Pursuing Integrated Identity in Christ in Ministry to Muslims
Many Muslims have come to faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior in our generation— God be praised. Duane Miller and Patrick Johnstone have completed an exhaustive, country-by-country count of believers in Christ from a Muslim background. They estimated there are 10,284,200 of these believers in 2010. Many of Christ’s servants have labored sacrificially in our lifetime and in prior generations to bring this fruition to reality. As a Muslim-background Christian, I thank those who have laid down their lives serving Muslims with the gospel.
With those victories have come thorny issues. How should new believers in Christ from the Muslim community identify themselves? How should they be identified by others? Are the new believers actually still Muslims? Could an individual be considered a Muslim in the collective sense, while individually being a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ? What about timing? Should allowances made for short-term periods of transition be extended indefinitely?
These are just some of the contemporary pressing questions in ministry to Muslims. Those involved in direct (face-to-face, or hijab-to-face) ministry to Muslims realize these are not merely hypothetical questions, but enigmas with potentially life-and-death repercussions. These questions hold dramatic implications for discipleship and extending Christ’s Kingdom into the Muslim world.
Like mountain ranges formed by the collision of great tectonic plates, the particular questions related to identity continue to be thrust to the top in this discussion. In this article, I plan to do the following: 1.) define the concept of identity; 2.) consider key issues related to identity in ministry to Muslims; 3.) evaluate current missiological thinking that results in “permanent identity bifurcation;” and, 4.) recommend the pursuance of an “Integrated Identity in Christ” (IIC) model as the best identity paradigm for ministry to Muslims. Indeed, this is the type of model Muslim-background believers in Christ globally are already pursuing and creating.
2. Defining the Elusive Term Identity
I consider identity a reflexive concept with individual and group dimensions. For the purposes of this paper, I define identity as: “one’s self-perception and how he or she is perceived by others, as well as how the groups to which the individual belongs perceive themselves, and how these groups are perceived by others.” My usage of identity can thus best be represented in a four-quadrant matrix:
Every person maintains multiple identities simultaneously. These identities include: vocational identity; ethnic identity; socio-economic status identity; birth order identity; gender; and, spiritual/faith identity. Likewise, people simultaneously perceive themselves as possessing a variety of collective identities and group affiliations or associations.
This paper will focus on spiritual identity. For individuals and groups, their spiritual identity may change as their spiritual allegiance changes. Other aspects of identity, such as ethnicity, are unchangeable.
3. Key Identity Issues in Ministry to Muslims
3.1 The Place of Identity in the Bible and the Qur’an
The concept of identity lies just below the surface of both the Bible and the Qur’an. These two books, which anchor the two largest religions in the world, seek to shape self-perception at the core spiritual level for both individuals and groups. Neither book uses identity as a featured, stand-alone term, but one could argue its inferential importance at many turns. For instance, when Paul writes, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17, NASB throughout), he obviously intends to describe and shape the identity of new believers in Christ. In the Qur’an, Allah states, “This day I have perfected for you your religion and completed My favor upon you and have approved for you Islam as [your] religion” (Sura 5:3, A. Yusuf Ali translation throughout). Again, the text propels identity in a certain direction. By this line of reasoning, much of the Bible and the Qur’an can be interpreted as addressing identity issues.
3.2 The Impact of Apostasy Laws on Identity in Muslim Contexts
The Islamic Law of Apostasy presents ministry challenges in many ministry contexts—even if those contexts are not technically under Shari’ah Law. Muhammad himself created, implemented and modeled the position on apostasy he required the umma (Muslim community) to perpetuate. According to Muhammad’s statement in Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 52, Number 260:
“The Prophet said, ‘If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.’”
A number of Qur’anic verses mete out severe penalties for apostasy. Sura 4:89 seems to close the door on any claims that Islam does not prescribe the death penalty for converts:
They but wish that ye should reject Faith, as they do, and thus be on the same footing (as they): But take not friends from their ranks until they flee in the way of God (From what is forbidden). But if they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them; and (in any case) take no friends or helpers from their ranks.
Some modern Muslim apologists, as well as non-Muslim apologists for Islam, have asserted that Islam is a religion of peace, and can function in societies where there is freedom of religion. Such claims depart from classical Islamic teaching. As Mawdudi, the great Islamic scholar of South Asia in the twentieth century, explains:
To everyone acquainted with Islamic law it is no secret that according to Islam the punishment for a Muslim who turns to kufr (infidelity, blasphemy) is execution. Doubt about this matter first arose among Muslims during the final portion of the nineteenth century as a result of speculation. Otherwise, for the full twelve centuries prior to that time the total Muslim community remained unanimous about it. The whole of our religious literature clearly testifies that ambiguity about the matter of the apostate’s execution never existed among Muslims. The expositions of the Prophet, the Rightly-Guided Caliphs (Khulafa’-i Rashidun), the great Companions (Sahaba) of the Prophet, their Followers (Tabi’un), the leaders among the mujtahids and, following them, the doctors of the Shari’ah of every century are available on record. All these collectively will assure you that from the time of the Prophet to the present day one injunction only has been continuously and uninterruptedly operative and that no room whatever remains to suggest that perhaps the punishment of the apostate is not execution.
Islamic laws regarding apostasy tend to cause a paralyzing fear among Muslims, thus freezing their spiritual identity. These laws also set the backdrop for ministry to Muslims, and hence influence missiological thinking.
3.3 Concerns over Extraction and Expulsion
Missionaries naturally would like new converts to remain within their communities, being salt and light therein. Historically, this has proven difficult within Muslim contexts. During the Colonial era, nearly all Muslims lived under the rule of Europeans, who were viewed as Christians by local populations. When Muslim converts to Christ ended up living outside their birth communities, the question begged: “Did missionaries extract the converts, or did the umma expulse them?”
In the post-Colonial era, Western missionaries developed a consensus by the 1970s that missionary error—extractionism—was the cause of limited fruit in Muslim contexts. This errant thinking justified the radical experiment that new believers in Christ be encouraged to permanently retain Muslim identity. In reality, expulsion of converts by the umma was the primary cause of the problem. Missionary Sam Schlorff astutely states:
Clearly, it is the Shariah, especially the dhimmi system [Islamic governance of religious minorities] and the law of apostasy, that is primarily responsible for the extraction of the Muslim convert from his culture. ... Unfortunately, the widespread attempt to blame Muslim resistance to the gospel on missionary extractionism has encouraged younger missionaries to experiment in ways that can only be described as extreme.
This historical landscape describes the missional challenge in Muslim contexts and presages current missiological thinking.
4. Current Missiological Thinking
4.1 Insider Movements and Permanent Identity Bifurcation (PIB)
In the last several decades, advocates of insider movements (IM) have advanced a paradigm which claims to have largely solved this challenge. The IM paradigm discourages new believers from converting out of non-Christian religions, such as Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism, but rather encourages them to follow Jesus while remaining inside those religions. This paradigm, according to proponents John Travis and Dudley Woodberry, may result in fast-moving revivals that “grow like yeast.”
Insider theorist Rebecca Lewis penned a definition of insider movements at a consultation sponsored by the International Society of Frontier Missiology. One may observe that IM is not specific to Muslim contexts. Lewis defines “insider movements” as:
any movement to faith in Christ where a) the gospel flows through pre-existing communities and social networks, and where b) believing families, as valid expressions of the Body of Christ, remain inside their socio-religious communities, retaining their identity as members of that community while living under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible.
Lewis’ quote reveals that the IM paradigm has clear implications for identity. IM believers therefore retain their socio-religious identity—in this case, Muslim identity—though these believers have now come to believe in the Bible and Christ as Lord. Throughout this article, therefore, I will use the term Retentionism as short-hand for the permanent retention of Muslim identity by Christ-worshippers. It is the required IM position on identity according to the definition of IM proponents. Retentionism speaks to permanent states of identity, not temporary or transitional states that a person or persons in the process of conversion may undergo.
The term Christian is frequently a pejorative in most Muslim contexts. Hence, using a phrase that western evangelicals might understand and freely use, such as “becoming a Christian,” would likely be misunderstood and even frowned upon in Muslim contexts. Hence, Lewis uses “living under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible” as an alternative. Though IM manifestations are far from uniform, Lewis’ definition of IM requires permanent retention of Muslim identity. Thus, if the movement can be considered an insider movement, the local Muslim community must continue to see the IM participants as Muslims.
Muslims have historically refrained from conferring Muslim identity on those who believe God visited the earth in the form of the Divine Savior Jesus. In fact, adoption of this belief is considered shirk (associating partners with Allah) which is the unpardonable sin in Islam, according to Sura 4:116. In my own doctoral field research, I found that Muslims and Muslim scholars consider a Christ-worshipper to be a non-Muslim. To this date, I know of no Muslim scholar who is willing to extend Muslim identity to a person who worships Christ as Lord. This creates an irreconcilable tension for the viability of Retentionism. Islam was established by Muhammad and his followers to affirm absolute Divine Unity (Tawhid) and to forbid Trinitarianism, incarnational beliefs, and the worship of Christ. By promoting the existence of Christ-worshippers who are still Muslims, Retentionists have demolished the primary identity marker the umma has set up for itself. If the term Muslim could include a Christ-worshipper, then the term Muslim has lost all meaning.
The result of the missiological experimentation of the Retentionists is identity bifurcation. Believers see themselves as what Evangelicals may consider “Christian,” though these believers continue to identify themselves as Muslims publicly. Their Muslim family, friends and wider community may see them as Muslims. Since Retentionism describes permanent identity states (not transitional), I suggest that Retentionism promotes “permanent identity bifurcation” (PIB).
The IM paradigm suggests that one’s personal core identity (faith in one’s heart) need not correspond to external identities. While this may be a reality for many Muslim inquirers in the transitional stage, for the reasons stated below, I believe this model fails to hold long-term promise for healthy discipleship of those who are intent on following Christ as Lord.
4.2 Complications with Retentionism and PIB
Far from untying the Gordian Knot in ministry to Muslims, Retentionism has created or exacerbated several problems, including PIB. Muslim followers of Jesus have ostensibly believed in Christ as Lord in their hearts, but they still seek to retain Muslim identity status. The first problem is that the umma confers Muslim identity upon those who esteem Muhammad as a prophet, and Muhammad forbade the worship of Jesus Christ (see Sura 3:59; 5:72; 5:116).
Second, by seeking to permanently retain Muslim identity, IM participants will be inclined to disguise their true beliefs in Christ. This creates a permanent spiritual schizophrenic state marked by identity confusion. In my experience, I have observed that Muslims who are journeying toward Christ collapse emotionally if they do not get some type of resolution to this identity limbo. Successful new believers press on toward a new spiritual identity in Christ. They naturally would prefer to avoid rupture of their existing family and communal relationships, but realize that reactions to their newfound faith are largely outside their control.
Third, a problem exists when the Muslim community sees these new insider believers as something they are not. Don McCurry assesses the IM paradigm (which he terms as “model five... staying inside Islam”) as follows:
I cannot agree with model five...There is too much room for deception in this model. The unconverted Muslims can perceive these new ‘believers’ as Muslims, while the new ‘believers’ perceive themselves as Christians without the label....The whole witness to the truth of the Gospel is blunted by this total submersion within forms of Islam.
McCurry rightly points out the possibility of deception in this model. While Islam may allow for deception (taqiyya) in the promotion of Islam, the biblical approach rejects this. The New Testament history in Acts includes no precedent of the apostles hiding their identity to further the gospel or to avoid persecution.
The Retentionist paradigm endeavors that the umma would continue to see “Muslim Followers of Jesus” as Muslims. However, as stated above, if these believers have truly believed in the biblical narrative that God visited the earth in the form of Christ to save sinful humans, they are no longer Muslims. Their claim that they are still Muslims constitutes an ethical violation.
Fourth, the witnessing potential of these Muslim Followers of Jesus is weakened rather than strengthened by their pursuit of permanently retaining Muslim identity. A compromised believer lacks the witnessing conviction of a believer who has taken a strong stand for Christ. Fifth, Retentionism proposes that the ultimate “landing place” for Muslim seekers after Christ continues to be the Islamic mosque and the global umma. As such, these inquirers may never find their most appropriate permanent identity in the Body of Christ. This pitfall also mitigates against PIB being a holistic long-term missions model.
5. Pursuing Integrated Identity in Christ (IIC)
The long-term goal in ministry to Muslims should be modeling, mentoring and teaching integrated identity in Christ.
In this “Integrated Identity in Christ” (IIC) model, the believer finds his or her individual identity in Christ, and his or her collective spiritual identity in the Body of Christ. The groups of which they are a part likewise find their primary spiritual identity in Christ and are increasingly perceived as such by others. In the IIC model, identity is both integrated and converging upon Christ. As such, “integrated” is the opposite of “bifurcated; IIC constitutes the antithesis to PIB. The IIC model must be viewed from several lenses. Individually, the new believer finds his or her identity in Christ, growing closer to Christ and more like Christ in a transformational process. The new believer’s self-awareness and self-identity likewise mirror this transformation “from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18), since Christ Himself is “the Hope of Glory” (Col. 1:27). Duane Miller confirms that Christians of Muslim background are already pursuing a Christocentric emphasis:
The discourse, writings and liturgies of the CMB’s I studied tend to be Christocentric, meaning ‘those types of theology in which the person and work of Christ are the bases for all theological and ethical propositions.’ There is a strong tendency in these theologies to find all understanding about who and what God is like as seen through the person of Jesus. One of the consequences of the Christocentric tendencies I observed is that Muhammad entirely loses his status as the ideal man.” 
The family, friends and social circle of the new believer will inevitably become aware that this Christ-ward process is occurring in the life of the believer. This realization may be precipitated by the believer’s words or actions. Often the family and social circle will notice this change of behavior relatively quickly.
The collective process of transformation mirrors the individual process. The new groups of believers adopt a collective identity which also converges upon Christ. They no longer find their identity in the umma, since the umma is not Christ-centered. They are increasingly aware of themselves as forming a local expression of the global Body of Christ. Indeed, these groups find themselves stumbling upon the biblical ecclesiology that is absent in the IM model. Though they may not call themselves “churches,” and though they may meet on days other than Sunday, they are nonetheless ekklesia in the biblical sense. While I do not believe it is mandatory these new believers from a Muslim background, or their groups, use the identifier “Christian,” it is unethical for them to continue to identify themselves as “Muslims.” They simply are no longer Muslims in the eyes of the umma.
In places such as Iran and Algeria—contexts marked by minimal outside influence—this dynamic is actually being manifest. In Algeria, for example, the new believers are identifying as Masiheeyeen Judod, even though the term Christian is not a positive one in that context. In the contemporary revival in Iran, new believers in Christ have readily rejected Muhammad, the mosque, and Muslim identity.
Readers familiar with Muslim contexts will be aware that family or community ostracism, or outright physical persecution, may occur at any stage of this process. Yet, new believers in Christ from a Muslim background do well to realize that the community reaction to their newfound identity in Christ is largely out of their control. If they veer away from their Christ-ward pilgrimage in the face of this persecution, they will lose the ability to influence this community for Christ.
5.1 The IIC Model Moves New Believers from Christ-Followers to Christ-Worshippers
The expression “Follower of Jesus,” has become a bit trendy, even in the West, since it ostensibly wards off the dreaded associations of “religion.” Those promoting Retentionism prefer identifiers which use the term Muslim in the present tense. Examples include “Muslim Followers of Jesus” and “Messianic Muslim Followers of Isa.” Retentionists also seem to prefer the term “follower” of Jesus since that terminology does not necessarily contradict Islam.
I agree that being a Christ-follower is a valid biblical descriptor; for instance, Jesus simply told Matthew, “Follow me” (Mt. 9:9, see also Mt. 8:22). Nevertheless, this Christ-follower descriptor is less than optimal in Muslim contexts. In Islam, all prophets are believed to have brought forth a similar message of Tawhid and iconoclasm. Jesus, as a mortal prophet in Islam, is believed by Muslims to have brought forth the identical core message as Muhammad. As such, all traditional Muslims would de facto consider themselves “followers of Jesus,” even though they do not use this descriptor. That is, they follow the essential Qur’anic message preached by all mortal prophets, including Jesus.
When a term like “Muslim Follower of Jesus” is used in Muslim communities, Muslims will be inclined to think the person or group using this identifier is following the Islamic Jesus. This Islamic Jesus is only a prophet; he is not God; nor did he die on the cross. Meanwhile, the new believers may agree internally they are following the biblical Jesus. Again, the result is dissimulation and permanent identity bifurcation—PIB.
This simulated conversion between a hypothetical “Mustafa” and his father illustrates why the “Follower of Jesus” descriptor falls short in Muslim contexts:
Mustafa’s father: “Son, I am concerned you may be adopting some unusual beliefs. What is your religion?”
Mustafa: “I worship God. I am a Muslim follower of Jesus.”
Mustafa’s father: “We, too, are followers of Jesus and all the prophets. Tell me, son, have you become a Christ-worshipper?”
At this point, Mustafa’s father has made the issue crystal clear. Being a Christ-follower is not so bad in Islam—and could even be interpreted as being laudable. But to be a Christ-worshipper is forbidden. In terms of identity, is Mustafa willing to say he has a new identity in Christ, or is he merely content to hide behind his previous identity?
5.2 The IIC Model and the Inevitable Stress Points
Buildings and bridges are rated based on how well they can withstand the stresses of wind, earthquakes and tremors. For Muslims journeying to Christ, significant stress points emerge almost immediately. The largest and greatest stress point will always be whether believers place greater value on worshipping Christ than on family and community approval. This is the honor-shame issue wherein the honor of Christ may precipitate personal shame for the new believer. The sooner the believer and the believing group have settled this matter internally and externally, the easier their decision-making progress will be going forward.
For example, on the night of Jesus’ arrest, Peter was tracking Jesus, “following at a distance” (Luke 22:54). He still was holding out hope that he would be appointed by Jesus to a high position in a temporal kingdom in this world. Suddenly a major stress point came upon Peter at the camp fire as his allegiance to Christ was called into question. This seems to have caught Peter somewhat by surprise; he denied even knowing Jesus. When Peter came to realize what he had done, he wept bitterly. This type of challenge mirrors the stress point encountered by Muslim-background believers when they are challenged by friends, family, community and religious leaders regarding their choice to worship Jesus as the living God. In the IIC Model, the new believers are fortified by their union with Christ in successfully overcoming these stressful challenges.
5.3 Implementing the IIC Model through Identificational Disclipeship
The typical Western chronology of ministry progression is: evangelism, discipleship, church planting. First, Christ’s witnesses preach the gospel. Once souls are saved, they are discipled. Once enough people are discipled, a church is organized.
While this progression may work well in some contexts, it may not translate as well into Muslim contexts. Most Muslims exhibit a collectivist decision-making mindset. Due to this dynamic, decision-making in this context is more deliberate. Instantaneous decisions are rarely made. Furthermore, the Muslim inquirer will be vetting the gospel messenger or messengers (for credibility and possible future moral support) throughout this process.
Though it may seem counter-intuitive, I recommend that those serving Muslims think “discipleship- first” in relationships with Muslims. I call this discipleship-interaction “Identicational Discipleship,” which I define as: “An enduring relationship in which a Christian values, and seeks to enhance, the spiritual development of a Muslim or Muslims as if it were his or her own development.”
The closest human analogy to this discipleship paradigm can be found in parenting. Many parents are as concerned, if not more concerned, with the well-being of their children as compared to their own well-being. As in parenting, the enduring nature of the discipleship relationship between the Christian and Muslim indicates the process cannot be rushed, since the new believer’s identity is continually and gradually converging on Christ Himself.
Jesus provides the main biblical example of Identicational Discipleship. Jesus spent over three years pouring out His life and teaching into the lives of a dozen men. He granted the time necessary for them to find their individual and collective identity in Himself. As Peter’s denial of Jesus indicates, this was far from a seamless process. Yet the end result was exemplary. The Book of Acts chronicles a movement in which believers had their individual and collective identity rooted in Jesus Himself.
For those ministering to Muslims today, several points of emphasis are in order. Patience is required as new believers begin to saturate themselves with the Bible, rather than Qur’anic teaching. Being conformed to the image of Christ is rarely a speedy process. Furthermore, if Muslims who are sojourning to Christ halt permanently in a state of permanent identity bifurcation, they will not have the internal fortitude or external platform to be effective witnesses to the risen Christ.
In this article I have described some of the challenges in ministry to Muslims. Identity has emerged as perhaps the most critical issue at this point in history. The root of this challenge lies in the expulsive nature of Islam toward those who receive Jesus Christ as Lord. Some missiologists have recommended permanent retention of Muslim identity as the best way forward. I suggest this has resulted in, and can only ultimately result in, permanent identity bifurcation (PIB). The Insider Movement paradigm, with its identity position of Retentionism, does not promote the long-term spiritual health of new believers in the Lord Jesus from a Muslim background, since the key ingredient for retaining Muslim identity is affirming Muhammad, who rejected the biblical Jesus. Specifically, Muhammad spurned the narrative that God visited the earth in the form of Jesus, who died on the cross for sinful humans. Instead, Muhammad forbade the worship of Christ and transformed Jesus into his own personal herald (Sura 61:6).
Instead of Retentionism, I recommend an integrated identity in Christ (IIC) model in which group and collective identity shifts from Muhammad and the mosque, respectively, and to Christ and the Body of Christ, in a persistent, convergent fashion. Believers in Christ from a Muslim background are themselves already making this identity paradigm a reality in many of their local contexts. And the timing of the implementation of IIC may be excellent as the current manifestation of jihadist Islam is causing many Muslims to consider leaving Islam outright.
 Patrick Johnstone and Duane A. Miller “Believers in Christ from a Muslim Background: A Global Census,” Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, vol. 11, Article 1, (2015): 17.
 Abul Ala Mawdudi, “The Punishment of the Apostate According to Islamic Law,” (1953) translated 1994 from Urdu by Husain, Syed Silas, and Ernest Hahn, http://www.answeringislam.info/Hahn/Mawdudi/ index.htm, accessed December 15, 2015.
 Sam Schlorff . “The Translational Model for Mission in Resistant Muslim Society: A Critique and an Alternative.” Missiology 28, no. 3 (2000): 316.
 John Travis and Dudley Woodberry, “When God’s Kingdom Grows Like Yeast: Frequently-Asked-Questions About Jesus Movements within Muslim Communities,” July-Aug (2010): http://www.missionfrontiers.org/issue/article/ when-gods-kingdom-grows-like-yeast, (Accessed December 18, 2015).
 Rebecca Lewis, “Promoting Movements to Christ within Natural Communities,” International Journal of Frontier Missions, 24, no. 2, Summer (2007): 75.
 Fred Farrokh, Perceptions of Muslim Identity: A Case-Study among Muslim-born Persons in Metro New York, PhD Dissertation, Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. Spring eld, MO, (2014): http://gradworks.umi. com/36/30/3630231.html, (Accessed December 1, 2015).
 Tim Green presents a three-layer model comprising core identity, social identity, and collective identity. However, I have not parsed collective and social identity. See Tim Green, “Identity Issues for Ex-Muslim Christians, with Particular Reference to Marriage.” St. Francis Magazine. August. 8:4, (2012): 435–481: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/241678198_ identity_issues_for_ex-Muslim_Christians_with_particular_reference_to_marriage, (Accessed December 19, 2015).
 Don McCurry, Healing the Broken Family of Abraham: New Life for Muslims. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Ministries to Muslims, (2001): 330.
 BassamMadany,“Learningfromthe‘New’MaghrebiChristians”(nodate):http://www.answeringislam.org/ authors/madany/maghrebi_christians.html, (accessed December 15, 2013.)
 JohnTravis,“MessianicMuslimFollowersofIsa:ACloserLookatC5BelieversandCongregations,”Interna- tional Journal of Frontier Missions, 17, no. 1, Spring, (2000): 53–59.