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Ilyas J. Dean/PAK/Newscom

Inside out

Religion | Missions, agencies and churches wrestle with controversial Muslim friendly translations of the Bible and fallout from 'insider movement' tactics

Issue: "Tick, tick, tick ...," May 7, 2011

Scott Seaton was a Presbyterian pastor in Atlanta in 1998, minding his own business, when he read an article in Evangelical Missions Quarterly about the "insider movement" in Muslim-majority countries-part of evangelists' efforts to be more culturally sensitive to Muslims they are trying to win to faith-for example, planting churches that aren't like Western chapels, but reflect local sensibilities, like sitting on the floor instead of in pews. The movement then was controversial, and 13 years later is increasingly so-and more widespread.

Insider movement adherents urge Muslim converts to retain their Muslim "culture," even continuing to call themselves Muslim, retain some Muslim practices, and remain in a mosque while acknowledging Jesus Christ as Lord personally, and most likely privately. At its extreme, individuals within the movement have published translations of the Bible that remove phrases supposedly offensive to Muslims, like "Son of God," which some Muslims claim is offensive because it insinuates that God had sex with Mary to create Jesus.

When Seaton read the piece, he chucked it aside. "It's on the other side of the world," he said to himself.

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But a few months later, one of the missionaries his Presbyterian church supported in a Muslim-majority country met with him to tell him about her work of making the gospel accessible to Muslims. What she was saying sounded a lot like the situation described in the EMQ article, he told her. "That's us," she replied. Seaton was surprised. He asked what he might find most controversial about what she was doing, and she told him it was probably the translations she and others were working on, which changed the familial language between Jesus and God. So Mark 1:11, where God's voice thunders from heaven, "You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased," would be translated, "You are my messiah, with you I am well pleased."

When Seaton related this story to me, he said, "You've crossed your Rubicon at that point. We in the [Seaton's denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America] have been unknowingly supporting this."

The insider movement is a growing challenge for churches and missions groups, one that they are just beginning to confront as they question missionaries in the field and learn to draw lines against apparent departure from biblical orthodoxy. In the years after Seaton's conversation with the missionary, the matter grew more pressing, more widespread. In 2001 Seaton became the head of Muslim ministry for his denomination's Atlanta-based mission agency, Mission to the World (MTW). In 2003, Milton Coke of Global Partners for Development approached the missions agency about supporting a Bengali (or Bangla) language translation that he and others were working on to reach Muslims in Bangladesh. According to Seaton,"They really wanted MTW's imprimatur."

But the mission agency balked, believing that the translation changed the familial language between God the Father and God the Son. MTW sent Seaton along with two others to Bangladesh with Coke to investigate. Seaton said his suspicions were confirmed, and MTW refused to support the work.

Coke and others working on the Bible in Bangladesh published their translation in 2005, though it had no copyright information that would identify the group or individuals behind the Bible. But in a June 8, 2005, email to supporters, Coke wrote about the new Bibles: "10,000 copies printed this month in India are in danger of falling into hostile hands, so please pray these can be moved and quickly distributed through our network." He also referred to "traditional Christian attacks" on the translation.

Later that month, The Bangladesh Bible Society published in a Bangladeshi newspaper a legal notice-essentially a formal letter of protest-voicing its displeasure with the translation, saying it had been done without the society's consultation or approval. The ad said the "controversial" translation "could lead to misunderstanding. . . . Our client has serious objection to such activities and is, therefore, asking the people involved in production and distribution of the aforesaid version of the Holy Bible to desist from further translation, printing, publishing, or marketing the same and to retract from market all such controversial and objectionable copies." It was signed by Massod Sobhan, a lawyer for Sobhan & Sobhan, on behalf of the Bangladesh Bible Society. Critics believe that Westerners financed the translation.

Coke, reached by email for comment, declined to answer questions on the record for this story. Global Partners for Development Form 990 for 2004, though, lists him as the only paid employee of the organization and shows income to the organization just prior to when the new Bibles were printed rose from $580,000 to $780,000.

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