant Jew: Delighting in God’s Law for Incarnational Witness to Muslims, Part 1.” International Journal of Frontier Missions 21(1): 33-39.
Moffet, Samuel Hugh. 1998. A History of Christianity in Asia: Beginnings to 1500. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
Neusner, Jacob. 2000. Judaism and Islam in Practice: A Sourcebook. London: Routledge.
Parshall, Phil. 1998. “Danger! New Directions in Contextualization.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 34(4): 404-410.
Rusch, William G. 1980. The Trinitarian Controversy. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Stern, David H. 1991. Messianic Jewish Manifesto. Clarksville, Md.: Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc.
Travis, John. 1998. “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(4): 407-408.
Travis, John and Andrew Workman. 2000. “Messianic Muslim Followers of Isa: A Closer Look at C5 Believers and Congregations.” International Journal of Frontier Missions 17(1): 53-59.
Travis, John and Anna Travis. Forthcoming. “Appropriate Christianity for Muslims.” In Appropriate Christianity. Ed. Charles Kraft. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Walls, Andrew F. 1996. The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
Woodberry, J. Dudley. 1996. “Contextualization Among Muslims: Reusing Common Pillars.” International Journal of Frontier Missions 13(4): 171-186.
Joshua Massey is a cultural anthropologist, linguist and missiologist, who has been laboring among Asian Muslims since 1985. He is currently coordinating the development of indigenous literature to assist Muslim followers of Jesus proclaiming God’s kingdom and making disciples in Asia.
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 3, pp. 296-304. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ. For Reprint Permissions beyond personal use, please visit our STORE (here).