Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Thank God for Footnotes:

Three signs that our IMB trustees understand the balance between missiology and theology.

In the recent meeting of IMB trustees, a new statement was adopted outlining guidelines for contextualization. You can read the full report here. While I have been among those who are concerned about the “narrowing of doctrinal parameters” by some of our agencies’ policies, I am pleased with these new guidelines. In fact, these guidelines are, in my opinion, right on the money.

I submit as evidence of a good policy, the three footnotes, each of which give contemporary practical applications to the new policies.

Footnote “a” reads:

“In John Travis’ spectrum of contextualization, C-4 would be the extent of indigenization acceptable for IMB personnel (“The C1 to C6 Spectrum.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 34. [4]:407-408).”

Without explaining for the uninitiated exactly what that means, C4 is pretty far along the contextual scale. C5, I believe, is goes too far and blurs the line between Christianity and Islam. This is exactly where I and most of my missiologist colleagues draw the line as well. I am pleased that the trustees are willing to go as far as C4. (Please email me if you would like access to the EMQ article cited above).

Footnote “b” reads:

“For example, the theological construct represented by the term 'Allah' in the Quranic system is deficient and unacceptable. However, the primary issue is not the term. The same name is used by devout Christians and it represents a sound, scriptural view of God. In fact, historically, the Christian use of 'Allah' predates the rise of Islam. The missionary task is to teach who 'Allah' truly is in accord with biblical revelation.”

This footnote reveals that the Trustees understand and are willing to acknowledge the difference between form and meaning. Rather that enforcing a blanket policy banning use of the term, the new contextualization policies empower the missionary to make critical contextualization decisions particular to that context. In other words, when the “forms” are morally neutral, they may be retained and given new meaning. The use of “Allah” is one of the hot-button issues in recent debate and I am pleasantly surprised at the trustee’s stance.

Footnote “c” reads:

“Integrity requires, for example, that we not imply that a false prophet or a body of religious writings other than the Bible are inspired. There is a level of contextualization that crosses the line of integrity. Our board has dismissed personnel who have refused counsel and deliberately positioned themselves beyond that line.”

This policy seeks to recognize the balance between doing whatever it takes to reach the lost and maintaining biblical fidelity and integrity in our witness. To read between the lines here, the policy is referring most immediately to the use of the Koran in witness to Muslims. This footnote appears to affirm the use of the somewhat controversial “CAMEL” method (which begins with the Koran, but in no way affirms it) while rightly criticizing methods which try to “prove” Christianity from the Koran. The footnote is worded in such a way that it applies to all religious texts and persons not just the Koran and Muhammad. This shows that the IMB trustees are willing to try new methods of reaching unreached peoples while at the same time maintaining personal integrity, and upholding the exclusivity of the gospel and the unique authority of the Bible.

**** All this is to say, that there is good news in the new guidelines and the evidence is in the footnotes. IMB trustees are faithfully doing their job and have shown through this report that they are thinking both theologically AND missiologically about missions. Bravo!

Now if they would only reverse the eternal security baptism policy . . . :-)


BKG said...

Is the statement on contextualization only a reaction to other things? I am not sure that much will come from such a statement, especially since it only affirms what is already happening.

Todd Benkert said...

I am not privy to the inner workings of the trustee board, nor would I venture to presume a motive where none has been given.

However, here is why I think the policy statement is a good thing. While technically the policy does not change anything in terms of the current practice of IMB missionaries, it does acomplish three things:

1. The policy states clearly where the IMB stands on contextualization issues that are currently and will be debated in Baptist and evangelical circles.

2. The policy affirms the current practice of mission innovators among our missionaries--they do not have to wonder whether the trustees affirm what they are doing.

3. The policy communicates publicly that which was previously known only to insiders. The Convention no longer has to wonder where the Board stands on contextualization.

Anyway, that's my take. What do you think? :-)