The following is Part 2 of a 6 part series:

Contextualization is one answer to the dilemma of Babel; it attempts to somehow address the vast diversity of human cultures, customs and world views. True communication across cultures can be difficult to achieve. Contextualization undertakes to bypass the barriers and “bridge” the gap.

Influenced by a permissive and secular academic elite, however, contextualization is too often used to promote “cultural preservation” rather than cultural transformation. Contextualization can be a powerful tool to communicate the gospel, or it can be used to water down the gospel message and lessen its impact.

Three Biblical Uses for Contextualization and One Ethically Hazardous Type of Contextualization

There are at least three legitimate reasons why context needs to be taken into account. Additionally, there is one tempting but ultimately false motive to contextualize.

  1. Recognizing, addressing and confronting the needs of the audience

Christ gave us a model of contextualization. He preached condemnation to the Pharisees but told the women caught in adultery “neither do I condemn you.” 1

Some individuals, before trusting Christ, are very aware of their own sin and depravity although they may seriously doubt God’s love and ability to forgive them. These people do not have the same needs as those who cavalierly assert their own righteousness. The messenger of the gospel should be prepared to preach a message of God’s love to the one, while emphasizing God’s justice and coming judgment to the other. To preach judgment and condemnation to the humble would be a mistake, just as it would be a mistake to preach “God loves and accepts you just the way you are”  to the proud. Clearly the image of God, though obscured in all of us, is not defaced in the same way, in all of us. The message must be tailored to the needs of the individual. In the same way, some societies have different strengths and different needs. The message needs to be adjusted to the needs of the audience.

Jesus has given us precious few examples of cross-cultural ministry, but the principles are the same. On his trip through Samaria in John 4:21-24 Jesus’ knowledge of the Samaritan culture led him to conclude that they were stubborn about their traditions and haughty about their worship. Therefore he declared to the Samaritan, “believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.”

Jesus did not hesitate to critique the errors of Samaritan worship. He was not restrained by fears of perpetuating Jewish cultural imperialism even while lambasting “the Jews” elsewhere for breaking the command of God “for the sake of [their]traditions” 2. He did not shy away from the statement “you worship in ignorance.” But where the Samaritans were to be commended, for fervently worshipping God, he also subtly affirmed them by implying that they did worship in spirit, if not in truth. His cultural knowledge served to identify areas of need. In this case he showed the need to overcome the stubbornness that Samaritans had about dictating to God their own means of worship. Jesus confronted the issue by challenging the woman to worship in truth.

2. Avoiding unintentional alienation or confusion

Misunderstandings caused by cultural differences are regrettably frequent, and a thorough student of culture is able to better navigate these treacherous waters.

In Matthew 17:27 Jesus, knowing the important symbolism of the temple to the Jews, reasons that he, as God’s Son is exempt from paying the temple tax. Yet he instructs his disciples to pay it anyway that they “may not offend them.”

Paul also attempted to avoid causing unnecessary or fruitless offense. When rumors were flying that Paul tried to  “teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to [Jewish] customs.” Paul chose to bow to godly customs. Mind you, these were Jewish customs 3 of devotion to the true God. Paul joined in their purification rites and paid the expenses of four men so that they could have their heads shaved in order to show that he was “living in obedience to the law”. (In that instance, his actions still didn’t appease the crowd; he was seized and nearly killed.)

The default position of Jesus, Peter and Paul seems to have been that they should make the most of any opportunity to make a stir for the advancement of the kingdom. This often meant flouting conventions, customs and even laws 4. At the same time, there seem to have been cases where they chose not to needlessly offend. Chiefly, these were situations such as the two above where their actions might have been misinterpreted by others. They did not want to allow others to consider their behavior irreverent or disobedient to God.

3. Facilitating communication

Paul’s speech in Athens 5 demonstrated a great deal of cultural knowledge which he used to the advantage of the gospel. Being aware of what the Athenians believed allowed Paul to know where to start in communicating with them. Paul used local ideas to illustrate the truth of God’s word. He also used local examples to rebuke and confront sin within Athenian society and to call Athenians to repentance and faith in the resurrected Christ.

When preaching to Jews, Paul, as well as Peter and Stephen, used the prophets as a starting point 6. But in Athens, Paul started with creation since the prophets meant very little to them.

Paul was fluent in the language of Athens and quoted both their poets and philosophers 7. He understood and exploited the curiosity of the Athenians regarding new ideas and chose to address the crowds in a forum very appropriate for presenting them, the Areopagus.

Paul also understood the divisions within the assembly between the Stoics and the Epicureans. The Stoics taught that Zeus was not a personal being, nor a creator but an impersonal power or force. Epicurus taught that the gods were personal and material, but they were far away and had little interest in human activity. Common Athenians believed that the gods could be appeased by sacrifice. Paul exploited these internal divisions within the group, just as he later did with the Pharisees and Sadducees in Jerusalem 8. In Athens he did this by affirming the Stoic belief in an omnipotent, omnipresent God who “cannot be represented by an inanimate object.” 9 The Stoics, who used to decry the Greek practices of idolatry, probably cheered these words, spoken so eloquently and forcefully. Where Stoic philosophy aligned with God’s commands about idols, Paul thus subtly affirmed it and used it to illustrate God’s truth. In Paul’s words, you can almost hear the echos of God’s words of Psalm 50:12: “If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it,” Some of Paul’s Stoic listeners would have been pleased to hear Paul boldly proclaim that God “does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.” (vs 24-25) But if any Stoic philosopher present was pleased by some of Paul’s words, he would have had his philosophy directly confronted by other words Paul boldly proclaimed. Paul was not preaching Stoic philosophy. Paul confronted each of the Athenian views.

Because of his awareness of the issues within Greek thought, Paul was able to confront not only the idolatry of some segments of Athenian society, but also the cold “rationalism” of another segment. Paul asserted that God is creator; that he ”made the world and everything in it” and that, far from being removed and impersonal, he is active and involved in creation. 10

To make this contrast plain, Paul used many verbs to describe God’s actions and thus his personhood. God created the world, (vs 24) he gives life and breath, (vs 25) he makes every nation for a purpose, he determines the times and exact places for mankind (vs 26) for a reason: he desires intimacy “so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him.” God in the past overlooked but now commands all people to repent. (vs 30) He has set a day when he will judge and he has given proof through the resurrection of Christ. (vs 31)

Because he understood the tendency of Greeks, Stoic and Epicurian, to either worship idols, or else view God (or gods) as distant and impersonal, Paul went out of his way to emphasize God’s interaction with his creation at every turn. This is Biblical contextualization in action.

Ethically hazardous contextualization:  Attempting to lessen the legitimate offense of the gospel

At its best, contextualization can help to reduce some of the barriers in human communication and offer some bridges to understanding. By obtaining a high degree of cultural awareness, a person can more easily identify and address areas of potential misunderstanding and offense. Controversy arises, however, when there is a lack of clarity on the purpose of contextualization.

Often, unfortunately, contextualization becomes the practice of conceding certain elements of a foreign belief system that the contextualist deems to be non-essentials in order to facilitate the acceptance of the “essential parts”. Contextualization thus deals with the ever-changing landscape of culture by attempting to constantly adapt the message to establish relevancy and to gain acceptance.

Contextualization as it is currently taught by many in the ascendant generation of ivory tower missiological academics, has a suspect and tainted lineage. Heavily influenced by secular academics, especially anthropologists, many missiological  leaders have unwittingly accepted numerous ungodly presuppositions. Modern anthropology since at least the 1940’s has accepted the principle of cultural relativism as an axiom. Anthropologist Franz Boaz, in 1887, wrote “[What we believe] is not absolute, but … is relative… our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes.” 11

Belief in cultural relativism leads to a specific and false ethical stance: moral relativism. When your only foundation is relativism, anything you try to establish has nothing to hold it firm. Instead of solid rock there is only shifting sand.

The terrible history of colonial missions does much to exacerbate these problems. Colonial era missions frequently held up the culture of the colonizers and attempted to suppress or exterminate the indigenous cultures. Saddened by that ugly history and fearful of repeating the trend, modern contextualists have over-compensated. Whereas it used to be “our culture is better,” now it’s “your culture is better.” It should be, “we’re all broken, but God wants to heal us.”

Battered by the memories of the atrocities of the crusades and painfully aware of the history of Muslim-Christian conflict, the twenty-first century missionary to Muslims is chastened from bold proclamation both by the failings of his predecessors and by his own blindness as well. Often all he is left with is an attempt to build consensus, avoiding confrontation that might seem like arrogance and toning down the call for change as he focuses on whatever agreeable “truths” he thinks may be held in common.

Thus, in modern missions, a strange and sterile hybrid has been born by attempting this odd mixture. It is impossible to carry the mission of a loving God and the passive fad of “tolerance” without real love. 12 Yet a prophetic call for repentance has been replaced by a pathetic call for watered-down “dialog.” The gospel, when stripped of anything controversial to say, has nothing to say.

Paul, in Athens, did not shy away from confrontation in order to “win friends and influence people.” To do so would have been disingenuous. Understanding his context, he realized that the Athenians were a people who took great pride in their knowledge. They were the city of many truly great thinkers and mathematicians that are still studied today. Acts tells us of their devotion to new ideas and philosophy. They literally worshipped thought, represented by Athena, the goddess of Wisdom. But Paul knew that “the foolishness of God” renders the best of human wisdom folly, and so he attacked their philosophies head on. He picked up on the theme of the “unknown god” and boldly proclaimed that he would explain to them that of which they were ignorant. He boldly pointed out their foolishness (verses 25 and 29) and ignorance (23 and 30) and told them that God would overlook their former ignorance, but they must repent.  Even what seemed like a compliment was actually a jab. He said, “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.” Yet both the Epicurians and the Stoics discouraged making sacrifices and building temples. Finally he ended with what he knew they would scorn, the resurrection. He preached the foolishness of God to the wisest men on earth.

Most scorned, but some listened.

I suspect that modern contextualists would deride Paul’s approach as ethnocentric. Rather, it is etho-centric because it is focused on God’s culture.

By putting a heavy emphasis on cultural factors, modern contextualization runs into a number of practical difficulties and ethical questions as well as issues of effectiveness. Let us examine some of the ethical hazards inherent in this approach.

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  1.  Matthew 23:27 and John 8:11
  2.  Matthew 15:3
  3.  Acts 21:21-24
  4.  Peter says directly to the Sanhedrin, “”Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.” (Acts 4:19) In Acts 10:27 he visits Cornelius, fully knowing that it was unlawful for him to do so.
  5.  Acts 17:15-34
  6.  Acts 13:16 (Paul), Acts 3:13 (Peter) and Acts 7:2 (Stephen)
  7.  Paul refers to at least three Greek writers. He directly quotes Aratus, a Stoic philosopher and poet who wrote of Zeus, “For we are indeed his offspring…” (Phaenomena 1-5). He reveals a deep knowledge of Greek thought by saying “poets” (plural) since Cleanthes, another Hellenistic poet, expresses the same idea, that mankind is the offspring of Zeus in “Hymn to Zeus.” “In him we live and move and have our being” is from Epimenides, the same poet/prophet Paul humorously quotes in Titus 1:12: “one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars”… this is true.”
  8.  Acts 23:6
  9.  The Apostle and the Poet: Paul and Aratus by Dr. R. Faber, Clarion Vol. 42, No, 13 (1993).
  10.  By calling him “the Lord” (Greek: kurios “controller”) he introduces a more Hebrew and more personal title for God.
  11.  Franz Boas 1887 “Museums of Ethnology and their classification” Science 9: 589
  12.  See the article “The Global Zoo”.

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