Guest Blog by Central Asia RL: Biblical Foundations and Guidelines for Contextualization (Pt 4)

Guest Blog: Biblical Foundations and Guidelines for Contextualization (Pt 4)

Editor’s Note: This guest blog is written by the IMB’s Regional Leader for Central Asia. It is a six part series, giving the biblical foundations and guidelines for contextualization, and making application to Christian ministry in the Muslim world. This series will appear as a chapter in the forthcoming book “Look What God is Doing in the Muslim World.”

Contextualization Guidelines

How do we apply these principles to the work of the Gospel in the Muslim world? Based on years of wrestling with the task under the authority of the word of God, here are guidelines for our work in the Muslim world, founded on these Biblical principles. The guidelines are grouped under three headings: The Messenger of the Good News, the Message of the Good News, and the Church.

The Messenger of the Good News (with primary focus on us, the foreign workers)

We must openly identify ourselves as followers of Jesus. Hiding our identity is out of bounds. Jesus made it clear that we must not deny Him before men. Security concerns are real, and we need to take them seriously. However, we must never let security concerns drive us into hiding our identity as disciples of Christ. To be known as His is worth getting kicked out a country, and even dying.

We should work hard to become part of the community we are trying to reach. We need to build relationships and put down roots among the unbelievers of our focus people group. We must beware of our team becoming our primary focus and primary community. Team is a means to an end, but it must never become an end in itself. In an age of email, SMS and Skype, we also need to beware of excessive communication with the US. It is simply too easy to move overseas and yet never bond with the people we are trying to reach, due to the possibility and comfort of maintaining our primary community with English-speaking loved ones. We must consciously invest in relationships in the community we are trying to reach, and that community needs to become our primary community, as much as possible.

We should be lifelong learners of language and culture. Those who know the language best are those who want to keep on learning. Beware of getting stuck at a survival language level, and beware also of getting stuck in initial, superficial impressions about the culture. We communicate most effectively when we communicate in their heart language, and when we understand what they think and how they hear what we say.

We should voluntarily give up freedoms that erect barriers to the Gospel.

We should choose our housing and decorate our homes in ways that are comfortable to those we are trying to reach, even if it is less comfortable for us.

We should dress in ways that show respect for our host culture. We need to be appropriately modest, even if the weather makes us uncomfortable in the process. At the same time, we should be attentive to changes in the culture. Our aim is to be unremarkable in our attire.

We should act in ways that show respect for our host culture. Find out what is and is not appropriate for anyone in that setting. Find out what is and is not appropriate for someone your age, gender, occupation and station in life. Dig deep, and do not be content with superficial answers or with exceptions made for you as a foreigner. Things that might never occur to you as significant can have great significance in another culture. Watch closely, listen carefully, ask lots of questions, and ask lots of different people.

We can, and should, distance ourselves from forms of cultural Christianity that dishonor God or that cause unnecessary stumbling blocks to our host culture. Christianity is often seen as a cultural or ethnic thing, and it is associated with colonial conquest and exploitation, or with the worship of images and drinking alcohol, or with the immoral behavior seen in movies and TV programs from the “Christian” west. It is perfectly appropriate that we NOT identify ourselves with that image! We should, instead, explain our identity in ways that point to Jesus and not to the unfortunate legacy of cultural Christianity.

In this context, the word “Christian” can be particularly problematic. To much of the Muslim world, America, Europe and Russia are “Christian” nations, and whatever is true for those countries is true of Christianity. Thus, when a Central Asian Muslim asks me if I am a Christian, what they mean by “Christian” is an alcohol-drinking, pornography-watching, sexually promiscuous, picture-worshipping Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic person who is part of the culture that has attempted to conquer and oppress them for centuries. Therefore, I never simply say yes. However, since Christian is a Biblical word, neither do I say no. I define who I am in Biblical terms apart from their historical experience.

We should serve our host community. We should look for ways to be a blessing, on their terms and according to their understanding of their needs.

At the same time:

We must never give the impression that we have converted to Islam.

We should not deny the label Christian – we may simply need to redefine it in a Biblical way.

We should not contextualize ourselves more than the host culture itself. We need to understand where a culture is going as well as where it is, and make sure that we don’t adapt ourselves to the past instead of the present.

We must not adopt any local cultural practice or attitude that violates Scripture. In this context, we need to especially be careful about attitudes. We can unconsciously pick up ungodly attitudes from our host culture (toward women, for example, or toward other ethnic groups).

Guest Blog: Biblical Foundations and Guidelines for Contextualization (Pt 3)

Guest Blog: Biblical Foundations and Guidelines for Contextualization (Pt 3)

Editor’s Note: This guest blog is written by the IMB’s Regional Leader for Central Asia. It is a six part series, giving the biblical foundations and guidelines for contextualization, and making application to Christian ministry in the Muslim world. This series will appear as a chapter in the forthcoming book “Look What God is Doing in the Muslim World.”

1 Cor 9:1-23 (cont’d)

The key to understanding this passage is found 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. This did not mean that he was prepared to compromise any Biblical truth or Biblical command in the process. Verses later on in the chapter make that clear. However, he was willing to endure any inconvenience or personal hardship himself that might enable the Gospel to spread more effectively. He expanded on that thought with some key principles for cross-cultural ministry.

Contextualization as Renunciation of Rights

First, Paul voluntarily chose not to make use of legitimate rights. He had a right to eat meat, to take along a believing wife, and to receive monetary support. He would not be sinning at all if he did any of those things. Indeed, such things would be considered normal and even expected, and other apostles apparently did them. Never the less, Paul gave up those 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 a “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 even leave a Central Asian 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. However, at the same time, I do not 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 makes it harder for Muslims to hear the Gospel from me, other than those things that Scripture commands me to do, I need voluntarily to give them up.

Contextualization as a Posture of Servanthood

Second, Paul took a posture of servant hood toward non-believers. In verse 19, he wrote: “Though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.” Paul approached non-Christians with the mindset of a servant. It is clear that he is not talking here about serving Christians, because he is serving those who need to be won. Paul not only chose not to make use of his rights. He went farther and chose to place himself under those whom he is trying to reach with the Gospel, as their servant.

This idea also rubs our flesh the wrong way, especially when we are in the throes of culture shock. We 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 servant hood reflects the character of Christ, shatters stereotypes of the ugly American, and causes barriers to drop. Servant hood is an essential characteristic of effective cross-cultural ministry, and it paradoxically defines how we are to make use of our freedom in Christ.

Contextualization as Identification

Third, Paul chose to identify with the people he was trying to reach, and to adapt to their lifestyle as much as he could without compromise of 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.” (verses 19-23).

Paul was a Jew. The Jews really were God’s chosen people. If any culture had a right to consider itself intrinsically more godly 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. He was certainly free from the rabbinic hedge around the law. He had a “right” to ignore any of the endless extra-biblical rules and regulations of Pharisaic Judaism. Yet, with Jews he acted like a Jew. With Gentiles he acted like a Gentile. With the weak – people with lots of 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 block 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 offence in the Gospel, he wanted it to be the offence of the cross, and not the offence of foreignness.

Contextualization within the Bounds of Scripture

Fourth, however, Paul insisted on staying 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.” Although free from the requirement of keeping the ceremonial law, and free from the penalty of failing to keep the law of God perfectly, and certainly free from the burdensome rabbinic superstructure of rules built around the law, he still very much regarded himself as under the authority of God expressed in His word. Scripture, in 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. We do not adapt to that which contradicts Scripture. Paul’s understanding of this principle becomes clear when the entirety of his writings are examined. 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 as Unavoidable and Good

Contextualization, then, 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 point of contextualization is not comfort, but clarity. The Gospel will never be completely comfortable in 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, and that the only stumbling block is the stumbling block of the cross.

Assisting Gospel-Driven Churches: A Reminder to Baptist Bureaucrats, Part 1

Note: The following sermon was preached in the weekly chapel service of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina on September 8, 2008. I want to thank the executive leadership of the BSCNC for the invitation to preach and their blessing in publishing the sermon manuscript here at Between the Times. The sermon will be published in two parts.

Assisting Gospel-Driven Churches: A Reminder to Baptist Bureaucrats
1 Corinthians 1:18-31

At the turn of the 20th century, the major railroad companies had the opportunity to invest in automobile technology. But the companies balked at that opportunity, arguing that they were in the railroad business, not the automobile business. What the railroad companies failed to understand is that they were actually in neither the railroad business nor the automobile business, but they were in the transportation business. Their myopia in this matter ultimately resulted in a loss of influence for the entire industry as automobiles gradually replaced trains as the primary means of transportation in America.

This morning, my question for you is this: What business are you in as the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina?

In 1830 missionary Baptists in North Carolina formed a state convention, and according to the BSCNC Articles of Incorporation, that convention exists for two purposes:

  1. To assist the churches in their divinely appointed mission; to promote missions, evangelism, education, social services, the distribution of the Bible and sound religious literature; and to cooperate with the work of the Southern Baptist Convention; and
  2. To do any and all acts and things which may be deemed desirable or expedient for the benefit of the programs of the Convention

I think you will agree with me that the key phrase is “to assist the churches in their divinely appointed mission.” The convention is a servant to the churches, which means every program, every conference, every curricula, and every service must ultimately be about assisting churches in their divinely appointed mission. With this in mind, I think it would be helpful this morning to remind ourselves about the type of ministry the Bible teaches ought to be embodied in our churches.

In 1 Cor. 1:18-2:5 Paul describes for us the type of priorities he pursued and encouraged the Corinthian church to embrace. In a shameless knock-off of Rick Warren, I am going to call Paul’s vision the “gospel-driven church.” As we look at this passage together, I think we will see two different characteristics of a gospel-driven church.

Before proceeding, I think it would be helpful to note why the characteristics of gospel-driven churches matter for denominational servants. As you know, I am a seminary professor, which means that like you I too am a denominational servant. Furthermore, because my seminary is located just about 29 miles north of here, our constituencies overlap; we are assisting many of the same churches. My conviction is that the more denominational servants like you and me understand what gospel-driven churches ought to look like, the better we can assist those churches in their divinely appointed mission.

I. Gospel-Driven Churches Proclaim the Right Message (1:18-25)

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Paul calls the right message “the word of the cross,” which I believe is another way of saying that the right message is the gospel itself. I think this is a reasonable assumption for me to make because Paul himself argues that the gospel is about the cross later on in 1 Cor. 15:1-4:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you- unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures . . .

So Paul claims that the gospel he believed and preached is that Christ died for sinners and was raised from the dead in accordance with the Scriptures.

I think it is worth noting that in Paul’s mind, the crucifixion and resurrection are foundational doctrines, but they are also more than mere doctrines; they are part of a bigger story. Paul says Jesus’s death and resurrection are in accordance with the Scriptures–in this context the Old Testament–meaning that they were both meant to happen and that they were consistent with all that led up to them in redemptive history. Furthermore, when we think about the crucifixion and resurrection as part of the grand storyline of Scripture, we are reminded of why these things are necessary, what they accomplished, and how these events have changed the course of history.

The gospel is the story of creation, fall, promise, redemption, and restoration, with the person and work of Jesus Christ at the center of the plot. It is only in this great “Story of Stories” that all of our individual stories find their true meaning. So when we think of the salvation of individual sinners (which is the way we most often think of the gospel), we might say that the gospel is the good news of all that God has done on the behalf of sinners through the perfect life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. This gospel is the “word of the cross,” and this is the right message that our churches are called to proclaim.

Now when we look back to 1 Cor. 1:18-25 we see that different people respond to the message of the cross in different ways. The gospel is folly–silliness!–to those who reject it. This remains true today. Our own world also has its Jews demanding signs and Greeks demanding worldly wisdom. And Paul tells us this will be so because the gospel is a stumbling block to many.

But God’s foolishness is wiser than the accumulation of all the wisdom of the world, and his weakness is stronger than the multiplied might of all the armies of the earth. Though it may seem like silliness in the eyes of fallen men, the gospel is the very power of God for all those who are being saved. It is the proclamation of this gospel and the living out of this gospel in local communities of the redeemed that is the divinely appointed mission of our churches. Gospel-driven churches are churches that keep the gospel at the center of all that they do.

So how can you as denominational servants at the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina assist our churches in proclaiming the right message?

First of all, every one of your programs and initiatives must be tethered to the good news of what God has done in Christ. You must provide resources that assist churches in evangelizing the lost with the gospel. You must provide resources that assist churches as they disciple new believers through the gospel. You must provide resources that assist churches in teasing out the implications of the gospel for all of life. If you want to assist our churches in proclaiming the right message, that message must be at the heart of who you are as denominational servants.

Second, the gospel should be clearly articulated in every piece of ministry literature you produce, every conference you sponsor, every annual meeting you host, every new ministry you launch, and every existing ministry to which you give your blessing. If you want to assist our churches in making the gospel clear, you must do the same in all that you do.

Gospel-driven ministry proclaims the right message, and if those of us in this room–and those of us at my seminary–are to be anything more than a mere Baptist bureaucrats, we must assist our churches in proclaiming this message in both word and deed. This is the only reason we exist.

(To be Continued)