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Folk Islamic Ritual #4: Urs Festivals

Understanding folk Muslim rituals help us to understand the worldview of ordinary Muslims in South Asia. Understanding the worldview of ordinary Muslims helps us more effectively make disciples of folk Muslims. However, not all folk Muslims adhere to the same folk rituals. Therefore, these readings on folk Islamic rituals should act as a guide to explore folk Islam rather than as concrete rules for folk Islam. There are no concrete rules in folk Islam! Previously, we looked at pirs and dargahs. This lesson will build on those by describing Urs festivals.

Urs festivals commemorate the “marriage” of a Sufi with Allah upon the Sufi’s death. One of the goals of Sufi Islam is to seek spiritual union with Allah. Thus, when these individuals die, they entered into a marriage (Persian “Urs”) with Allah. Urs festivals occur annually to respect and seek barkat from prominent Sufis. Depending on the prominence of the pir, a Urs festival may last a day, or it may last a month. Urs festivals are the largest Muslim gatherings that occur in South Asia. Every year, about 400,000 people attend the six-day Urs festival for Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer, India. 

It is common in folk Islam for those in need to travel from dargah to dargah seeking spiritual blessing and prayer. Some coming believe that these saints are the way to come close to Allah. However, others come out of desperation for help for a sick or demon-possessed relative. During these pilgrimages, many Muslims are very open to hearing the stories of Jesus, who healed the sick and raised the dead. They are happy to receive prayer in Jesus’ name for their family needs. These individuals can be open doors for the gospel as we minister to them and pray for them and their families.  

Both women and men participate in Urs festivals. These festivals tend to have teaching, dance, and music, as well as rituals for receiving barkat. The ceremonies at some Urs festivals are unique. For example, in Pakpattan, Pakistan, there is a structure near the tomb of Babu Farid called “The Door to Paradise” (Bahishti Darwaza). Walking through this gate is said to assure the individuals of entrance into heaven. During the Urs festivals for Babu Farid, tens of thousands throng to Pakpattan for the opportunity to walk through Bahishti Darwaza. At some Urs festivals, hijra (third-gender women) participate in dancing as conduits of power and blessing. At one Urs festival, I observed horse races, cricket and soccer tournaments, and carnival rides. 

The dargah of Baba Farid in Pakpattan, Pakistan. Used by permission. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fariduddin_Ganjshakar#/media/File:Darbar_Hazrat_Baba_Farid_ud_Deen_Ganj_Shakar_Rahmatullah_Alaih_-_panoramio.jpg

At the core of all of these activities is a belief that these Sufi pirs are mediators for ordinary Muslims to obtain barkat from Allah. Within the folk Muslim mind, these mediators (Urdu vasila) are necessary to have their prayers heard and get spiritual blessing from Allah.

One of the most powerful ways to minister to folk Muslims is through prayer. When I pray for folk Muslims, I explain that I am a disciple of Jesus and that I pray in the manner that He taught. I usually begin my prayers with something like, “Our Father who lives in heaven” and make a personal prayer for the person to whom I am ministering. At the end, I pray through Jesus (Urdu main is dua Hazrat Isa al-Masih ke vasile se manta hun. Amen). Since most folk Muslims are of a lower educational level, it is rare to find folk Muslims who speak English well. It is most effective when we can pray for them in Urdu, or even better, in their heart language. Often, when we pray for folk Muslims, they are surprised to see the kind of relationship with have with God that we can approach Him so simply. Many Muslims in South Asia have come to Christ when Christians have prayed for them and seen God answer.

Excursus on the Orthodox Pole

Until now, we have completed four studies on the worldview of South Asian folk Muslims. The reason that we have focused on the influence of folk Islam in the life of ordinary Muslims is that the folk Islamic pole is the strongest of the three between orthodox, secular, and folk. However, it would be a mistake to believe that the orthodox pole does not also significantly influence the worldview of ordinary Muslims. Another reason that we have focused less on the orthodox pole is that this is the kind of Islam that most in the West understand best about Islam.

There are many ways that orthodox Islam affects ordinary Muslims in South Asia. One of them is the “point system” of Islam. For example, here is one passage from the Qur’an:

The balance that day will be true (to a nicety): those whose scale (of good) will be heavy, will prosper. Those whose scale will be light, will find their souls in perdition. (Qur’an 7:8, Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation).

 Simply put, Islam teaches that scales will be used on the day of judgment to measure the good and bad works of individuals. If someone’s good works outweigh their bad, then they will be permitted into heaven. The Qur’an indicates that two recording angels are appointed to write down the good and evil works of a person. 

But verily over you (are appointed angels) to protect you, kind and honorable, writing down (your deeds). They know all that you do. (Qur’an 82:10-12, Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation)

            The result is that many folk Muslims are also conscious of this “point system.” The point system is also sometimes very complex in orthodox Islam. For example, prayers have differing “point” values.  Praying namaz (Arabic salaat, Muslim ritual prayers) in a mosque is worth more than praying the same outside of a mosque. Namaz is of more value at larger mosques than at smaller mosques. The larger the congregation praying, the more points are received by each. Namaz is of more value during Ramadan (i.e., the month of fasting). Most Muslims become far more devoted to their prayers (and other religious duties) during Ramadan, knowing that they can catch up on their points for a year of prayerlessness during this time. Even within orthodox Islam, there are aspects of Muslim belief that orient towards power. For example, one night of Ramadan is called “the Night of Power” (Laylat al-Qadr), when Muslims remember Muhammad receiving the Qur’an. According to Qur’an 97:3, “The Night of Power is better than a thousand months.” This means that during this one night, Muslims believe that they have more ability to come close to Allah than any other day of the year. Because of this belief, the Night of Power is central to many Muslim’s pursuit of God and his blessings.

Many Muslims approach the five pillars of Islam through this lens of acquiring points for the day of judgment. The five pillars are: 

  • Shahadah – the confession, “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.” 
  • Namaz – ritual prayers
  • Hajj – once in a lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina
  • Zakat – almsgiving to the poor
  • Ramadan – the annual month of fasting

One complication created by these issues is a difference in understanding of sin. Often, Muslims perceive themselves in a lifetime of struggle to gain more good points than bad, while also trusting in the mercy of Allah. There is not the same concept in Islam that one sin has such great consequences. The point of this all is that folk Islam heavily influences the average Muslim in South Asia, but orthodox Islam significantly affects them as well. Most Muslims mix these approaches and beliefs. While the folk Muslim worldview requires exploration, those ministering to South Asian Muslims must also gain basic familiarity with orthodox practices and beliefs.

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Folk Islamic Ritual #3: Eid Milad-un-Nabi (Muhammad’s Birthday)

Islamic folk practices reveal the worldview of folk Muslims. Understanding the worldview of folk Muslims empowers us to make disciples among them. I want to begin this discussion with my first experience of Eid Milad-un-Nabi (also known as Mawlid). My wife and I had recently moved to South Asia and lived across the street from a mosque. One morning, we woke up to a large group chanting “Allahu akbar!” (Arabic for “God is great”). To be honest, we were a little alarmed. We peered through the gate and saw a crowd of men in white clothes. There were dozens of people waving green flags and lots of guns. We could not understand what was happening, but it was shocking to us as new arrivals.

The popularity of Muhammad and Eid Milad-un-Nabi can be seen from this picture of the crowds at a celebration in Lahore, Pakistan. Many conservative sects in Pakistan decry this holiday but the popular appeal is very strong. Used by permission from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:International_Mawlid_Conference_at_Minar-e-Pakistan_Lahore_by_Minhaj-ul-Quran1.jpg

So, we went on the roof of our home to see what was going on. In our very broken Urdu, our neighbor explained that this was a celebration of Muhammad’s birthday. A large crowd was gathering to start a parade in honor of their prophet. The mosque by our house was the preferred gathering point. Thankfully, the guns were in the hands of police who were there to keep the peace. At the time, I did not realize that Eid Milad-un-Nabi is a controversial holiday in the Muslim calendar. It is one of the points of contention between the Barelvi and Deobandi movements. The Deobandis attack this holiday while Barelvis defend it. Deobandis attack Eid Milad-un-Nabi is because of the folk beliefs and practices attached to it. Despite this opposition, Eid Milad-un-Nabi is a national holiday in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Throughout the Islamic world, Muslims celebrate this holiday, except in conservative Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Conservative Muslims object to this veneration of Muhammad, saying that it is shirk, which is the sin of associating partners to Allah. In Islam, there is no sin greater than shirk.

To understand the controversy about Muhammad’s birthday, consider Ahmad Raza Khan’s teachings about Muhammad. Khan was instrumental in developing the Barelvi school of Islam in India.

Only the Prophet can reach God without intermediaries. This is why on the Day of Resurrection, all the prophets, saints, and ‘ulama will gather in the prophet’s presence and beg him to intercede for them with God… The prophet cannot have an intermediary because he is perfect.”

God made Muhammad from His light before He made anything else. Everything begins with the prophet, even existence. He was the first prophet, as God made him before He made anything else, and he was the last as well, being the final prophet. Being the first light, the sun and all light originates from the prophet. All the atoms, stones, trees, and birds recognized Muhammad as prophet, as did Gabriel, and all the other prophets.”

            Or consider the following poem by Khan regarding Muhammad:

I am tired, you are my sanctuary.

I am bound, you are my refuge.

My future is in your hands.

Upon you be millions of blessings.

My sins are limitless,

But you are forgiving and merciful.

Forgive me my faults and offenses,

Upon you be millions of blessings.

I will call you, “Lord,” for you are the beloved of the Lord.

There is no “yours” and “mine” between the beloved and the lover.[1]

In the minds of many folk Muslims, the need for a mediator is clear. Khan argued that Muhammad was the greatest mediator between God and man. In many ways, the beliefs that Khan held about Muhammad are similar to Christian views about Jesus. In Khan’s mind, Muhammad was created before the foundation of the world. Allah made the world through Muhammad. All of creation recognizes the greatness of Muhammad. Muhammad forgives sins. Muhammad is in perfect union with Allah. Muhammad is perfect. Khan’s view of Muhammad is very different than in orthodox Islam. 

For ministry to folk Muslims, this highlights two areas of concern. First, most folk Muslims have a deep sense of need for a mediator. Some look primarily to Muhammad, while others look to other Muslim spiritual leaders for this need. Most folk Muslims believe that Muhammad was so great that they need a mediator to approach him before he can mediate between them and Allah. Second, many folk Muslims have stories and beliefs about Muhammad and other mediators (Urdu vasila) that can be bewildering. I remember sharing about the miracles of Jesus with one folk Muslim. Every time I told a story, he would say, “My vasila did the same thing!” Just like Jesus, this man claimed that his vasila raised the dead, walked on water, healed the sick, and multiplied food for his disciples. In the end, I could only find one thing that Jesus did that this man did not claim his vasila had done. Jesus died on a cross for the sins of the world. His vasila had not done that for him.

Click one the following links to continue learning about ministry to Folk Muslims in South Asia. Here is a blog post on devotional singing called na’at. Here is another article on the veneration of Muslim saints, called pirs, at dargahs. For those ministering to South Asian Folk Muslims, it is important to understand their rituals. As we understand their rituals, we understand their worldview. As we understand their worldview, we can better share the gospel with them.


[1] All of these quotes from Ahmad Raza Khan are taken from Usha Sanyal, Ahmad Riza Khan Barelwi: In the Path of the Prophet (Oxford: Oneworld, 2006), 97-99.

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Folk Islamic Ritual #2: Veneration of Pirs at Dargahs

Understanding folk Muslim rituals help us understand the worldview of folk Muslims. Understanding the worldview of folk Muslims aids us in making disciples among them. In the previous blog on folk Muslim rituals, we discussed devotional singing, called na’at, and how na’at shows us that folk Muslims in South Asia approach God through mediators. Folk Muslims understand the gospel well when we present Jesus as the greatest mediator. This lesson builds on that lesson by describing dargahs and pirs.

This is the relatively unknown Dargah of a Pir known as Hazrat Mohammad Shakil Shah in Mussoorie in Uttarkhand, India. The tiled structure between the two tree trunks is the grave. This tomb has been there long enough that these this tree has grown through the structure. Despite its age, the tomb is well maintained. The box is for devotees of this Pir to give financial offerings. No living Pir sits at this tomb. There are many thousands of small dargahs like this one throughout the Indian subcontinent.

Dargahs are shrines that contain tombs (Urdu kabr or mazhar) of deceased Sufi mystics known as pirs. Pirs are spiritual leaders in folk Islam that often wield enormous political and social power. In most sects, pirs are Sayyid, meaning that they claim to be descendants of the tribe of Muhammad. Pirs are Sufis who seek spiritual union with Allah and function as conduits of power (Urdu karamat) and blessing (Urdu barkat) from Allah. Pirs are known to provide spiritual guidance to their followers. Followers obey their pir’s direction absolutely.

There are two general approaches to the veneration of saints at dargahs. One is through a formal piri-muridi relationship, while the other is a simple petition of the saints. Piri-muridi refers to a solemn devotion of a disciple (Urdu for murid) to a Sufi pir involving some kind of initiation rite. The murid pledges obedience, and the pir bestows a spiritual barkat or empowerment on the murid. Phil Parshall wrote about an experience with a Naqshbandi pir who would initiate “his disciples by pressing his finger into their chests just over the heart. At that time, the devotee becomes filled with God and actually hears the voice of Allah within his body.”[1]

            Most devotees at dargahs never enter this kind of formal relationship. Instead, they go (or are brought to dargahs) to ask for help for practical needs in their lives.[2] Different dargahs are reputed to have barkat for different needs. For example, Pir Kaliyar Sharif in Uttarakhand is known to free visitors from demonic spirits. In visits to this dargah, I have seen individuals chained to trees and buildings outside the dargah complex by their families as they wait for deliverance from evil spirits. Inside the dargah, I was once almost knocked over as demon-possessed individuals writhed on the ground as Sufi leaders tried to cast demons out of them (apparently unsuccessfully). Pir Budhan Ali Shah in Jammu is known to help women become pregnant.[3] One missionary I know told a Muslim friend that he and his wife were having trouble becoming pregnant. His Muslim friend brought the missionary and his wife to this shrine to try to help them. There are thousands of dargahs across South Asia. In particular, the Punjab province in Pakistan contains a high concentration of dargahs

            Visitors to dargahs undertake acts of veneration.[4] They never turn their back on the tomb and wear topis (Urdu for “skullcap”) to give respect. Most visitors offer money, flower, or light clay lanterns in veneration of the Sufi. Devotees prostrate (Urdu sijda) themselves as an act of homage to the saint. All of these acts accompany the supplication of the visitor who believes that the saint can provide barkat as a conduit of Allah’s power. Sufis are renowned for supernatural ability to do things like teleport, walk on water, or fly.[5] In India, it is reasonably common for Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, and others to go to dargahs for barkat. In larger dargahs, there are generally pirs and other Muslim holy men who can create magical amulets, cast out demons, prophesy, and otherwise aid visitors in their spiritual needs. There is perhaps no more controversial question in Islam in South Asia than the role of pirs and dargahs in Islam. Many sects of Islam embrace these practices, and many others decry them. However, for the majority of Muslims in South Asia, the power of the dargah is more important in their lives than the mosque. 

            Because of the amount of respect pirs hold among folk Muslims, it can be helpful for Christian ministers to Muslims to adopt some of their habits. For example, pirs tend to live simple lives, wear shalwar kameez, and act as spiritual leaders. Christian’s can emulate these practices to be viewed more as spiritual leaders by folk Muslims. Additionally, pirs should ideally seek for union with Allah. Christians ministering to folk Muslims need to pursue a genuine spirituality with Christ, abiding in Him. Many Muslim leaders act more like the Pharisees and Sadducees of Scripture and long for spiritual leaders that genuinely know God. Additionally, Christian ministers to folk Muslims should act as spiritual leaders by praying for folk Muslims, providing spiritual guidance from the Bible, and following a defined path for disciples.  


[1] Phil Parshall, Bridges to Islam: A Christian Perspective on Folk Islam (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2006), 33.

[2] Usha Sanyal, Ahmad Riza Khan Barelwi: In the Path of the Prophet. Makers of the Muslim World  (Oxford: OneWorld Publications, 2006), 92-93.

[3] In Pakistan, similar shrines exist to Aban Shah that would have been very close to this shrine before partition. The shrines in Pakistan derive some of their practices from Shiva worship which is the primary Hindu god of the Jammu region. Khalid, 9-38. 

[4] Ibid 106-107.

[5] Ibid 108-109.

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Sharing the Christmas Story with Muslims

Many people struggle with how to begin gospel conversations. Holidays can be used as a great bridge to open doors to share the good news about Jesus. In particular, Christmas is a great gospel bridge for conversations with Muslims.

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

In many countries around the world, Christmas is celebrated or at least known. In Pakistan and India, Christmas is a national holiday. For those living in the West, Muslim immigrants see “Seasons Greetings” and “Merry Christmas” everywhere they go. Many Muslims are curious about our holiday. At the least, they are open to learning more about our traditions, which can be used as a door for the gospel.

Before jumping into how to use Christmas as an open door for the gospel, we need to talk about some common misunderstandings that Muslims might have when we talk about Christmas.

Misunderstanding #1. Christmas is about Santa or Christmas Trees. Several years ago, I attended a Christmas parade in a South Asian city. This city was about 20% Muslim with a Hindu majority. A few thousand Christians gathered. The parade was led by men dressed as Roman soldiers on horses and Herod the Great in a chariot. Following them were real camels with the three wise men. Then there were fifty or so trucks in the parade. The first truck was a host of young ladies dressed as angels. The second truck was a worship band with speakers playing worship songs. The third truck had a handful of pastors taking turns doing open-air preaching. The noise of all the worship bands and pastors melded together into an unidentifiable noise. This same rotation of three types of trucks was repeated for all fifty trucks. Around the trucks were a few hundred young men, dressed as Santa, handing out candy and New Testaments.

As I watched the parade, I wondered, “What do Muslims think when they see this parade.” So, I waited until the procession passed and walked up to some Muslim men to ask them what was happening. They knew it was a Christmas parade. When I asked them who the parade was about, they said it must have been the king who was in the chariot. That’s right, these Muslim men thought the Christmas parade was about Herod the Great!

Misunderstanding #2. Christmas is about Mary. In many South Asian cities, churches hold celebrations for Christmas. I remember one Catholic church that had a prominent shrine to Mary in front of it. Every Christmas, tens of thousands of Muslims and Hindus would pass through this shrine and church to respect their Christian neighbors. What they experienced was a shrine to Mary and a nun giving them a blessing. Because of the crowds, there was no opportunity to make the gospel clear. The confusion is increased because many Muslims think that the Trinity is the Father, the Son, and Mary![1]

Please know that the two misunderstandings above are not comprehensive. My point is that when we talk to Muslims about the Christmas story, we need to intentionally bring the focus back to Jesus. 

How to Use Christmas as a Gospel Bridge

Let me share how I use Christmas as a gospel bridge with Muslims. First, I bring up Christmas in conversation. I will say something like, “I am really excited about our Christmas plans for this year!” Or “Christmas is my favorite time of the year.” Really, anytime you see a Christmas tree, or a wreath, or anything Christmas related, it is easy to bring up Christmas. 

Second, I ask my Muslim friend if they know the Christmas story. Sometimes they know the story, and sometimes they do not. If they know the story, use it as a chance to share your testimony of how God changed your life through Jesus. If they do not know the Christmas story, then you have a great opportunity to tell it to them!

Third, ask your Muslim friend if you can share the Christmas story with them. I like to share the story from the book of Matthew 1:18-25. If I have a New Testament, I read the Christmas story with them. If not, I simply tell the story to them. I prefer to open up the Bible with them since this is usually the first time my Muslim friend has ever encountered the Bible.

Fourth, ask your friend what this story means about Jesus. Very often, after hearing this story, my Muslim friends will tell me, “That is the same story we have in the Qur’an!” While there are some small differences between the story in the Qur’an and the Bible, there are many similarities. If you want to prepare, simply read Qur’an 3:45-55 and 19:16-28. 

Fifth, point out what the Christmas story shows us about Jesus. There are at least three unique things about Jesus that this story emphasizes.

  1. Jesus’ birth was prophesied hundreds of years in advance.
  2. Jesus was the only person to be born of a virgin.
  3. Jesus’ birth was announced by angels.

From this point, I begin sharing about the other aspects of Jesus’ life that were miraculous and unique. I share about how He raised the dead and healed the sick. I talk about His other miracles, like walking on water or feeding the five thousand. I continue following this discussion of Jesus’ unique works until we arrive at his death, burial, and resurrection.

Perhaps your Muslim friend will not agree with you on every point when you first share. A significant next step is to give them a copy of the New Testament and encourage them to read and learn for themselves. Some hearts will open to the Word of God, and others will not. However, this is a straightforward way to use the Christmas story to begin gospel conversations with your Muslim friends or neighbors.


[1] The primary reason for this confusion is a verse from the Qur’an that says, “And behold! Allah will say: ‘O Jesus the son of Mary! Did you say unto men, ‘Worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of Allah?’” (Qur’an 5:116). 

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Book Review. Ethnic Realities and the Church by Donald McGavran.

McGavran, Donald A., Ethnic Realities and the Church: Lessons from India. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1979. 

This blog post was originally submitted as a class assignment for my doctoral studies. However, this book often comes up in conversations as a relevant book for understanding the Indian church. Understanding the Indian church is key for mobilizing the Indian church! (For more on mobilizing South Asian Christians to South Asian Muslims, click here) I am hopeful to have future blogposts that cover books and dissertations that provide insight about the churches of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other South Asian churches.

Biographical Sketch of the Author

Donald McGavran (1897-1990) was a missionary to India and the founding Dean of the School of Missions, Church Growth, and South Asian Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in 1965. McGavran was born and raised in India by missionary parents before returning to spend thirty-eight years as a missionary in South India (1923-1961). During this time, McGavran was mentored by J. Waksom Pickett, the author of Christian Mass Movements in India (1933). McGavran and Pickett co-wrote on the dynamics which led to people movements.

During his time in India, McGavran noticed that the church was growing at extraordinary rates in some areas and not at all in others. In his words,

In the section of India where I worked, 145 areas were scenes of missionary effort… in 134 of these areas the church… had grown at only 11 percent a decade… But in the other eleven areas the church was growing by 100 percent, 150 percent, or even 200 percent a decade. Why was this happening? A vast curiosity arose within my breast. There must be a key to Great Commission mission, and I resolved to find it.[1]

As a result, McGavran wrote Bridges of God in 1955, trying to describe how people movements were occurring in India where large numbers of a single people group came to Christ in a short period of time. In 1970, McGavran wrote Understanding Church Growth in which he more carefully delineated his teachings on the homogeneous unit principle (HUP).

Summary of Contents

Ethnic Realities and the Church: Lessons from India describes nine church types in India in order to describe the challenges and opportunities that these church types present for the Great Commission. This book is primarily a sociological description of the various church structures observed by McGavran and his colleagues[2] in India.

McGavran said “in only twenty-one of the more than three thousand ethnic groups of India do Christians form any considerable proportion of the total population… In more than 2900 castes and tribes there are practically no Christians at all” (28). Likewise, McGavran noted that there were a few dominantly Christian districts in India, but most districts were less than 0.5 percent Christian (25-27). The uneven spread of Christianity among certain ethnic groups and in certain areas was due to past people movements. Per McGavran, “Nine-tenths of all future conversion growth of the Church in India will come by people movements to Christ” (36). 

McGavran distinguished nine church types in India, five basic types and four secondary types. Those nine types are (41):

The Five Basic Types

Type 1. Fully Monoethnic Syrian Churches

Type 2. Fully Conglomerate or Multiethnic Churches

Type 3. People Movement or Monoethnic Churches from Caste

Type 4. People Movement or Monoethnic Churches from Tribe

Type 5. Modified Conglomerate or Multiethnic Churches

The Four Secondary Types

Type 6: Urban Conglomerates or Multiethnic Churches

Type 7: Urban Monoethnic Churches

Type 8: The Great Conglomerates

Type 9: The Indigenous Churches

Ethnic Realities and the Church describes these nine church types and discusses Great Commission barriers and opportunities of each church types. This book concludes with two appendices where McGavran defended his views on ecclesiology and the HUP.

            The Syrian churches of Kerala are Catholic and monophysite fellowships that read their liturgy in Syriac (Type 1; 51). These are the oldest churches of India, perhaps being founded by the apostle Thomas. Syrian Christians dominate much of the Christian religious leadership of India with over half of Catholic priests in India being from Kerala (55). While Syrian Christians are “immovable” in their faith, most Protestants would consider them “doctrinally corrupt” (55). Moreover, “For nineteen hundred years, because they did not want to mix their blood[3] with that of other ethnic units, they ceased to propagate the faith” (57). While historically the Syrian church has been “stolidly nonevangelistic,” two spin off denominations, the Mar Thoma Church and the St. Thomas Evangelical Church of India, have been evangelistic (61ff). Since these two denominations worship in Malayali,[4] their evangelistic effectiveness has been limited to Malayali speakers. Therefore, McGavran’s suggested Syrian Christians to form apostolic bands that can learn the language and culture of other people groups and plant churches among them (66).

            Fully Conglomerate churches (Type 2) are “the most typical of all Indian congregations and denominations” (68). These churches are composed of members from various castes and tribes. “Each convert has to come to Christ alone, outof the caste in which he was born” (68). McGavran describes,

The process is entirely natural. Given the fact that no community wants its members to defect to any other caste, given the intense communal loyalty which is an essential part of the Indian system, there are only two ways in which men of caste can become Christian. (1) They can come as individuals – one-by-one-against-the current, against the family, against the jati[5] or homogeneous ethnic unit in which they were born… (b) They can come out group by group.” (69-70)

Fully conglomerate churches are primarily composed of individuals coming to Christ, while church types 3 and 4 are composed entirely of groups coming to Christ.

Many fully conglomerate churches developed around mission stations where one-by-one individuals were brought into the church. The message of these churches was “leave your caste and join our community” (83). Often fully conglomerate churches resisted people movements because “To be good, it had to be slow,” thus monoethnic churches were seen as less Christian (77). The Great Commission potential of fully conglomerate churches is twofold. First, they have a high potential of reaching those who are at the fringe of society, such as those who move to distant cities for work or who are not in a good relationship with their caste (89ff). Second, 

“Historically most great people movements have risen as existing Christians of conglomerate congregations have led someone to Jesus Christ, and then he… has led his own people – in India his own caste or tribe fellows – to Christ.” (91)

Therefore, McGavran argued that the highest evangelistic potential of Type 2 churches is to start Type 3 and 4 people movements.

            Monoethnic churches from caste (Type 3) and tribe (Type 4) occur when large numbers of a caste or tribe come to Christ and continue in their “normal social organism” (93). Generally, monoethnic churches form when men and women hear the gospel and discuss their decision as a group until a consensus if formed at which time they make a group decision and are baptized together (96). Because of the close relationships within castes and tribes, this message naturally travels through their relational networks. As more and more groups in a relational network take baptism, the social pressure becomes less for the next group to do so. Thus, people movements can sweep across an ethnic group. It is important to note that historically, people movements have generally occurred among lower castes.

“In about 2,000 Shudra, Vaishya, Kshatriya, and Brahman castes, substantial and lasting people movements have developed in only 5 – that is in only 0.0025 percent of these castes. On the other hand in about 600 Scheduled Castes, substantial and lasting people movements have developed in 21 – that is in about 3 percent of these castes” (100).

Per McGavran, no great monoethnic movements by caste had taken place in North and Central India (110).[6]

Monoethnic churches have great evangelistic potential not only for their own ethnic group, but also to affect other ethnic groups on their fringes. For example, the Presbyterian movement in the Punjab around 1900 “won far more converts from the Muslims than all the specialized and scholarly missionaries to the Muslims put together” (113). 

Tribes and castes differ in that castes share “a region with many other castes” while tribes are “the sole or the main ethnic group” in a given area. Each tribe has “a language or dialect of its own” (123). Evangelistically, monoethnic churches by tribe often “suffer from limited vision” since they do not feel responsible to share the gospel outside of their tribe (132). Per McGavran, there should be intentional attempts among any tribal people movement to make sure that the entire tribe is evangelized before deep separation occurs between Christians and non-Christians within a tribe (137).

            Modified multiethnic churches (Type 5) are a blend of Type 2 and Type 3 or 4. These churches attempt to be multiethnic, but their proximity to a people movement causes at least half and maybe as much as ninety percent of the church to be of a single caste or tribe (144). Therefore, the culture of that caste or tribe to dominate the church culture. Modified multiethnic churches tend to be large and tend to have great evangelistic potential to reach more of the primary caste or tribe (148-150). However, these churches tend to be divided since church leaders, being from people groups that are more historically anchored in Christ, are almost never from the ethnic group that forms the modified multiethnic church’s majority (145ff).

McGavran’s four secondary church types were peripheral to his five basic types. Thus, they will be dealt with in less detail. Urban conglomerate churches (Type 6) are types of multiethnic churches that occur in big cities as a result of transfer growth (158). “So far big-city conglomerates… have not shown much evangelistic potential… The English-speaking multiethnics were the least potent” (165-6). Urban monoethnic churches (Type 7) occur as believers from rural people movements relocate to urban areas and form monoethnic congregations (170ff). The great conglomerates (Type 8) are eight denominations that composed 83 percent of Christians in India in McGavran’s day: Roman Catholic, Church of South India, Council of Baptist Churches of Northeast India, Methodist Church of Southern Asia, Federation of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in India, Church of North India, Presbyterian Church of Northeast India, Federation of Evangelical Churches of India (186). Indigenous churches (Type 9) are denominations and associations that are indigenous from their beginning, meaning that they are derived from Indian leadership (214). McGavran concluded by stating that the greatest potential for the church of India was the untapped reservoir of potential missionaries from within the Indian Church (237). 

Ethnic Realities and the Church concludes with two theological essays. The first reminds the reader that Ethnic Realities and the Church is written phenomenologically rather than prescriptively in describing the various church types of India. Therefore, McGavran asks the reader not to criticize his ecclesiology but rather use this book as a look at the various ecclesiologies present in India (246). The second essay defends that caste issues are deeply rooted in Indian society and that the resultant ecclesiological issues must be addressed (250ff). Practically, McGavran reiterates his call for monoethnic churches, while advocating that Indian Christians overcome racial prejudice in Christ (257).

Critical Evaluation

McGavran’s Ethnic Realities and the Church is an invaluable description of the Indian church through a missiological lens. While this book is almost forty years old, most of McGavran’s descriptions ring true today, especially regarding his five basic categories. McGavran’s five basic church types provide an accurate framework around which to describe what is happening in the Indian church. As with anything written by McGavran, most critiques of Ethnic Realities and the Church center around the HUP. 

One major shift in the Indian church from the time of McGavran is the rise of indigenous missionaries and resultant indigenous churches and denominations. McGavran stated that these groups showed great potential but had often not flourished since pastors were moved towards denominations with greater resources (218). Since 1979, indigenous missions, such as Vishawani, Uttar Pradesh Mission, Believer’s Church of India (i.e. Gospel for Asia), have grown dramatically. These are organizations started and lead by Indian leadership who are funding indigenous workers to plant indigenous churches. These indigenous movements still tend to be dependent on outside funding as in McGavran’s day (16). As a result, there has been a dramatic shift away from Christians in India being formed into only a few denominations. Most of the eight great conglomerate denominations have decreased in influence, while indigenous denominations have drastically increased.

Another shift from McGavran’s time is that the Syriac churches have continued to lose their distinct character with multitudes leaving these monoethnic churches to join conglomerates. Likewise, many of the new church movements being birthed by indigenous missions cannot be described as purely monoethnic, but also have a distinctly different character than the fully conglomerate churches. These churches are similar to the modified multiethnic churches but differ in that they began as monoethnic churches which begin to bring in other castes. Generally, these semi-multiethnic churches are over fifty percent of a particular caste, while successfully reaching out to other castes and integrating believers from castes that have a similar status.

As noted by McGavran, most Christian growth in India has taken place among various Scheduled Castes and Schedule Tribes (i.e. low caste ethnic groups), however it is no longer correct that people movements have occurred among only twenty-one ethnic groups in India (28). As in McGavran’s time, there has been substantially less Christian growth among forward castes, Muslims, and other peoples, although progress is occurring among these groups as well. Because of these realities, probably the greatest weakness of Ethnic Realities and the Church is its age. Missions efforts in the subcontinent would be greatly helped by a fresh and thorough phenomenological analysis such as McGavran’s. McGavran was only ready to write this book after thirty-eight years in India and significant academic experience. Likewise, an updated version would be of greatest value if written by someone with substantial experience, like McGavran.

The most controversial statements in Ethnic Realities and the Church revolve around McGavran’s statements regarding the HUP. For example, 

“Nine-tenths of all future conversion growth of the Church in India will come by people movements to Christ; but since the congregations and denominations of most leaders of the Indian Church are conglomerate and not people movement by nature, these leaders neither know nor teach the monoethnic way of becoming Christian. Indeed, in most seminaries and Bible schools in India people movements are seldom mentioned. The very concept is often disapproved.” (36) 

These statements move beyond phenomenological description to active advocacy of “the monoethnic way of becoming Christian.” The controversial nature of this kind of statement can be seen in a 2016 Southern Baptist Journal of Evangelism and Missions. In that journal, Aubrey Sequeira blasted McGavran with the following five critiques:

(1) Missiology characterized by church growth principles underestimates the diabolical nature of the caste system; (2) The church growth model fosters nominal Christianity and perpetuates a deeply entrenched ethnocentrism in the church of Jesus Christ; (3) McGavran’s theology does not sufficiently reflect a biblical understanding of conversion, particularly of repentance; (4) McGavran’s church growth principles have not adequately taken into account the New Testament call to embrace Christ at the expense of being excluded and ostracized by society; and finally, (5) Church growth missiology exalts pragmatic considerations over biblical faithfulness.[7]

In the same journal, John Michael Morris[8] and Troy Bush[9] wrote in defense of utilizing HUP based missionary methods. Indeed, McGavran’s HUP has been debated and examined since he introduced this concept in Bridges of God in 1955.

The question at hand is whether McGavran’s advocacy of HUP based missionary methods is appropriate or if it breaks the biblical injunctions regarding the unity of Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ (Eph. 2:11ff). McGavran offers a reasoned response to this question in Ethnic Realities in the Church. By the time McGavran wrote this book, controversy had raged about the HUP for twenty-five years. Therefore, McGavran’s later writings had been refined by the fire of criticism on his teachings. McGavran wrote four considerations: 

  1. “the Church in India faces a Hindu social order which believes that men and women are made in different molds by God Himself, and that some are forever superior and other forever inferior.”
  2. “Christians are indeed called to participate in the struggle for a new society… Before the Throne we all stand equal.”
  3. “the practice of full brotherhood… ought [not] to be made a condition for a person becoming a Christian.” Therefore, “as a matter of convenience to the ‘yet to believe’… homogenous-unit congregations may be started.”
  4. “Christ will indeed break down the middle wall of partition… but he will do it for those who through faith become parts of His Body” (256-257).

In other terms, McGavran acknowledged that the caste system is evil, but understood it as an inevitability among unbelievers in India. His concern was to create churches in which unbelievers could come to Christ. Once in Christ, the walls of division between castes and ethnic groups could be broken down. In other words, for McGavran the focus was on bringing people to Christ so that their views on caste could be reformed. 

In response to Sequeira, a few considerations are required. First, McGavran and Sequeira are united in a disdain for the caste system. However, their views on how to overcome the caste system are different. McGavran sought to bring people to Christ so that Christ could transform believers so as to overcome casteism. While Sequeira seems to advocate that unbelievers need to reject the caste system as part of their repentance unto Christ. Second, Sequeira said that McGavran did not sufficiently explore the idea that believers face ostracism in coming to Christ. However, even a cursory reading of McGavran shows how often he appealed to believers facing ostracism and persecution for Christ. For example, McGavran’s Founders of the Indian Church details multiple stories of the first converts in people movements across India. McGavran clearly describes their transformed lives and the difficulties they faced in coming to Christ. In conclusion, South Asian missiology will continue to be divided over the issue of whether monoethnic churches are ethical or not. But, all can agree that casteism is both sinful and ever present in Indian society, although hopefully on the decline. 


[1] Donald A. McGavran, “My Pilgrimage in Mission,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 10.2 (1986): 54.

[2] Especially, “George Samuel of Bombay, Amirtharaj Nelson of Madras, and T.C. George of Bangalore” who helped McGavran develop his last four church types (39ff). 

[3] McGavran was describing the endogamous nature of the Syrian churches of India.

[4] Malayali is the common language of Kerala.

[5] Jati is the Hindi word for caste or tribe.

[6] Since 1979, people movements have occurred in North and Central India. 

[7] Aubrey M. Sequeira, Harry Kumar, and Venkatesh Gopalakrishnan, “McGavran’s Church Growth Principles from an Indian Perspective,” SBJME 2 (2016): 94.

[8] John Michael Morris, “McGavran on McGavran: What Did He Really Teach?” SBJME 2 (2016): 9-23.

[9] Troy L. Bush, “The Homogenous Unit Principle and the American Mosaic,” SBJME 2 (2016): 24-46.

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The Power of Near Culture Missionaries to Muslims in South Asia

One of the questions of this blog is to answer the question, “How can a billion South Asian Muslims be reached with the gospel?” One of the realities of this question is that the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few (Luke 10:2). One of the greatest needs to reach the Muslims of South Asia is to mobilize a missionary force capable of bringing the gospel to the greatest concentration of Muslim lostness on the planet. 

A Christian worship service in South Asia.

Let us begin by looking at the problem. In 2010, Todd Johnson showed that South Asian received the least missionaries of any area globally.[1] Johnson reported that in 2010, South Asia received eight foreign missionaries per million population versus the global average of 58 foreign missionaries per million. In contrast, Latin America received 172 missionaries per million people.[2] Therefore, Latin America receives over twenty times as many missionaries per capita as India and Pakistan. Here is what that looks like on a graph.

In positive news, Johnson reported that South Asia has 734,000 national Christian workers.[3] These are pastors, evangelists, or other Christian workers who are from South Asia. While some foreign missionaries focus on Muslims, most national workers in South Asia are focused on Hindus and Christians rather than the Muslim population. Many anecdotes express this reality. For example, I was once at a Christian meeting in Lahore, Pakistan. Although two hundred Christian leaders attended the meeting, only a handful had real experience in evangelizing Muslims, even though Lahore is 94.5% Muslim. The vast majority of Christians in Pakistan are either unwilling to share the gospel with Muslims or have no idea how to do so.

Here is more positive news. Low-caste Hindus in both Pakistan and India are highly receptive to the gospel. Since there are more Hindus in India than in Pakistan, widespread church planting has occurred more in India than in Pakistan.[4] David Garrison’s Church Planting Movements contains one study of the incredible growth rate of the Indian church. Garrison gave data on a handful of movements where tens or hundreds of thousands of Hindus came to Christ in a relatively short time.[5]

The Indian Census places the Christian population at 2.30%, or approximately 31.7 million in 2020.[6] However, the number of Christians is substantially higher than this figure due to Hindu movements to Christ. Believers from Hindu backgrounds are generally counted as Hindus under the census since officially changing one’s religion in India requires a court process that results in loss of rights for those in scheduled and backward castes and invites undesired scrutiny. Therefore, a very conservative estimate would place the number of Christians in India at more than 50 million (3.6%).[7]Many are Christian only by heritage, while others have a fresh vitality in their faith.

Mobilizing near-culture Christians to reach unreached peoples is a long-standing strategy in world missions. However, mobilizing near-culture Christians to reach Muslims has not been a heavily adopted strategy. Historically, the most famous failure in mobilizing near-culture Christians to reach Muslims relates to the Coptic church of Egypt. Famous missionaries, such as Samuel Zwemer and Temple Gairdner, gave lifetimes of service in Egypt and had no measurable success in mobilizing Coptic Christians to reach Muslims.[8] The primary reasons for this limited success have been assumed to be ongoing persecution and ostracism of Egyptian Christians, a lack of spiritual vitality in Coptic Christianity, and historical barriers between Muslims and Christians in Egypt because of centuries of violence.[9] The historical failure to mobilize Copts to reach Egyptian Muslims has led some to shy away from mobilizing near-culture Christians to reach Muslims. 

However, the situation of South Asia is significantly different than the case study of Coptic Christianity. First and foremost, South Asia churches have been experiencing substantial growth for many years, especially among Hindus. This growth has also led to a great vitality among many Christians, especially first-generation believers. Therefore, the churches of South Asia are in a very different place than the Coptic Church of Egypt. Additionally, India is one place where Muslims are a minority. Instead of persecuting Christians, both Christians and Muslims are being persecuted together by the Hindu majority. This dynamic also marks a stark difference between the situations of India and Egypt. However, the Christians of Pakistan have been persecuted by the Muslim majority in a way that mirrors Egypt. Persecution will likely remain a significant barrier to mobilizing Pakistani Christians to reach Pakistani Muslims with the gospel. However, there are segments of the Pakistani church with a high degree of vitality in Christ. Many of these Christians are ready to engage the Muslims around them with the gospel. 

            More has been written on mobilizing Pakistani Christians to reach Muslims than mobilizing Indian Christians to reach Muslims. Frederick Stock’s People Movements of the Punjab details the early spread of the gospel through Presbyterian missionaries in what is now known as Pakistan. He reports how the conversion of an illiterate low-caste Hindu man named Som Ditt in 1873 sparked significant growth. From 1881 to 1891 the Christian community in the Punjab grew from 660 believers to 10,165.[10] By 1930, over 100,000 believers were reported in multiple denominations in Pakistan.[11] The results of this movement today are seen in the strength of the Punjabi church in both India and Pakistan. However, this movement has had little impact on the majority Muslim population of Punjab.[12] While Stock asserted that some Christians “proved gifted” in ministry to Muslims,[13] he provided no information on Muslims coming to Christ. 

            In 1999, Samuel Namaan wrote a dissertation asking, “what are the obstacles that prevent the Church of Pakistan in Sindh[14] from evangelizing Muslims in Sindh?” and “How can the Church of Pakistan in Sindh develop an effective strategy to evangelize Muslims?”[15] For his research, Namaan could only identify ten Muslim background believers (MBBs) in Sindh province.[16] An attempt to circulate a survey among MBBs yielded “no response as none of the Church of Pakistan workers were directly involved in Sindhi Muslim evangelism.”[17] According to Namaan, the barriers inhibiting Pakistani Christians from evangelizing Sindhi Muslims included:[18]

  • Muslim hostility to the British. Atrocities committed during British rule in South Asia created deep wounds. The British built the historic churches in most Pakistani cities, creating a permanent link in Pakistanis’ minds between the British and Christianity.
  • Sindhi hostility to the Punjabi majority. Punjabis dominate Pakistani politics, causing animosity between Punjabis and Sindhis. Since most Pakistani Christians are Punjabi, additional cultural tension exists.
  • Pakistani hostility to the West. Western military action in the Middle East is perceived as Western Christian military action against Muslims.[19]

Pakistani and Indian cultures have remarkable similarities, having been a common territory until partition in 1947. However, according to current census reports, Pakistan has a 96.4% Muslim population, while India is only 14.2% Muslim. Because of a difference in each country’s relative population, they have roughly the same number of Muslims at about 200 million each. The dynamics of reaching Muslims in India versus Pakistan are substantially affected by majority versus minority dynamics. For example, in Pakistan, Christians are burdened by blasphemy laws, prejudicial legal systems, and terrorist attacks. In India, Muslim angst is generally against the Hindu majority.

The millions of Christians in South Asia comprise a major workforce that can be mobilized to reach the Muslim minority. The most remarkable growth and vitality in the South Asian church is occurring among Hindus. Hindus are coming to Christ in large numbers in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.  Therefore, these Hindu background movements are the most significant opportunity for mobilization. Recent years have also seen an increased desire among South Asian Christians to engage Muslims with the gospel. 

Considering our question, “What is it going to take to reach a billion Muslims in South Asia?” One need is to mobilize the South Asian church to reach Muslims. It is unlikely that enough foreign missionaries can be mustered to reach 600 million Muslims in South Asia. However, suppose even a small fraction of South Asian Christians can be mobilized for this task. In that case, the number of indigenous missionaries will dwarf the potential of foreign workers.


[1] Johnson, Todd M., David B. Barrett, and Peter F. Crossing, “Christianity 2010: A View from the New Atlas of Global Christianity,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 34.1 (January 2010): 29-36.

[2] Ibid., 31. 

[3] Ibid., 31. This number is undoubtedly higher in 2020 than it was in 2010.

[4] Extrapolating from Census estimates for 2020, India has about 1.1 billion Hindus while Pakistan has about 3.6 million Hindus.

[5] Garrison, David, Church Planting Movements: How God is Redeeming a Lost World. Arkadelphia, AR: WIGTake Resources, 2004, 35-48. See also Garrison’s book, A Wind in the House of Islam.

[6] Extrapolating from the 2011 Indian Census data based upon the 1.87% anticipated growth rate in India. This figure includes all Christian groups, including Catholics, Mormons, Protestants, and others.

[7] Author’s estimate. However, some put the number at 5% or even higher. The highest estimate that the author has heard is 12%.

[8] Tucker, Ruth A., From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions. Second Edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004, 241, 245.

[9] Hassan, S.S., Christians Versus Muslims in Modern Egypt: The Century-Long Struggle for Coptic Equality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, 17-53. Rowe, Paul S., “Christian-Muslim Relations in Egypt in the Wake of the Arab Spring,” Digest of Middle East Studies 22.2 (2013): 262-275.

[10] Stock, Frederick and Margaret, People Movements in the Punjab. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1975, 64-68.

[11] Ibid. 111, 237, 253, 259, 274, 283.

[12] Ibid. 15.

[13] Ibid., 199.

[14] The Church of Pakistan is a denomination in Pakistan with Anglican heritage. Sindh province is a province in southeast Pakistan with a population of approximately 48 million.

[15] Naaman, Samuel E. “Revisioning Outreach to Sindhi Muslims: Proposals for Christians in Pakistan.” (DMiss diss., Asbury Theological Seminary, 1999), i.

[16] Ibid., 87. 

[17] Ibid., 190.

[18] Ibid., 21-23.

[19] Naaman’s study was completed before 9/11 and the United States’ subsequent military action in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These tensions are more pronounced now than at the time of Naaman’s writing.

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A Missionary’s Reflection on Paul’s Letter to Philemon

When we look at the New Testament, almost every book has a clear purpose. The Gospels present the life of Jesus. Acts shows the power of the Holy Spirit working through the early believers. Romans presents the gospel in depth. Hebrews demonstrates that Jesus is better.

There are a few New Testament books whose purpose is less clear. Philemon is one of those books. In His sovereignty, God included this little book in the canon of Scripture. Therefore, this little book has something to add. It is essential in some way. There is a unique point that this book is supposed to make for us.

The main point of the book of Philemon can be found in the story of this letter.

Papyrus 87 (Gregory-Aland), recto. The earliest known fragment of the Epistle to Philemon. Used by permission from Wikipedia Creative Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fragmento_filemon.jpg

The Story of Philemon

In Acts 19, the apostle Paul spent three years in Ephesus (55-57 AD). For two years, he trained leaders at Tyrannus, who in turn shared the gospel, made disciples, and planted churches across Asia Minor. The result was that “all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10).

One of the men who was trained during this time was Epaphras. Epaphras pioneered the gospel work in Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis (Col 1:8; 4:12-16). Although Paul had never visited Colossae, his disciple, Epaphras planted a church in that city.

A few years after he left Ephesus, Paul was under house arrest in Rome for two years (60-62 AD). During that time, he was reunited with Epaphras, who was also in prison (Philem 23). From the time of his imprisonment, Epaphras labored in prayer for his churches that were left behind. In fact, one of the purposes of Paul’s letter to the Colossians was to establish Archippus in his ministry, likely to replace the role left by the arrest of Epaphras (Col 4:17). It seems that Epaphras encouraged Paul to write the letter to the Colossians to continue to help that church to grow despite the adversity occurring that led to Epaphras’ arrest.

Paul’s letter to Philemon was sent simultaneously as Paul’s letter to Colossians and is something of a subplot of what happened in that letter (click here for a Missionary’s Reflection on Paul’s Letter to the Colossians). We can tell that they were written at the same time because the two letters have the same circumstances. In both letters, Paul was in jail with Epaphras (Col 4:12-16; Philem 23). In both letters, Paul sent Onesimus back to Colossae (Col 4:9; Philem 12). In both letters, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke were with Paul (Col 4:10, 14; Philem 24). Also, the same Archippus who was to take leadership in Colossae was one of the three recipients of Paul’s letter to Philemon. Lastly, in Colossians 4:9, Onesimus was described as “one of you,” meaning that he was from Colossae. As an aside, Paul described ten of his coworkers in this short letter, which is a picture of the need of modern missionaries to develop more coworkers for the gospel!

The main point of Paul’s letter to Philemon has to do with the slave, Onesimus, and his relation to Philemon and Paul. Philemon is described as a coworker of Paul, meaning that he was involved in missionary activity (Philem 1). Onesimus was a slave of Philemon who had come to be with Paul and Epaphras during their time in Rome. Many have assumed that Onesimus was a runaway slave, although the text does not say that he was a runaway. In fact, it is implausible that Onesimus, as a runaway slave, would have randomly come into Paul and Epaphras’ contact while they were in prison. They could not have been in the same jail since Paul was a Roman citizen under house arrest. A slave would have been kept in far worse conditions.

Instead, it is most likely that Philemon sent Onesimus to Paul and Epaphras to care for them during their imprisonment. Similarly, the Philippian church had sent Epaphroditus to Paul (Phil 2:19-30). Philemon and the church meeting in his home had likely sent a financial gift by the hand of Onesimus.

During his time with Paul, Onesimus had a life-changing encounter with Jesus. Paul now described Onesimus as “my son,” saying that “I became his father while I was in chains” (Philem 10). Paul described Onesimus as “my very own heart” (Philem 12). In a wordplay on Onesimus’ name, Paul said he was formerly useless (Gr. achreston) to Onesimus, but now had become useful (Gr. euchreston) to both Paul and Onesimus.

Now Paul asserted that Onesimus’ status had changed. He sent Onesimus back to Philemon, although he wanted Onesimus to remain with him (Philem 13). Paul shares an expectation that Philemon will consent to do a “good deed,” without explicitly stating what this good deed was (Philem 14). In the context, it seems that Paul’s expectation was that Philemon was releasing Onesimus from his slavery and send him to Paul to join Paul’s missionary team. As a Pauline coworker, Onesimus was to be treated “as a dearly loved brother” (Philem 16). In fact, Paul commanded Philemon to “welcome [Onesimus] as if you would me” (Philem 17). 

Therefore, Onesimus returned to Colossae with Tychicus, the letter carrier of Paul’s letters to Ephesus and Colossae (Eph 6:21-22; Col 7-9). He may have been the same Onesimus described by Ignatius of Antioch as the leader of the church of Ephesus in c. 107 AD.[1]

The Purpose of Paul’s Letter to Philemon

Having reviewed the story of Paul’s letter to Philemon, we can now return to this short letter’s purpose. Paul’s purpose in writing this letter was to gain permission for Onesimus to join his missionary team. Paul was careful to do this so as not to offend another missionary coworker, Philemon. Therefore, Paul’s entire purpose in writing his letter to Philemon was to establish another coworker for the gospel.

This means that God, in His sovereignty, included a whole New Testament book whose primary purpose was for a missionary leader to add another member to their missionary team. This little book, then, becomes one more indication in the New Testament of the value of missionary teams. It also provides a picture of how a missionary leader appealed to a local church’s leadership to send one of their members to join Paul in his missionary activity.

From Slave to Missionary

Paul’s Letter to Philemon is also a picture of the life-changing power of the gospel. Onesimus was a slave, described as “useless” to his master (Philem 11). As a slave, he owed a debt to his master (Philem 18). Since Philemon was not only a follower of Jesus but also a Pauline coworker, we should assume that he treated Onesimus well. However, when Onesimus encountered Jesus through Paul, his life was transformed. He became Paul’s spiritual son and useful for the gospel ministry. Onesimus was manumitted from slavery and launched directly into ministry as Paul’s apprentice and helper. 

This story provides insight into how the apostle Paul viewed those around him. While others saw a slave at the bottom of society, Paul saw a potential leader. Imagine how easy it would have been for Paul to overlook Onesimus. As a leader, it would have been easy for Paul to see Onesimus’ only value as serving him. After all, Onesimus was “only a slave.” However, Paul, like Jesus, saw the people who were around him. He saw potential in Onesimus and was ready to tap his potential.

At the same time, Paul knew that if he took Onesimus as his coworker without Philemon’s willing agreement that he could break relationships in Colossae. In this letter, Paul masterfully appealed to Philemon for Onesimus in such a way that Philemon could not say no while being sure to give Philemon credit for his generosity. For example, Paul wrote,

“But I didn’t want to do anything without your consent, so that your good deed might not be out of obligation, but of your own free will.” Philemon 14

“And if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it – not to mention to you that you owe me even your very self.” Philemon 18-19

Here is the point. If a slave can become a missionary coworker of Paul, then so can anyone. As Paul wrote somewhere else, 

“Brothers and sisters, consider your calling: Not many were wise from a human perspective, not many powerful, not many of noble birth. Instead, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God has chosen what is insignificant and despised in the world – what is viewed as nothing – to bring to nothing what is viewed as something.” 1 Corinthians 1:26-28

The book of Philemon is ultimately about the life-changing power of the gospel. The gospel is so powerful that it can transform the lowest in society into men and women worthy of taking the gospel to the ends of the earth.


[1] Ignatius to the Ephesians 1.3, 2.1.

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Five Progress Markers of Emerging Indigenous Missionaries to South Asian Muslims

South Asia is home to the greatest concentration of Muslim lostness on the planet. Amazingly, compared to the Middle East, there are very few expatriate missionaries working among these massive Muslim populations. Where will the labor force come from to engage the almost 600 million Muslims of South Asia?

The largest missionary force to be mobilized to reach the Muslims of South Asia are the proximal Christians of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Each of these countries has millions of followers of Jesus. While there are some Muslim background believers (MBBs), most believers come from Christian or Hindu families. While most Christians in South Asia are not interested in reaching their Muslim neighbors, there are increasing numbers willing to be trained and equipped. Mobilizing even a small portion of the Christians of South Asia will result in a missionary force that will dwarf the potential of expatriate missionaries.  

This article aims to describe an idealized process of leadership development for near-culture missionaries to South Asian Muslims. Near culture means Christians who speak similar languages and share many cultural elements with Muslims. For example, Bhojpuri-speaking Hindus, Christians, and Muslims share many aspects of their cultures, while also having many differences.

This article builds on two paradigms for leadership development. Nathan Shank’s five levels of movement leadership have been instrumental in shaping practices for developing leaders for gospel movements in South Asia. However, Shank’s paradigm is primarily for leaders who serve among their own people group or similar people groups. Those developing near culture missionaries to Muslims have experienced a need for a new paradigm to describe this process. Ralph Winter developed an E-scale of witnesses that defines witnesses in relation to the culture in which they bring the gospel. Integrating Shank and Winter’s paradigms provides a useful foundation for cross-cultural workers’ progression to South Asian Muslims. The model presented here is a series of five markers for understanding and evaluating indigenous, near culture missionaries to South Asian Muslims.  

Winter’s E-Scale of Witnesses

            Winter’s paradigm is about the witnesses’ relationship with the recipient culture. His purpose in describing this paradigm was the demonstrate the potential of tapping proximal Christians to engage unreached peoples and places. His paradigm is especially helpful in South Asia, where large national harvest forces of mobilizable Christians are juxtaposed with a multitude of unreached people groups. In South Asia, the most apparent need is to mobilize proximal believers to engage Muslim peoples.  

Figure 1. Winter’s E-Scale.[1]

Applying Winter’s paradigm to developing indigenous, cross-cultural missionaries in South Asia provides a helpful distinction of potential workforces. E0 refers to the evangelism of Christians from the same culture. E0 witnesses do not apply in Muslim cultures as there are no Christians to evangelize.

E1 witnesses are MBBs evangelizing within their own culture. For example, a Punjabi-speaking MBB in Pakistan evangelizing other Punjabi-speaking Muslims. There are few E1 workers in the context of South Asian Muslims, but they have the highest evangelistic potential. Whenever possible, it is better to train and mobilize E1 workers than E2 or E3. However, in many places in South Asia, there are few or no MBBs to mobilize, necessitating E2 and E3 workers. Shank’s five levels of leadership apply without modification to E1 workers who serve among their own people group. 

E2 missionaries evangelize Muslims from a similar but different culture. There are multiple possibilities of E2 workers in South Asia. For example, Punjabi Christians in Pakistan seeking to reach Sindhi-speaking Muslims are E2 witnesses. Bangla-speaking MBBs engaging Urdu-speaking Muslims in north India would likewise be E2 workers. In these instances, the cultural gap is significant, while being much less than E3 workers coming to serve among these people groups. In this paradigm, it would be a mistake to minimize the cultural gap that E2 witnesses must overcome to be effective. As E2 witnesses develop, they must grow in linguistic and cultural adaptation of the people they serve.

Within the scope of E2 missionaries, there are varying degrees of cultural gaps that the witnesses must overcome. For example, a Bhojpuri-speaking believer from a Hindu family seeking to evangelize Bhojpuri-speaking Muslims has a relatively small difference to overcome. In this instance, Bhojpuri-speaking Muslims and Hindus both often identify as Bhojpuri first and by their religion second. However, the gap between Punjabi-speaking Christians and Sindhi-speaking Muslims in Pakistan is relatively much higher.[2] Where the cultural gap is smaller, E2 missionaries require less training and equipping. When the cultural gap widens, the skills and training required are much more significant.  

One common pitfall of E2 workers is their failure to release authority and responsibility to E1 workers. Competent E2 workers realize that E1 workers will generally be more effective than they are in engaging Muslim peoples. Therefore, E2 workers should seek to be shadow leaders to E1 workers. E2 workers understand the necessity of their role in developing and coaching leaders while recognizing that the E1 workers must become the primary leaders for movements to emerge.  

E3 missionaries evangelize Muslims from a completely different culture than their home cultures. For example, expatriate missionaries serving among South Asian Muslims are E3 workers. The cultural and linguistic differences are significant. However, E3 witnesses tend to be highly theologically educated, be highly trained, and have substantial levels of support. As a result, E3 missionaries to South Asian Muslims remain highly focused and dedicated. In contrast, most E2 missionaries have significantly less education, training, and support. Support meaning both financial support as well as other aspects of personnel support that missionary organizations provide to their workers. Often this lack of training and support makes it difficult for E2 missionaries to maintain a long-term focus.

E3 missionaries are generally less effective in evangelistic effectiveness than E2 workers. When possible, E3 missionaries should seek to work with E1 MBB workers and develop them. However, there are many places where there are little to no MBBs to train in South Asia. In those instances, a critical activity of E3 witnesses is to develop E2 partners to grow the work among Muslims. In this way, E2 and E3 missionaries form teams that evangelize Muslims intending to develop E1 workers within those communities.

Shank’s Five Levels of Movement Leadership

            Shank’s five levels of movement leadership provide a paradigm for developing leaders to fuel gospel movements. He developed his model in the context of ministry in South Asia. These are five idealized levels to evaluate believers within a church or network to help them move to the next level in this process. L1-L5 are utilized as shorthand to designate L1-L5 leaders.

Figure 2. Shank’s Five Levels of Movement Leadership.[3]

As noted earlier, Shank’s paradigm applies to E1 workers. Ideally, MBBs begin as faithful seed sowers among other Muslims. They then grow into being church planters as they lead Muslims to Christ and form them into new congregations. The move from L2 to L3 leaders as they develop other leaders and release authority to them. Shank’s paradigm focuses on developing apostolic leaders rather than pastors. L3 leaders develop both pastors and other apostolic leaders. The difference between the two is that pastors remain as shepherds of local churches while apostolic leaders function in a Pauline role of planting churches with local leadership and then leave those areas to plant more churches in pioneer fields.

When developing E2 missionaries to South Asian Muslims, Shank’s paradigm helps identify the ideal candidates for training as cross-cultural witnesses. For example, if someone does not evangelize in their own culture, they will likely be ineffective in cross-cultural evangelism. Therefore, those who are not functioning as L1 leaders should not be considered for training to be E2 missionaries. At the same time, L1 leaders lack many of the skills necessary to be effective E2 missionaries. For example, they may be strong in evangelism while lacking skills required in church planting and leadership development. The ideal trainees to develop as E2 missionaries are those functioning as L2/L3 leaders. Ideally, they should have experience in evangelism, disciple-making, church planting, and leadership development in their own culture before undertaking these tasks in a different culture.

However, L2/L3 workers depart from Shank’s paradigm when they become E2 witnesses. They move from being successful church planters to being novices in evangelism in a new culture and situation. Months or years are often required for them to grow back to the same proficiency in the same tasks of evangelism, disciple-making, church planting, and leadership development cross-culturally that they once experienced in their own culture.

Five Markers for Developing E2 Missionaries

             The paradigm presented here is an idealized path for developing L2/L3 leaders into successful E2 missionaries. This idealized path has five markers that E2 missionaries must overcome, each with different challenges. This path culminates with E2 missionaries developing L3 E1 workers who are multiplying churches and leaders among their Muslim people group. Leaders along this path are referred to as M1-M5 leaders, corresponding to which marker they have crossed along this path. Some Muslim peoples are more challenging to reach than others. Progress requires not only the diligence of the E2 missionary but also a move of the Spirit of God. 

Figure 3. Five Markers for developing E2 missionaries. 

M1 leaders have begun the process of seed sowing among Muslims and are growing in effectiveness as cross-cultural witnesses to Muslims. M1 leaders have overcome significant barriers to start their work, such as fear of Muslims and bitterness towards Muslims. They have learned enough of Muslim language and culture to begin sharing the gospel but require significantly more training in these areas. They know essential gospel tools about how to share the gospel with Muslims. M1 leaders are often amazed at how open Muslims are to hearing the gospel. The training required to develop L2/L3 leaders into M1 workers is minimal. 

At some point, M1 leaders realize that most Muslims require more than one or two gospel conversations before coming to Christ. M2 leaders are those that count the cost of this dedication to reach Muslims. M2 witnesses often grow quickly in speaking Urdu or other Muslim languages and understanding Muslim culture and belief. Usually, it takes only 2-3 months for Hindi-speaking M2 workers to become almost fluent in Urdu if they diligently apply themselves to Muslim ministry.[4] M2 workers also begin to identify more and more with Muslims around them, often “becoming a Muslim to save Muslims” (1 Cor. 9:19-23). M2 witnesses learn the cultural preferences of Muslims and adjust their behavior and cultural preferences to be more effective in witness. Some M2 witnesses give up eating pork, wear traditional shalwar kameez, or grow beards so that Muslims can identify with them better. M2 witnesses also become experts at answering the basic objections of Muslims to Christianity. M1 and M2 leaders’ primary difference is that M2 leaders are committed to significant follow-up among Muslim “yellow lights.” Yellow lights are those who continue to listen to the gospel but are not ready to respond. Most M2 leaders are natural evangelists. A significant barrier for progress for them is to keep their focus on following-up with yellow lights rather than preferring to evangelize new contacts.

            M3 leaders are those who have baptized their first MBBs and are discipling them. A common pitfall is that MBBs are often extracted from their community as MBBs take on the culture of the E2 witnesses. When MBBs are extracted, it cuts off the potential for a continued witness to their community.[5] When families take baptism together, they can stand against the persecution that will inevitably follow. When MBBs take baptism, it is common for religious leaders (such as Tablighi Jamaat or mosque leaders) to urge them to return to Islam and forsake Christ. In many contexts, the pressure placed on new followers of Jesus is intense.[6] In South Asia, most MBB churches have developed as entire families have come to Christ and begun fellowshipping together. Experience has shown that it is complicated to form MBB churches from MBBs that have been extracted from their communities.

Some M3 leaders fail to form MBB churches and leaders while being highly effective in baptizing Muslims. In some areas, hundreds of Muslims have taken baptism without any signs of church planting. While this evangelistic effectiveness is laudable, the barrier is that these E2 missionaries have not been effective in developing E1 workers. Without E1 workers, forming sustainable MBB churches is nearly impossible. M3 workers who are baptizing many Muslims need training on developing MBB leaders and working with them to plant churches. 

M4 leaders have developed at least one MBB church and are developing their disciples into E1 workers. On Shank’s scale, these E1 workers are L1 and L2 leaders. M4 leaders must patiently disciple these L1 and L2 leaders. At this point, the M4 leaders are transitioning to function as shadow leaders, knowing that MBB leaders are the future of any emerging movements. They continue with their disciples while transferring authority and responsibility for their work to them. If M4 leaders do not release authority and responsibility to emerging MBB leaders, it is common for a rift to form. E1 leaders generally have a much higher proficiency in engaging Muslims than E2 leaders. Since a primary activity of M4 leaders is sharing the gospel with Muslims, engaging yellow-lights, and discipling new believers, emerging MBB leaders can sometimes feel that they are better ministers than the M4 leaders. However, emerging MBB leaders still require significant discipleship and coaching, which competent M4 leaders can provide.

One major issue that M4 workers need to address is the relationship of these emerging L1 and L2 leaders to Islam and the mosque. Usually, this emerging work will go one of three directions. First, the emerging L1 and L2 leaders may become extracted from their Muslim community. When these new L1 and L2 leaders are extracted, they usually join local churches and often lose their effectiveness in reaching Muslims. Second, emerging leaders sometimes continue attending the mosque because of fear and community pressure. As a result, any new disciples will naturally follow their pattern. The long-term result is that the emerging movement retains one foot in Islam and one foot in Christ and has split allegiance. While there has been a historic battle over the appropriateness of this approach,[7] followers of Jesus continuing in Islamic worship and practice cannot be reconciled with biblical Christianity.

            Instead, new MBBs should remain as cultural insiders in their communities while being theological outsiders from Islam.[8] MBBs should remain in the situation that they were when the Lord called them (1 Cor 7:17-24). They should attempt to retain the same role in society after following Jesus that they held before following Jesus. If they were farmers before following Jesus, they should stay as farmers after following Jesus. At the same time, these MBBs need to separate from the mosque, Qur’an, and allegiance to Muhammad. M4 leaders should patiently teach the Bible to these emerging MBB leaders and especially help them to understand the biblical teaching on the person of Christ. As these MBBs understand the deity of Christ, their loyalty to the mosque, Qur’an, and Muhammad automatically dissolves. As emerging MBB leaders break from Islam, M4 leaders need to coach them to remain in good standing in their community. At this point, emerging MBB leaders struggle through numerous questions related to issues like marriages, funerals, Muslim festivals, and Ramadan.  

M5 leaders have successfully coached emerging MBB leaders to the point of reproducing more MBB churches and leaders. At this point, an actual movement has the potential to emerge. Ideally, the M5 leader continues to function as a partner to leaders in this emerging movement. Since the M5 leader has handed off significant leadership responsibility for this work, they become ideal trainers and coaches to other E2 workers seeking to work through this process. Returning to Shank’s leadership development process, these M5 leaders now have the opportunity to become L4 leaders.  

Conclusion

            South Asia is home to the greatest concentration of Muslim lostness on the planet. There are insufficient expatriate missionaries and indigenous MBBs to finish the task among the almost 600 million Muslims of South Asia. However, there is a sufficient harvest force in the local Christian populations of South Asia. This article describes an idealized path with five identifiable markers by which L2 or L3 leaders can successfully cross into Muslim ministry.

 The process of walking along this path is usually difficult. Experience has shown that it is a simple task to get Christian leaders to become M1 leaders, but each successive step requires more death to self. Fewer and fewer continue down this road. Becoming cross-cultural missionaries requires E2 workers to put aside their preferences and culture for the sake of the gospel. Before embarking into Muslim ministry, many of these E2 workers had fruitful ministries. Moving into Muslim ministry often means less financial stability for these workers.

            The path described in this article is idealized. While our team is working with some M3/M4 leaders, we cannot say that we have seen any true M5 leaders emerge. There are examples where E2 workers have begun working with pre-existing L3 MBB leaders, but none that I am aware of that have walked down this path from start to finish. The purpose of developing this paradigm is to clearly define the idealized next steps for which our team is striving. 

In Muslim ministry in South Asia, training has been developed to help E2 missionaries reach the M1 step. There are also resources available to help these workers emerge as M2 leaders. However, there are almost no resources available for E2 workers at the M3-M5 stages. Developing resources, training, and hosting events where M3-M5 leaders can learn from one another and MBB leaders is a necessary next step for developing these cross-cultural missionaries. In addition, the question of financial support needs to be answered.


[1] Ralph D. Winter and Bruce A. Koch, “Finishing the Task: The Unreached Peoples Challenge,” IJFM 19:4 (Winter 2002), 16.

[2] For insights on the cultural gap between Pakistani Christians and Sindhi Muslims, see Samuel E. Naaman, “Revisioning Outreach to Sindhi Muslims: Proposals for Christians in Pakistan” (D.Miss., Asbury Theological Seminary, 1999).

[3] Nathan and Kari Shank, Four Fields of Kingdom Growth: Starting and Releasing Healthy Churches. Revised and Updated Edition (Self-Published PDF, 2014).

[4] Note that in some contexts in South Asia, the linguistic gap is much wider. For example, Telugu-speaking Christians in Hyderabad have much more difficulty learning Urdu than North Indian Christians. 

[5] Often those extracted leave their own cultural context and go to a large city. If they continue in Muslim ministry, it is often among different people groups. Thus, they also become E2 workers.

[6] For an example of the difficulties that Indian MBBs face in between the Muslim community and entering fellowship with Christians, see Sufyan Baig, “The Ummah and the Christian Community,” in Longing for Community: Church, Ummah, or Somewhere in Between? Ed. by David Greenleee (Hyderabad: Authentic Books, 2013) 69-79.

[7] For an updated example of this conflict, see Harley Talman and John Jay Travis, eds., Understanding Insider Movements: Disciples of Jesus within Diverse Religious Communities (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2015). In response to this defense of Insider Movements, see Ayman S. Ibrahim and Ant Greenham, eds., Muslim Conversions to Christ: A Critique of Insider Movements in Islamic Contexts. New York: Peter Lang, 2018.

[8] The term Cultural Insider Theological Outsider comes from Abu Jaz, “Our Believing Community is a Cultural Insider but Theological Outsider (CITO)” in Muslim Conversions to Christ: A Critique of Insider Movements in Islamic Contexts, ed. by Ayman S. Ibrahim and Ant Greenham. New York: Peter Lang, 2018, 423-430.

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Money: The Most Complicated Part of Missions

“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” 1 Timothy 6:10

Without a doubt, financial issues are the most stressful aspect of missionary work for the average Western missionary. Consider the following:

  • In 2012, if someone made $34,000 per year, they were among the 1% of the planet’s highest salary earners. 
  • In 2020, the average income in the United States is $63,051 (IMF estimates). Therefore, the average American is in the global 1%
  • In 2020, the average income in India is $1,877 (IMF estimates).

Many Western missionaries come from middle-class homes. However, upon arrival in South Asia, they are relatively wealthy compared to most South Asians. In a country like India or Pakistan, income inequality is much broader than in the United States. When a Westerner arrives, he is confronted by poverty on a level he has never seen.

The problem is even more pronounced when particular states are examined. For example, the per capita income among the 220 million people of Uttar Pradesh is $972 per year or half of India’s national average. Uttar Pradesh is also home to some affluent areas, such as Noida and Lucknow. There are even some billionaires in Uttar Pradesh that pull this average up significantly. The result is that the average resident of Uttar Pradesh is poor on a level that the average American cannot understand without first experiencing it.

As Westerner missionaries encounter this poverty, many issues collide in their hearts and minds. Here are a few of them.

The Bible commands followers of Jesus to care for the poor. Here are a few verses that we missionaries wrestle with almost daily.

  • “Give to everyone who asks you.” Luke 6:30
  • “They only asked that we would remember the poor, which I had made every effort to do.” Gal 2:10
  • “If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, stay warm, and be well fed,’ but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it?” James 2:15-16

Just as Paul was eager to help the poor (Gal 2:10), the average missionary is filled with compassion regarding the human tragedy surrounding them. We want to help! Moreover, Scripture commands us to help.

In our countries of service, we missionaries are the rich. When we move overseas, we have to wrestle with verses like these for the first time in our lives.

  • “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”Matthew 19:23-24
  • “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your comfort.” Luke 6:24
  • “But those who want to be rich fall into temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction.” 1 Timothy 6:9

Personally, I never considered myself to be rich before moving to South Asia. However, I also remember having a roof over my head, decent clothes, and eating three meals a day. We had a refrigerator in our kitchen as well as an air conditioner and heater in our home. I slept in a comfortable bed and had enough money to take my wife out for a nice meal. Sometimes my wife and I shared one car, but other times we each had our own vehicle. In South Asia, these are all signs of wealth. 

At one point, we moved into a middle-class neighborhood in South Asia. We installed one of the first air conditioners in our community to manage the hot South Asian summers. Our little apartment cost $70 USD but was nice compared to many of our new friends. 

At the same time, whenever we go back to visit family in the United States, we switch from being rich to being dependent upon others. We have no home nor car in the United States. Everything in the United States is costly in comparison to our South Asian home.

We feel guilt when we enjoy comforts that were normal to us growing up. When I take my family to McDonalds here (which is a special treat!), we usually spend about $10-12 USD. From an American perspective, this is a minimal amount. From a rural Indian perspective, this is enough money to feed a family with rice and beans for a few weeks. Often, I have a hard time enjoying such extravagance while thinking about a friend who may or may not have food for their family. More than one night, I have laid awake in bed, looking at the air conditioner pumping cool air into my bedroom, wondering why I should have the luxury of this device when most of my friends do not. Likewise, I sometimes feel guilty when going to the doctor. I know that my insurance will pay for my bills, while others that I know are praying for God to take care of their medical needs. They are not going to the doctor simply because they lack enough money. Why should I get decent medical care when they cannot? All that I have is simply because of God’s sovereign choice. I could just as easily have been born into a poor family in rural Uttar Pradesh.

I grew up in the most comfortable country in the history of the world. The kings of ancient times would have been jealous if they knew the comforts that Americans experience today. For example, the average American sleeps in a comfortable bed in a temperature-controlled home. The contrast is stark when I stay in rural areas in South Asia. Once I attended a meeting in a village with about a hundred people. I wondered where we would all sleep that night. In the evening, they put out bedsheets on the concrete roof of the church building. There was no pad and no pillow. We each had a bedsheet on a concrete slab. To say the least, I had a poor night of sleep. However, for the South Asians around me, this was normal. A few days later, when I got back to my bed, I felt both grateful and guilty.

It is confusing to know when to help others and when not to help. Today, I have the following requests in front of me. One man is asking me to help him pay for his children’s school fees. If their school does not receive payment in the next five days, his children will be kicked out. Another person is asking for help with a CT scan to understand why they are having chronic headaches. Yet another friend is asking for money to help meet their societal obligations for a relative’s wedding. On top of this, I am helping two brothers in Christ start small businesses that I am hopeful will help make them self-sustaining in the long run. Also, some believers in rural areas have been telling me that they are low on food.  I know dozens of others who are in genuine need who have not asked.

In light of all of these requests, a few things are clear. First, I am incapable of meeting the needs of everyone who asks me. Second, a dependency problem exists among many South Asian Christians. Dependency means that many Christians are dependent on outsiders to meet their needs rather than being locally sustaining and independent. Let me share how this works. Imagine a foreigner begins working with a South Asian Christian. The two of them become like brothers, which leads the foreigner to share more and more financially with his friend. He helps his friend get a better home and pays for his children to attend a better school. The South Asian believer quickly becomes dependent on the foreigner to sustain their new lifestyle. Compared to the foreigner, they are still living on a low-income level. However, it is beyond the South Asian believer’s capacity. Now imagine that the foreigner has to go back to his home country for any reason. After a few months or a few years, the funds stop coming to this South Asian believer. Now he is in a crisis, unable to pay the rent at his home and afford to put his children in the new school. So, what does he do? The South Asian believer looks for another foreign income source!

We want to leave healthy churches and ministries in South Asia. The vision of this page is “No Cousins Left.” This vision means that we want to see local ownership of the core missionary task. When we define local ownership, we tend to think of four aspects of this local ownership:

  • Self-propagating. Local ownership means that local ministries and leaders are propagating the gospel themselves. They are making disciples, planting churches, and developing leaders rather than depending on outsiders to do so.
  • Self-governing. Local ownership means that local ministries and leaders are led by local leaders. Outsiders are not making decisions for the group.
  • Self-funding. Local ownership means that local ministries and leaders are financially independent and take care of the ministry’s financial needs locally.
  • Self-theologizing. Local ownership means that local ministries and leaders study the Scriptures themselves under the Holy Spirit’s guidance to determine truth. Their theology is not being dictated from the outside.

If we think about these four aspects, it quickly becomes apparent that “self-funding” is a core issue. For example, we know that ultimately whoever pays the bills is the one holding the authority. If the person paying the bills is not happy, then they will withhold their financial help. Therefore, whoever is paying makes many of the decisions about strategy and theology. As a result, if a church is not self-funding, it is also not self-governing, nor is it self-theologizing. 

Imagine a South Asian leader was being paid to focus on Muslim ministry. While the support continues, it is easy for them to continue this focus on Muslim ministry. They are afraid to leave Muslim ministry since this would cause a loss in their support. The result is that they are led less by the Holy Spirit than they are by an outside donor. Now imagine this external support ceases. If they want to continue in Muslim ministry, they struggle to determine how to do so without support. Imagine that they are having trouble paying their bills a few months later. Someone comes and offers them a salary for translation work or radio ministry or something else. Seeing their family’s needs, they eagerly take this new role while trying to continue in Muslim ministry on the side. After a few years, their passion for Muslim ministry is squeezed out by their employer’s new emphasis.

We want to be wise in our giving. The above just scratches the surface of the issues related to money in missions. Missionaries are usually burdened for the poor. Missionaries are often filled with compassion and want to help. However, missionaries are also often thinking through all of the questions related to money above. 

On top of these issues, most South Asians and most Westerners have a vastly different approach to money. In his book, African Friends and Money Matters, David Maranz shared a great deal of wisdom about how Westerners and Africans differ in their approach to finances. A few years ago, I read through this book with one of my good South Asian friends. He was shocked at how Westerners think about money. I was also shocked to learn about how South Asians think about money! While this book was written for African and not South Asia, it is amazingly applicable. I highly recommend this book for understanding two divergent perspectives on money. These divergent perspectives on money often lead to significant misunderstandings.  

For example, I knew a Westerner who was starting a business with a South Asian partner. The Westerner was leaving to go back to his home country for a few months, so he gave around $10,000 of cash to his South Asian partner. There was a highly developed business plan for these funds to get the business started while the foreigner was abroad. However, once the foreigner left, the South Asian man’s extended family came to him and pressured him to use large portions of these funds for weddings and other needs. Because of how social pressure and finances work in South Asia, this man gave most of this $10,000 to these needs. When the foreigner found out, he was angry and felt betrayed. This event ended the relationship between these two men. The foreigner ended up moving back to America. The South Asian partner never became involved with ministry again. One of the core issues was that the foreigner involved had no idea how money works in South Asia.

In the end, what should missionaries do regarding money? Let me give five of my convictions.

  1. Be frugal. While most missionaries are “rich” when they come to South Asia, it is best to moderate spending on their personal needs. 
  2. Be generous. Missionaries should model 1 Timothy 6:18-19, “Instruct the rich to do what is good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and willing to share, storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of what is truly life.” 
  3. Be wise. Missionaries should seek to invest money into developing others so that they are self-sustaining after the missionary leaves. Care should be taken not to create dependency but to use their finances to build others so that they become strong and independent. One good book on this subject is When Helping Hurts.
  4. Be Spirit-led. Missionaries should be wary of depending on their own wisdom regarding finances. Instead, they should pray and consult with other godly men and women to make Spirit-led decisions.
  5. Be forgiving. If we are generous, sometimes we will be cheated. Some people will lie to us or deceive us to get money for something else. Sometimes, the money will get used in a way other than our intention. When this happens, we need to forgive. One big key is not to trust anyone with more money than you can lose. Then as trust grows through experience with that person, you can entrust them with more money.  

In the end, remember that “we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out” (1 Tim 6:7). Money is a temporary part of this life that will not be part of eternity. Let us seek to glorify God with the money that He entrusts to us.

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A Billion Muslims in South Asia by 2047

As I shared in another post, South Asia is home to the greatest concentration of Muslim lostness on the planet. There are far more Muslims in South Asia that in the Middle East. In 2020, there are approximately 586.9 million Muslims in South Asia.

Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh have the second, third, and fourth largest Muslim populations globally. The largest population of Muslims on the planet is in Indonesia.

Considering this growth, I recently wondered, “When will there be a billion Muslims in South Asia?” So, I spent some time crunching the numbers. If the growth rates assumed here are maintained, then there will be over a billion Muslims in South Asia by 2047. In 2047, there will be 380.9 million Muslims in Pakistan, 381.2 million Muslims in India, and 247.5 million Muslims in Bangladesh.

2047 is only 27 years away. In the next 27 years, the Muslim population of South Asia is set to almost double!

What does this mean for ministry to Muslims in South Asia?

  1. We need to pray! We need God to move among such a large group of Muslims.
  2. We need to mobilize! The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.
  3. We need to labor! Let us join God in working among these peoples for whom Jesus died.

As a last note, I want to encourage us all to ask a question… “What is it going to take to reach a billion Muslims?” If you want to learn how to join us in this work, please consider taking our E-Course. Please click here for more information.

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Systematic Theology 6: The Clarity of Scripture

This blog post is part of a series on Systematic Theology. The method of this series is to follow Wayne Grudem’s well-known Systematic Theology. This series also interacts explicitly with Systematic Theology with a view towards ministry to South Asian Muslims. These blog posts start with Grudem but are modified. I agree with Grudem’s two presuppositions, “(1) that the Bible is true and that it is, in fact, our only standard of truth; (2) that the God who is spoken of in the Bible exists, and that He is who the Bible says he is: the Creator of heaven and earth and all things in them” (Grudem, 26). Each week, one interaction with South Asian Islam will also be noted. Click here for the audio teaching of this lesson.

This lesson is on the second of four characteristics of Scripture: (1) Authority, (2) Clarity, (3) Necessity, and (4) Sufficiency. This post is the fifth of seven about the Word of God. God’s Word, the Bible, is foundational for the development of theology. Therefore, an understanding of the doctrine of the Word of God is our beginning place for theology.

  1. The Word of God. Discussion of five ways that the phrase “Word of God” is used in Scripture. This lesson also discusses three reasons that the Bible as the Word of God is the focus for theological study.
  2. The Canon of Scripture: What belongs in the Bible, and what does not belong? “The canon of Scripture is the list of all the books that belong in the Bible” (Grudem, 54). 
  3. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (1) Authority. “The authority of Scripture means that all the words of [the Bible][1] are God’s words in such a way that to disbelieve or disobey any word of [the Bible] is to disbelieve or disobey God” (Grudem, 73). 
  4. The Inerrancy of Scripture: Are there any errors in the Bible? “The inerrancy of Scripture means that [the Bible] in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact” (Grudem, 91).  This lesson largely focused on the manuscripts of the Qur’an and the New Testament, showing that the evidence is clear that the New Testament has not changed. However, there is good evidence that the Qur’an has changed.
  5. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (2) Clarity. Can only Bible scholars understand the Bible rightly? “The clarity of Scripture means that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all [who read it by the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit]”[2] (Grudem, 108). 
  6. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (3) Necessity. For what purposes is the Bible necessary? How much can people know about God without the Bible? “The necessity of Scripture means that the Bible is necessary for knowing the gospel, for maintaining spiritual life, and for knowing God’s will, but is not necessary for knowing that God exists or for knowing something about God’s character and moral law” (Grudem, 116). 
  7. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (4) Sufficiency. Is the Bible enough for knowing what God wants us to think or do? “The sufficiency of Scripture means that [the Bible] contained all the words of God he intended his people to have at each stage of redemptive history, and that it now contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting him perfectly, and for obeying him perfectly” (Grudem, 127). 

The question of the Clarity of Scripture is who can understand the Bible. Throughout church history, this has been a controversial question. For example, the Catholic Church kept the Bible in Latin for hundreds of years so that the average believer could not read it. They believed that only priests could understand Scripture. Therefore, the Bible was kept in a language that only the priests could study and learn it. Unfortunately, this led to a time in church history when even the priests did not understand the Bible well. 

One of the key acts of the Reformation was to translate the Bible into common languages so that the average believer could have access to it. Translating the Bible into common languages usually led to the persecution of the faithful men who undertook these tasks. Consider these two brief stories.

  • In 1534 AD, Martin Luther published his German translation of the Bible from the Greek and Hebrew texts. Luther was famously excommunicated from the Catholic church for his teaching. More than once, Catholic leaders sought to kill Luther for his teaching and for his work in Bible translation.
  • In 1535 AD, William Tyndale translated the full Bible into English for the first time. In 1536 AD, Tyndale was publicly burned to death for translating the Bible. 

Luther and Tyndale published their translations of the Bible at a time when the printing press had recently been developed. As a result, their translations were printed in mass and made available to a much broader audience. For the first time in hundreds of years, the Bible was made available for the ordinary follower of Jesus.

Today, the same issue occurs. Many pastors believe that only people with formal theological education can understand the Bible. The result is that they are slow to put the Bible into the hands of their disciples and encourage them to read it for themselves. Sometimes people are afraid that new believers will misinterpret the Scriptures. Therefore, they tell believers to come and hear their teaching while de-emphasizing their disciples learning directly from God in the Bible.

The doctrine of the Clarity of Scripture means that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who read it by the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit. This doctrine has two parts:

  1. God has revealed His Word in a clear way that ordinary people can understand.
  2. God has given His Holy Spirit to each believer so that His Spirit can guide them into all truth (John 16:13).

The Bible is Clear

“The revelation of your words brings light and gives understanding to the simple.” Psalm 119:130 (Psalm 19:7)

The word “simple” here is a reference to a person without insight and understand. It is a reference to an ordinary person without a great deal of education. The testimony of the Bible is that the Bible is specifically designed to give insight to simple people. 

Without a doubt, the most accessible sections of Scripture to understand for new believers are the stories, or the narratives, of Scripture. God, in His wisdom, gave us a Bible that is 43% narrative. The Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – are undoubtedly the most important books of Scripture. God gave them in narrative form. 

According to the Indian census, 59.1% of Muslims in India are literate. Many of these 59.1% are of low literacy, meaning that they can do simple tasks like writing their name but cannot read a book. For those coming to Christ who are illiterate, the stories of Scripture are easily taught. Recordings can be provided of these stories in their heart languages so that the average believer who cannot read and read can still have access to much of Scripture. The Holy Spirit can guide even the illiterate to understand His truth.

While some passages of Scripture are more challenging to understand than others (see 2 Peter 3:16), God has provided His Word in a form that is understandable to most people.

The Holy Spirit Guides Believers to Understand the Bible

Several passages of Scripture show that the Holy Spirit guides believers to understand all truth.

  • “’Instead, this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel in those days’ – the LORD’s declaration. ‘I will put my teaching within them and write it on their hearts.’” Jeremiah 31:33, quoted in Hebrews 8:10
  • “I will place my Spirit within you and cause you to follow my statues and carefully observe my ordinances.” Ezekiel 36:27
  • “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, who the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you.” John 14:26
  • “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” John 16:13

In contrast, several passages emphasize that those without the Spirit – or those outside of Christ – cannot understand the Bible correctly.

  • “But the person without the Spirit does not receive what comes from God’s Spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to understand it since it is evaluated spiritually.” 1 Corinthians 2:14
  • “When [Jesus] was alone, those around him with the Twelve, asked him about the parables. He answered them, ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to those outside, everything comes in parables so that they may indeed look, and yet not perceive; they may indeed listen, and yet not understand; otherwise, they might turn back and be forgiven.’” Mark 4:10-12
  • “Yet still today, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their hearts, but whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.” 2 Corinthians 3:15-16

The defining difference between these two kinds of people is whether they have the Spirit of God living in them. If we have the Holy Spirit, the Spirit will guide us to understand all spiritual truth. If we do not have the Holy Spirit, then we cannot fully understand the Bible.

How to Be Filled with the Holy Spirit

If the Holy Spirit’s indwelling power is what determines our ability to understand the Bible, then we need to understand what it means to be filled with the Spirit. Bill Bright’s booklet, “Are you Experiencing the Spirit-Filled Life,” is one great way to understand these issues. Click here to go to Bright’s booklet (the three diagrams below are from this resource).

Bill Bright defined three kinds of people: (1) those without the Spirit, (2) those filled with the Spirit, and (3) followers of Jesus who neglect the Spirit and live their own lives. The following three diagrams use circles to show a person’s life. Inside the life is a throne, indicating who is the Lord of their life. The cross indicates Christ, and the “S” indicates self.

When a person outside of Christ hears the gospel, they repent and by faith allow Christ to become the Lord of their life. When they repent and believe, God fills them with the Holy Spirit (John 3:1-8). When Christ is on the throne of their life, they study the Bible, and the Holy Spirit guides them into all truth.

Unfortunately, all followers of Jesus sin (1 John 1:5-10). When we sin, we essentially remove Christ as the Lord of our lives. We put ourselves back on the throne of our lives. In this state, the Holy Spirit is no longer guiding us and transforming us. Many followers of Jesus live sinful lives, and as a result, they are not filled with the Spirit of God. The Spirit no longer teaches them. For them, understanding the Bible is difficult because God’s Spirit is not leading them.

Those followers of Jesus who live sinful lives also need to repent from their sin and place their faith in Christ again. Perhaps the most crucial aspect of walking by the Spirit is a constant choice to turn away from sin and walk by the Spirit. Any time we turn away from God’s way, we need to repent and follow Him again.

The point is that new believers can walk by the Spirit, turning away from sin, and following God. As they walk by the Spirit and read the Bible, God will guide them into all truth.

Conclusion

The result is that when any person comes to Christ, we need to get the Bible to them. As the Holy Spirit comes into them, the Spirit will teach them the truth of His Word. If we neglect to put the Bible into the hands of new believers, we fail to believe that the Holy Spirit is powerful enough to teach the truth to God’s people. If we lack confidence that new believers can understand the Bible, our lack of confidence is really in the Holy Spirit. We are saying that the Holy Spirit is weak. Often those who de-emphasize the ability of the Holy Spirit to teach new believers overemphasize their own ability to teach the Bible. Consider this, if someone’s confidence in their own ability to teach the Bible is greater than their trust in the Holy Spirit to teach the Bible, this person is undoubtedly guilty of pride.

On the other hand, God has given Bible teachers, pastors, and scholars to the church (see Eph 4:11-13). The purpose of these people is to equip the body of Christ so that believers can directly approach God. Some passages of Scripture and some doctrines are harder to understand. It is beneficial to have godly men and women who can help believers grow in their understanding of the Scriptures. However, these leaders must not fall into the Catholic Church’s trap that persecuted Luther and Tyndale for translating the Bible! Every Christian leader should long for those under their leadership to be like the Bereans who took Paul’s teaching and carefully compared it to the Scriptures (Acts 17:11).

Therefore, as Muslims come to Christ, we must get the Bible into their hands. We must encourage them to read the Bible with prayer. As we do so, we can trust that the Holy Spirit will be their best teacher. As they study the Word, we should continue to disciple and mentor them with the hope that they will become wiser than us as they meditate on the Word of God (Psalm 119:99).

To get updates when new Systematic Theology lessons are posted, please subscribe to the No Cousins Left blog!


[1] In the definitions for the Authority of Scripture, the Inerrancy of Scripture, and the Sufficiency of Scripture, the term “Scripture” has been replaced by “the Bible” as seen in brackets. The reason is that the definitions could have been confusing from a perspective of Muslim-Christian conversation. 

[2] I have modified Grudem’s definition. What is in the brackets was originally “will read it seeking God’s help and being willing to follow it” in Grudem.

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Christian Mass Movements in India (1933)

Below, you can download a PDF of J. Waksom Pickett, Christian Mass Movements in India: A Study with Recommendations. New York: The Abingdon Press, 1933.

Photo by NAUSHIL ANSARI on Pexels.com

In December 1928, the National Christian Council of India, Burma, and Ceylon met in Chennai. During this Council, there was significant disagreement about mass movements to Christ in South Asia. Mass movements had been occurring in South Asia for hundreds of years through which thousands or tens of thousands of people were rapidly coming to Christ from a particular caste or tribe. Donald McGavran later called these “people movements.”

Dr. John R. Mott called the council to be cautious about rejecting these movements. Instead, he called for a study of these movements so that proper recommendations could be made. Therefore, in December 1928, the following resolution was unanimously adopted,

The Council considers that as soon as possible a secretary should be appointed to initiate, in close consultation with Provincial Christian Councils, a study of the work in mass-movement areas and asks the executive to prepare proposals regarding the choice of such a secretary and the raising of funds, outside the regular budget of the Council, for his support.” (11)

Based on this resolution, J. Waksom Pickett was selected to study these mass movements and write up his findings. Pickett studied of five of these mass movements and wrote up recommendations. He concluded that these movements were not only from God but that missionaries should learn from these movements and actively seek God to start more similar mass movements. One of the five movements that Pickett studied was the Presbyterian movement in Sialkot, Punjab. This movement was the beginning of where most of the Pakistani Christian community began to come to Christ.

Download this important study here. Since this book is past its copyright and out of print, the PDF can be freely distributed.

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Systematic Theology 4: The Authority of Scripture

This blog post is part of a series on Systematic Theology . The method of this series is to follow Wayne Grudem’s well-known Systematic Theology. This series also interacts explicitly with Systematic Theology with a view towards ministry to South Asian Muslims. These blog posts start with Grudem but are modified. I agree with Grudem’s two presuppositions, “(1) that the Bible is true and that it is, in fact, our only standard of truth; (2) that the God who is spoken of in the Bible exists, and that He is who the Bible says he is: the Creator of heaven and earth and all things in them” (Grudem, 26). Each week, one interaction with South Asian Islam will also be noted. Click here for the audio teaching of this lesson .

This lesson begins a study on the four characteristics of Scripture: (1) Authority, (2) Clarity, (3) Necessity, and (4) Sufficiency. This post is the third of seven about the Word of God. God’s Word, the Bible, is foundational for the development of theology. Therefore, an understanding of the doctrine of the Word of God is our beginning place for theology.

  1. The Word of God. Discussion of five ways that the phrase “Word of God” is used in Scripture. This lesson also discusses three reasons that the Bible as the Word of God is the focus for theological study
  2. The Canon of Scripture: What belongs in the Bible, and what does not belong? “The canon of Scripture is the list of all the books that belong in the Bible” (Grudem, 54)
  3. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (1) Authority. “The authority of Scripture means that all the words of [the Bible][1] are God’s words in such a way that to disbelieve or disobey any word of [the Bible] is to disbelieve or disobey God” (Grudem, 73). 
  4. The Inerrancy of Scripture: Are there any errors in the Bible? “The inerrancy of Scripture means that [the Bible] in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact” (Grudem, 91). 
  5. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (2) Clarity. Can only Bible scholars understand the Bible rightly? “The clarity of Scripture means that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who will read it seeking God’s help and being willing to follow it” (Grudem, 108). 
  6. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (3) Necessity. For what purposes is the Bible necessary? How much can people know about God without the Bible? “The necessity of Scripture means that the Bible is necessary for knowing the gospel, for maintaining spiritual life, and for knowing God’s will, but is not necessary for knowing that God exists or for knowing something about God’s character and moral law” (Grudem, 116). 
  7. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (4) Sufficiency. Is the Bible enough for knowing what God wants us to think or do? “The sufficiency of Scripture means that [the Bible] contained all the words of God he intended his people to have at each stage of redemptive history, and that it now contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting him perfectly, and for obeying him perfectly” (Grudem, 127). 

Grudem defines the authority of Scripture as, “The authority of Scripture means that all the words of the Bible are God’s words in such a way that to disbelieve or disobey any word of the Bible is to disbelieve or disobey God” (Grudem, 73). It is helpful to break down this statement for examination.

All the words of the Bible are God’s Words.” While this statement sounds simple, there are several aspects of this statement deserving examination.

  • The Bible claims to be the Word of God. For a detailed discussion, click here to go to the lesson on the Word of God.  Here are a few examples. 
    • Jesus affirmed the Old Testament as Scripture. “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all things are accomplished” (Matt 5:17-18).
    • Paul quoted Luke’s Gospel as Scripture. “For the Scripture says: Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain and the worker is worthy of his wages” (1 Tim 5:18). In this verse, Paul quoted Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7 as Scripture. Therefore, Paul affirmed Luke’s Gospel as Scripture.
    • Peter affirmed Paul’s letters as Scripture. “Also, regard the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our dear brother Paul has written to you according to the wisdom given to him. He speaks about these things in all his letters. There are some matters that are hard to understand. The untaught and unstable will twist them to their own destruction, as they also do with the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16).
    • The book of Revelation concludes with a solemn warning about adding or removing anything from that book. “I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book. And if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share of the tree of life and the holy city, which are written about in this book” (Rev 22:18-19). This solemn warning clearly indicates that Revelation is the Word of God. 
  • The Four Tests of Canonicity provide four proofs that the Bible is the Word of GodClick here to go to the lesson on the Canon of Scripture.
    • (1) The books of the Bible come from authoritative sources, such as prophets and apostles.
    • (2) The books of the Bible all agree with one another. Sixty-six books by dozens of authors over 1,500 years in two languages that all agree with one another testify that God has given these books.
    • (3) The Bible is powerful. The life-changing power of the Bible shows that it is the Word of God. Many people have become convinced that the Bible is the Word of God as they read it and experience its power.
    • (4) The Bible has been received by the Word of God by billions of people throughout history. No other book in human history has been read by so many people in so many languages. 
  • All the words of the Bible are God’s Words.”  It is essential to realize that all the words in the Bible are God’s words. Some people have made a mistake by saying that the Bible “contains” God’s word but is not God’s word. By this, they mean that parts of the Bible are the words of God, and other parts of the Bible are not the words of God.
    • “All Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16a)
    • “Above all, you know this: No prophecy of Scripture comes from the prophet’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21). 
  • The Qur’an claims that the Bible is the Word of GodClick here for another article on this topic. We do not hold that the Qur’an is the Word of God. However, for the sake of Muslim ministry, it can be helpful to study the verses of the Qur’an that say that the books of the Bible are the Word of God. Here are two of the most beneficial.
    • And in their footsteps We sent Jesus the son of Mary, confirming the Torah that had come before him: We sent him the Gospel: therein was guidance and light. And confirmation of the Torah that had come before him: a guidance and an admonition to those who fear Allah.” Qur’an 5:46
    • If thou wert in doubt as to what We have revealed unto thee, then ask those who have been reading the Book from before thee: the Truth hath indeed come to thee from thy Lord: so be in no wise off those in doubt.” Qur’an 10:94

To disbelieve or disobey any word of the Bible is to disbelieve or disobey God.” Perhaps the best section of Scripture for this point is Hebrews 3:7-4:13. 

  • Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says: Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion” (Hebrews 3:7-8a). 
    • Hebrews 3:7b-11 is a quotation from Psalm 95:7-11. This passage in Psalm 95 is about the rebellion during the forty years in the wilderness in Numbers.  
    • The phrase “Today, if you hear his voice” is repeated throughout this section (Heb 3:13, 15; 4:7). In the book of Hebrews, “his voice” means the voice of God in the person of Jesus (see Heb 1:2; 2:1-3). “Today” gives an immediacy to hearing the voice of God. The primary way that we hear the Word of God today is by reading the Bible. Therefore, this command is that as we read the Bible today, we must be careful not to harden our hearts!
  • Hebrews 3:17-18 describes a failure to hear and obey God’s word as disbelief and disobedience to God. “And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, if not to those who disobeyed? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.” This passage shows the parallel between disbelief and disobedience. Because of their disbelief and disobedience, the people of God faced the judgment of God.
  • So I swore in my anger, ‘They will not enter my rest’” (Heb 3:11). The result of the disobedience/disbelief of God’s people was that God would not permit them to enter into His rest. The rest of God is mentioned throughout this passage (Heb 3:11, 18; 4:1, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11). There are two meanings of “rest” in Hebrews 3:7-4:13
    • Rest as entry into the Promised Land (Heb 3:7). 
    • Rest as entry into heaven. Hebrews 3:8-9 clarifies that there is a “rest” better than the one given through Joshua. The rest given through Joshua is a reference to the Promised Land.
  • Therefore, this passage means that if anyone hears God’s Word through Jesus that they have a choice to hear and obey or hear and disbelieve/disobey. If someone hears and obeys, then they will enter into God’s promised rest of heaven. If someone hears and disbelieves/disobeys, then they will fall short of entering into heaven.
  • The final two verses bring this passage back to a focus on Scripture. “For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. No creature is hidden from him, but all things are naked and exposed the eyes of him to whom we must give an account” (Heb 4:12-13). 

In summary, when we read the Bible, we hear the voice of God. Every word of the Bible is the word of God spoken to us. When we hear God’s voice in Scripture, we have a choice to hear and believe/obey or to hear and disbelieve/disobey. “Let us then make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall into the same pattern of disobedience” (Heb 4:11).

To get updates when new Systematic Theology lessons are posted, please subscribe to this blog below.

[1] In the definitions for the Authority of Scripture, the Inerrancy of Scripture, and the Sufficiency of Scripture, the term “Scripture” has been replaced by “the Bible” as seen in brackets. The reason is that the definitions could have been confusing from a perspective of Muslim-Christian conversation. 


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The Qur’an Testifies that the Bible is the Word of God

Today, many Muslim leaders argue that the Bible is not the Word of God. However, this argument is not from the Qur’an or the Hadith. The idea that the Bible is not the Word of God is a later innovation (Arabic bid’ah) of Muslim leaders.[1] Since many Muslim leaders have passed down this “innovation,” many ordinary Muslims have come to believe this idea. 

Before moving forward, we need to become slightly more technical in our language. The Qur’an never mentions the “Bible,” instead the Taurat, Zabur, and Injeel are written about in the Qur’an. 

  1. The Taurat is the Law of Moses, which is a reference to Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
  2. The Zabur is the Psalms of David.
  3. The Injeel is the Gospel of Jesus. The Qur’an is not clear about what books are in the Injeel.

There is not a single verse in the Qur’an or the Hadith that states that the Taurat, Zabur,  or Injeel changed. In contrast, dozens and dozens of verses affirm these books as being true books from God. 

Below are a few passages from the Qur’an that testify that the Taurat, Zabur, and Injeel are the Word of God. Before looking at these passages, please allow me to provide a word of wisdom. Followers of Jesus find truth in the Bible rather than the Qur’an. In this article, I will show that the Qur’an also shows that the Bible is true. However, the fact that the Qur’an testifies that the Bible is true has no meaning for me, since I do not believe that the Qur’an is a reliable witness. Moreover, I try not to use the Qur’an when sharing the gospel with Muslims. Instead, I use the Bible! Therefore, what is the value of this post? Truthfully, very little. The only way that I use these passages in the Qur’an is when I need to try to shake a Muslim friend to show them that they should read the Bible for themselves. When I do so, I try to be honest that I do not personally believe the Qur’an and do not personally give any weight to these verses.

But why do they come to thee for decision, when they have (their own) Torah before them? – Therein is the (plain) Command of Allah; yet even after that, they would turn away. For they are not (really) People of Faith. It was We who revealed the Torah (to Moses): therein was guidance and light. By its standard have been judged the Jews, by the Prophets who bowed (as in Islam) to Allah’s Will, by the Rabbis and the Doctors of Law: for to them was entrusted the protection of Allah’s Book, and there were witnesses thereto: therefore fear not me, but fear Me, and sell not My Signs for a miserable price. If any do fail to judge by what Allah hath revealed, they are Unbelievers.” Qur’an 5:43-44[2]

These two verses share several things about the Torah/Taurat:

  • The Torah is the command of God.  “Therein is the (plain) Command of Allah.”
  • God revealed the Torah to Moses. “It was We who revealed the Torah (to Moses).
  • The Torah contains guidance and light for our spiritual lives. “therein was guidance and light.
  • God judged the Jewish people based on the Torah. “By its standard have been judged the Jews.
  • If someone fails to adhere to God’s truth as revealed in the Torah, they are an unbeliever. “If any do fail to judge by what Allah hath revealed, they are Unbelievers.

And in their footsteps We sent Jesus the son of Mary, confirming the Torah that had come before him: We sent him the Gospel: therein was guidance and light. And confirmation of the Torah that had come before him: a guidance and an admonition to those who fear Allah. Let the People of the Gospel judge by what Allah hath revealed therein. If any do fail to judge by what Allah hath revealed, they are those who rebel.” Qur’an 5:46-47

Here are a few things that these two verses say about the Gospel/Injeel:

  • God sent Jesus, the son of Mary. “We sent Jesus the son of Mary.
  • Jesus came in the footsteps of Moses and the Prophets. “And in their footsteps We sent Jesus the son of Mary.
  • The Injeel confirms the Taurat, meaning that these two books agree with one another. “confirming the Torah that had come before him… And confirmation of the Torah that had come before him.” Today, both the Taurat and Injeel are in the Bible together since these books agree with one another. 
  • God gave the Injeel. “We sent him the Gospel.
  • The Injeel contains guidance and light for our spiritual lives. “therein was guidance and light.
  • The Injeel admonishes us how to follow God. “a guidance and an admonition to those who fear Allah.
  • Followers of Jesus are commanded to judge right and wrong based on the Injeel. “Let the People of the Gospel judge by what Allah hath revealed therein.” The Qur’an tells Christians to judge truth and error based on their study of the Injeel! 
  • If anyone fails to judge by the Injeel (i.e., live by the Injeel), they are in rebellion against God. “If any do fail to judge by what Allah hath revealed, they are those who rebel.”

If thou wert in doubt as to what We have revealed unto thee, then ask those who have been reading the Book from before thee: the Truth hath indeed come to thee from thy Lord: so be in no wise off those in doubt.” Qur’an 10:94

Qur’an 5:43-47 clearly stated that the Taurat and Injeel are books from God that contain guidance and light for our spiritual lives. The Qur’an claims that the Taurat and the Injeel agree with one another. The Injeel confirms the Taurat.

Qur’an 10:94 makes a similar claim, stating that if hearers of the Qur’an have any doubt that they should consult those “who have been reading the Book from before thee.” The Book in reference is clearly the Taurat, Zabur, and Injeel (i.e., the Bible). In other words, the Qur’an says that if anyone has questions about whether the Qur’an is valid, they should check the Qur’an against the Bible to make sure that the Qur’an is true. Therefore, Qur’an 10:94 bases the truth of the Qur’an on the validity of the Bible.

The great irony of Qur’an 10:94 is that the Qur’an and the Bible are widely understood not to be in unity. Therefore, the Qur’an fails its own test. Simply put, the Qur’an is self-defeating by tests of logic. Here are the logical syllogisms based on Qur’anic statements. 

The Taurat and Injeel are true books from God (Qur’an 5:43-47).

If the Qur’an is true, then the Taurat and Injeel prove that it is true (Qur’an 10:94).

Therefore (logically), if the Qur’an is true, then it must agree with the Taurat and Injeel.

The Qur’an does not agree with the Taurat and the Injeel.

Therefore, the Qur’an is not true.


[1] In most schools of Islam, bid’ah (i.e., innovation) is considered wrong. Instead, Muslims are expected to understand and obey the Qur’an and Hadith.

[2] All Qur’anic references are from the English Translation of Abdullah Yusuf Ali.

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When does a Muslim Become an MBB?

Recently, a missionary colleague and I were discussing the question of when a Muslim becomes a Muslim-background believer (MBB). Before addressing this question directly, let me take a few minutes to describe two paradigms for approaching discipleship.

In 1973, Paul Hiebert wrote an article called “The Category ‘Christian’ in the Missionary Task.” In that article, Hiebert described two ways that people often define what it means to be a follower of Jesus in missions.

  1. Bounded Sets. Bounded sets are “either/or” sets. Either someone is a follower of Jesus or is not a follower of Jesus. There are only two options. There is no “gray zone” on this issue according to the bounded set view. As way of analogy, Hiebert talks about apples. Either a piece of fruit is an apple or is not an apple. A banana or orange is not 50% apple. Instead, an orange is 0% apple!
  2. Centered Sets. Bounded sets focus on process and see a great amount of gray zone. In the centered set view, following Jesus is at least a little fuzzy. Besides Jesus, no one has ever been the ideal disciple. Everyone is in process of becoming more and more like Jesus. In this view, if someone is 25% a follower of Jesus, the goal is to move them to 30 or 35% as they move towards the ideal.

There are strengths and weaknesses of both the bounded and centered set views. Here are a few of them.

  • Strength of Bounded Set Approach. On the day of judgement, people will be either in the kingdom or outside the kingdom. In Jesus’ words, they will either been sheep or goats (Matt 25:31ff). Therefore, it is important to define some sets of boundaries into which we are seeking to bring disciples.
  • Weakness of Bounded Set Approach #1. On the other hand, bounded sets often become difficult in missions. Consider an illiterate Muslim farmer who hears the gospel for the first time in South Asia. He repents and believes, saying that he wants to learn how to follow Jesus. But he does not have everything figured out in his faith, either in belief or practice. If we have a strict bounded set view, we would certainly saw that this man is outside. A bounded-set practitioner would see this man an evangelistic target and continue sharing the gospel with him. A centered-set practitioner would see this as a discipleship opportunity and would begin moving him towards Christ.
  • Weakness of Bounded Set Approach #2. A problem with bounded sets is that we need to define what is in and outside the bounded set. Through discussion and study, these restrictions become tighter and tighter. For example, consider the following questions:
    • What beliefs are necessary for a person to be a true MBB?
    • What practices are necessary for a person to be a true MBB?
    • What sins automatically put someone outside of being a true MBB?
    • Which biblical doctrines does a Muslim need to be able to understand and believe to enter the kingdom of God? The hypostatic union of Christ? The Trinity? The penal substitutionary atonement of Christ? These are core doctrines, yet often require time and discipleship to fully understand.
    • The weakness of this approach is that we can make the boundaries so high and detailed that it is virtually impossible for anyone to come to faith!
  • Strength of Centered Set Approach. In this paradigm, everyone is seen as being in process. The goal of this process is to continue to move them towards the center, which is the Lord Jesus. Everyone has a next step to take rather than the question merely being of whether someone is “in” or “out.” In fact, one major issue in modern evangelicalism is the bounded set view that anyone who has prayed the sinner’s prayer is “in.” The centered set does not get caught up in that debate but instead focuses on helping each believer to progress in Christ. As a result, most that use centered set approaches focus on developing processes to help individuals move from one place to the next.
  • Weakness of Centered Set Approach. One failure of centered set approaches is a tendency to overemphasize the fuzziness of discipleship. Some in centered sets are fine with people remaining in gray area in their faith since discipleship is seen as fuzzy. For example, a Muslim may follow Jesus while also perpetually following Muhammad.

In the centered set approach, movement towards the center naturally creates the desired boundaries. Hiebert wrote, “While the centred set does not place the primary focus on the boundary, there is a clear division between things moving in and those moving out. There is an excluded middle. An object either belongs to the set or it does not. However, the set focuses upon the centre and the boundary emerges when the centre and the relationships or movements of the objects have been defined. When the centre and relationships to the centre are stressed the boundary automatically falls into place.”

With this description of bounded versus centered sets, let us return to the question, “When does a Muslim become an MBB?” I personally lean towards a modified centered set practice. Our goal is to share the gospel with Muslims. When a Muslim chooses to repent and believe, declaring a desire to follow Jesus, then I call them an MBB, even if their theology and practice is not fully worked out. This perspective has been very helpful for us since many Muslims are ready to begin on the journey to follow Jesus but are in process. In an upcoming blog post, I will share a paradigm about the process I usually use to help Muslims and MBBs move towards Christ.

From a bounded-set perspective, we tend to give baptism when an MBB takes the more concrete steps of separating from the mosque, Qur’an, and Muhammad. At this point, we expect them to confess that Jesus is fully God.

In this way, we begin discipleship where a new believer is but we have a “bounded set” that we expect as they follow Jesus in baptism.

For additional reading.

  • Phil Parshall, Beyond the Mosque: Christians within Muslim Community. Grand Rapids: Baker House, 1985.
  • David Greenlee, ed., Longing for Community: Church, Ummah, or Somewhere in Between? Hyderabad: Authentic Media, 2013.
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The Cross through the Eyes of a Secret Believer: A Message on John 19

This post is a message I recently shared at a local church in South Asia. Subscribe to this blog to receive updates in your e-mail about No Cousins Left!

Secret believers are a common phenomenon in Muslim ministry. A few years ago, a friend and I were going village by village in a rural area looking for Muslims whose hearts were open to the gospel. Most people were resting in the heat of the day, but one man saw and invited us into his shop. Naseem was the village doctor and was curious about why we were there. My friend and I shared the gospel with Dr. Naseem, but he was not convinced. I left him with an Injeel (Urdu for the New Testament) and challenged him to read it. I did not expect ever to see Naseem again.

When I woke up the next morning, I saw that I had more than ten missed calls. All of them were from Dr. Naseem. He had been calling me from about 1-5 am, but my phone was on silent mode. When I called him, Dr. Naseem told me that he had not stopped reading the Injeel from the time I had left his shop. He had not eaten nor slept. I could tell that he was troubled on the phone. He told me that he knew that the Injeel was true and asked me, “What do I need to do?”

Unfortunately, Naseem was not willing to count the cost to follow Jesus fully. Naseem regularly goes to the mosque for prayer and has never worshipped with a group of Christians. He keeps his Bible secretly hidden and studies it when he has the chance. He has been unwilling to meet with Christians in his village. He has told me that he has not even told his wife that he believes the Bible is true. When I visit Dr. Naseem, we meet outside of his village, where his friends and relatives cannot see him studying the Bible. 

The Story of Nicodemus

In the Gospel of John, we encounter a secret believer named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was part of the religious leadership of Jerusalem (John 7:50). He was a Pharisee (John 3:1), meaning that he was a religious teacher with significant knowledge about the Law of Moses (John 3:10). Being in the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus was in the room when Pharisees and chief priests met during Jesus’ life and ministry. 

In John 3, we read Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus. Nicodemus went to Jesus at night, no doubt, out of fear. He knew that the Pharisees were angry with Jesus and could not be seen consorting with the enemy. Nicodemus said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could perform these signs you do unless God were with him” (John 3:2). Jesus famously responded, “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Nicodemus left his encounter with Jesus realizing a need to be born again. Although he was a religious leader, he knew that he did not know God after meeting Jesus. A little later, Jesus left Judea to go into Galilee because the Pharisees had heard he was baptizing so many people (John 4:1). No doubt, Nicodemus was in meetings of the religious leaders when they tried to decide what to do with Jesus. 

In John 7, Jesus returned to Jerusalem and began to teach during a major festival. In John 7:32, the chief priests and Pharisees sent men to arrest Jesus because the crowds started to wonder if He was the Messiah. However, these men did not stop Jesus. Instead, they returned to the Pharisees and said, “No man ever spoke like this!” (John 7:46). The Pharisees were angry and began to speak to one another against Jesus. In that meeting, Nicodemus stood up for Jesus, saying, “Our law doesn’t judge a man before it hears from him and know what he’s doing, does it?” (John 7:51) Nicodemus wanted to hear more from Jesus, while the rest of the Pharisees tried to silence Him. Nicodemus was probably thinking about his own spiritual need when he defended Jesus and his own desire for spiritual rebirth.

In John 9, the Pharisees attacked Jesus for healing a blind man on the Sabbath. A miracle like this caused a separation in the hearts and minds of the people in Jerusalem. Some used it as an opportunity to attack Jesus for breaking the Law of Moses. Others saw this miracle as a sign that Jesus had come from God. When Nicodemus first met Jesus, he said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could perform these signs you do unless God were with him” (John 3:2). While the Pharisees attacked Jesus for this miracle, it moved Nicodemus closer to faith. However, Nicodemus was still not ready to fully follow Christ. 

Now, before we condemn Nicodemus, we must realize that he was a broken man, a sinner, just like each of us. The Scriptures say that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Each of us has some hardness in our heart, like Nicodemus, and require repentance. What amazes me about the story of Nicodemus is God’s faithfulness towards this man. Jesus continued to perform signs and miracles for men like Nicodemus. Jesus taught publicly so that men like Nicodemus had many chances to hear the Word of God. He continued to provide opportunities for him to repent and believe. The story of Nicodemus reminds me of my friend, Dr. Naseem. I hope that Dr. Naseem’s story ends as well as Nicodemus’!

In John 11, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. “So the chief priests and the Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and were saying, ‘What are we going to do since this man is doing many signs?'” (John 11:47). Nicodemus was likely in that council. I am sure that Nicodemus’ heart was screaming, “We should repent and believe in Him” but his mouth remained silent. 

Instead, Nicodemus sat silently in fear as the Jewish council conspired to put Jesus to death (John 12:10). 

In John 18, the Pharisees found their opportunity to arrest Jesus. Judas Iscariot led a group of soldiers and religious leaders to Jesus at night. I wonder if Nicodemus joined that group to see what would happen or stayed home, awake all night knowing what was going on. After his arrest, Jesus was brought before the religious leaders of Jerusalem. Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, would have been in that meeting. Again, Nicodemus stood silent as Jesus was mocked and beaten. Likely, Nicodemus was there when they brought Jesus to Pontius Pilate to stand trial. However, his fear continued to silence him. He was afraid of what his friends and neighbors would say if he stood up for Jesus. He was scared of arrest or death or persecution. Perhaps he would share the same fate as Jesus.

However, by the end of that day, something would change in Nicodemus’ heart. In John 19:38-42, we read,

38 After this, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus — but secretly because of his fear of the Jews — asked Pilate that he might remove Jesus’s body. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and took his body away. 39 Nicodemus (who had previously come to him at night) also came, bringing a mixture of about seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes. 40 They took Jesus’s body and wrapped it in linen cloths with the fragrant spices, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41 There was a garden in the place where he was crucified. A new tomb was in the garden; no one had yet been placed in it. 42 They placed Jesus there because of the Jewish day of preparation and since the tomb was nearby. (John 19:38-42)

Taking the body of Jesus and burying Him was not a secret event. Receiving the body of Jesus required standing before Pilate and requesting it. No doubt, all of the religious leaders were appalled that these two were honoring Jesus in this way. Who knows what persecution followed against these men! It was no secret that Nicodemus brought over 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes. 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes was a quantity fit for a king and a significant expense. Remember when Mary came and anointed Jesus with just a fraction of this amount that Jesus’ disciples were scandalized at the financial waste. Joseph and Nicodemus took great care of Jesus’ body. In this act of properly caring for Jesus’ body, these two men stood publicly in Christ for the first time. 

What changed? Just hours earlier, Nicodemus cowered in fear because of the Pharisees. Now, he was willing to risk everything for his crucified Lord! There is only one thing that changed. Nicodemus witnessed the death of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross.

When Nicodemus saw Jesus on the cross, his life was changed. In Roman culture, many would have stood and watched Jesus slowly die a horrible death. The text does not tell us, but I imagine Nicodemus standing at a distance and watching Jesus die as the Spirit of God transformed his life. During that day, Nicodemus was born again. He realized that he was a sinner whose life was broken. He saw that He was far away from God. During that day, Nicodemus became a follower of Jesus. 

John 19 through the Eyes of Nicodemus

Having set the scene, let us walk through John 19 and see what Nicodemus experienced. As we can see in Nicodemus’s life, it is a life-changing experience to reflect upon the death of our Lord Jesus. When we look upon the cross, we need to remember that this work of Jesus was necessary because of our sin. When we choose to sin, we dishonor the death of our Lord. Today, as we hear the story of the death of Jesus, I want to challenge you to take this opportunity to repent. If there is any secret sin in your life, make today the day that you turn away from it. If there is anger or bitterness in your life, bring it to the cross today. If your mind is filled with anxiety and worry, cast it upon our crucified Lord. If you are like Nicodemus and have always stood at the edge of the faith without repenting and believing, make today your day to give your life fully to Christ.

In John 19, Nicodemus stood outside of the government headquarters. They had been there since morning while Jesus stood trial before Pilate. Nicodemus could feel the anger in the others. His heart was conflicted about what to do.

1 Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged.

Pilate was the Roman governor over the Province of Judea. After arresting Jesus in the middle of the night, the Jewish religious leaders questioned Jesus at the high priest’s home. Early in the morning, they brought Jesus to stand trial before Pilate. They had already been there for hours while Pilate investigated what was happening and questioned Jesus. Pilate tried to release Jesus, but the Jewish religious leaders had chosen to free a revolutionary named Barabbas instead. 

So, Pilate took another step to appease the Jewish leaders by having Jesus flogged. A flogging means that Roman soldiers savagely beat Jesus with a whip. It is most likely that this flogging was public. I imagine that Nicodemus winced every time he saw the whip strike our Lord. A flogging would not have meant one or two blows from the whip. The Jewish people often gave thirty-nine lashes during a flogging. The Romans often did even more! By the end of this event, Jesus was bloody and bruised. 

2 The soldiers also twisted together a crown of thorns, put it on his head, and clothed him in a purple robe. 3 And they kept coming up to him and saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” and were slapping his face.

The mockery of Jesus continued. Imagine how Nicodemus’ heart broke as he watched the crown of thorns pierce our Lord’s head, causing even more blood to run down His face. Nicodemus knew that Jesus was innocent! How could an innocent man be treated this way! They mocked Jesus and called Him “king of the Jews,” which was exactly who He was. Jesus is referred to as the King of the Jews eight times in John 19. Jesus’ only “crime” was that He was the Messiah who had come to save His people from their sins.

4 Pilate went outside again and said to them, “Look, I’m bringing him out to you to let you know I find no grounds for charging him.” 5 Then Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” 6 When the chief priests and the temple servants saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!”

Pilate had no interest in killing Jesus. He seemed to hope that this savage beating would satisfy the anger of the Jewish religious leaders. I wonder if Nicodemus felt broken at this point. I wonder if he realized that Jesus was suffering as a payment for his sins and the sins of the whole world. This scene reminds me of a famous Urdu song.

Jo krus pe kurbaan hai, vo mera Masiha hai(The one who is upon the cross, this is my Messiah)

Har zakhm jo uska hai, vo mere gunaah ka hai. (every wound that is applied to Him is because of my sin)

6b [To the crowd’s demands to crucify Jesus], Pilate responded, “Take him and crucify him yourselves, since I find no grounds for charging him.” 7 “We have a law,” the Jews replied to him, “and according to that law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.”

In Matthew 26:63-64, the high priest told Jesus, “Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Nicodemus would have been in that meeting and heard the high priest’s question of Jesus. Jesus answered the high priest, “You have said it. But I tell you, in the future you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” When he heard Jesus’ statement, the high priest tore his robes and declared Jesus a blasphemer. In that room, I wonder if Nicodemus wondered how a blasphemer could teach God’s word so powerfully. How could a blasphemer open the eyes of the blind? How could a blasphemer raise Lazarus from the dead?

8 When Pilate heard this statement, he was more afraid than ever. 9 He went back into the headquarters and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus did not give him an answer. 10 So Pilate said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Don’t you know that I have the authority to release you and the authority to crucify you?” 11 “You would have no authority over me at all,” Jesus answered him, “if it hadn’t been given you from above. This is why the one who handed me over to you has the greater sin.”

Did you know that Jesus could have stopped His crucifixion right here? When Jesus was arrested, He said, “do you think that I cannot call on my Father and He will provide me here and now with more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt 26:53) Our Lord Jesus willingly gave His life on the cross. Jesus had the authority and the power to stop this all. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. But Jesus knew that He needed to give His life for us. Hebrews 12:2 that for the joy before Him that Jesus endured the cross and despised the shame. This verse tells us that Jesus joyfully gave His life on the cross for us. His life was not taken! He gave Himself for our sins.

12 [After Pilate spoke to Jesus,] Pilate kept trying to release him. But the Jews shouted, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Anyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar!” 13 When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside. He sat down on the judge’s seat in a place called the Stone Pavement (but in Aramaic, ‘Gabbatha’). 14 It was the preparation day for the Passover, and it was about noon. Then he told the Jews, “Here is your king!”

This trial had begun at the break of dawn and was still going at noon. Jesus had not slept nor eaten. He had been mocked, beaten, and stood before them in His crown of thorns and purple robes. Pilate tried to release Him. But the Jewish leaders were crafty. They knew that anyone claiming to be king was considered a rebellion against the Roman Empire. If word got back to Caesar that Pilate gave leniency to a man leading a rebellion, he would also be executed. 

15 They shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”

Imagine Nicodemus during this scene. The other Jewish religious leaders were his friends and relatives. He had known them for many years. He respected and loved them. But during this scene, he did not know what to do. He saw Jesus, His King, mocked and beaten, an innocent man whom Nicodemus knew was the Messiah. But the Pharisees, who were Nicodemus’ friends and family, wanted Jesus dead. All around Nicodemus, they cried out, “Take Him away! Crucify Him!” 

15b Pilate said to them, “Should I crucify your king?” “We have no king but Caesar!” the chief priests answered. 16 Then he handed him over to be crucified.

Each step along the way, Nicodemus’ heart broke more and more. A large crowd would have stayed and watched the crucifixion of our Lord. I imagine Nicodemus standing silently at a distance. I suspect that his heart was broken over his sin and hypocrisy. Despite being a religious leader, he was not close to God. He stood by silently, while the Messiah, God’s messenger, was being mocked and killed! Imagine Nicodemus watching the crucifixion at a distance while the Holy Spirit worked on transforming his life. 

Today, I hope that the Holy Spirit is doing the same thing in your life. “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor 15:3). The only reason that Jesus suffered in this way is that each of us has sinned. Sin is when we choose to disobey God. When we remember the cross of Christ, we recognize that this is the saving power of Christ for our lives. Remember today that Jesus loves each of us right where we are. “God demonstrates His own love towards us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Jesus did not wait until we put our lives together. He died for us to make us right with God.

16b Then they took Jesus away. 17 Carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called Place of the Skull, which in Aramaic is called ‘Golgotha’. 18 There they crucified him and two others with him, one on either side, with Jesus in the middle. 19 Pilate also had a sign made and put on the cross. It said: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. 20 Many of the Jews read this sign, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. 21 So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Don’t write, ‘The king of the Jews,’ but that he said, ‘I am the king of the Jews.'” 22 Pilate replied, “What I have written, I have written.”

I wonder if Pilate wrote this on the sign merely to spite the Jewish religious leaders. However, I imagine Nicodemus starring at this sign all day long, knowing that Jesus was the king of the Jews. While this sign meant to mock our Lord Jesus, Nicodemus knew that it was true. During that day, Nicodemus repented. He turned away from his sins. He chose that day that Jesus was his Lord and King. 

Similarly, each of us needs to repent when we hear this story. We need to turn away from our sins and follow Jesus. Every time we look at the cross of Christ, we gain this opportunity again. Every time we choose to repent and believe, we grow closer to Christ. This is the power of the Lord’s Supper. Our Lord Jesus gave us this simple act so that we would remember His death on the cross every time we take it. As we come to the cross, again and again in the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Spirit transforms our lives.

We will finish today by reading just one last paragraph of this story. Please go forward with me to verses 28-30.

28 After this, when Jesus knew that everything was now finished that the Scripture might be fulfilled, he said, “I’m thirsty.” 29 A jar full of sour wine was sitting there; so they fixed a sponge full of sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it up to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then bowing his head, he gave up his spirit.

It is finished. The wrath of God the Father was fully satisfied. It is finished. The sins of the world were paid for in full. It is finished. The suffering of Christ was now finished. It is finished. The work of man’s redemption and salvation is now completed. It is finished. Jesus “erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it away by nailing to the cross” (Col 2:14). It is finished. Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and disgraced them publicly; he triumphed over them at the cross” (Col 2:15). It is finished. By His work on the cross, Jesus “rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom [of God]” (Col 1:13). It is finished. “now he has reconciled you by his physical body through his death to present you holy, faultless, and blameless before him” (Col 1:22). It is finished. “For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift – not from works, so that no one can boast” (Eph 2:8-9). Jesus’ life was not taken from him. With joy, Jesus freely gave His life for us. 

All of human history changed at this moment when Jesus bowed His head and gave up His Spirit. Nicodemus’ life also changed. He and Joseph of Arimathea boldly requested Jesus’ body. They gave Him the burial of a rich man. Nicodemus’ secret life went public. He chose to stand with His crucified Lord. 

What about you? As you look to the cross today, what is Christ calling you to do? Are you standing on the edges, like Nicodemus? Today, commit yourself to the Lord. Look at what Jesus did for your salvation! Do you have a secret sin in your life? Look at what Jesus did for your sins! Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your heart! Cry out to God and ask Him to change your life. Go to a brother or sister today and ask for help in following Jesus. Is your heart filled with gratitude today as we remember what Christ has done? Go and proclaim Christ’s work on the cross! Like Dr. Naseem, there are multitudes who need to hear the good news of what Jesus did on the cross. Let us go and tell them. 

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Our Engaging South Asian Muslims E-Course is Live!

I want to share an exciting announcement! No Cousins Left has launched its first E-Course to train others in how to make disciples and plant churches among the almost 600 million Muslims of South Asia.

This E-Course is self-paced, meaning that you can access each lesson at any time. This training consists of twelve lessons. It is recommended that you take no more than two lessons each week to allow time for the content to sink in. Each lesson will take about one hour to complete and includes a combination of videos, readings, and quizzes. There is no cost for taking this course.

Most lessons contain the following five topics:

  1. Philosophy of Ministry. Brief videos about developing a strong biblical-theological foundation for ministry to Muslims. Some videos also compare and contrast with other philosophies of ministry.
  2. Prayer for Pakistan. Learning about Pakistan and praying for Pakistan.
  3. History of South Asian Islam. Readings about a historical figure or movement in South Asian Islam and how these historical figures or movements related to Muslim ministry.
  4. Muslim Ministry Tools. Videos training basic ministry tools for ministry to South Asian Muslims.
  5. Folk Muslim Rituals. Most Muslims in South Asia are strongly influenced by folk Islam. These readings reveal the worldview of folk Muslims by studying their rituals. 

If you want to join this course, e-mail us at nocousinsleft@protonmail.com. We will send you a link to sign in to the course.

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Theology 1: Introduction to Systematic Theology

This blog post is part of a series on Systematic Theology. The method of this series is to follow Wayne Grudem’s well-known Systematic Theology. This series also interacts explicitly with Systematic Theology as related to ministry to South Asian Muslims. These blog posts follow Grudem but include significant modifications. The starting point of this study of Systematic Theology follows Grudem’s two presuppositions. “(1) that the Bible is true and that it is, in fact, our only standard of truth; (2) that the God who is spoken of in the Bible exists, and that He is who the Bible says he is: the Creator of heaven and earth and all things in them” (Grudem, 26). Click here for the audio teaching of this lesson.

In this introduction to Systematic Theology, there are three primary questions:

  1. What is systematic theology?
  2. Why should Christians study systematic theology?
  3. How should Christians study systematic theology?

What is Systematic Theology?

“Systematic theology is any study that answers the question, ‘What does the whole Bible teach us today’ about any given topic” (Grudem, 21). A doctrine is what the whole Bible teaches about a given topic (Grudem, 25). 

 The best way to understand systematic theology is to compare it with other methods of studying the Bible and theology. Systematic theology is the second of four parts of a process of developing practical theology.[1]

  1. Analytical Biblical Theology is the process of understanding individual books of the Bible or passages. The foundation for good systematic theology is a rigorous study of separate books of the Bible to understand what they teach. Our goal here is to learn what the authors of Scripture meant in their original context.
  2. Synthetic Biblical Theology or Systematic Theology compares and contrasts different passages and books to answer what the whole Bible teaches on a particular subject. Systematic Theology usually only answers the question of what the Bible meant in its original context. The good news is that what was true when the Bible was written is true today. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Whatever the Bible teaches about God, Jesus, salvation, and other subjects is as true today as it was in the first century.
  3. Hermeneutics is the bridge that brings together what the Bible meant when it was originally written with what it means for practical ministry today. In point #2, I noted that the truth about God does not change. Since the Scriptures teach that God is all-powerful and all-knowing, we know that God is all-knowing and all-powerful today. Since Scripture teaches that salvation is by grace through faith, we know that this is also true today. However, theology needs to be applied in many practical ways. The contexts of our lives are different than the times when Scripture was originally written. Therefore, we must go through a process of interpreting how to live out Scripture today.
  4. Practical Theology is how to live out Scripture today. Practical Theology has many different aspects, such as missiology, ecclesiology, apologetics, and ethics.  

Three Reasons Christians Should Study Theology

  1. To gain the ability to respond to Muslim questions and objections. Many Christians have difficulty answering Muslim objections to the faith because they lack a foundation in their own faith. For example, if a Christian has a poor understanding of the Trinity, how can they defend this doctrine against Muslim objections? Those in Muslim ministry have a significant advantage in studying theology. Often encounters with different faiths become an excellent opportunity to strengthen our own understanding of what the Bible teaches.
  2. To overcome false doctrines in the South Asian churches. Unfortunately, some churches in every part of the world are drawn away into false teaching and beliefs. This phenomenon is not unique to South Asia, but it is present in South Asia. Some examples of false teaching in South Asia include the prosperity gospel, Oneness Pentecostalism, and liberation theology. These false teachings are often attractive when we lack strong biblical foundations. Various cults, such as Jehovah’s Witness and Mormons, have found their way into South Asia. Studying theology helps us think clearly about how to respond appropriately to these groups.
  3. To help us think clearly about God and doctrine. All of us practice theology, meaning that every person has ideas about God and what is true. The act of studying theology provides a process to ensure that the study of theology is done well. It is inherently a good thing to understand God well. As we understand Him, our hearts turn towards Him in worship! Right thinking about God guides us in walking rightly in the world. Likewise, the study of various doctrines guides us to think clearly about doctrines such as sin, angels, or prayer. While understanding does not necessarily lead to obedience, it helps us walk rightly with God.

Four Ways Christians Should Study Systematic Theology

  1. With Bible Study. Like the Bereans (Acts 17:11), we should go straight to Scripture when hearing teaching to learn from the Word whether or not it is true. Before embarking on a study of systematic theology, it is necessary to have a deep knowledge of God’s Word.
  2. With Prayer. The Spirit guides us into all truth (John 16:13). Any pursuit of truth must begin with prayer and be bathed in prayer.
  3. With Humility. “Knowledge puffs up” (1 Cor 8:1). Remember that “God has chosen what is foolish in the world” (1 Cor 1:27). Too often, a study of theology leads to pride, much like the Pharisees of the New Testament. Their pride led to an outward religion that lacked an inward spirituality. We must approach a study of theology with soft hearts, eager to learn from God and others. As God teaches us, we should seek to grow in love and humility, rather than pride.
  4. With Others. Studying theology with others protects us from false belief. If we hold a view that is contrary to other Christians that we respect, then we should humbly dialogue with them and have an openness in our hearts that we are the ones requiring correction. 

Islamic Theology vs. Christian Theology

Islamic theology and Christian theology differ in their presuppositions. This theological study is built on two presuppositions. Here they are compared to Islamic presuppositions.

Christian PresuppositionsIslamic Presuppositions
1. The Bible is true and is the only standard of truth.1. The Qur’an is true and is the primary standard of truth.
2. The God who is spoken of in the Bible exists. He is who the Bible says He is, the Creator of heaven and earth and all things in them.2. The God who is spoken of in the Qur’an exists. He is who the Qur’an says he is, the Creator of heaven and earth and all things in them.

While these presuppositions are almost identical, the change from the Bible to the Qur’an as the standard of truth leads to very different theological conclusions. In reality, a third presupposition should be added here about the importance of Jesus in Christian theology versus Muhammad in Islamic belief. I

t is not surprising that a large portion of disagreements between Christians and Muslims center on debates of whether the Bible or the Qur’an is the Word of God. I hope to write more blog posts on that subject.

In South Asian Islam, it is also helpful to know how most Muslims relate Qur’anic teaching to practical living. In Islam, there are four major schools of teaching/jurisprudence (Ar. fiqh). Each of these schools of Islamic thought approach Scripture in different ways. In South Asia, the primary approach is called Hanafi, which comes from Abu Hanifa (d. 767 AD) of Persia. About a third of Muslims in the world are Hanafi, making this the most common fiqh. In South Asia, the Deobandis, Barelvis, Tablighi Jamaat, Sufis, and most others are Hanafi. In contrast, Zakir Naik and some other movements are Salafi, which is heavily opposed to Hanafi Islam. 

In simple terms, Hanafi fiqh permits integrating local practices into Islam (e.g., dargahs). Hanafi fiqh is one reason folk practices are so common in South Asian Islam. Here are the sources of authority in Hanafi Islam listed in descending degrees of authority.

  • The Qur’an is the highest authority.
  • The Hadith is the secondary authority. Zakir Naik and other Salafis reject any authorities past this point.
  • Qiyas. A qiyas is a deductive analogy based on the Qur’an and Hadith. The original jurists, such as Abu Hanifa, wrote the apply the Qur’an and Hadith to issues not addressed in the Qur’an and Hadith. To do so, they used deductive reasoning (i.e., qiyas). The writings of these ancient jurists are foundational today for Islamic theology and practice. How Abu Hanafi interpreted and applied the Qur’an is considered by most to be authoritative in South Asia.
  • Ijtihad. An Ijtihad is the independent reasoning of a Mufti in response to a particular question. Usually, an ijtihad is a significant literary work. A good example in South Asia would be Ahmad Raza Khan Bareilvi’s writings on Muhammad existing as pure light from the beginning of creation. Khan’s writings on this subject have become a source of authority within the Barelvi movement.

Today, most Muslims in South Asia resolve their theology questions by asking for fatwas by Muftis. A Mufti is a highly educated Islamic scholar. Muslims will regularly write questions to these Muftis and ask for legal judgments (i.e., fatwas). For example, recently, some Muslims asked whether it is permissible to use alcoholic hand sanitizer during the Covid pandemic. Deobandi muftis wrote a fatwa calling this halal (Arabic for “permitted”) since no alcohol would be imbibed. The type of alcohol in hand sanitizer is different from that in alcoholic drinks. Likewise, they said it is permissible to sanitize mosques with alcoholic sanitizer. These Deobandi muftis based their opinions on all of the relevant information from the sources of authority above. The writing of fatwas like these also becomes another source of authority in South Asian Islamic practice. Often different schools of South Asian Islam write fatwas directly in contradiction of one another, especially the Deobandi and Barelvi schools. 

For Christians ministering among Muslims, it isn’t easy to navigate all of these sources of authority. However, most Muslims in South Asia are likewise ignorant of these books. Most have never read the Qur’an or Hadith, much less these other writings. Also, most South Asian Muslims believe that the Qur’an should only be read in Arabic. Since most South Asian Muslims do not read Arabic, they are, in essence, cut off from their primary source of authority. Instead, their religious leaders are their source of authority.

Compared to the layers of Islamic authority, studying and applying the Bible to our lives is relatively simple. While we value studying Scripture in its original Greek (New Testament) and Hebrew (Old Testament), we believe that God can speak to us through His Word in translated languages. The reasons that we think this will become clear in the next few weeks as we study the doctrine of Scripture.


[1] Please note that this process is different than what Grudem describes.

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Systematic Theology Course

A women’s Bible study in South Asia.

“What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, commit to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”

2 Timothy 2:2 (CSB)

I am embarking on a theological education course with my disciples that will take a little over a year. Next week, I plan to begin teaching through Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. I will make a weekly audio recording of these teachings, which I plan to upload to YouTube. I intend that each recording will cover one chapter. However, some chapters (such as the Person of Christ) will undoubtedly take more than one week. After I upload this recording, I will meet with a core of disciples to discuss this teaching. Each week, these brothers intend to make a recording in Urdu on the same subject. In this blog post, I am sharing why I am embarking on this process.

When the apostle Paul wrote 2 Timothy, he was preparing to die at the Roman government’s hands. He wrote to Timothy, his “dearly loved son” (1:2), calling him to Rome to give him final instructions before his death.

Throughout 2 Timothy, Paul emphasizes the passing of his teaching and his apostolic mission to Timothy. 2 Timothy was a succession letter. As Paul prepared to die, Timothy and others would take up his mission to the Gentiles. As Paul modeled, they would pioneer new places with the gospel, make disciples, and establish new churches.

One aspect of Timothy’s succession was a continuation of Paul’s teaching through Timothy. In 2 Timothy 1:13-14, Paul admonished Timothy,

“Hold on to the pattern of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit through the Holy Spirit who lives in us.”

God entrusted this deposit to Paul (1:12). Through years of service together, Paul impressed his “teaching, conduct, purpose, faith” to Timothy (3:11). In 2 Timothy 1:13-14, Paul called on Timothy to continue in this teaching. Then in 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul commanded Timothy to continue to give that trust to others. Just as Paul developed other leaders, including both missionaries and pastors, Timothy was to do the same. In this way, the Pauline mission would continue and grow. Entrusting this teaching to others was one way that Timothy guarded the good deposit he received from Paul.

Paul’s mentorship of Timothy is a picture of our vision. An essential part of the missionary task is to develop more missionaries, just as Paul developed Timothy. To reach the Muslims of South Asia, we need to build local missionaries who can continue the core missionary task among Muslims. In training local workers, I need to explain where I see theological education like this and where it fits in the process. 

Here is our current discipleship plan for when a new Muslim-background believer chooses to follow Jesus. It is in three steps.

First, we teach them the 7 Commands of Christ.

  1. Repent and Believe – Luke 19:1-10
  2. Take Baptism – Acts 8:26-38
  3. Pray – Matthew 6:5-15
  4. Go and Make Disciples – John 4
  5. Love – Luke 10:25-37
  6. Take the Lord’s Supper – Luke 22:14-22
  7. Give – Luke 21:1-4

We teach the 7 Commands by helping new disciples first memorize the Bible story. Some can read the story for themselves, but many new believers are illiterate and require significant repetition to remember. After they learn the story, we ask four basic Bible study questions:

  • What do we learn about God?
  • What do we learn about people?
  • Is there anything we should stop doing?
  • Is there anything we should start doing?

The 7 Commands’ goal is to help new believers become obedient to the basic actions of the Christian life. As we teach these 7 Commands, we follow a pattern to help them grow in obedience. We begin each meeting by asking them how they obeyed the previous teachings. Then we teach the next command. Third, we make a concrete plan about how to obey the new command. In this way, we can help new believers become obedient to follow Jesus over their first month in Christ. At the end of this process, these believers are regularly studying the Word, praying, loving their families and neighbors, sharing the gospel, and meeting with others.

Second, after the Seven Commands, we continue to pour in Bible knowledge. We usually do this by teaching book-by-book through Scripture. The Gospel of Matthew is a typical go-to book after a Muslim first follows Jesus. During this time, the new believer continues to walk out the 7 Commands and make disciples of others, while growing in the Word.

Third, the formation of local churches is always the goal! Local churches are where long-term discipleship and teaching continues. Some new believers will emerge as leaders and desire more long-term training and instruction to grow as missionaries or pastors. This systematic theology course fits within this last category.

Therefore, this Systematic Theology course is designed and aimed at a particular group of believers. It is for those who are already doing the Great Commission among Muslims. This course is not basic discipleship but rather a next step for developing faithful partners in the work.

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Bible Question: How Old was Timothy?

Friends and coworkers send me biblical questions on a fairly regular basis. Some of these questions are helpful for others as well. So, as I have a chance, I will put my answers here as well.

This morning, a colleague asked me, “How old do you think Timothy was when he started with Paul and at the writing of 1 Timothy? I’m seeing most people say he got picked up between the age 16-21 and was somewhere between 30-40 when he received 1 Timothy. Are there any textual clues so that we can know?”

There are three things that help us known Timothy’s age: (1) the Pauline chronology as it relates to Acts 16:1-3 and 1 Timothy and (2) 1 Timothy 4:12 where Paul commanded Timothy, “Don’t let anyone despise your youth” (CSB), and (3) indications from Acts 16:1 and Roman culture about the minimum age Timothy could have been when he joined Paul’s team.

The Pauline Chronology

For the sake of simplicity, I am going to refer to Eckhard Schnabel’s Chronology of Early Christian History that appears in the introduction to his commentary on Acts. In that chronology, Schnabel said Paul received Timothy on his team in 49-50 AD. This event occurs in Acts 16:1-3 when Paul picked up Timothy from Lystra. Schnabel said that Paul wrote 1 Timothy in 64-65 AD. For this date, Schnabel assumes that Paul had a first Roman imprisonment during which he wrote Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon. After the captivity described in Acts, Schnabel argues that Paul was released and had another period of ministry, during which time he wrote 1 Timothy and Titus. Then Paul was arrested again. During this second arrest, Paul wrote 2 Timothy shortly before his death.

Therefore, for determining Timothy’s age, we can assume that he had been a companion of Paul for about fifteen years by the time Paul wrote 1 Timothy to him.

1 Timothy 4:12 and Timothy’s Youthfulness

Paull called Timothy a “youth” in 1 Timothy 4:12. We should ask ourselves what the Greek term for “youth” meant in the context of the ancient Roman world. The Greek term is neotes, which is a cognate of the Greek term neophyte. The only other times that that neotes occurs in the New Testament is in reference to the rich young ruler who claimed to follow God’s commands “from my youth” (Mark 10:20; Luke 18:21) and Paul who referred to “my manner of life from my youth” in his defense before Agrippa (Acts 26:4). 

Here are two clues from ancient texts that show how youth was understood in Roman times.

  1. The Relics of the Elders that states “But that the age of thirty years is the prime of a young man’s ability, and that it reaches even to the fortieth year, every one will allow.”[1]
  2. Irenaeus’ (c. 130-202 AD) Against Heresies referred to Jesus as a youth *Gr. neophytes). “On completing His thirtieth year He suffered, being in fact still a young man, and who had by no means attained to advanced age. Now, that the first stage of early life embraces thirty years, and that this extends onwards to the fortieth year, every one will admit; but from the fortieth and fiftieth year a man begins to decline towards old age” (2.2.5).

In these texts, a thirty-year-old man is at the peak of his youth. A man can also be considered a youth until the age of forty. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that Timothy was up to forty years old when receiving 1 Timothy. 

How young could Timothy have been in Acts 16?

Another question that we should ask is how young Timothy could have been when Paul took him along as a companion in Acts 16:1-3. Here are two indications from ancient Roman culture.

  1. Roman men would marry as young as sixteen.[2]
  2. Youth in their teens (or younger) were often given as apprentices to learn trades to begin earning for their families. For example, Lucian (c. 125-180) wrote about the family decision to have him become an apprentice to a sculptor. He wrote, “As soon as I finished elementary school, since I had now reached my teens years, my father discussed with his friends what training he should now give me. To most of them, higher education seemed to require much labor, considerable time, no small expense and an illustrious position, while our family fortunes were small and needed some quick assistance.”[3] Thus, as a teenager, Lucian was sent away from his home to become an apprentice to a sculptor. 

In the same way, Paul was taking Timothy along as an apprentice missionary. From a cultural perspective, it is not unreasonable that his parents would have sent him away with Paul as a teenager.

However, there are a few textual clues that indicate a minimum age for Timothy as well.

  1. Timothy was literate. We know this since he was listed as a co-author of six of Paul’s letters. It is doubtful that Paul provided this education. Therefore, it is likely that Timothy had significant education before he joined Paul’s team. In the first century, literacy was not assumed. To be helpful as a co-author of the epistles means that Timothy had more than a basic education. 
  2. The believers in Lystra and Iconium spoke well about Timothy (Acts 16:1). This means that Timothy received a commendation from these local churches as being a good candidate to join Paul’s team. The fact that the churches in two cities spoke well of Timothy is significant. These two cities were 60 miles apart. The fact that believers of both cities spoke well of him as a potential missionary apprentice implies that he had travelled back and forth and had probably played some local ministry role before joining Paul’s team. 

Summarizing all of these indications from the text and from ancient Roman culture, it is very doubtful that Timothy was younger than sixteen when he joined Paul’s team. Considering the fact that he was known in both Lystra and Derbe and may have been involved in local ministry makes it seem likely that he was older than sixteen. 

Conclusion

We have three pieces of information. 

  1. Timothy had been traveling with Paul for fifteen years by the time he received 1 Timothy.
  2. In 1 Timothy 4:12, Timothy was referred to as a youth. This means that he was probably younger than forty when he received this letter.
  3. It is doubtful that Timothy was younger than sixteen when he joined Paul’s team.

Considering these three pieces of information, the most likely age ranges are that Timothy was 16-24 when he joined Paul’s team and 31-39 when he received 1 Timothy.

Why is this significant? This means that Paul modeled the power of missionaries taking young men onto their teams to train. Over years, Paul poured his life into Timothy. By the time he wrote 2 Timothy, Paul was ready to give his entire ministry to Timothy. Paul was willing to give substantial authority and responsibility to a young man who had good character when he joined Paul’s team. This is a great example for us today for leadership development.


[1] See William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 258. I have been unable to locate the ancient source, The Relics of the Elders that Mounce referenced.

[2] Jo-Ann Shelton, As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History. Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 31.

[3] Ibid., 112.


 [ED1]link

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Spiritual Warfare in Ephesians (Part 3 of 3)

Picture of Babajan Dargah in Pune, India. Babajan was a female Sufi mystic who came from Afghanistan. 
Photography By AshishCHACKO. Used by permission from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Babajan_Dargah_Camp.jpg.

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavens.”

Ephesians 6:12 (NASB)

This post is part three of three posts on Spiritual Warfare in Ephesians. Click here for Part one. Click here for part two.

Ephesians 6:10-20 is the most comprehensive teaching on spiritual warfare in Ephesians. Let us look at six keys to spiritual warfare from this text. Three of these keys were in a previous post. Here are the final three. 

Put on the full armor of God. God has provided what we need for this fight. However, it is our responsibility to use what He has already given us. Here is a list of the armor of God:

  1. Loins girded with the truth (6:14).
  2. The breastplate of righteousness (6:14).
  3. Feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace (6:15).
  4. The shield of faith (6:16).
  5. The helmet of salvation (6:17).
  6. The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (6:17). 

Each of these pieces of armor is symbolic of our spiritual lives. We do not actually have a breastplate of righteousness. However, walking in righteousness protects us in spiritual warfare just as a breastplate protects a soldier. This means that if we have sin in our lives, we leave ourselves vulnerable to the enemy. One of our most potent tools in spiritual warfare is genuine repentance. Consider Hezekiah, who “tore his clothes, covered himself with sackcloth and entered the house of the Lord” when the Assyrian army reached Jerusalem (2 Kings 19:1). Hezekiah took the enemy’s letter to the temple and spread it before the Lord, acknowledging that God was the true King” (2 Kings 19:14-15). God answered Hezekiah’s repentance by sending the angel of the Lord to strike down 185,000 Assyrian soldiers, decimating their army (2 Kings 19:35).

Likewise, the shield of faith’s purpose is “to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (Eph 6:16). We trust in God that He can protect us and defend us. If our faith grows weak, our first step is to stop and seek Him. Abiding in Christ by faith and righteousness are some of our greatest spiritual weapons in this battle.

I once heard a sermon on spiritual warfare that there are two types of Christians. One type are Christians who face a spiritual problem and then need to go get on their spiritual armor. They are not regularly in the Word and prayer. Perhaps there is sin in their life. Their feet are not daily shod with the preparation to share the gospel. When these Christians face spiritual problems, they have to first go and draw close to Christ. They need to repent and rebuild disciplines of prayer and Bible study.

In contrast, other Christians daily stand in Christ. They are regular in Bible study and prayer. They are filled with faith and walking in righteousness. When a spiritual attack comes against these Christians, they are immediately ready to respond. Paull was this second type. When they beat him and locked him up in Philippi, his heart was so full of Jesus that he and Silas spent the night praying and worshipping. The Lord answered with an earthquake (Acts 16:25-26). Let us also strive to follow the example of Paul. The first step is to simply walk with Christ every day and be filled up with Him. In other words, put on the full armor of God.

Our struggle is not against flesh and blood. Sometimes, when we face persecution or spiritual problems, we can begin to see people as our enemy rather than the spiritual forces of darkness. It would have been easy for Paul to see the guards and the Roman government as his opponents, but he did not. He viewed his imprisonment as an opportunity to proclaim the gospel, both to the guards (Phil 1:15) and government leaders while on trial (2 Tim 4:16-18).  

In today’s rationalistic age, we often see spiritual issues as the last potential answer. For example, if we become sick, we often turn to earnest prayer and fasting only after exhausting medical solutions. My wife and I are a good picture of this dichotomy. Once, we were traveling in the Middle East. One of our travel companions was detained by the police at the airport. My first instinct was how to find a phone and figure out who we needed to call to help our friend. My wife’s first instinct was to pray. Clearly, my wife was the one who acted wisely.

This point is especially true when we consider Muslims and Islam. Many people have come to see Muslims as their enemy. They see Muslims as an evil invading force that must be stopped. Others take a more nuanced view that sees the majority of Muslims as peace-loving people and only a minority of Muslims who practice an aberration of radical Islam as the enemy.[1] According to Paul, no Muslims are our enemy. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood. 

Instead, I have grown to see Muslims as people for whom Jesus has died. Muslims are in bondage to Islam. Islam is a system that holds captive almost two billion people around the world. Every Muslim is created in God’s image. God loves them and created them to know Him. Muslims are not our enemy. Instead, they are victims of the spiritual forces of darkness who are deceiving them. Like Paul, we should not fight against Muslims, but instead, pray for them and ask God to allow us to make the gospel known to them.

Pray. After admonishing the Ephesians to put on the full armor of God and to stand, Paul called them to prayer. In a prayerless state, the gospel will not advance against the spiritual powers of darkness. Sometimes a dichotomy is seen between two types of spiritual leaders. One has a brilliant strategy, but little prayer. He spends his days devising better and better plans. But he lacks the spiritual power and vitality to overcome the spiritual forces holding people in bondage. The other has little strategy but is mighty in prayer. The second person is preferable to the first. However, it is best if the strategist and the prayer warrior are brought together.

In the body of Christ, the strategist and the prayer warrior work together to advance the gospel. This is not an excuse for the strategist to be weak in prayer. In fact, his best strategy will come as he abides in Christ and is guided by Him. After all, God’s Word says that He chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise (1 Cor 1:27). God does not need our wisdom and insight. However, as we abide in Him, we pray that God will show us the strategy that He desires. In Paul, we are given a model of a man who was both a prayer warrior and a strategist. Let us follow his example in making disciples of all nations.


[1] It is certainly my experience that the average Muslim in South Asia simply wants to live in peace. They want the opportunity to help their children get good educations to get good jobs and live a stable life, and meaningfully contribute to society. 

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Spiritual Warfare in Ephesians (Part 2 of 3)

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavens.”

Ephesians 6:12 (NASB)

This post is part two of three posts on Spiritual Warfare in Ephesians. Click here for Part one.

Ephesians 6:10-20 is the most comprehensive teaching on spiritual warfare in Ephesians. Let us look at six keys to spiritual warfare from this text. Three of these keys are in this post and three will be in the next post. 

Keep first things first. Focus on proclaiming the gospel and making disciples just as Paul did when he went to Ephesus. Be ready to deal with spiritual warfare as it comes. In the armor of God of Ephesians, there is only one weapon, “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (6:17). Paul’s purpose was to make the gospel known everywhere for everyone. The first step in spiritual warfare is to simply “Go and make disciples.” In this way, I have heard of spiritual warfare being likened to mosquitos. We do not go out looking to fight with mosquitos; instead, we deal with them as they come. In the same way, we do not go hunting for spiritual forces. Instead, we focus on our commission from the Lord and deal with spiritual forces if they seek to impede our mission.

Paul models an emphasis on proclamation well in this passage. From jail in Rome, his prayer request was not for release from imprisonment nor provision nor comfort. Instead, he wrote, “pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in proclaiming it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak” (6:19-20). Paul kept the first things first, despite his circumstances. He focused on making the gospel known to those who had not heard. Let us also follow his example.

Stand. In this passage, the command “Stand” is given three times (6:11, 13, 14). This passage’s primary picture is of a phalanx of soldiers standing in formation together against their enemy. In battle, the goal is to be the last group standing. Boxing provides a good picture of us. The boxer who falls down for ten seconds loses. However, if they continue to get up and stand, the fight continues. In the same way, goal #1 of spiritual warfare is to continue to stand in Christ.

Again, Paul provides a beautiful model for us. Indeed, the spiritual forces of darkness were seeking to trouble Paul. He had faced beatings, shipwrecks, and every possible danger. When he wrote this letter, he had been in jail for years. Yet he stood in Christ. The enemy could not knock him down. Despite his external circumstances, Paul stood firm in his faith. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul noted that his imprisonment led to the gospel spreading faster (Phil 1:12-14)!

Please permit me to share an analogy from the Rocky movies. In those movies, Rocky continued to get up no matter what happened. By the end of each film, he had been severely beaten. His opponents were likewise beaten down. Rocky was simply the one who outlasted his opponent. When we consider the apostle Paul, he was like Rocky. He was knocked down continuously through various attacks and troubles. However, he continued to stand up. In spiritual warfare, follow Paul’s example. Stand firm!

Stand together. One of the most common misperceptions about Ephesians 6:10-17 is that it is an individual’s activity. However, the text clarifies that standing in spiritual warfare is best done as the body of Christ stands together. One reason for this misperception is that English only has one word for “you,” while Greek has two. In Greek, there is a different form for a singular “you” and a plural “you.” In this passage, Paul often uses something we call a collective singular. Let me give you an example. “Put on the full armor of God” sounds in English like something an individual should do. However, an interpretive translation to bring out the collective singular would be like this, “You all put on the single full armor of God.” In the text, “full armor of God” is singular, meaning there is one armor. “You all” are told to put it on. In fact, every command in this passage is best read as a group undertaking this activity together. You all put on the breastplate of righteousness. You all shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace. You all take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit.

We make a mistake when we believe that we need to stand alone in spiritual warfare. God has made us all together as the body of Christ. Again, the picture of this passage is of a group of soldiers standing together against their enemy. A single solder, by themselves, standing against an advancing force is vulnerable. It is difficult for them to stand. Therefore, soldiers are trained to fight together. In the same way, the body of Christ is called to stand and fight together. From jail in Rome, Paul called the Ephesian believers to join in his spiritual fight by prayer (6:18-20). Likewise, Paul labored in prayer for the Ephesians (1:15-23; 3:14-19).

Click here to go to part three and read three keys to spiritual warfare from Ephesians 6:10-20.

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Spiritual Warfare in Ephesians (Part 1 of 3)

Picture of Babajan Dargah in Pune, India. Babajan was a female Sufi mystic who came from Afghanistan.
Photography By AshishCHACKO. Used by permission from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Babajan_Dargah_Camp.jpg.

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavens.”

Ephesians 6:12 (NASB)

I remember my first visit to Kaliyar Sharif dargah in Uttarkhand, India. The Muslim saint, Alauddin Ali Ahmed Sabir Kalyari (d. 1291 AD), buried there is reputed to have power over demons. When Muslims in that area believe that a family member is demon-possessed, they often bring that family member to this saint’s tomb. Often, they even bind them with shackles, just like the man that Jesus freed from the legion of demons (Mark 5:1-20).

The Kaliyar Sharif dargah, like most dargahs, is a cluster of tombs of deceased Sufis. A colony has now emerged in the country around these tombs with hotels, restaurants, and shops. Every day, thousands of people come to these tombs, seeking blessings and miracles from the saints, who are still believed to be active from their graves. Inside the colony is the dargah itself. Everyone removes their shoes before entering. Shops line this inner area, selling topis, shawls, images, and other items that people buy to use in the tomb. A common activity is to buy something at a shop and bring it into the dargah. They believe it will absorb some of the place’s spiritual power (Urdu barkat) so that they can bring some of the tomb’s power home with them.

As you go past those shops, you reach a crowded courtyard. At the center of this courtyard is the actual tomb, usually inside of a small building. Muslim spiritual leaders, called pirs, take donations, pray for visitor’s needs, and make protective amulets, like tawiz, for those who come.

The first time I stepped into the courtyard, I was immediately almost knocked down by a woman rolling on the ground. I jumped out of the way before realizing that two women were writhing on the floor. Their hands were bound with shackles. A pir stood over them, authoritatively yelling in tongues.[1] Shocked, I began to pray, wondering what kind of spiritual darkness I had wandered into. 

Islam can be understood as a spiritual shackle that holds Muslims in bondage. As Paul shared in Ephesians 6:12, our fight is not with Muslims (i.e., “not with flesh and blood) but against the spiritual forces of darkness that hold Muslims in bondage. Much like the women shackled in that tomb, many Muslims are held as spiritual slaves to Islam. It is our calling to emancipate them from this darkness. 

The book of Ephesians is an excellent place to look for biblical counsel on what to do when we encounter spiritual darkness. Ephesus was home to the great temple of Artemis of the Ephesians (Acts 19:23-41). When Paul began his ministry in Ephesus, he started by sharing the gospel and making disciples (Acts 19:1-10). He did not start with a strategy of spiritual warfare. He was spiritually ready to stand in Christ when spiritual attacks came (Acts 19:11-20). The result was that “the word of the Lord was growing mighty and prevailing.” 

A few years after pioneering the gospel in Ephesus and planting churches there, Paul wrote a letter from prison to these believers. Paul showed them that God was building a temple in which he would dwell (Eph 2:19-22). This temple would be grander than the temple of Artemis of the Ephesians since Christ was seated at God’s right hand as the one who fills everything in every way (Eph 1:20-23). Throughout Ephesians, there are references to spiritual forces at work in the world (1:21; 2:2; 3:10; 6:12). Paul told the Ephesians, “you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord” (Eph 5:8). He then admonished them not to “participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness” (5:11). The Ephesians had previously been in bondage to these spiritual forces of darkness (Eph 6:12) but now had been saved by God’s grace (Eph 2:1-9).

This post is the first of three posts on spiritual warfare in Ephesians. Click here for part two. Click here for part three.

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[1] By tongues here, I mean that he was speaking in an unknown language similar to some interpretations of the biblical gift of tongues. It is possible that he was speaking in a language that I do not know. He was not speaking the languages of that area of India. 

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“Casteism” in South Asian Islam

Today, I am reading Sayyid Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi’s short book, Muslims in India. Nadwi (1914-1999), often known as Ali Miyan, was a renowned Islamic scholar from Lucknow who wrote over fifty books. He was considered a key leader in the Deobandi and Tablighi Jamaat movements. As I read, I am amazed at some of the blinders that he has in this book that prevented him from seeing his own prejudice.

Nadwi wrote that Indian Muslims have a “natural awareness of human dignity and equality” (61). He then elaborated that “Things like social exclusiveness or untouchability are completely foreign to Muslim society.” In brief, Nadwi argued in this book that Muslims stood for complete equality of all and had not fallen into the casteism of Hindus.

However, a few pages later, Nadwi noted two issues in South Asian Islam that are, in essence, caste-related. First, Nadwi noted that marriage among South Asian Muslims occurs only with others of “an equal genealogical status” (68). In anthropology, this is called endogamy, which is a group’s trait to only marry within their own group. The caste system in Hinduism is likewise propagated partly by ensuring that caste members do not marry outside of their caste. One particularly poignant example are the Sayyid, who are something like the Brahman of South Asian Islam.  

In South Asia, the Sayyid function something like the priestly class of Islam. Most believe that Sufi mystics (i.e., pirs) must be Sayyid. Sufi mystics serve as spiritual leaders in South Asian Islam who are mediators between man and God. Therefore, most South Asian Muslims think that only a particular caste of Muslims should be set apart for this vital role. Sayyid are understood to be descendants of the Qureshi Arab tribe, which is the same tribe that Muhammad was from. Therefore, within South Asian Islam, those descended from Muhammad are understood to be a superior caste with special privileges. In fact, Nadwi was Sayyid, meaning that it may have been difficult for him, being from a privileged caste, to see the casteism in his own belief system. Other Sayyids, such as Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan (d. 1898), were famous for their disdain of local converts to Islam, seeing them as second class Muslims.

The second issue that Nadwi noted is seen in this quote,

“The disgraceful treatment meted out to servants by their masters, which is sometimes so outrageous as to reduce the servants to the level of untouchables, is again, a product of the social impulses received from India together with being a mark of the general degeneration that had set in among the Muslims during the declining years of their power (68).”

This quote indicates that many Muslims in South Asia have adopted the South Asian attitude of casteism. Some individuals are privileged above others. In this mindset, the master is of more value than the servant. This mindset has continued in South Asia through the perpetuation of low castes within Islam. For example, Hindu haircutters in South Asia have traditionally been called Nai. When Nai converted to Islam in large numbers, they took the Arabic name Hazzam, while continuing to marry within their own community. If a young man is born into a Hazzam family,  he will also learn the family trade of haircutting. In South Asia, more and more individuals are breaking through the ceiling of their castes through education. However, the basic caste concept persists, even in Islam. In South Asia, many similar groups marry only within their own castes, which are defined by a particular trade. 

What does this mean for Christians who are ministering among the Muslims of South Asia? 

  1. We must not allow the sin of casteism to come into our hearts! We must treat every person with dignity and respect, despite how the society around them considers them. Every Muslim in South Asia, no matter their lineage or status, is created in God’s image. Since they bear God’s image, we are obligated to treat them as our neighbor and equal. We should show all Muslims the love that Jesus displayed when He died on the cross for our sins.
  2. Perhaps the most concrete action we can take to make sure that we do not fall into casteism is to really see the people around us. We should make a practice of looking past people’s jobs and status. We should see their faces and pray for them. As we see them, we will each struggle with questions of how to respond in the face of such great poverty and need. Often, we cannot provide solutions for every need that we see. However, we need to be willing to see the pain and the brokenness around us and bring it to Christ in prayer.
  3. The sin of casteism is alive and well among South Asian Muslims. As Muslims begin to follow Jesus, we must help them to set aside their casteism. 
  4. In Hinduism, those of low caste and untouchables have readily abandoned Hinduism. Some have followed Jesus, while others have become Muslims, Buddhists, or Sikhs historically. In contrast, few Brahman have chosen to follow Jesus. Similarly, it is likely that Muslims of “lower castes,” especially those who have been mistreated by other Muslims because of their status, will be most receptive to the gospel.
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A Missionary’s Reflection on Paul’s Letter to the Colossians

A Muslim woman shops at the bazaar outside the Jama Masjid of Delhi, India.

Paul’s driving purpose was to proclaim the gospel where Christ was not known. Paul understood himself as a servant who had a commission from God (Col 1:25a), therefore he operated with the authority and responsibility from God to fulfill his commission. In Colossians 1:25, that commission was “to fill up the word of God.” The context clarifies that Paul’s purpose of filling up the word of God among people groups who did not know the gospel. Paul described the word of God as a mystery that had been hidden but is now manifest to God’s people (1:26). The purpose of revealing this mystery is so that God’s people can make this mystery known among all the nations (1:27). Therefore, filling up the word of God meant bringing the word to peoples and places that did not know. 

Modern missionaries do well to emulate Paul’s missionary burden to proclaim Christ among peoples and in places where Christ has not been named. This is the singular purpose that drove Paul’s missionary journeys and propelled him to plant churches in pioneer areas. Since this is Paul’s missionary model, it is shocking that the vast majority of missionaries work in areas where the gospel is established rather than in pioneer areas among unreached peoples.

Paul’s missionary methods were not based only on his own efforts but also the efforts of his disciples.  Paul’s letter to Colossae demonstrates that Paul not only planted churches himself but trained and equipped others to plant churches. Before writing this letter, Paul had never visited Colossae. The believers in Colossae had never met Paul (Col 2:1). Instead, the Colossians heard the gospel from Epaphras, Paul’s dearly loved fellow servant (1:7). It is most likely that Epaphras was trained by Paul in Ephesus and sent out as a pioneer missionary. Paul sent out Epaphras and others like him to plant churches across Asia Minor (modern southwest Turkey). Acts 19:9-10 says,

“But when some became hardened and would not believe, slandering the Way in front of the crowd, he withdrew from them, taking the disciples, and conducted discussions every day in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for two years, so that all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord.”

The seven churches of Revelation (Rev 2-3) and others were likely planted by Paul’s coworkers during these two years. Paul won men to Christ, trained them, and sent them as pioneer missionaries. While Colossians is the most complete picture of a Pauline coworker planting a church, Paul sent other coworkers who also planted churches all across Asia Minor. In this way, “all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord.”

Colossians 1:3-8 describes Epaphras’ work. Epaphras shared the gospel (1:7). The gospel caused the Colossians to hope in heaven (1:5). This hope in heaven produced faith and love in the Colossians (1:4). Paul emphasized that the proclamation of the gospel led to a heavenly focus, which produced outward change in new believers. In Epaphras’’ ministry, pioneer evangelism that led into discipleship was the foundation for planting new churches.

Paul’s commission from God was to proclaim the gospel broadly to peoples who had never heard and to train others to do the same. Because of his expansive team of coworkers proclaiming the gospel in many places, Paul was able to say that the gospel “is bearing fruit and growing all over the world” (Col 1:6). And, “This gospel has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven” (Col 1:23).

In this short letter, Paul mentioned nine coworkers by name.[1] These men acted under Paul’s missionary leadership as part of his team. Modern missionaries do well to head Paul’s example of developing missionaries. By emulating Paul’s model of developing leaders, modern missionaries can evangelize broad geographic areas, like Asia Minor. As Paul modelled, modern missionaries develop leaders best in the trenches, leading by example.

In Colossians, Paul also provided a model of how to transcend present difficulties and remain focused on gospel advance. Paul was in jail when he wrote this letter (Col 4:3) and his disciple, Epaphras, was in jail with him (Philem 23). Although he was imprisoned for the gospel, Paul’s heart was free. No human bond or imprisonment could bar him from Jesus. A hymn about Jesus takes a central place in this epistle, reminding us of how Paul worshipped in jail at Phillip (Col 1:15-20; Acts 16:25). When reading this letter, one can almost hear Paul singing that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. I imagine that Paul’s evangelistic boldness while in jail presented a challenge for his jailers. They were at a loss about how to silence his witness for Christ.

Paul’s only prayer request in Colossians was that God would open a door for him to proclaim the gospel (Col 4:3-4). For Paul, imprisonment was merely one more opportunity to be a witness for Christ. No doubt, Paul was following Jesus’ directions in how to engage in missionary outreach. Our Lord Jesus said,

“They will hand you over to local courts and flog you in their synagogues. You will even be brought before governors and kings because of me, to bear witness to them and to the Gentiles. But when they hand you over, don’t worry about how or what you are to speak. For you will be given what to say at that hour” (Matt 10:17-19).

The irony is that the authorities arrested Paul and Epaphras to stop the advance of the gospel. These men used it as an opportunity for evangelism. Despite their imprisonment, the gospel was bearing fruit and increasing all over the world. The authorities could do nothing to stop the advance of the gospel. Christ was seated on His throne, and Paul was seated with him (Col 3:1).

The imprisonment of Paul and Epaphras became an opportunity for developing more leaders. One purpose of Paul’s letter was to establish Archippus as the leader at Colossae. Paul spoke to him, “Pay attention to the ministry you have received in the Lord, so that you can accomplish it” (Col 4:17). Also, Onesimus became a follower of Christ through Paul during this time. Paul wrote a letter to Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus to appeal for Onesimus to be released from slavery to become one of Paul’s missionary coworkers. Thus, the influence and reach of Paul’s team for the advancement of the gospel grew, despite his circumstances.

In summary, Paul’s driving purpose was to fill up the gospel among unreached peoples and places. In order to accomplish this purpose, Paul developed and sent leaders. He grew a team of coworkers who could fight with him for the advance of the gospel. In the same way, modern missionaries must take up their commission to make Christ known among unreached peoples and places and develop others to do the same. 


[1] Timothy (1:1), Epaphras (1:7; 4:12-13), Tychicus (4:7-8), Onesimus (4:9; Philem 10-18), Aristarchus (4:10; Philem 24), Mark (4:10; Philem 24), Justus (4:11), Luke (4:14; Philem 24), and Demas (4:14; Philem 24).