I love reading articles about missions that both point me back to Scripture and demonstrate intimate acquaintance with the realities of life and ministry on the mission field. "Putting Contextualization in its Place" in the recent 9Marks eJournal is one of those article. The author presents an excellent explanation of how contextualization is found in the pages of Scripture, and is not an idea hoisted onto it. He then goes on to explain how and his team put this principles into practice in their setting in a Central Asian country. The article covers a lot of ground and is worth reading in its entirety but I wanted to share with you one particular section that I found to be a good reminder of what my attitude and approach should be in living with and trying to serve the Thai people.
PAUL'S PRINCIPLES FOR CROSS-CULTURAL MINISTRY
Perhaps the most widely-quoted passage of Scripture that teaches about contextualization is 1 Corinthians 9:1-23:
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? 2 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.
3 This is my defense to those who would examine me. 4 Do we not have the right to eat and drink? 5 Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife,1 as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? 6 Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? 7 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?
8 Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? 9 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? 10 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. 11 If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? 12 If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more?
Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. 13 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? 14 In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.
15 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. 16 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! 17 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. 18 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.
19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became 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. 22 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. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
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, Paul in many ways is what we today would call a "Third Culture Kid." 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 faced issues that the church in Palestine would never even imagine.
The specific context of this passage is Paul's extended discussion of whether or not Christians should eat meat sacrificed to idols. This discussion 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 have stronger consciences than others. In the process, he broadened the discussion to address how our freedom in Christ intersects the work of the gospel in a cross-cultural setting.
The key to understanding this passage is found in verse 12: "We endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ." Paul's passion was the advance of the gospel, and he didn't want anything unnecessary to hinder that advance. This did not mean that he would compromise any biblical truth or biblical command in the process. Verses later on in the chapter make that clear. However, he was willing to endure any inconvenience or personal hardship that might enable the gospel to spread more effectively.
He expanded on that thought with some key principles for cross-cultural ministry.
1. Give Up Your Rights
First, Paul voluntarily chose not to make use of legitimate rights. He had a right to eat meat, to take along a believing wife, and to receive monetary support. He would not be sinning by doing any of those things. Indeed, such things would be considered normal and even expected, and other apostles apparently did them. Nevertheless, Paul gave up those rights in order not to put any obstacle in the way of the gospel.
We Americans struggle with this. We are raised to demand our rights. As a free American, I have a "right" to do a lot of things that would be offensive in my new cultural context: wear my shoes indoors, eat or touch someone with my left hand, put up a fence around my own yard without my local community leader's permission, or even leave a Central Asian birthday party before the rice is served! I have the "right" to dress how I want, eat whatever I want, and decorate my house how I want. However, at the same time, I do not have a biblical command to do any of these things.
The issue in exercising these rights is not obedience to God, but my own comfort and convenience. If anything that I do makes it harder for Muslims to hear the gospel from me, other than those things that Scripture commands me to do, I need to give them up voluntarily.
2. Become a Servant of Non-Believers
Second, Paul adopted a posture of servanthood toward non-believers. In verse 19, he wrote: "Though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them." Paul approached non-Christians with the mindset of a servant. It is clear that he is not talking here about serving Christians, because he is serving those who need to be won. So Paul not only chose not to make use of his rights, he went farther and chose to make himself the servant of those whom he is trying to reach with the gospel.
This idea also rubs our flesh the wrong way, especially when we are in the throes of culture shock. We want to set people straight, not serve them! Yet Jesus himself came not to be served, but to serve. He served people who were wrong, who were in rebellion against him, and who would eventually kill him. Paul understood the mind of his master well at this point.
The posture of servanthood reflects the character of Christ, shatters stereotypes of the ugly American, and causes barriers to drop. Servanthood is an essential characteristic of effective cross-cultural ministry, and it paradoxically defines how we are to make use of our freedom in Christ.
3. Adapt to Others' Lifestyle as Much as Possible Without Sinning
Third, Paul chose to identify with the people he was trying to reach, and to adapt to their lifestyle as much as he could without compromising the law of Christ (see verses 19-23).
Paul was a Jew. The Jews really were God's chosen people. If any culture had a right to consider itself intrinsically more godly than all others, it was Jewish culture. Paul certainly had a "right" to maintain his Jewish cultural heritage. At the same time, Paul had been set free from the burden of the law. He was certainly free from the rabbinic hedge around the law. He had a "right" to ignore any of the endless extra-biblical rules and regulations of Pharisaic Judaism. Yet, with Jews he acted like a Jew. With Gentiles he acted like a Gentile. With the weak – people with lots of scruples and hang-ups – he lived within their scruples.
He became all things to all people that by all means he might save some. He identified with the people he was trying to reach. He adapted his lifestyle to theirs in anything that might block them from hearing the gospel. He valued the gospel more than his own rights, more than his own comfort, more than his own culture. If there was any offense in the gospel, he wanted it to be the offense of the cross, and not the offense of foreignness.
4. Stay Within the Bounds of Scripture
Fourth, however, Paul insisted on staying within the bounds of Scripture. In the middle of his statement on identification and adaptation, he inserts an all-important parenthesis: "not being outside the law of God, but under the law of Christ."
Although free from the requirement of keeping the ceremonial law, and free from the penalty of failing to keep the law of God perfectly, and certainly free from the burdensome rabbinic superstructure of rules built around the law, he still very much regarded himself as under the authority of God expressed in his word. Scripture, in its theology, worldview, commands and principles, set the boundaries for his adaptation to the people he was trying to reach.
The same must apply to us. Every human culture reflects common grace, but every culture also reflects the fall. We must not adapt to that which contradicts Scripture.
Paul's understanding of this principle becomes clear when the entirety of his writings are examined. He refused to accommodate to the "wisdom" of the popular Hellenistic worldview around him, because he realized that it negated the gospel at its very heart, however sophisticated it might have sounded. Indeed, Paul never condoned diversity or accommodation in matters of doctrine. He did not accommodate the seedy practices of contemporary itinerate teachers. He most certainly did not accommodate the "acceptable" immorality of Corinthian society. Human culture and human tradition are negotiable. God's Word is not, ever.
Contextualization, then, is both unavoidable and good. The gospel can, and should, transform people in every culture. And we must identify with those we are trying to reach and adapt to their culture, no matter what discomfort it causes us. However, the gospel also challenges and condemns every culture at some points (including our own). Where the Bible draws a line, we must draw a line.