For though I am free from all men,I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. 20. And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law; 21. to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law. 22. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. 23. And I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a fellow partaker of it.
The aim of Paul in becoming all things to all people is “that [he] may by all means save some”—from the wrath of God. When coming into a culture to live as long term missionaries, there are certain aspects of the culture we need to “receive, reject and redeem.” This takes years of hard work, risks and labor of love. We are called to proclaim the unadulterated Word of God, but we are also called to live as “a slave to all, that [we] might win the more” and “by all means save some.” The reason I said it takes hard work and risks is made crystal clear below:-
As soon as you say, “I have made myself slave to all” (v. 19), and “I have become all things to all men” (v. 23), you are on the brink of idolatry and compromise and worldliness and sin. You are walking the razor’s edge between fruitless separatism and unprincipled expediency. If you fall one way, you are of no use because you have no connection with the world; if you fall the other way, you are of no use because you are just like the world. How do you keep your faith and your freedom and your radical zeal to win people and not just copy people? The answer is that you think hard about your relation to the law of God—the way Paul did. (John Piper’ Sermon).
Excerpts from The Gospel Coalitions blog post by Tullian Tchividjian on why Contextualization is crucial.
The principle behind Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 9:22 to “become all things to all men” is what Christian thinkers call “contextualization.” Contextualization is the idea that we need to be translating gospel truth into language understood by our culture. Cross-cultural missionaries and Bible translators have been doing this for centuries. They take the unchanging truth of the Gospel and put it into language that fits the context they are trying to reach. Contextualization simply means translating the Gospel—in both word and deed—into understandable terms appropriate to the audience. It’s Gospel translation that is context sensitive.
Genna, my eight-year-old daughter, loves going to her Sunday school class for various reasons. She loves seeing her friends and singing her favorite songs. But she also loves to learn from her capable and creative teacher. He works hard to use language, concepts, and illustrations that she and the other children in the class will understand as he faithfully teaches them the Bible. And as a result, Genna gets it. She walks away Sunday after Sunday excited about what she’s learned. This thrills Kim and me. We’re both grateful that her teacher understands the need to contextualize.
Similarly, every English Bible translation is an effort to contextualize the Scriptures (originally written in Hebrew and Greek for ancient peoples) for an English-speaking audience of today.
Contextualization also involves building relationships with people who don’t believe. We don’t expect them to come to us; we go to them. We meet them where they are. We enter into their world by seeking to identify with their struggles, their likes, their dislikes, their ideas. Chuck Colson speaks of it as entering into people’s “stories”:
We must enter into the stories of the surrounding culture, which takes real listening. We connect with the literature, music, theater, arts, and issues that express the existing culture’s hopes, dreams, and fears. This builds a bridge by which we can show how the Gospel can enter and transform those stories.
Edith Schaeffer, wife of the late Francis Schaeffer, wrote about a visit the two of them made to San Francisco in 1968. One night they went to Fillmore West to hang out with the druggies and hippies and take in a light show. She records how heartbroken they were as they witnessed on that night “the lostness of humanity in search of peace where there is no peace.” She concluded, “A time of listening is needed—listening to what the next generation is saying, listening to the words of the music they are listening to, listening to the meaning behind the words. If true communication is to continue, there is a language to be learned.”
Contextualization begins with a broken heart for the lost and a driving desire to help them understand God’s liberating truth. Only by real listening and learning can we hope to persuasively communicate God’s unchanging Word to our constantly changing world.
Sadly, some well-meaning Christians conclude otherwise. For these Christians, contextualization means the same thing as compromise. They believe it means giving people what they want and telling people what they want to hear. What they misunderstand, however, is that contextualization means giving people God’s answers (which they may not want) to the questions they’re really asking and in ways they can understand.
This misunderstanding of contextualization has led these people to argue that cultural reflection and contextualization are at best distractions, at worst sinful. They admonish us to abandon these things and focus simply on the Bible. While this sounds virtuous, it ends up being foolish for two reasons. First, as we’ve already seen, the Bible itself exhorts us to understand our times so that we can reach our changing world with God’s eternal truth. To not contextualize, therefore, is a sin. And second, we all live inescapably within a particular cultural framework that shapes the way we think about everything. So if we don’t work hard to understand our context, we’ll not only fail in our task to effectively communicate the gospel but we’ll also find it impossible to avoid being negatively shaped by a world we don’t understand.
In a recent interview, pastor Tim Keller put it this way: “to over-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of their culture, but to under-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of the culture you come from. So there’s no avoiding it.” Read the whole thing HERE.
For further reading:
- Related article: Get Better At Contextualization.
- Church Contextualization in Light of The Ages.
- Be Missional, Not Superficially Contextual.