Contextual Expression or Syncretistic Confusion?

We must ask five questions in the process of wise contextualization.

One of the most consistent issues that missionaries and missiologists wrestle with is the idea of contextualization.

Simply defined, contextualization is the communication and application of the unchanging message of the Bible in the changing contexts of the world. Though contextualization is a neologism coined in the last 50 years, it describes the task the church has been wrestling with since the Gentiles began demonstrating their inclusion in Christ without taking on all the forms of Judaism.1

In contemporary missiological discussions regarding the issue of contextualization, one encounters a spectrum of approaches and opinions. Most every point on the spectrum is an attempt to avoid the two ugly ditches of under-contextualization and over-contextualization. On the one hand, those who fear over-contextualization usually do so out of a fear of slipping into syncretism. On the other hand, those who fear under-contextualization see the danger of cultural imperialism.

A missionary must know Scripture and theology, must observe and discern the culture, and must learn from and partner with cultural insiders.

Both dangers are real. Walking a middle path of fidelity to Scripture while encouraging natural cultural expression requires the hard work. A missionary must know Scripture and theology, must observe and discern the culture, and must learn from and partner with cultural insiders. In the pursuit of wise contextualization, asking—and revisiting—the following five questions can help to plant the unchanging truth of Scripture in the native soil of dynamic cultural contexts.

1. What does the Bible say?

Though it presents itself as self-evident, the task of contextualization requires that there is a message to be contextualized. For the Christian, that message is the unadulterated text of Scripture. Therefore, first question that we need to ask in the process of contextualization is, “What does the Bible say?”

This question is pertinent to determining appropriate contextual application, but it also begins much earlier through the process of translation. Decisions regarding precision will always present themselves to translators, yet the received text of Scripture must guide our translation. In other words, we should not be embarrassed to translate the Bible as it is written even when it presents offensive or confrontational cultural teaching.

One way that this task has gone wrong in efforts to contextualize in Muslim contexts is that some have produced translations of the Bible that remove the phrase Son of God. Though the desire is to remove barriers to the gospel, the contextualization decision runs roughshod over the text and teaching of the Bible. Thus, such a move is outside of the bounds of faithful translation of the message, and as such is not faithful contextualization.

When we ask the question, “What does the Bible say?” our answers instruct and shape our practice. We are asking more objective questions that allow us to set clear boundaries that tell us what we must do. The next question, however, produces a less defined array of possibilities.

2. What doesn’t the Bible say?

Once a missionary has determined what the Bible says, the next step is to ask, “What doesn’t the Bible say?” In other words, where does the Bible allow its teaching to take on unique cultural applications that are yet representative of its core concerns?

For example, Jesus and the New Testament authors command and expect baptism to follow profession of faith.2 However, Baptist churches are divided over when a person’s baptism should occur. Some Baptist churches contend that baptism should immediately follow a person’s profession of faith. Others argue that wisdom would call for baptism to follow some basic discipleship or catechesis to ensure that the new believer truly understands the gospel and its implications. While Scripture records some descriptions of people being baptized on the day that they believe, there is no clear command that requires immediate baptism.3 Baptist churches contend that Scripture is clear on the candidates for baptism (believers) and the mode of baptism (immersion), but there is room for varied application that is yet faithful expression of the command.

The timing of baptism is a benign—though illustrative—example of how different churches respond to places that the Bible is silent. The task of contextualization in a foreign cultural context, then, brings with it new possibilities of expression. For example, Muslims are called to pray five times per day in a ritualized fashion involving rote prayers and synchronized body motions. As groups of believers from a Muslim background emerge, must they abandon the practice of five daily prayers as a relic of an idolatrous faith? While I would argue that Islamic-style prayer in the mosque without any Christian distinction is an unwise practice, the community of Christ followers can certainly use the Islamic prayer schedule as occasion to pause and remember their dependence on God.

One way that the contextualization process can get off track is by prematurely assuming that if the Bible is silent on a given issue, it is fair game.

Where the Bible is silent we find ourselves asking wisdom questions regarding particular practices more often than we are asking if they are objectively right or wrong. As we recognize what the Bible is silent about, we will find that there is more variety of acceptable expression in contextual manifestations. Various applications might present themselves as practices that can be Christianized. Still, even if something can be permitted, we must continue on to ask whether or not it should be incorporated. Furthermore, as cultural outsiders missionaries must depend upon the insights of cultural insiders to interpret forms as they will be received.

3. How does this form affect the message

One way that the contextualization process can get off track is by prematurely assuming that if the Bible is silent on a given issue, it is fair game. Though silence may indicate permissibility, it does not sufficiently exhaust our search for wise contextualization. Before adopting a practice or form, we must ask, “How does this form affect the message?”

For instance, missionaries working among tribal people whose drums are connected to ancestor worship will have to consider the validity of incorporating those drums in Christian worship. Scripture does not prescribe what instruments are to be used in making a joyful noise to the Lord. Likewise, there is nothing inherently wrong with drums. The question of wisdom, however, is one that requires critical consideration before naively adopting a form that comes with potentially unseen cultural baggage.

After asking what the Bible says and doesn’t say, wise contextualization has to consider what a given form will communicate to the broader culture. Occasionally a cultural outsider will be able to detect the additional layers of communication that attach to a particular form. However, more often than not, cultural outsiders must depend upon cultural insiders in order to discern and interpret the unintended consequences of adopting a certain practice or form in order to apply biblical teaching. For a missionary wrestling with the question of whether or not to incorporate traditional drums in Christian worship among tribal people, any decision should be made in consultation with the tribal people themselves.

4. How does the local Christian community perceive this proposal?

In the contemporary missions landscape, frontier fields that lack local believers do exist. However, many places that contextualization discussions are occurring already have a national Christian population. Such local Christians can prove to be key dialogue partners in the process of assessing contextualization proposals.

It should be noted that it is certainly possible that a local Christian may have cultural biases against their non-Christian neighbors. In places where a Christian minority has a history of being persecuted by a majority population, the Christians can exhibit an unwillingness to consider forms that “belong” to the majority culture. Likewise, bias can occur in places where historical Christianity has a long legacy of dominance and Christians can therefore disregard the cultural forms of minority communities as being irrelevant.

Despite the potential for such bias, the local Christian who has a heart for sharing the gospel with different cultures in their midst will almost always have a better grasp of cultural forms than an outside observer.

However, despite the potential for such bias, the local Christian who has a heart for sharing the gospel with different cultures in their midst will almost always have a better grasp of cultural forms than an outside observer. One example of such contextualization consultation that our team experienced was in the midst of discussing the pros and cons of using the qur’anic or biblical names for Jesus. Our national Christian friends insightfully presented us with a name that neither committed us to the qur’anic presentation of the Jesus character nor introduced a wholly new character to our Muslim audience. Before a missionary advocates for adopting a cultural form or practice, consultation with local Christians is indispensable.

5. Is this wise?

The various questions that we have asked throughout this article provide us with various types of answers. The first question listed above provides us with a sense of what we must do in order to follow Scripture. The second question opens the door to what we can do in expressing our faith in a given culture. The third and fourth questions help to refine our understanding of what we communicate if we choose a particular contextual expression. Yet, before adopting any contextual forms or practices, faithful contextualization needs to answer the question, “Is this wise?”

Often the discussion over what might be a permissible form of contextualization comes down to the question, “Can we do this and remain faithful to the Bible?” While this is certainly a question we must ask, it should not be the final question we consider. Following Paul’s example, we must conclude our deliberation with a more neighborly question: “Is it wise for us to adopt this practice or teaching in this context?” Or perhaps more relationally, “Will this form distract my brothers and sisters from their new life in Christ?”

Paul appears to be concerned with exactly this question in his deliberation over the issues of eating meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8. Though Paul demonstrates that his conscience is clear in regard to eating meat sacrificed to idols, his concern is not merely what is permissible to him. Instead, Paul asks the question,

But take care if this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idols temple, will he not be encourages, if his conscience is weak, to ear food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make a brother stumble.4

In all of our contextualization attempts, then, we must ultimately not only consider whether it is possible to express Christian teaching in a given form. We must also consider how a given form might be received before determining it to be wise. Particularly when we are “borrowing” forms from practices that are entangled in non-Christian worship and religion, we must reject anything might cause a brother or sister to remain entangled with anything but Christ.

1. See Acts 10 and Cornelius’s conversion. Cornelius’s testimony echoes in the background of Peter’s address to the Jerusalem counsel in Acts 15. As a result, James and the counsel determine that the Gentile believers do not need to take on circumcision to be included in the fellowship of the faithful.

2. See for example, Matthew 28:18–20; Acts 2:38, 10:48; Romans 6:1–11.

3. See for example, Acts 8:26–40, 10:44–48.

4. 1 Corinthians 8:9–13.