The Bible is very clear in many places that it alone is the source of authority for Christians, but how does this truth come to terms with relating to culture? Jesus commanded the church to make disciples of men and women from every people group around the world. So, how is the believer to teach the truths of Scripture within the contexts of those pagan cultures?
The word contextualization is an extremely ambiguous word that does not have one concrete, absolute, dictionary definition. Some missionaries define it as “communicating the gospel, planting churches, discipling others, training leaders, and establishing Christianity in other areas of the world while being both faithful to God’s Word and sensitive to the culture.”1 But is it biblical? Contextualization is a social science; are not Christians supposed to live by the Word of God alone? Let’s look at various Scriptural passages to see whether or not contextualization is right or wrong.
The main passage that missiologists use to support contextualization is 1 Corinthians 9:20-23. Paul saw the need, to a certain extent, to become like the people that he was trying to share the gospel with. He says that he became a Jew to win the Jews – even though he was a Jew by ethnicity, Paul was willing to live the Jewish lifestyle that he had once forsaken when he became a Christian.2 The Jewish Law was not wrong for God Himself gave it to Moses, but Christ has come and fulfilled the Law and now we are free from the law (Romans 7:12).
He also saw the need to limit himself in his contextualization. Paul said that he is not under the law of God. Many Christians take this and other passages of the Bible as being “free in Christ.” This is called antinomianism, meaning “against the law.” This is the view that a believer in Christ is free from all laws in the Bible – even moral laws. There are movements in Christianity where many young believers hold to this type of belief system. They believe that they can smoke, drink, have promiscuous sex, or do other things anytime they want without any consequences. These believers think that Christ has set them free from every law in order that they can relate to the people they are sharing the gospel with. This is wrong and is not biblical contextualization because the evangelism is done in sinful ways that profane the name of Christ. Antinomians truly believe that they can “become all things, (drunkards, pot-heads, etc.) to all people” so that they might win some.
Paul did not have antinomianism in mind when he said “not being without the law of God,” because he followed that with “but under the law of Christ.” This means that he is still under God’s moral law. Christians are called to holiness — being set apart from the world and not loving the world or the things in the world as 1 John 2 says. Antinomianism is not biblical contextualization, therefore it should not be practiced.
Biblical contextualization can be found in Acts 15 where the Jews and Apostles agreed to not require Gentiles to be circumcised in order to be Christians. Also in Acts 21:40 where Paul, when speaking to the Jews to give a defense for himself, spoke in their native tongue Hebrew. Paul also contextualized to the Gentiles when he spoke to them in Greek. Or in Acts 17:22-34 where Paul used an empty altar “to an unknown god” as the means to share the gospel by saying he knows who this unknown God is, namely “The God who made the world and everything in it, being the Lord of heaven and earth,” (24, ESV). Paul continued and even used Greek poets Epimenides and Phainomena to show how mankind is God’s offspring and has come from Him.3 If the Bible shows how one can contextualize biblically, then there must also be a way to contextualize unbiblically.
Christians should be cautious when attempting to contextualize with the people they are witnessing to. They must be careful not to over-contextualize or under-contextualize. The missionary should have a balance of contextualizing and faithfulness to the Scriptures. Over-contextualizing crosses over into the danger of syncretism. Syncretism is when someone replaces the essential truths of the gospel and Scriptures through the incorporation of pagan elements.4 One example of over-contextualization is when a Christian claim to be Muslim in order to relate to an Islamic culture. These Christians evangelize to Muslims using the Qur’an with the Islamic names for Jesus and God, Isa and Allah. They do this because the word Allah is a generic word for “god,” and Muslim means “one who submits to Allah,” and Isa means “Jesus.” In those Christians’ minds, because these are generic words with generic meanings, it is okay to use them. They themselves are, in a sense, “one who submits to Allah (God),” and Isa actually did exist.5 However, this is deceptive because what the Christian is thinking is not the same things as what the Muslim is thinking. There is no way that this will communicate the gospel to the Muslims. This is not being set apart from the world — that is unifying with a false religion so as to not offend anyone or to avoid persecution.
Under-contextualization is when the missionary does not attempt to relate to the people in a way that will communicate the message of the gospel. An extreme example of this is a KJV only church that believes Jesus spoke in English, thus they will only speak in English when evangelizing or have a KJV English Bible and not a Bible that is in the language of the people they are trying to evangelize. While this may be an extreme case, this method and forms of it nonetheless go on in America.
Paul Heibert says that “Conversion may include a change in beliefs and behavior, but if the worldview is not transformed, in the long run the gospel is subverted and the result is a syncretistic Christo-paganism, which has the form of Christianity but not its essence.”6 This is the result of unbiblical contextualization. Unorthodox contextualization will cause people to stray away from the faith because the gospel is not communicated in ways that speak to the people in their cultural context resulting in weak churches and a seemingly irrelevant gospel.
Biblical contextualization will vary from culture to culture and from people to people. Since everyone’s culture is different relating to the culture will be difficult because there is not one set standard of contextualization. The important thing for any Christian to remember is that the Scriptures are their ultimate authority for everything that they might do. Weather they are working at their job or doing missions in another country, the cry of every believer’s heart should be sola scriptura – Scripture alone. Christians can and should use extra-biblical resources, but they must not contradict the Scriptures. The purpose and goal of contextualization is to make disciples by communicating sound biblical doctrine to people in their own context without compromising the Scriptures. When this is done properly, the Christian faith will not only be the missionary’s, but it will also the faith of the local people group and thus God will be glorified.
- Zane G. Pratt, Michael David Sills, and Jeffrey Kirk Walters, Introduction to Global Missions (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Publishing Group, 2014), 149.
- Frank S. Thielman. Esv Study Bible: English Standard Version, esv text ed. (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2011, 2008), 2204.
- MacArthur, John (2013-09-06). Holy Bible – ESV MacArthur Study Bible (Kindle Locations 113206-113208). Kindle Edition.
- Craig Ott and Stephen J. Strauss, Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues, Encountering Mission (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2010), 275.
- Zane G. Pratt, Michael David Sills, and Jeffrey Kirk Walters, Introduction to Global Missions (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Publishing Group, 2014), 151.
- Hiebert, Paul G. (2008-05-01). Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change (Kindle Locations 208-210). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.