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.