Why Contextualize? (Part 5) The Locus of Spiritual Transformation

It has been a long time since I wrote the first four installments of my "Why Contextualize" series.  However, as I spend more and more time in the field engaging the realities of cross-cultural mission and the complaints by some against contextualization, there is another (5th) issue that continues to arise.  Just last week, I was on the road teaching about contextualization and heard the following concern (paraphrasing):

"If new followers of Jesus keep the same customs and cultural forms as they had before they became Christians, won't there be confusion as to who is a Christian and who is not?"

I'm grateful for the question because it brings to light what is a dangerous but nevertheless widely held view among Christians (especially in the West) that being a Christian is something that should result in visible, outward signs which essentially equate to an assimilation with Western cultural forms.  Deep down, far too many of us are still trying to "make a man of our Friday's"-- dressing the "savages" up in suits and ties, handing them black leather Bibles and praising the Lord for the "transformation".

But this is neither desirable nor right.  It certainly isn't the gospel. From a Biblical perspective, the locus of spiritual transformation is not to be found in the external, visible realm of customs, clothing, technology, or dietary habits. Rather, transformation by the Spirit of God is an invisible phenomenon -- the giving of a new heart, the renewal of the mind, a re-born spirit.  To be sure, this all will result in a character conformed to the image of Christ and righteous actions.  But that is not to be equated with Windsor knots, Christmas trees, and Chris Tomlin songs (no offense, Chris).  You simply shouldn't be able to pick out a Christian in a line up and if you can, then you've created a kind of pseudo-Christianity that is just far too easy to fake.  You've created a system in which discipleship is reduced to meaningless attempts to pursue conformity to a set of external social cues and cultural forms.  In which case (and I speak from experience), the label "Christian" becomes little more than a way of saying, "Oh I don't celebrate that festival" or "I don't wear those kinds of bodily adornments".  It is a mockery of the gospel and is simply not the thing for which Christ died.  If cultural change is all you are after, why not become a Muslim or join a biker gang or become a mime?

If instead, we assume that God had something else in mind in the incarnation and sacrifice of His beloved Son,  that becoming a Christian is not tantamount to the abandoning of one's culture and traditions (although they certainly are to be scrutinized by the light of God's revelation), then discipleship also has to become something else.  If a person cannot simply trade in their old holidays for new ones, then true spiritual transformation must be located elsewhere.  The locus of spiritual transformation, we find, thus shifts to the unseen yet unmistakable realm of heart, mind, spirit, and character.  And this is precisely where it should have been all along. Hence:

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. (Eze 36:26 ESV)

I leave you today with a lovely and ancient description of what I am talking about.  The following is from a late 2nd Century Christian writing known as the Letter to Diognetus (Trans. by D. Bosch):

Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humankind either in locality or in speech or in customs.  For they dwell not somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor practice an extraordinary kind of life . . . While they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians . . . and follow the native custom in dress and food and the other arrangements of life, yet the constitution of their own citizenship, which they set forth, is marvelous, and confessedly contradicts expectations . . . In a word, what the soul is in a body, this the Christians are in the world.



  1. Anonymous12:48 PM

    Good article, and I agree 100%.
    I have a follow up question however. How does one decide what is the appropriate degree of contextualization?
    What I mean by that is, since in some cultures certain normal, external cultural activities may be closely or directly tied to the worship of false Gods, how much of those specific customs are 'redeemable'?
    I am 100% against changing people to western or any other culture as part of 'believing in Jesus', but it seems there could be some things so closely tied to what is wrong that there could be benefit avoiding them. Perhaps those should be individual decisions, but how does one decide on what can be acceptable and what is not?
    Of course people will have different points of view, but to what degree should a church leader influence external forms of Christianity, whether specifically contextualized to that culture or anything else?

  2. Appreciate the comment and question. Let me refer you first to my other articles on the subject. From them, you should be able to get my perspective. In general, since I define contextualization primarily in terms of spiritual discipline - i.e. the imitation of Christ's incarnation, I answer your question by asking another, "How human did Jesus become? How Jewish?" The answer provided by Scripture is an unequivocal "100%". Then, when we see Jesus prophetically speaking/acting against particular cultural sins, we see him doing so as an insider rather than as a foreigner. To be sure, there will be sin and evil which must be confronted. Contextualization enables rather than hinders this.

    Further, let me say that there is a great danger in condemning neutral practices because of their supposed "associations" with sin. This approach is taken often either as a cheap alternative to discipleship or rather as the result of the "making a man out of our Friday" mentality. If we say, for example, don't put a mark on your forehead because of its "associations" with idolatry we put the locus of discipleship in forehead adornment rather than on the invisible matter of dealing with idolatrous hearts. Moreover, we begin to teach new disciples that it is okay to create a set of rules which are not actually based on Scripture.

    In my view, and I haven't seen the entire world, very few cultural forms/traditions which are not directly condemned in Scripture are impossible to "redeem". Indeed a great many present wonderful bridges and indigenous metaphors for the effective communication of spiritual truth. Many of these further offer the potential to wonderfully bless the global Church.

  3. Katherine1:27 PM

    Hi Anonymous -- here are my thoughts: there are definitely things which Scripture says we shouldn't do. So we shouldn't do those things. I assume you are not asking about those types of things. I have great hope that just about everything else can be redeemed. Take the celebrations of Christmas and Easter -- both the time (as in date of the year) as well as the activities. Today these holidays are widely seen as "Christian" although the dates and activities have non-Christian roots. I imagine the first Christians to celebrate Christmas for Jesus did things that looked very similar to what their non-Christian neighbors did for a festival that same day. On the flipside, simply participating in Christmas and Easter does not make a person a follower of Jesus. The things that make what you do on Dec. 25 a "Christian" activity is internal -- your attitude of worshiping the One True God. Scripture commands us to do everything to the glory of God and to live our lives as acts of worship. Many Western Christians are hindered by this idea that some things are religious and some are not when in reality you cannot separate life that way. For many people around the world, everything is a religious act; sadly, most are not directing their worship to their Creator. How wonderful it would be if those cultural activities could be used to worship the Lord.

  4. Anonymous2:33 PM

    Thanks for your replies both of you. I agree, condemning anything that is not sin is very dangerous... it's a shortcut to legalism basically. I also have not read your other articles but I will do so and that will probably help me get the full picture of what you're saying.
    I also agree with Katherine that probably pretty much anything (any non-sin activity of course) is redeemable.
    With regards to Jesus' incarnation, it's a legitimate argument, but Judaism was the correct 'religion' if you will, until Jesus came and fulfilled the old law, so I think it's not a perfect comparison to put Jesus in Judaism up against other religions that are completely centered worship of false Gods. But there are legitimate points to be taken from it.
    Really the two concerns that I ever have about 'complete' contextualization are:
    1. That some people, particularly in polytheistic religions, might potentially not understand that following Jesus is different from adding Jesus. But, if the gospel is taught correctly then it should not be a problem.
    2. Unity of the church (unity not uniformity). I'm not blaming contextualization here, just noting that some people want nothing to do with anything that reminds them of their former ways in following false Gods and others don't mind the cultural contextualization... this need not be a cause for strife, but it seems to become one, probably because people judge each other. So I guess I would say that maintaining unity of the church in the spirit should be strongly emphasized, so that the church will not suffer divisions over this issue.

  5. Again, thanks for your thoughts and feedback. I must try to be quick here ...

    RE: Jesus/Judaism/"correct religion" - I think your question must be raised so that we can expose the fact that the concept of comparative religions is really very anachronistic to the point. It is a reading back into the first century a modern and thoroughly Western concept of "religion" that would have been very foreign to the way 1st century Jews thought about their "Jewishness". Incidentally, it is also foreign to the way today's Hindus tend to think about their "Hindu-ness". But it is impossible to get into all this here. For now, we'll put it down as an issue to explore more thoroughly in the future. It is the model of incarnation, of becoming fully human - a historically real and socially contextual human, that we must consider. The John 1 but also the Mark 6 - "Isn't this the carpenter?"

    RE: Your #1 - Right on, this isn't a problem created by contextualization but rather by a lack of discipleship. Contextualization, I would argue, doesn't compound the problem, rather it enables the solution.

    RE: Your #2 - I am a very strong advocate for the unity of the Church. I am also a strong opponent of the push towards uniformity (see yesterday's post as a recent example). So, I'm with you on this. This is also why I have taken great efforts to develop (and translate) covenants with such a purpose, become engaged in the Lausanne Movement, etc. But calls for uniformity endure. Beyond the opponents of contextualization are KJV-Only advocates, my-denomination-only advocates, anti-Calvinists, anti-Arminian folks, anti-Pentecostals, Pentecostal onlyists, and many more. I believe that the unity of the Church is an essential Christian doctrine worth dying for. Its position in the historic creeds of our faith is appropriate. But division and fighting will be with us till Jesus returns. Till then we will have to struggle against the tendency of blaming any issue about which there is disagreement on our divisiveness. We cannot blame contextualization or Christian hip hop or anything else on that. We must own the blame ourselves.

    Okay, no more for me today. Back to work. Blessings, I enjoyed the chat.

    1. Anonymous5:03 PM

      Thanks for the reply, and this is Peter by the way in case you want to continue the discussion sometimes off of this page :)
      I would be interested to hear more about the Jesus in Judaism subject, but it doesn't have to be now.
      My comment about the correct 'religion' (put in quotations intentionally) was just referring to the fact that at that time God had chosen to reveal himself to the Jewish people, and the law as given to Moses was from God, and not just a human creation. The only point being that Jewish behavior as directed by the law of Moses was different in its origin than the practices of other nations who did not know God.
      But... yeah, good article, and we can continue to discuss this another day!

    2. I thought that was you, Peter! Definitely we will talk more. Blessings!