This is the kickoff post for what Lord-willing will be a week long series on “Missions, Culture and Being Biblical.” What prompted this series is the concern that while modern Christian missionary endeavor have encouragingly made progress with the Gospel among unreached people group at an unprecedented scale in the history of Christianity, nevertheless some of the leaders and intellectuals of today’s missionary movements have a weak theology and a problematic view of culture that hinders the effort of biblically faithful missions work . One such serious theological problem among some missiologist is a defective understanding of a “theology of world religion” that is contrary to what the Bible teaches. Here in this post I want to document that such a problem does exists among prominent missiologist and examples will be cited from several essays found in the important anthology on missions titled Perspectives on the World Christian Movement (4th Edition).
Are there examples of bad theology of false religion in Contemporary Evangelical Missionary Thought?
The book Perspectives on the World Christian Movement was edited by Ralph D. Winters and Steven C. Hawthorne. The fourth edition of Perspectives on the World Christian Movement was published in 2009, the same year that Ralph Winters died. Ralph Winters was an important figure in the missions world. According to the book Winters was “the General Director of the Frontier Mission Fellowship (FMF) in Pasadena, CA” whom “after serving ten years as a missionary among Mayan Indians in the highland of Guatemala, he was called to be a Professor of Missions at the School of World Missions at the School of World Mission (Winter and Koch, 531).
Winter coauthored an essay titled Finishing the Task: The Unreached Peoples Challenge with Bruce Koch. Koch himself at the time of publication was the International Facilitator of the Perspectives Global Network (Winter and Koch, 531). In this essay, Winter and Koch in the end-note gave the following definition for “Practicing Christians:”
Practicing Christian refers to Christians of all types and associations, including Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Anglicans, Independents and Marginals, who are not merely nominal (Winter and Koch, 546).
Based upon this definition of practicing Christians, Winter and Koch optimistically stated that “Today, there is one practicing Christian for every seven people worldwide who are either nominal or non-Christian” (Winter and Koch, 531). One must be a bit more pessimistic about the numbers since both Winter and Koch believe without any qualification that Roman Catholics are Christians. Since one of the driving motivation for missions is to declare the Good News so that sinners are reconciled to God by means of justification through faith, it is kind of hard to embrace the view of justification that Roman Catholics subscribe to as being the same thing as the Protestant view of justification. They are antithetical to one another actually; and it’s as different as heaven and hell when it comes to matter of missions and eternity.
Ralph Winter’s lack of discernment between biblical and unbiblical groups that claim to be Christian can be further seen in his essay titled Finishing the Task: The Unreached Peoples Challenge. Here he addresses directly the question of what are we to think about “cultic” religious movements and the answer is concerning:
The growing edge may more and more be the kind of thing we would call cultic or a least anomalous in this country. Does our attitude towards ‘home grown’ aberrant forms of basically biblical faith in this country match what is needed in the rest of the world? Can we trust the Bible to eventually balance out these thousands of new, ‘out of control’ movements? Can we digest the the plain fact that the entire Islamic tradition is, like Roman Catholicism, full of ‘non-Christian elements which we despise, yet is clearly the product of the impact of the Bible (unlike Hindu culture)? What do we do with such forms of qusai-biblical faith? Rather than look at the bewildering varities of forms of religious faith–at the different ‘earthern vessels’ in which the faith is contained–let’s look at the extent that the will of God has taken hold. That is the kingdom of God” (Winter, 394).
Sadly in the quote above and also in the rest of the essay Winter never address the issue of what does the Bible itself have to say about “anomalous” “qusai-biblical faith.” This omission is inexcusable considering how much the Bible does talk about false teaching and false beliefs. One might try to read the above charitably and try to say that Winters is referring to those in the West who can be uptight cherry pickers on secondary issues but then Winters’ discussion about Islam does not permit this interpretation. It is sad to see that Winters confuses the fact that just because something has been “the product of the impact of the Bible” it must therefore mean it must be thoroughly biblical (one must not forget the possibility that a religious system can be the product of the impact of the Bible on the one hand concerning certain religious tenets while the system also pervert what the Bible teaches with other tenets). Winter challenges the reader with the question “What do we do with such forms of qusai-biblical faith?” with the specific example of Islam and gives his answer that Christians must “look at the extent that the will of God has taken hold. That is the kingdom of God.” I think the reader must not let Ralph Winter get away with his naked assertion that we peer into a religion such as Islam and say that is the kingdom of God; Ralph Winter has the burden of proof to demonstrate that God is working through a non-Christian religion and that seeing something like Islam being used by God is the kingdom of God. Winter’s attempt to suggest we accept Islam theologically by way of arguing from the analogy of Roman Catholicism also commit the complex question fallacy since Winter assumes that Roman Catholicism is going to be accepted by the audience despite it having flaws doctrinally–but that’s not a given, especially in light of Roman Catholicism’s inadequacy with soteriological matters.
Finally another such essay we want to look at is titled From Western Christendom to Global Christianity. The authors of this essay are also important leaders in the missionary world. Todd Johnson is the director of the Center for the study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell theological seminary and his co-author Sandra S.K. Leeis is a research assistant for the same center; Lee has also served as a research assistant to the Executive Chair of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. In their essay they talk about how God was breaking the mold of Christianity that was based upon conceptions of the West (the essay calls the West the “Northern hemisphere”). Notice what they have to say in their essay:
Perhaps surprisingly for many Northerners (and perhaps for some Southerners as well), there are encouraging signs that people from these great religious systems may not have to entirely leave their tradition to become followers of Christ” (Johnson and Lee, 392).
Followers of Christ need not entirely leave their “traditions”?
Later this week I will be scrutinizing the arguments for the view that people can become followers of Christ without leaving their identity in their non-Christian religious system.
It is not enough for missiologist to know other religions (the academic study of which we may call Religious Studies). Nor is it enough to know the superficial similarities between Christianity and other religions (Comparative religion). Christian missiologist who desire to be faithful to God must also search the Scripture and also have their missional method be informed and shaped by a biblical theology of religion. Space does not permit to give a fully developed exposition of what that looks like but I highly recommend the book that I have reviewed titled A God of Many Understandings? by Todd Miles.
Johnson, Todd and Sandi S. K. Lee. 2009. From Western Christendom to Global Christianity. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds., 387-389, 392.
Winter, Ralph D. 2009. Are We Ready for Tomorrow’s Kingdom? Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds., 393-94.
Winter, Ralph D. and Bruce A. Koch. 2009. Finishing the Task: The Unreached Peoples Challenge. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds., 531-546.