From time to time a movement appears on the worldwide missions field which attempts to fuse Christianity with the indigenous religion of the target group. This pragmatic strategy is exalted as innovative and good due to the many “converts” it has produced. These “good consequences” say the adherents indicate that their actions have promoted the plan of God, and hence should be regarded as sound. This strategy should be promoted and expanded due to the great success in winning converts. But good consequences do not make these actions good. What makes an action good is the fact that God has willed it.
Contextualization (Cx), and those involved in it, are missing the point of 1 Corinthians 9:20. Paul writes that “… to the Jews I became a Jew …” Paul’s missionary strategy was not to become a Jew. He already was one. Among his own countrymen he carefully observed the Jewish law so as not to offend them. Conversely, he was no less careful not to give offence when working with non-Jews. Thus Paul never denied his Jewish heritage, nor did he deny his Roman citizenship. In fact he made full use of both whenever and wherever he could.
Paul’s missionary activities included becoming “all things to all men.” This is a description of his relentless drive to travel and preach the Gospel. Paul’s emphasis was always the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ as a fulfillment of Jewish Scriptures, not the inherent cleverness of his missiology. It was his diverse background which gave him the credentials and believability to be “all things to all men.” Today, Paul would not become a Muslim to reach Muslims with the Gospel. He would not become a Hindu for Christ. Paul never had to force his identity because he truly was “all things to all men” in the situations in which he found himself. Paul was authentically Roman and Jewish at the same time. This was not syncretism as practiced today in certain evangelistic efforts.
The Scripture is full of examples of how Paul and others modified their own preferences (by suffering loss) and carefully using the local terminology so that the commission Christ had given him may be accepted worldwide. To contextualize truly in an exegetical and biblical sense is to leave behind one’s Christ-given liberty so as not to offend anyone. But proponents of Cx seem to eventually offend just about everyone they meet.
Advocates of the Cx movement often point to Acts 17 as a proof text. Here, Paul found a statue dedicated to “an unknowable god” and used it as an availing introduction to the genuinely knowable Jesus Christ. It should be noted that Paul did not associate Christ with the numerous identifiable idols in their midst. In fact, it was idolatry which “provoked his spirit within” (v. 16) and thus caused him to correct their theology. Paul was in sharp disagreement with the Athenian heathenism. He did not seek to reconcile Zeus with Christ. We deduce that Paul did not use the circumstance to blend Christian faith with the pagan, but he clearly introduced them to the knowable Living Lord.
Adopting a ChristoIslamic or a ChristoHindu religious system is not true to the biblical text. “All things to all men” does not mean developing a religious cartel. It is not about changing the missionary’s identity or message. Instead “all things to all men” is about the missionary being willing to forego Christian liberties and then preaching the Gospel exactly as it has been given to us, that is to say, without modification and appeasement.
In its extreme form, Cx attempts to erase any doctrinal differences by creating a pseudo-christian belief system that is acceptable to the target audience. It is a strategy that has tremendous potential for heresy and schism. Yet, the destructive consequences of Cx may not be readily seen. Its negative and potentially unorthodox effect may not be apparent upon first inspection. But sooner or later we find CX changing Scripture and abandoning historic Christian doctrine in order to appease the religion it is supposed to be reaching with the Gospel. In many cases the missionary finds himself adopting the heathen terminology and doctrines of the group he himself was sent to reach for Christ.
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