The Contextualization Scale's Faulty Premise

Can a person be a follower of Jesus and a Muslim at the same time?  That is the question that is right now being discussed by Lausanne Congress participants around the world.  Before I provide my own response to this issue, I'd like to provide you with the background information you will need to join the global conversation.  First, you can find the article by Joseph Cumming that prompted this discussion by clicking here. There is also a very nice video on the subject that you can view below:

Following Jesus from The Global Conversation on Vimeo.

Now, on to my own response to the question.  I'd like to respond by dealing with what I feel is a faulty premise upon which this particular debate is built.

There is a premise to this discussion that I feel must be examined and, perhaps, rejected. That premise is behind the question, "The gospel must be contextualized, but how far can contextualization go without violating the gospel?" This question assumes that contextualization can go "too far." That is, it is assumed there is a kind of contextualization continuum that on one extreme features non-contexualized "normal" Christian expression and on the other full-blown syncretism. The points in the middle consist of increasingly dangerous experiments in contextualization. The debate is couched in language that presumes the legitimacy of non-contextualized Christian expression and presumes that contextual methodology is nice but fundamentally risky. 
Instead, I propose that the only truly Biblical methodology for mission, discipleship, evangelism, and church planting is one that pursues contextualization as an essential spiritual discipline. One that considers the incarnation of Jesus Christ as something of a communicable attribute of deity to be imitated by all those who would be Christ-like. I believe that the comparatively similar language of the Carmen Christi (Phil 2:5-11) and Paul's defense of his own contextualized methods (1 Cor. 9:19-23) suggests that Paul himself considered the incarnation to be an example to strive for. As Christ-followers pursue holiness, power, obedience, peace, faith, love, etc. as essential elements of Christ-likeness never to be perfectly attained in this world but always to be sought so, I believe, we ought to be pursuing the incarnational life - the life that "enfleshens" the Word among all peoples, languages, tribes, and tongues.
It isn't that I oppose debate related to the legitimacy of specific forms and practices in Christian worship, discipleship, evangelism, etc. Such debate is healthy. However, one should not assume that the so-called C1 - C3 communities that are not actively pursuing an imitation of the incarnational life of Christ are automatically legitimate. That, for example, singing "Amazing Grace" in Hindi is automatically more legitimate than chanting a Christocentric version of the "Gaytri Mantra." Why, after all, is there no debate as to the legitimacy of C1 or C2 communities? Such communities essentially deny the reality of the incarnation by their behavior (at least denying that it has any bearing on how a Christ-follower should live), reject the legitimacy of Pauline mission methodology, and often refuse to be identified with C4-C6 believers (at least as much as C4-C6 believers refuse to be identified with them). Let me suggest that believers who uncritically accept non-contextualized forms of Christian expression are not moving closer to Biblical Christianity but rather farther away from the example of Christ's own mission. C1-3 communities that are complacent and content with their status as non-incarnate, non-communicators are not following Christ as fully as they could be. The ongoing pursuit of Christlikeness requires a critical, on-going pursuit of the incarnational life. Certainly there will be disagreement as to what that means and perils (such as syncretism) along the way, but that should not dissuade us from the goal. The C1-6 scale is fatally flawed in this regard as it seems to suggest that more and more contextualization leads inevitably to syncretism and secret believers. A new contextualization scale should be created that recognizes Christlikeness as the ultimate goal of all contextualization. On one extreme are those who simply aren't pursuing Christ in this regard. On the other is full-blown, word-made-flesh incarnational ministry.

More later on this topic. I'm at the beginning of thinking through it.


  1. Bradford Greer9:33 PM

    Your point on C1 and C2 communities is astute. Thank you.
    April 28, 2010 @ 2:57 PM

  2. Warrick Farah9:34 PM

    I like your point about C1 and C2, but remember those historic Christian churches (in the ME) are insiders in their own communities!

    I think you're right on about the incarnation being the basis and the goal, but you didn't do justice to the issue of syncretism.

    At some point, in a particular context, deep "incarnationalism" will flirt with syncretism. We need to balance 1 Cor. 9 with 2 Cor. 6:14ff. The C scale might be flawed for various reasons, but syncretism IS an issue (for both ends of the scale).

    Anyways, I'll see you at Lausanne.
    April 29, 2010 @ 6:09 AM

  3. I appreciate your comments. I am especially glad that you two agree with me that much more should be said regarding the legitimacy of so called "C1-2" communities.

    2 Cor. 6:14ff calls for a kind of "coming out" from darkness, a kind of separation. This clearly needs reflection, because I doubt that many mission-minded followers of Christ would suggest that this actually means to disassociate with non-Christians. Paul obviously didn't mean this. Anyway, I agree with the call to "come out" but I disagree with anyone who would hold that the adoption of foreign cultural forms is tantamount to this -- nor is it at all what Paul had in mind. That is, I believe that it is incorrect to suggest that the kind of separation that Paul is calling for here, is either essentially or even superficially a matter of adopting or rejecting cultural forms.

    On the other hand, 1 Cor. 9:19-23 does have a lot to do with the adoption and rejection of cultural forms. Here Paul describes a mode of mission in which he disciplines himself to reject or adopt forms based on their cultural appropriateness to a given field of mission. The passage is not, I believe, in any way balanced or informed by 2 Cor. 6 as the two pertain to very different topics. Checks against sin (or for that matter a haphazard manner of contextualizing) are in the 1 Cor. 9 passage itself – “I’m not under the law”, I’m under the law of Christ”.

    Really, I'm not sure what we all mean by syncretism. If what we are concerned about is followers of Christ following the sinful patterns of this world (or of particular cultures), well then, the pursuit of Christ's incarnation (contextualization) does not necessarily make one more vulnerable to this. Why would it? Contextualization is about enclothing the Christ-life in a given cultural context. Some kind of cultural enclothing of the Christ-life is always necessary and is, for that matter, completely unavoidable. The gospel, worship, prayer, preaching, discipleship, etc. will always be enclothed somehow as it is communicated and expressed by humans and groups. The only question is whether a given enclothing is contextually appropriate to a particular context. My manner of worshiping Jesus, for example, will be contextualized to the people group I am among or it will not be. But if it isn't, that doesn't mean that it is not enclothed in the forms of some human culture. Only that it is enclothed in forms that are foreign to the culture in which I am worshipping. And if I am content to worship Jesus in a manner that is foreign to the people I am trying to reach, then I am no longer imitating the incarnation of Christ and, therefore, my own discipleship is severely hindered. I am thus just as vulnerable (if not more so) to following the sinful patterns of the world as anyone who pursues contextualization since I am not fully pursuing Jesus.

  4. I am afraid, however, that what we tend to mean my syncretism is rather followers of Christ pursuing the Christ-life in forms that we don’t readily understand or resonate with. This is almost certainly the case among the masses of Evangelicals now and historically who have been so quick to reject everything from guitars and congos to incense and NIVs without first engaging in the necessary exegetical, theological, and anthropological reflection such issues warrant.

    Let me be clear. It is absolutely the case that not everything that is indigenous to a cultural context (including my own) is good or even neutral. That which is sinful must be carefully and thoughtfully (and often quite slowly and gently) rejected. But, we must do this as Jesus did. As a full participant and member of the culture and not as a foreigner to it. Regarding contextualization and incarnation, we must ask the poignant questions: “How far did Jesus go?”; “How human did He become?”; “How far must I go to imitate Him?”

    The answer, of course, is that Jesus became fully human. One of the most powerful passages, I believe, on the incarnation is found in Mark 6:

    He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, "Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him.
    (Mar 6:1-3 ESV)

    How much of an “insider” did Jesus become?

    Jesus did not go to Galilee as a foreigner. He spoke the language, ate the food, wore the clothes, practiced the traditions, knew the songs and dances, celebrated the festivals and in every way lived as a full member of that cultural context. We must meditate on the fact that it was as a man indigenous to his surroundings, that Jesus proclaimed the truth about God and salvation and the Kingdom; that he challenged individual and corporate sin; and that embodied the God-centered life.

    This is the Lord that we are called to imitate as we carry the gospel across cultures.
    April 29, 2010 @ 4:45 PM