The Principle of Contextualization (Acts 16:1-5) This is the third crucial principle of ministry for the 21st (and the 1st!) century.
1. What does contextualization mean? To use this word could get me into a mine-field. Contextualization can, unfortunately, be used to mean that one’s interpretation of Scripture is as valid as any other. Or, it could mean that every interpretive community has a perspective that helps us see aspects of God’s self-disclosure that other communities cannot in themselves see or hear. That’s better. But as a practitioner of ministry, I see contextualization is adapting my communication of the gospel without changing its essential character.
2. Examples in Acts: Acts 13:16ff and Acts 14:14-17. Examples of how Paul adapts to new cultures abound in Acts. They are literally everywhere. Even Jay Adams, fairly rock-ribbed conservative in everyway, wrote a book Audience Adaptations in the Sermons and Speeches of Paul. In Acts 13 we see Paul sharing the gospel in a synagogue to those who believed in the God of the Bible, and in Acts 14 we see him sharing the gospel to a pagan, blue-collar crowd. The differences and similarities are striking. a) His citation of authority is very different. In the first case he quotes Scripture and John the Baptist. In the second, he argues from general revelation–greatness of creation. b) They differ in emphasis of content. Hard to miss that with Jews and God-fearers he ignores doctrine of God and gets right to Christ; with pagans here and Acts 17, he labors the very concept of God. c) Finally, they differ in even the form of the final appeal–how to ‘close’ with Christ–is different. In Acts 13:39 Paul speaks of the law of God and says, essentially: “you think you are good, but you aren’t good enough! You need Christ to justify you.” But in 14 he tells them to turn from “worthless things”–idols–“to the living God” who he says is the real source of “joy”–he, not material things–is the real source. So he is saying, in effect: “you think you are free–but you are not! You are enslaved to dead idols.” d) Despite all these very profound differences– (1) Both audiences are told about a God who is both powerful yet good (13:16-22; 14:17), (2) in both he tells the hearers they are trying to save themselves in a wrong way (moral people by trying to obey the law 13:39 and pagans by giving themselves to idols and gods that cannot satisfy 14:15), and (3) both tell hearers not to turn to some scheme of performance, but that God has broken in to history now to accomplish our salvation. Even the speech of chapter 14, which was a spontaneous outburst, though it doesn’t mention Christ directly, still points to the fact that salvation is something accomplished by God for us in history, not something we do.
Acts 16:1-5. Another fascinating example of contextualization is Paul’s circumcision of Timothy so as not to offend those he was trying to reach. The juxtaposition can’t be accidental. Though Paul has just fought vehemently against mandatory circumcision for believers, he circumcised Timothy out of sensitivity to the culture of the people he was trying to evangelize (v.3) It is a remarkable case of discerning between abiding principle and cultural practice. If anyone would have felt circumcising was intrinsically a wrong thing for a believer to do, it would have been Paul–who just fought a crucial battle for the gospel itself. Yet immediately he shows the difference between abiding principle and cultural practice. He knows that while the gospel of grace is an absolute–the practice of circumcision is culturally relative.
3. There is no ‘non-contextualized’ Christianity. Jesus didn’t come to earth as a generalized being–by becoming human he had to become a particular human. He was male, Jewish, working-class. If he was to be human he had to become a socially and culturally-situated person. So the minute we begin to minister we must ‘incarnate’, even as Jesus did. Actual Christian practices must have both a Biblical form or shape as well as a cultural form or shape. For example, the Bible clearly directs us to use music to praise God–but as soon as we choose a music to use, we enter a culture. As soon as we choose a language, as soon as we choose a vocabulary, as soon as we choose a particular level of emotional expressiveness and intensity, as soon as we choose even an illustration as an example for a sermon–we are moving toward the social context of some people and away from the social context of others. At Pentecost, everyone heard the sermon in his or her own language and dialect. But since Pentecost, we can never be ‘all things to all people’ at the very same time. So adaptation to culture is inevitable.
This is not relativism! “No truth which human beings may articulate can ever be articulated in a culture-transcending way–but that does not mean that the truth thus articulated does not transcend culture.” (D.A.Carson) It is important to keep the balance of this statement! If you forget the first half you’ll think there is only one true way to communicate the gospel. If you forget the second half you’ll lose your grip on the fact that nonetheless there is only one true gospel. Either way you will be ineffective in ministry. Paul does not change the gospel–but he adapts it very heavily. Sure this opens the door to abuses, but to fear and refuse to adapt to culture opens to abuses of the gospel just as much! The balance is to not, on one hand succumb to relativism nor, on the other hand, think contextualization is really avoidable. Both are gospel-eroding errors.