Grace to You, the ministry associated with Bible teacher John MacArthur has apparently decided to target contextualization for the next few days on their blog. It continues to boggle my mind that there seems to be no end to the attacks on the pursuit of contextualization. Well, you can read the first edition of their series, “All Things to All Men” here. For the most part, you can probably guess at my responses based on my previous writings on the subject. Nevertheless, let me attempt a brief reply. GTY's words are in italics.
The notion that the church must become like the world to win the world has taken evangelicalism by storm. Virtually every modern worldly attraction has a “Christian” counterpart. We have Christian motorcycle gangs, Christian bodybuilding teams, Christian dance clubs, Christian amusement parks, and I even read about a Christian nudist colony.
The above is a game. From the first paragraph, it is clear to me that the author either hasn’t interacted with a confessing Christ-follower who is a genuine practitioner of contextualization. Is he seriously suggesting that a “Christian nudist colony” is a serious example of contextualization? The above list is designed to shock a particular audience rather than to educate. It is disappointing to me and others who have paid a great price in order to cross-cultures incarnationally with the gospel.
Where did Christians ever get the idea we could win the world by imitating it? Is there a shred of biblical justification for that kind of thinking? Many church marketing specialists affirm that there is, and they have convinced a myriad of pastors.
Okay, I suppose I must pause here for a moment and admit that there may indeed exist a movement of American Christians (“church marketing specialists”) who do all kinds of stupid stuff under the label of “contextualization”. But, I would argue that anyone who has the imitation of the world as their goal isn’t practicing true contextualization. As I’ve said before, Biblical contextualization – real contextualization – is focused on the imitation of Christ’s incarnation. This is what Paul practiced and it is what must be aimed for today. We must not fall into the trap (either in our advocacy or in our opposition) of thinking of contextualization as merely a way to market a church. Properly understood, it has less to do ministry techniques and methods than with spiritual discipline. The one who has practiced contextualization truly, particularly in cross-cultural situations, has done so at great personal cost. He or she doesn’t have to be convinced that living incarnationally -- voluntarily giving up ones personal cultural preferences, language, and food for the sake of the gospel – is spiritual discipline.
Ironically, they usually cite the apostle Paul as someone who advocated adapting the gospel to the tastes of the audience. One has written, “Paul provided what I feel is perhaps the single most insightful perspective on marketing communications, the principle we call contextualization (1 Corinthians 9:19–23). Paul … was willing to shape his communications according to their needs in order to receive the response he sought.” “The first marketeer was Paul,” another echoes.
Okay, well people who are reading Paul in this way – as a marketing strategist – are being silly. But again, this isn’t contextualization as incarnation. It is marketing. Marketing is simply not what I am advocating for. However, before GTY criticizes marketing too much, they should ponder for a moment why they engage in it themselves. After all, they do market their ministry and resources all the time. They adapt the form of these things all along the way in order to reach more and more people. One wonders what exactly they are condemning here.
After all, the apostle did write, “I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. And I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a fellow partaker of it” (1 Cor. 9:22, 23). Is that a mandate for pragmatism in ministry?
I’m not sure what is meant by a “mandate for pragmatism in ministry”, however I will say out right that this certainly is a mandate for the pursuit of contextualization. I would suggest reading it in the larger context of chapter 9 and then comparing the language to the Carmen Christi of Philippians 2. Is it not clear, that Paul has in mind the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ as he reflects on his own ministry philosophy? Paul, though free from all, makes himself a slave to all just as Christ, who was in the form of God, emptied himself and took the form of a servant. What was this slavery for Paul? It was becoming a Jew to Jews, a Greek to Greeks – all things to all men. In this, Paul’s vision was clearly Christ who was found and human likeness and was obedient to the point of death on the cross. So this was not a matter of experimenting with novel new ministry methods for Paul. It was slavery. It was a laying down of his rights and life that he might win more people to Christ.
Was the apostle Paul suggesting that the gospel message can be made to appeal to people by accommodating their relish for certain amusements or by pampering their pet vices?
No, of course not. While there are some people who would perhaps seem to think that this is what is meant by contextualization, it is not what I mean. Nor is it what anyone that I know means who practices contextualization. For contextualization to be genuine, it must enable the Christ follower to bring God’s prophetic word to bear on a given cultural context – and to do so in a way that can be understood, preferably (like Jesus did) as an insider to that culture.
How far do you suppose he would have been willing to go with the principle of “contextualization”?
Paul was willing to go all the way because his model was Jesus who became fully human, fully Jewish, fully Galilean, etc. The “how far” questions miss the point on contextualization and, I must add, are usually asked by Western Christians for whom the gospel has already been fully contextualized!
This much is very clear: the apostle Paul was no people-pleaser. He wrote, “Am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10). Paul did not amend or abridge his message to make people happy. He was utterly unwilling to try to remove the offense from the gospel (Gal. 5:11). He did not use methodology that catered to the lusts of his listeners. He certainly did not follow the pragmatic philosophy of modern market-driven ministers.
Correct. He was no people-pleaser. He didn’t seek to remove the offense of the gospel. Nor was he intentionally trying to tick people off – he was careful to not add to the offense of the gospel by a failure to be incarnational. So he didn’t preach in Hebrew at Lystra. He didn’t preach the same sermon in Antioch Pisidia as he did in Athens. He didn’t write to the Ephesians in the same style as he wrote to the Philippians. This was not amending or abridging the gospel “to make people happy”. This was about discovering how to communicate it with clarity through word and deed.
What made Paul effective was not marketing savvy, but a stubborn devotion to the truth.
No, actually what made Paul effective was the work of the Holy Spirit. Not that I am arguing for “marketing savvy”, but let’s be sure on this point. Effectiveness in ministry comes neither from our “stubborn devotion to the truth” nor our “marketing savvy” but by the sheer grace of God. That being said, God does, for his glory, bless and honor obedience and the pursuit of contextualization as incarnation is obedience.
He was Christ’s ambassador, not His press secretary. Truth was something to be declared, not negotiated. Paul was not ashamed of the gospel (Rom. 1:16). He willingly suffered for the truth’s sake (2 Cor. 11:23–28). He did not back down in the face of opposition or rejection. He did not compromise with unbelievers or make friends with the enemies of God.
I don’t like this paragraph because it is designed to suggest that contextualizers don’t want to proclaim the truth, are ashamed of the gospel, are unwilling to suffer for truth, constantly back down in the face of opposition or rejection, compromise with unbelievers, and make friends with the enemies of God. Sorry GTY, while this is a problem in the Church is simply isn’t exclusive to those who practice contextualization. I find it offensive that this is being suggested. First, walk in our shoes for a week. If at the end you think that we are ashamed of the gospel or afraid to suffer for truth, feel free to write such things. Otherwise, I believe that this suggestion should be retracted.
Paul’s message was always non-negotiable. In the same chapter where he spoke of becoming all things to all men, Paul wrote, “I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16). His ministry was in response to a divine mandate. God had called him and commissioned him. Paul preached the gospel exactly as he had received it directly from the Lord, and he always delivered that message “as of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). He was not a salesman or marketer, but a divine emissary.
This is more of the same. It is a straw man fallacy really. This idea is to present pursuers of contextualization as wimpy Christians who are ashamed of the gospel and afraid to suffer and then to say, “Well, Paul wasn’t like that so contextualization must be bad.” Sorry, this is just bad and, I believe, irresponsible argumentation. To the author, I would love to introduce you to a few disciples of Jesus who would blow you away in their boldness.
He certainly was not“willing to shape his communications” to accommodate his listeners or produce a desirable response.
Of course, Paul was willing to shape his communications and did so to win people to the Lord. One has only to compare the sermons he delivered in Antioch Pisidia, Lystra, and Athens and ask the question, what accounts for the fact that they are not the same sermon?
The fact that he was stoned and left for dead (Acts 14:19), beaten, imprisoned, and finally killed for the truth’s sake ought to demonstrate that he didn’t adapt the message to make it pleasing to his hearers! And the personal suffering he bore because of his ministry did not indicate that something was wrong with his approach, but that everything had been right!
In what sense does Paul’s persecution demonstrate that he didn’t adapt his message? I would agree (as would most pursuers of contextualization) that he didn’t make adaptations for the sake of pleasing people. However, that he adapted his message is incontrovertible. There has certainly been persecution in church history that has arisen from people misunderstanding the intentions of gospel proclaimers. However, contextualization also leads inevitably to suffering and persecution just as the incarnation led to the cross. In fact, I’d suggest that contextualization as incarnation inevitably leads to suffering because it allows people to come in contact with Jesus as the word made flesh for them. For some, their response will be faith and repentance. But others will reject this Christ and oppose him – sometimes violently.
So what did Paul mean when he wrote, “I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. And I do all things for the sake of the gospel”? As always, the context makes his meaning clear. We’ll be taking a look at what Paul really meant over the course of the next several days. I hope you stick around.
It will be interesting to read the articles to come. I hope I have time to treat them here on the blog. However I think there is an ironic sentence in this closing paragraph that is worth a second look. “As always, the context makes it clear.” Here, GTY is reminding us of a helpful principle for Biblical interpretation. However, the principle is more generally applicable. The context does make the meaning clear. That is the point of the pursuit of contextualization in the end. The idea is to use elements native to a particular context to make the meaning of the gospel clear. What must be understood is that the hearers of the gospel will always use their context to interpret our message.
Okay. Spending too much time on this lately. Peace.