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The Final Word on Contextualization

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Several weeks ago Grace to You launched a blog series examining the subject of contextualization, the pragmatic approach to evangelism that says the gospel can be made more powerful by adapting it to cultural contexts. John MacArthur opened that series by asking an important question: Where did Christians ever get the idea they could win the world to Christ by imitating it?

Believe it or not, church marketing specialists answer that question by claiming the apostle Paul as their inspiration. They say he modeled contextualization when he addressed the Athenian philosophers on Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-34). But their favorite passage to cite to justify contextualizing the gospel is 1 Corinthians 9:22-23, where Paul 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, that I may become a fellow partaker of it.”

John MacArthur confronted and corrected that false way of thinking about Paul’s statement with a careful, reasoned explanation of the text. Far from mandating pragmatism in ministry, the apostle Paul was calling for personal sacrifice on the part of the evangelist.He was describing not his willingness to sacrifice the message, but his willingness to sacrifice himself to preach the message. He would give up everything to promote the spread of the gospel—his rights, privileges, and ultimately his own life.

That’s precisely how Paul lived and ministered. The history of his ministry in the New Testament bears proof after proof of that claim.

Paul was no contextualizer. His point in 1 Corinthians 9 was that no evangelist should let his Christian liberty hinder anyone’s hearing and understanding the message of Christ. In that passage, Paul was describing—and in some sense, advocating—an attitude of personal sacrifice, not compromise. Paul would never alter Christ’s call to repent and believe the gospel under any circumstances—and neither should you.

In case you missed John MacArthur’s articles, here are the links:

1. All Things to All Men

2. Giving Up to Gain

3. Liberty in Christ

4. Servants of a New Covenant

5. For the Jews I Became Jewish, Part 1

6. For the Jews I Became Jewish, Part 2

7. For the Gentiles I Became a Gentile

8. For the Weak I Became Weak

9. “Contextualization” and the Corruption of the Church

10. By All Means Save Some

John ended his critique of the contextualization movement by issuing a warning and plea to the church:

By all means we are to seek the salvation of the lost. We must be servants to all, deferential to every kind of person. For Jews we should become Jewish; for Gentiles we should be like Gentiles; for children we should be childlike; and so on for every facet of humanity. But the primary means of evangelism we dare not overlook: the straightforward, Christ-centered proclamation of the unadulterated Word of God. Those who trade the Word for amusements or gimmicks will find they have no effective means to reach people with the truth of Christ.

Because Grace to You was occupied with hosting the Truth Matters conference, we decided to shut off the comments throughout the course of the series. We know many of you wanted to respond to the articles, so now’s your chance. What do you think?

Take it to the thread!

Tommy Clayton
Content Developer


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#1  Posted by Steve Nuhn  |  Thursday, September 29, 2011at 7:56 PM

Thank you Pastor MacArthur and the GTY staff for the topic and the Truth Matters Conference. My wife and I attended the conference and it was our first time at Grace Church. Coming from a church (a southern baptist church) that is unfortunately influenced by the world, it was so refreshing to attend a church who's main focus is exalting God not imitating the world. We have become so discouraged in our own church by the lack of seriousness for scipture and worship. Doctrine is viewed as divisive, and to question or call for a more biblical view of God and worship is met with stiff resistance. I've even been forbidden from teaching or leading anything because I believe in election and predestination. We were so recharged after the conference but, now are feeling the emptiness again of not being among a boby of believers who all attend church for one reason. To hear the word of God preached. Not being in a position of leadership, how do we address these problems? How do we expose the error of contextualization and inviting the world in? I guess my real question is, is it ok to ask the leaders of the church to examin this stuff and measure it against scripture? How do we do that without making them mad?

Thank you again for your devotion to the truth.

#2  Posted by Jamie Stallings  |  Friday, September 30, 2011at 6:54 AM

Steve, if I may.

I completely understand your position for I had the privilege some years ago (although I did not think so at the time) of being removed from all leadership (church moderator, Deacon, Adult SS teacher, Committee Chair) from a local SBC church which went seeker (culturally relevant) after the pattern of many mega, and the not so mega, churches. So that while I completely understand your heart’s desire to be in line with the truths of Scripture and to see those whom you love do so as well, I do not think you will attain your goals if they are anything other than to remain true to the truths of Scripture. This is tough but it must be your resolve.

As I came to realize, being removed from leadership allowed for a more intimate relationship to be formed with those who were teachable, those with whom God was already at work. The truth has always been resisted, but I think that the use of contextualization is not born so much from a staunch resistance to the truth as it is a misapplied dedication to grow which comes from a belief that numbers equal being a success for God. This sees great numbers as testimony of being approved and small numbers as just not doing it correctly; this is the mantra of most church growth strategists. But holding this view would mean that Wal-mart is the most spiritual enterprise on the planet and Jeremiah was a dismal failure.

So “is it ok to ask the leaders of the church to examine this stuff and measure it against scripture? How do we do that without making them mad?” It is certainly ok and very appropriate for a member of the local assembly to do this; but it is very difficult to get someone to see when the either cannot or will not since the truths of Scripture are seen only through God’s work in an individuals life. As for “making them mad,” try as you may this is probably unavoidable for some of them; just make sure that it is the Scriptures to which they take offence and not you.

SDG

Jamie

#3  Posted by Ben Hogan  |  Friday, September 30, 2011at 10:19 AM

Excellent series, GTY! Thank you Dr. MacArthur for explaining the passages so clearly.

As usual I can count on John and the GTY team to bring a proper understanding to the text, only claiming the Word of God as their authority.

I have personally been dramatically changed in my understanding of how to read and interpret Scripture in a way that is faithful to the rest of the Bible because of your leadership.

When I may be frustrated with the world or how so many people seem to be indifferent to the authority of Scripture I can always be encouraged and built up in my faith, here. My desire is to imitate your faithfulness as you imitate Christ.

Keep up the great work! Again...thank you, thank you, thank you.

Ben Hogan

#4  Posted by Tommy Clayton  |  Friday, September 30, 2011at 11:12 AM

Greetings, Steve.

I’m glad you enjoyed the conference. I know I speak for all the GTY staff when I say it was our pleasure to host it.

Regarding your question: I think you would find the final session from the Truth Matters conference extremely helpful. It was a Q&A between Phil Johnson and John MacArthur. Giving that session another listen (or read) might give you the perspective you need to make a decision. During that interview, Phil asked John what to do when you’re in a church that engages in practices you believe compromise Scripture. John’s answer was pure gold.

First, he said never to leave a church over petty matters. John loves pastors and understands the abuse they suffer from overzealous, immature, disgruntled church members. That principle bears repeating.

Next, he listed some basic criteria for evaluating the health of a church—and consequently for determining whether or not you can justify a departure. Here was his list of non-negotiables:

• A Church must honor Christ

• A Church must exalt the Word of God

• A Church must have trustworthy leaders

John admitted the somewhat subjective evaluation of those guidelines. In other words, what constitutes a violation? That depends on your biblical and theological convictions. At the very least, those principles help form some kind of foundation for analysis.

As to whether or not you should approach the church leadership about your concerns, it would be dangerous and sinful for me to bind your conscience and say, “You must leave this church, and you need to confront your leaders.” That’s a decision you need to make over prayer, discussion with your wife, and consideration of your relationship with your pastor(s). One thing is clear: you should always resist any artificial pressure or obligation to keep yourself and your family in an apostatizing church. Your loyalty is first to Christ and His Word.

John MacArthur and Grace to You love, appreciate, and desire to support the local church and her leaders. But when God’s Word is compromised, our loyalties must stay true to Christ.

I hope that helps, Steve.

#5  Posted by Eric Lundquist  |  Monday, October 03, 2011at 12:53 AM

Comment deleted by user.
#6  Posted by Tommy Clayton  |  Tuesday, October 04, 2011at 4:59 PM

Thanks for your comment, Eric. Sorry I haven't been able to respond until now.

John engaged in the same kind of polemic Paul did when warning his readers against worldly philosophy in Colossians 2:8. He explained what he meant by “philosophy,” then condemned it.

Take a look:

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. Col. 2:8

Some might argue that Paul was anti-philosophy. Not so. He was against any philosophy not in accordance with Christ—worldly, unchristian, humanistic ideologies. In the same way, John described what he meant by contextualization: adapting the gospel to fit the tastes of a sinner; then he condemned that practice.

In seminary, our Hebrew grammar professor told us about a group of Eskimo missionaries who when translating the Old Testament into the Eskimo language, changed the word “sheep” from Psalm 23 to “seal,” in order to help that culture understand the truth. Where does it end? Why not just explain to them what a sheep is, and how a shepherd leads, feeds, and protects his flock?

By the way, I disagree with your example of the cross. The first Christians did not contextualize the gospel by taking a Roman method of execution and making it something to glory in. God did that. Jesus talked about the cross before His death. Besides, if we take the modern principle of contextualization (your # 4 definition) to its unavoidable conclusion, we should scrap the “cross” and start using “gas chamber” or “lethal injection” instead, so our culture can understand the atonement. It doesn’t work.

#7  Posted by Steve Nuhn  |  Tuesday, October 04, 2011at 8:44 PM

Tommy,

Thank you for the reply and taking the time to address my questions .

I understand your first comment and tread lightly when I speak.  I don't want to appear disgruntled or discouraging to the pastor nor to other members.  

I did listen to the q&a again.  It's funny you mentioned it.  We missed that session because our flight home but wanted to ask those very questions.  What to do about those non-negotiables.

We are currently going thru a study by the Blackabys, "When God Speaks".  There are some good parts but, most sound very dangerous.  Extra biblical revelation, listening for the voice of God, and that God interacts with us the same way he did with individuals in scripture.  Our pastor even believes that people still speak in tongues and one of his family members has the gift of prophecy.  He's new to our church so I've tried to be supportive but am growing more and more concerned of a departure from sound biblical teaching.  

Your point is well taken, I can't expect you to direct me in something you are not directly involved in. We will continue to pray about together. Again these blogs, and the work you all do has been very helpful. I think speak for many others we appreciate you work.

Yes it does help!

#8  Posted by Eric Lundquist  |  Wednesday, October 05, 2011at 12:58 AM

Comment deleted by user.
#9  Posted by Tim Spanton  |  Wednesday, October 05, 2011at 5:01 AM

Eric and Tommy,

Good discussion and clarification on contextualization. I want to echo what Tommy wrote about the need to take time to explain the biblical culture rather than localizing it.

My wife and I were missionaries in Papua New Guinea where we spent 2 years learning the Myu language and culture before teaching the scriptures and presenting the gospel. Our culture studies were so that we could properly understand how they would hear what we taught. Rather than changing the scriptures we took time to teach about sheep and shepherding and other Old and New Testament practices. One of the ways we did this was during our literacy program. The Myu language had never been learned by an outsider or written down prior to our arrival. Along with teaching and translating the scriptures was a priority to teach the adults and children how to read and write their own language. In one of our primers we focused on the main biblical cultural topics that would come up in our gospel teaching. We showed them pictures of sheep and pictures of ourselves in the snow back home in Upper Michigan. They did not have words in their language for for sheep or snow so we used the common trade language (Melanesian English) words for them. The isolated Myu people are very intelligent and had no trouble understanding foreign biblical culture when it was properly explained.

It would be dangerous to try to find a Myu cultural equivalent to replace the biblical account because none of them are exact representations of scripture. And the Myu Bible teachers are now able to articulate biblical culture in teaching the culture rather than coming up with some local example that falls short. Once you localize the scriptures you would be stuck trying to find "equivalents" that would constantly fall short. This is very dangerous.

There is absolutely no need to change the inspired word of God. It is no different than how we are to teach here at home. Explain the biblical culture so we can truly understand God's intended meaning. For "All scripture (graphe, written biblical text) is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness..." (2Tim.3:16)

#10  Posted by Elizabeth Offer  |  Wednesday, October 05, 2011at 9:36 AM

I always learn so much from these blogs and I thank Gty and the bloggers.

I was wondering if calling a Christmas eve service, the mass, to draw in people, is this an example of contextualization?

God Bless.

#11  Posted by Tommy Clayton  |  Wednesday, October 05, 2011at 10:54 AM

Thanks for your question, Elizabeth.

I’m not sure employing the term “mass” to draw people in (as you said) represents contextualization so much as it does manipulation. i.e. enticing Catholics to attend a Protestant service.

While the term itself does not necessarily or officially indicate any particular theology, in common usage it has connections with the Roman Catholic Church. That’s enough to dissuade me from using it to describe any part of what takes place in a true, evangelical protestant church.

Why confuse people by describing a protestant service with a term used nearly exclusively by Catholics? That might be a good thing to ask the church in question, and it would probably yield an insightful answer.

Let us know what you find out!

#12  Posted by Tommy Clayton  |  Wednesday, October 05, 2011at 2:12 PM

Thanks, Tim.

Amen to everything you said. Thanks for your efforts to reach the people of Papua New Guinea. Your approach is a refershing demonstration of the power and sufficiency of Scripture.

#13  Posted by Dan Wilson  |  Thursday, October 06, 2011at 8:50 AM

Thanks for GTY. I now understand difference between Catholics and Christian. God bless you and Thanks.

Dan

#14  Posted by Theresia Smith  |  Thursday, October 06, 2011at 11:24 AM

Thank you Grace to You and Grace church, after attending the conference and soaking in the worship, the preaching of the word, the fellowship with like minded believers, the unbelieveable grace-filled welcome and hospitality we received, my husband and I were ready to move to southern California!

Alas we returned home and continue our search for a church were Christ is exalted, the word is preached and leadership is Godly. We also had to consider giving up our membership in our church. We do not take that lightly and are continuing to seek guidance and discernment from God's word.

Having GTY as a resource has been a tremendous blessing for us, thank you for your faithful service, and a special thank you to you Tommy, my husband and I were greatly encouraged by your godly counsel. May God bless GTY and all who proclaim the Truth.

Chuck & Achnes Smith

#16  Posted by Caroline Whitla  |  Friday, October 07, 2011at 9:05 AM

Dear Tim Spanton,

I rejoiced to read about your method of working among the Myu people in PNG. I feel such joy to hear of faithful servants who teach the Word of God faithfully, sacrficing their time and effort to convey the whole truth to people, and "becoming all things to all men" in the true sense of that verse of Paul's.

We can often forget that when the Gospel was first preached in Europe, early Europenas had no idea what some of the Hebrew/Greek?Roman cultures were like. What is a camel, a fig, a cross, cedars, High Priests, Caesar, etc. Why are so many afraid now to educate people about the culture of Scripture? I heard of a Bible Society (!) recently who told a people in Africa that Christ was the "Rice of life" because they didn't know what bread was. I an unsure how they went on to explain what manna was and how manna was a "type" for Christ in the Old Testament - they would miss some rich teaching therefore. Not everything that seems good is good - only remaining faithful to Scripture can overcome our limited (and often sinful) thoughts and errors.

Thank you for being faithful to our Lord. It is a real encouragement to me as I seek to do the same. It reminds me that persistent hard work is necessary but brings great rewards. It also teaches me that we should respect the people we speak to enough to recognise that they are as capable as we are of thinking and being educated - any other belief is prideful arrogance.

Thank you, and God bless your future work in the Lord with wisdom, discernment and joy.

Caroline