Contextualization and Consistency

Ed Roberts just posted this article for 9Marks. It is for all of us who are concerned about how to engage our culture, yet not comprise the gospel. It is worth the read. He writes:

I’ve been doing some reading, writing and thinking these days  about contextualization. I’ve also been carefully re-reading a number of NT books including One and Two Corinthians. Anyway, people frequently appeal to Corinthians, particularly (ICor 9:19-22) to demonstrate that Paul the former Pharisee turned Apostle to the Gentiles was himself a contextualizer, willing to become all things to all men. Indeed he was, if by contextualizer we mean one who labored to communicate clearly the gospel to people raised in a different culture. But maybe Paul’s contextualization invites further scrutiny.

Contextualization is primarily about communication, and we communicate not only with words but also in many other ways. The more I look at Paul’s life, the more I see that not just his words, but his life choices also communicated something very clearly about the gospel and how servants and stewards of the gospel ought to adjust their lives so that their lives (and words) do not create unnecessary barriers to the clear communication of the gospel. Paul contextualized for sure, but the gospel was always the controlling reality not the “target” culture, audience or recipients. For Paul, the Apostolic life was one of nearly constant self-denial, suffering, difficulty and one which appeared extraordinarily foolish to every unregenerate person in every cultural context he encountered. He characterized his team’s life and ministry this way: we’re like trash, garbage, the offscouring of the world! I Corinthians 4:13. Interesting contextualizer, this Paul!

All pioneer church planters (and all gospel ministers) are first of all stewards of the gospel and servants of Christ. Only secondarily are they contextualizers of that gospel. That is why in Corinth and in writing to the Corinthians, Paul emphasizes how DIFFERENT was his life and his communication from that which was popular and acceptable in Corinthian culture. He seems to have chosen work as a manual laborer in a culture that esteemed “white collar workers.” Interesting! He seems to have rejected the preferred patterns of religious discourse in Corinth. Hmmm…. As a steward of the gospel and a servant of Jesus Christ, his hands and tongue were in some sense tied and he was not free to live in certain ways. He refused to use certain techniques or communicate in certain styles– styles that might have been more appealing in that Corinthian context. The best Paul could ever aim for was to be an acceptable outsider, and even then usually he was not accepted.

So, when he says he became “all things to all people”, we know that this didn’t mean that he contextualized in order to win acceptance of his message, or to fit into the culture, or to be the hippest Apostle or the celebrity communicator in Corinth. No, Paul’s contextualization was limited in purpose. The purpose was clear communication through a life consistent in word and way of living, living and speaking in a way consistent with the gospel (2Cor. 4:1-12) So, if by contextualizer we have in mind someone who tried to fit like an insider into the local Corinthian culture, to talk just like the Corinthians, to adopt the communication techniques that would be most appealing to the Corinthian context, then I’m afraid Paul was not a contextualizer. If by contextualizer, we mean someone willing to make hard choices about how to live and communicate so that the gospel is clearly understood and not confused, then that is Paul the gospel contextualizer.

Paul was very careful both about what his words and his life communicated. Indeed, Paul consistently appeals to the consistency between his life and his words, his message and his manner. He understood that his lifeway (life choices) could confuse or cast doubt on the gospel truths he claimed to believe. He urges others to follow his example as a contextualizer whose life and words communicate clearly the same gospel to God’s glory. This means that the NT must also include some guidance about ways of living and communicating (contextualizing?)that are not consistent with the gospel message we seek to communicate. It might be fun to list those next time …

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One Response to “Contextualization and Consistency”

  1. That was a good post!

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