Guest Blog: Biblical Foundations and Guidelines for Contextualization (Pt 2)

Guest Blog: Biblical Foundations and Guidelines for Contextualization (Pt 2)

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.”

What does the Bible have to say, then, about contextualization? Are their grounds for it in Scripture? In fact, the process of contextualization begins in the New Testament itself. There are several examples of it in Scripture, and these examples both establish the legitimacy of contextualization and teach us something of how we should go about it ourselves.

Theos & Elohim

One of the most pervasive examples of contextualization in the New Testament is also one of the most subtle. It is the use of the Greek word theos to refer to God. Theos in origin was a thoroughly pagan word, used to refer to the capricious and immoral deities of the Greek pantheon. In content and conception, it was light years away from the Biblical understanding of God. However, when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek in the centuries before Christ, theos was the word chosen to translate the Hebrew Elohim, and this choice was ratified (as it were) by the Holy Spirit when He inspired the writers of the New Testament to continue to use this word to refer to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Rather than transliterate a Hebrew word into Greek, or invent a different term altogether, the New Testament took the pagan word that was closest in meaning and infused new content into it. Incidentally, this precedent should be a source of relief for all English-speaking Christians. Early missionaries to northern Europe took the Germanic word “god,” which originally referred to the Nordic pantheon of deities like Wotan, Thor and Freya (whose names remain in the words Wednesday, Thursday and Friday), and infused that word with new, Biblical content. The example of the New Testament tells us that we can use a pagan word without necessarily falling into pagan idolatry ourselves.

Acts 17:22-30

The Apostle Paul gave an instructive example of contextualization in his sermon on the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:22-30). First, Paul used a pagan altar to an unknown god as a bridge to taking about the true God. We already know from Acts 17:16 that Paul’s spirit was provoked by the idolatry he saw in Athens. He certainly was not condoning a pagan altar, nor was he implying that the Athenians had been worshipping the true God without actually knowing it through that altar. Still, he felt free to use something in their (utterly wrong) religious system as a bridge to bring them along to accurate thoughts about the real God. He follows this by two different quotations from pagan poets: one probably from Epimenides of Crete, and the other from Aratus. Both of these quotations make reference to Deity, but the deity they had in mind was not the God of the Bible, but rather a mix of pagan Greek idolatry and philosophical Greek speculation. Paul felt free to take these quotations and connect them to Biblical truth about the Biblical God, even though the poets who wrote these words had a very different god in mind.

Titus 1:12

In similar fashion, when Paul wrote his letter to Titus, he quoted Epimenides of Crete again, this time calling him “a prophet of their own.” (Titus 1:12). This time he is drawing a warning about Cretan cultural depravity from the writings of someone whom even a pagan Cretan would recognize as knowing what he was talking about. By calling Epimenides “a prophet of their own,” Paul is not saying that he thinks that Epimenides was actually a prophet of the Living God, nor that he thinks that Epimenides’ words were given by inspiration from God. In fact, this is quite an insult. Greek culture in Biblical times was not exactly noted for its moral purity. If even one of their own pagan writers, whom they regarded as a prophet, thought they were always liars, evil beasts and lazy gluttons, they must have been pretty bad, indeed! The point is that Paul knows pagan Greek culture, and he feels free to use it to his advantage to point people toward Biblical truth.

1 Cor 9:1-23

Perhaps the most widely-quoted passage of Scripture that teaches about contextualization is I Corinthians 9:1-23:

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working from a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?

Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does He not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do we not even more?

Nevertheless, we have not made any use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the Gospel of Christ. Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the Gospel should get their living by the Gospel.

But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. For if I preach the Gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the Gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the Gospel.

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I become as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law, I become as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I become 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 might share with them in its blessing. (I Corinthians 9:1-23, ESV)

This text is worth close examination. In interpreting this passage, it is important to remember that Paul was a Hellenistic Jew working in a cross-cultural setting in Corinth. In fact, in many ways Paul was a Third Culture Kid (TCK). He grew up in the Greek culture of Hellenistic Tarsus in modern-day Turkey – but he grew up there as a Jew. He trained in Jerusalem as a rabbi and a Pharisee. He had a foot in both worlds. Corinth itself was a grossly immoral and idolatrous city. The church there would face issues that the church in Palestine would never even imagine.

The specific context of this passage is Paul’s extended discussion of the question of Christians eating meat sacrificed to idols. This could only arise in a Gentile setting like Corinth. The kosher laws of rabbinic Judaism would have made this entire issue impossible, so Paul was forced to deal with something for which his theological education gave him no training at all. He does so pastorally, in the context of what it really means to love our brothers and sisters, recognizing that some brothers and sisters are weaker and some are stronger in their consciences. However, in the process, he took the opportunity to broaden the discussion to address how our freedom in Christ intersects the work of the Gospel in a cross-cultural setting.

God’s Guidelines for the “Gray Areas” of Life: Wise Decision-Making in a Wicked World, Part 7


Ethical and moral decision-making presents a great challenge for devoted followers of Jesus in the 21st century context. In 1 Corinthians Paul provides helpful guidelines for navigating what could be called “the gray areas” of the Christian life.

These biblical principles are true anywhere, anytime and under any circumstances. They are extremely helpful in leading us to be wise decision-makers as we live out a gospel-centered ethic.

In recent years debate has arisen among Bible-believing evangelicals concerning the use of beverage alcohol. Feelings and emotions run high on this issue. Most have strong convictions. I am no exception. Much of this debate has a generational bent to it, with younger believers arguing for the acceptability of drinking a beer or glass of wine and frequenting the bars, while older believers (I am 51 to locate myself chronologically) more likely frown on any use of alcohol other than medicinally and the idea of going to the bars for a drink is unthinkable. I am also aware that some see the debate as geographical (believers in the North favor moderation vs those in the South who champion abstinence) and others denominational (Baptist types vs. Presbyterian/Episcopal types for example). I don’t think you will struggle concerning who believes what! Before I apply our “Guidelines” let me make some general observations on which I believe most can agree.

  1. Drunkenness is always sinful and wrong. No question. No debate.
  2. To take a pledge or sign a covenant to abstain from the use of alcohol and then use alcohol is sin. In fact it is a very serious sin because this is not a matter of judgment but integrity. A number of Bible college and seminary students have sinned at this point and need to repent.
  3. The Bible speaks both positively and negatively to the drinking of wine. However, there is no one-to-one correspondence to the liquor, wine and beer industries of our day, and this should not be papered over.
  4. Jesus made and drank wine.
  5. The Corinthians used intoxicating wine when observing the Lord’s Supper, got drunk, and got judged big time!
  6. It is not biblically defensible with chapter and verse to say it is always sin to drink a beverage that contains alcohol.
  7. Bible-believing Christians who are neither antinomians or legalist disagree on this issue. It would be helpful if we represent each other fairly and treat each other with grace and respect.

Now, having made these comments let’s apply God’s Guidelines for the Gray Areas of Life and see where it takes us.

1). Will this action be helpful to me? (1 Corinthians 6:12; 10:23)
It is difficult to see how beverage alcohol makes us better or builds us up. It is not difficult to see how it can harm or tear us down. Now to be fair, if it is done in moderation it is probably something of a neutral act with no personal consequences. However, alcohol is a mind-altering drug and it can easily become addictive. It does not help one in doing the will of God does it? If so how? My friend John Piper is helpful here and his words should be carefully weighed. He asks, “Does alcohol make me a better person? Does it draw me closer to God? Does it help me run the race more faithfully to the end?” These are good questions to consider.

2). Will this action potentially enslave me? (1 Corinthians 6:12)
This is the one question that a number of my brothers who advocate “drinking in moderation” tend to overlook or ignore. And yet, it may be the most crucial question in this whole debate. Can alcohol enslave you? The unequivocal answer is yes. Is it potentially addictive? Absolutely. In fact that is the goal of the multi-billion dollar alcohol industry! Get you when you are young and keep you until you die. Anyone who doubts this should look at how the alcohol advertising industry does its thing. After all, slogans through the years do not hide their intentions: “This Bud’s for you!” “Get that rocky mountain high!” “You only go around once in life, so grab all the gusto you can!” Now the response again of some is just drink in moderation. Don’t get drunk. Don’t get intoxicated. Don’t become physically or mentally impaired. But, and here is another crucial question: where is that line? One beer will have an effect. The same is true with a glass of wine with any significant alcohol content. How can you/would you know if you have crossed that line? Further, the millions who have crossed that line and been plunged into despair, destruction and even death is too numerous to count. Once more listen to the wisdom of John Piper, “is it really so prudish, or narrow to renounce a highway killer, a home destroyer, and a business wrecker?” No, I am in total agreement with my spiritual hero Adrian Rogers who said, “Moderation is not the cure for the liquor problem. Moderation is the cause of the liquor problem. Becoming an alcoholic does not begin with the last drink, it always begins with the first. Just leave it alone.” My friend James Merritt wisely says, “It is impossible to be bitten by a snake that you never play with.” Alcoholism cannot strike unless it is given the opportunity. That potential becomes real with the first drink that one takes.

Now, let me close this first installment of our test case with a personal word. I readily confess a bias when it comes to the issue of alcohol. My wife Charlotte grew up in the Georgia Baptist Children’s Home because her parents were alcoholics. She seldom if ever saw her parents during those years. Her father died a lost alcoholic never telling her he loved her and not attending our wedding. Her mother would slap Charlotte around when she was a little girl before she went into the Children’s Home. But, and by God’s grace, she was saved on her death bed. Her body had been ravaged by the twin killers of alcohol and tobacco. Today her sister and brother are lost alcoholics as is most of the rest of her family. I could spend hours detailing broken promises, verbal and physical abuse, heartache and tragedy, including murder, that occurred in her family. My sister Joy and her husband Kevin King adopted a daughter born with fetal alcohol syndrome. She began life with two strikes against her through no fault of her own. Today there are more than 40 million problem drinkers in America. Alcohol is the number one drug problem among teenagers. One in three American families suspects that one or more family members have a drinking problem. Misuse of alcohol costs our nation $100 billion a year in quantifiable cost. When we look at this issue, these realities cannot be ignored or minimized. To do so is simply irresponsible. The 21st century context is significantly different than that of the 1st century. Because of these experiences and many more, I have often said that even if I were not a Christian I would have nothing to do with alcohol. There is simply too much sorrow and heartache connected to it. Avoiding this potentially addictive, enslaving and devastating drug is simply the wise thing to do.

(To be continued)

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence (Part 9): The Exclusivity of the Gospel

I have a confession to make. I think that the title to this article stinks. I hate the label “exclusivist” when it is applied to the Gospel. Hate, hate, hate, HATE, HATE it. Missiologist Harold Netland observes, “It is probably safe to assume that the term ‘exclusivism’ was not first introduced into the discussion by adherents of that perspective, but rather it is a perjorative term first introduced by those who did not accept that view, who wished to cast it in a particularly unappetizing light. Unfortunately, by default, we evangelicals have allowed others involved in the debate over religious pluralism to define the category of ‘exclusivism,’ and to do so in unacceptable terms.” (quoted by Charles VanEngen, Christianity and the Religions, 1995).

Pluralist Alan Race coined the term in his Christians and Religious Pluralism (1982), and he is no friend of the biblical understanding of the Gospel. He invented the terms exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism to denote what he understood to be the three major positions of the relationship of Christianity with the other religions of the world.

An important principle in any debate is that whoever gets to assign the labels generally wins. By calling his position “pluralism” and its close ally “inclusivism,” Race was able to portray his views as welcoming, inviting, and enlightened. “Exclusivism,” in contrast, portrays the historic position on the Gospel as something akin to a Jim Crow country club. Exclusivists are reactionary, mean, small-minded people devoid of the milk of human kindness. The label should be ditched because it is misleading and perjorative. It was designed specifically to paint the evangelical understanding of the Gospel into a corner. Why is the label “exclusivist” misleading? Because it insinuates that the message of Christ slams other doors shut when in reality no other doors have ever existed. The Gospel “excludes” no one. On the contrary, it gives hope where there was no hope before (Eph 2:12 “without hope and without God in the world”). How can showing condemned prisoners the way of escape somehow be exclusive?

I propose that rather than using the term “exclusivity” we should be speaking of the “essentiality” of the Gospel. The hearing of the Gospel is essential for morally responsible persons to be saved. (I do not view the mentally handicapped or infants as morally responsible individuals.) In order to be saved, one must place his faith in Jesus Christ. But one cannot believe in whom he has not heard (Rom 10:14). The Gospel is not exclusive; it is essential. The Gospel keeps no one out, but it is the only possible way in.

So, what does the essentiality of the Gospel mean? Six thoughts:

1. The other religions are not preparations for the Gospel. Some inclusivists, particularly within Roman Catholic circles, argue that the major religions of the world are sincere responses to the general revelation in nature, and as such prepare the adherents for when the Gospel eventually arrives. However, this is not the way the Bible presents the other religions (1 Cor 10:20-22). Simple question: why is the 10-40 window located where it is? What is it about that region that makes presenting the Gospel such a difficult slog? Answer: it is the region of the world’s other major religions. There is no evidence that Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism prepares or inclines its followers to the Good News. Just the opposite; their followers are the most resistant.

2. The other religions are not alternative avenues of grace. Yes, there is a significant amount of ethical teaching in the religions of the world. Their founders and followers are humans who reflect the image of God, even as fallen, so a certain morality should not be surprising. However, what is missing is any true notion of grace. Clark Pinnock has claimed that a number of religions contain enough truths to teach its followers to trust in the mercy of God for salvation. In a helpful article Win Corduan examines the religions Pinnock extolled and concludes, “I cannot think of one teaching of a major non-Christian religion that, given its own formulation rather than one imposed on it, is actually competent to open a person to the grace of God within its own framework” (p. 48).

3. The scandal of particularity will always be an offense. The opposite of pluralism is not exclusivism; the opposite of pluralism is particularism. The world has been and always will be scandalized by the notion that God called a solitary man, Abraham, in order to bring about a chosen people, Israel, in order to reveal His only begotten Son, Jesus, Who alone accomplished the redemption for the world. The Cross indicts the world, not only of its sin but also its self-righteousness, especially the self-righteousness of religious pretensions. But “blessed is he who is not offended because of Me” (Luke 11:6).

4. How one frames the question of the fate of the unevangelized greatly affects how we deal with it. All of us, at one time or another, have struggled with the fate of the unevangelized. If salvation is so crucial, then why did God chose such an ineffective delivery system as the Church to propogate it? Wouldn’t it be better if, say, each Sunday angels appeared in the sky and proclaimed the Gospel to every living human being? What about the multitudes who perish without the Gospel?

What is bothering us is that it appears only a small percentage of humanity has even had the opportunity to be saved. Or have they? Allow me to attempt to reframe the question of percentages. Like most evangelicals, I believe that life begins at conception. I also believe that those who die in infancy go to heaven. With those two thoughts in mind note that, according to Malcolm Jeeves and R. J. Berry, in the normal course of a pregnancy only about 80% of all fertilized eggs actually implant in the mother’s womb, 49% are still alive one week later, the number drops to 44% by the sixth week, and only 36% are delivered (Science, Life and Christian Belief, 1998, p. 161). As they put it, “Survival to birth is not the norm; it occurs in only a minority of conceptions…” Then, historically speaking and particularly in underdeveloped countries, only 50% of children born have lived to be old enough “to distinguish the right hand from the left” (Sanders, No Other Name? 1992, p. 288). So only half of the 36% concieved, i.e., approximately 18%, ever reach the age of accountability. Incredibly, over 80% of all humans conceived never see their fifth birthday. The bottom line: more than 4 out of 5 persons who have ever existed have gone to heaven! God has allowed only a remnant of the elect to reach the age of moral responsibility. This fact does not answer every question or remove every qualm, but it casts the mercy of God in a different light. It allows us to make a very bold statement: Even though most who achieve adulthood will not be saved (Luke 13:22-24), the vast majority of all humans who ever existed will spend eternity with God (Rev 5).

5. Our Lord is the Lord of the harvest. I am satisfied with the Molinist argument that God has ordained a world such that every one who would say “yes” to Christ will, in fact, have the opportunity to do so. This permits us to similtaneously affirm God’s universal salvific desire (2 Pet 3:9) and the essentiality of the Gospel in such a way that also affirms the sovereignty of God. The Lord of the harvest knows what He is doing.

6. We cannot let the question of the fate of the unevangelized detract us from our marching orders. Around the time our Lord was giving the Great Commission, Simon Peter wanted to know what was going to happen to John. Jesus answered him, “What is that to you? You follow Me” (John 21:22). Similarly, we have our orders. We are to give ourselves to the fulfillment of the Great Commission. As for the unanswered questions, let us remember He is the One Who decided to leave them unanswered. What is that to us? Let us follow Him.