Topic Article #13: Contextualization & Missions
by Dr. Eugene Clingman, Executive Administrator
Copyright 2006, International Church Council Project
(This article may be freely distributed so long as it is not altered
and the above information remains intact.)
The Gospel is God’s message to the sinner-race of Adam and Eve; its message is universal and does not need to be changed from culture to culture. Indeed, if it is changed, it is no longer the Gospel. The Gospel changes cultures and can never itself be changed by culture. The Gospel is trans-cultural. Change the culture with the Gospel and you have a Christian (or progressively Christ-like) culture. Change the Gospel to fit the culture and you have a false Gospel and an ongoingly pagan culture.
Culture surrounds us like water surrounds a fish. A fish takes his environment for granted, and is unaware that there are other environments in which creatures may live. In a similar way we take for granted the way we think, dress, communicate, eat, etc., etc., and may be unaware that other human beings are culturally very different. There are many cultures in the world, and no culture perfectly glorifies God. Our natural tendency is to feel that the way we live and think (our culture) is superior to cultures. If a missionary is not aware of his own cultural inclinations he may be found presenting his culture in addition to, or rather than, the Gospel of God’s grace; he must not mistakenly promote his culture; he must learn to distinguish between the essence of the Gospel and his culture. The missionary also must not reduce, mix (syncretize), or compromise the Gospel. Paul became all things to all men, in order that he might win the more, but he never altered the Gospel to do so.
Contextualization is that process of taking the Gospel which has been received in one’s own culture to a different culture and effectively communicating its unchangeable message in a form that is culturally understandable and acceptable to the receiving culture. The Gospel is not changed, but only presented in a manner that is not culturally offensive. It is true that the Gospel may be offensive, but we need not clothe the Gospel in American or British, etc. culture which may, in itself, be offensive to the receiving culture. An example of failure to contextualize the Gospel is seen when some missionaries to India thought it essential for vegetarian Hindu converts to eat meat. Yet eating meat is not part of the Gospel, nor is it essential to eat meat in order to either be saved or to grown in sanctification. Hindu converts can become fine Christians without ever eating meat. On the other hand, a well known example of contextualizing the Gospel is Hudson Taylor, the great pioneer missionary of inland China. Taylor shed the British clerical garments the other missionaries to China continued to wear, and put on the garments of the Chinese clergy; he cut his hair like the Chinese, and ate Chinese food. Because he did not compromise the Gospel but merely clothed the message and the messenger so that the Chinese were not immediately repulsed by a message packaged in foreign attire, Hudson had tremendous success.
Contextualization is a good and necessary process. Unfortunately there are those who have twisted the concept of contextualization and in so doing, the Gospel itself. For this reason the International Church Council Project has written the theological Affirmation & Denial document titled, “Concerning Culture, Contextualization, and the Gospel.” Within the Church, in some Christian colleges and seminaries, and in some mission agencies there are those who hold that it is desirable and necessary to modify the Gospel to make it meaningful to other cultures. Our Affirmation & Denial document contends that the Gospel cannot be changed without it becoming other than the Gospel, and yet also sets guidelines and principles for contextualization.
The following are several of the 13 affirmation and denial statements contained in the contextualization document:
We affirm that in the Great Commission task of discipling the nations it is essential that the biblical gospel be made understandable, meaningful and relevant to the people of any given culture by proclamation (preaching), as well as by verbal and nonverbal forms of communication normally utilized in that culture.
We deny that proclamation (preaching) is out of place in any culture. We further deny that any other cross-cultural forms of communication foreign to the ordinary intercourse of a given culture are adequate to the task of discipling its people.
We affirm that to attempt to influence any culture for Christ by using missionary principles, methods or teachings which are foreign or contrary to the inerrant Scriptures as the Word of God and to historic Christian doctrine, diminishes the spread of the true gospel taught by Christ and the apostles and is destructive for individuals and for the respondent culture as a whole.
We deny that the teaching of the full, accurate message of the inerrant and infallible Bible and employing missionary principles and methods consistent with holy Scripture is ever damaging to the welfare of the people in the respondent culture even if that message and those principles and methods are considered politically incorrect or if they cause uncomfortable confrontation or greatly alter and replace large portions of that culture and destroy long-held, local beliefs.
We affirm that historic Western thought forms and lifestyles have developed to a great extent as a result of the influence of the Bible’s worldview on Western cultures.
We deny that contextualization of the Gospel is only a disguised process of exporting Western thought forms and lifestyles in the name of Christianity. We further deny that it is legitimate to say that biblical Christianity is a uniquely Western system or that our definition of contextualization herein may rightly be called cultural chauvinism or paternalism.