Assisting Gospel-Driven Churches: A Reminder to Baptist Bureaucrats, Part 2

This is the second post in a two-part article titled “Assisting Gospel-Driven Churches: A Reminder to Baptist Bureaucrats.” The 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 earlier post can be read here.

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

II. Gospel-Driven Churches Place their Confidence in the Right Place (1:26-31)

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Having just finished explaining how the gospel seems like folly to the lost world, Paul now turns to Christians themselves and notes that the verdict is not much better; they were not very wise, not very powerful, and not very noble. Try applying for a job at the state convention with that resume!

But God is not hedged in by these limitations. He chooses the foolish to shame the wise and the weak to shame the strong. It is the low and the despised and the nobodies that God uses. I think Paul sounds a lot like Jesus, who teaches us in the Gospels that the world’s hierarchies don’t really matter, because in the kingdom it’s the last who are first.

And why are things this way? Verse 29 tells us: So that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

Instead of boasting on the basis of our own feeble talents and accomplishments, Paul tells us to boast in the Lord because we have believed the gospel and are now in Christ. Jesus Christ is the wisdom from God and he is our righteousness, our sanctification, and our redemption. This is just another way of saying Christ is the one who has saved us, is saving us, and will save us at the last day.

Brothers and sisters, we have nothing if we do not have Christ. This is true for us as individuals, it is true for our churches, and it is true for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina and Southeastern Seminary.

Since we are all family here and we are co-laborers as denominational servants, let me speak very candidly with you: Southern Baptists, including those of us who live in North Carolina, don’t have the best track record when it comes to humility. Since at least the mid-20th century, all you have to do is attend any type of denominational meeting and you will hear some of the most rank bragging on earth:

“We are the largest Protestant denomination in America”

“We have the largest seminaries in the world”

“We have the largest force of foreign missionaries on the planet”

“We have clout with the people in Washington”

The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina is just as bad when it comes to this type of thing: look at this great new program we have launched, look at how big we are, look how many people we had at this conference. We . . . we . . . we . . . we . . . we.

Brothers and sisters, God does not need the SBC or the state convention. Every single person in this room is expendable, our jobs are not necessary, and the churches do not have to have us around to do the work they are called to do.

And to be frank, many of them know this.

So if we are actually going to assist the churches in fulfilling their divinely appointed mission, then we had best remember that we do not exist for our own sake. The Cooperative Program, state missions budgets, programs, conferences-all these things are helpful, but they are not necessary. These things are all temporary, but they are not permanent.

Verse 31 says, Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. This is our calling as Christians, this is our calling as churches, and this is our calling as denominational servants.

Because Gospel-driven churches put their confidence in the right place, denominational servants must guard against falling into the trap of thinking we are essential. We are a means, not an end, and to suggest otherwise, even implicitly, is the height of hubris and a disservice to the churches we claim to serve. Brothers and sisters, only Christ is essential, and we are only valuable insofar as we assist churches in proclaiming him.


I am thankful for almost everything that I hear about the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. I think that God is doing a work of renewal in this convention, just as I trust he is doing a work of renewal in the Southern Baptist Convention. But we need to remember that both the state convention and the SBC were created to serve the churches. Some of the churches out there need some convincing, and the burden is on you and I to prove to them that we want to assist them–and can assist them–in becoming the kinds of churches that God would have them to be.

I am delighted to labor alongside you in serving the churches for the sake of the gospel. May God grant us great grace and abundant wisdom as we seek to assist gospel-driven churches in North Carolina, North America, and the uttermost parts of the games

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.