Contextualization is one of the hottest topics in missions today. Simply put, contextualization is the word we use for the process of making the gospel and the church as much at home as possible in a given cultural context.
American Christians tend to think of contextualization as something missionaries do “over there,” and many serious Christians in the Western world worry about how far non-Western churches go in their contextualization efforts. But in reality, every Christian alive today is actively involved in contextualization. Every American Christian worships in a contextualized church. The question is not whether or not we are going to contextualize. In countless ways, whether in North America or South Asia, every believer alive contextualizes the gospel and the church to their own culture, since none of us are first century Palestinian Jews. The question facing every believer and church, therefore, is whether or not they will contextualize well. Anyone who fails to realize they are doing contextualization fails to think through it carefully and biblically, and simply guarantees they will contextualize poorly. Syncretism can happen as easily in Indiana or Iowa as it can in Indonesia!
First and foremost, we must confess that Scripture―not our experience―is the standard by which all things are to be evaluated. Scripture is inerrant, authoritative, and sufficient. Where Scripture gives a command, or a prohibition, or a binding model, the issue is settled. When Scripture sets a boundary, we may not cross it. Within those boundaries there is nothing particularly sacred about our cultural ways of doing things. Throughout the ages and across the globe, there have been other cultural expressions of Christianity that are just as faithful to Scripture as our own. The key is to let the Bible be our judge, and to allow the global body of Christ to speak the Word of God into our particular blind spots.
The process of contextualization actually begins in the New Testament itself. Perhaps the most widely-quoted passage of Scripture on this topic is 1 Corinthians 9. The rest of this article will draw out from that passage four foundational observations for faithful contextualization.
1. Paul gave up his valid rights.
The key to the passage is in verse 12: “We endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.” Paul’s passion was the advance of the gospel. He didn’t want anything unnecessary to stand in the way of that advance. He was willing to endure any inconvenience or personal hardship that might enable the gospel to spread more effectively, including choosing to not make use of his own legitimate rights. For example, he had a right to eat meat, to take along a believing wife, and to receive monetary support. He wouldn’t have sinned in doing any of those things. Indeed, other apostles did them. Even as he refused to compromise any biblical truth or command in the process, he willingly gave up his rights in order not to put any obstacle in the way of the gospel.
We struggle with this as Americans. We are raised to demand our rights. As a free American, I have the “right” to do a lot of things that would be offensive in my new cultural context: wear my shoes indoors, eat or touch someone with my left hand, put up a fence around my own yard without my local community leader’s permission, or leave a birthday party before the rice is served. I have the “right” to dress how I want, eat whatever I want, and decorate my house how I want. At the same time, I don’t have a biblical command to do any of these things. The issue in exercising these rights is not obedience to God, but my own comfort and convenience. If anything that I do, other than those things Scripture commands of me, makes it harder for Muslims, Hindus, or atheists to hear the gospel from me, I need to be willing to give them up voluntarily.
2. Paul was a servant of nonbelievers.
Second, Paul took a posture of servanthood toward nonbelievers. In verse 19 he writes, “Though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.” He is not talking here about serving Christians since he is serving those who need to be won. Not only did he choose to give up his rights, Paul went farther and chose to place himself beneath those whom he is trying to reach with the gospel as their servant.
When we are in the throes of culture shock, we often want to set people straight, not serve them. Yet Jesus himself came not to be served, but to serve. He served people who were wrong, who were in rebellion against him, and who would eventually kill him. Paul understood the mind of his master well at this point. The posture of servanthood reflects the character of Christ. It shatters stereotypes and causes barriers to drop. Servanthood is an essential characteristic of effective cross-cultural ministry, and paradoxically, it defines how we are to make use of our freedom in Christ.
3. Paul lived like those he evangelized.
Third, Paul identified with the people he was trying to reach, and adapted to their lifestyle as much as he could without compromising the law of Christ:
To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not myself being under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19–23)
If any culture ever had the right to consider itself intrinsically godlier than all others, it was Jewish culture. Paul certainly had a “right” to maintain his Jewish cultural heritage. At the same time, Paul had been set free from the burden of the law. Yet with Jews he acted like a Jew, and with Gentiles he acted like a Gentile. With the weak―those with extra-biblical scruples and hang-ups―he lived within their scruples. He became all things to all people that by all means he might save some. He identified with the people he was trying to reach. He adapted his lifestyle to theirs in anything that might hinder them from hearing the gospel. He valued the gospel more than his own rights, more than his own comfort, more than his own culture. If there was any offense in his presentation of the gospel, he wanted it to be the offense of the cross, not the offense of foreignness.
4. Paul was bound by the Bible.
Fourth, Paul stayed within the bounds of Scripture. In the middle of his statement on identification and adaptation, he inserts an all-important parenthesis: “not being outside the law of God, but under the law of Christ” (v. 21). Although free from both the requirement of keeping the ceremonial law and the penalty of failing to keep the law of God perfectly, Paul still very much regarded himself as under the authority of God expressed in his Word. Scripture—via its theology, worldview, commands, and principles—set the boundaries for his adaptation to the people he was trying to reach.
The same must apply to us. Every human culture reflects common grace, but every culture also reflects the fall. Therefore we don’t adapt to that which contradicts Scripture. Paul’s understanding of this principle is clear. He refused to accommodate to the “wisdom” of the popular Hellenistic worldview around him because he realized that it negated the gospel at its very heart, however sophisticated it might have sounded. Indeed, Paul never condoned diversity or accommodation in matters of doctrine. He did not accommodate the seedy practices of contemporary itinerate teachers. He most certainly did not accommodate the “acceptable” immorality of Corinthian society. Human culture and human tradition are negotiable. God’s Word is not. Ever.
Contextualization is both unavoidable and good. The gospel can―and should―be at home in every culture. We must identify with those we are trying to reach and adapt to their culture, no matter what discomfort it causes us. However, the gospel also challenges and condemns every culture at some points (including our own). Where the Bible draws a line, we must draw a line. The goal of contextualization is not comfort, but clarity. The gospel will never be comfortable to any fallen society or to any sinful human being. Our goal is to make sure that we do not put any obstacles in the way of the gospel ourselves, that the only stumbling block is the stumbling block of the cross, and that the meaning of that cross is clear to all.