A substantial portion of missional philosophy rests on the belief that the gospel not only may be, but must be contextualized, or adapted, across cultures and subcultures in order to be understood. In a conversation I had with a proponent of the contextualization of the gospel, this person claimed something that may at first seem attractive:
When it comes to the gospel, contextualization is placing the gospel into a context in a way that the gospel can be understood. It is not about making the gospel less offensive. It is not about watering down the gospel. It is not about changing the content of the gospel. It is about making the gospel understandable to a particular context.
Following this line of reasoning, without contextualization, the gospel cannot be communicated in an understandable way, and evangelism becomes impossible. It is popular to assert that evangelism cannot be effective without “fitting” the gospel to our contemporary cultural moment. One writer even went so far as to say, “Any church that only does evangelism without first studying the culture in an effort to contextualize does not fully understand the gospel.”
Those are stark claims. But they reveal the unbiblical assumptions of proponents of such contextualization. They genuinely believe that the gospel is incomprehensible unless it is skillfully and creatively contextualized by a savvy evangelist. But that is, as I said, an unbiblical assumption.
By denigrating the power of the gospel to save of itself (Rom 1:16–17), it leads to the kind of pragmatism that suggests the gospel needs us for its effectiveness
It suggests that Scripture is hopelessly unclear without the cultural shrewdness of the contextualizer, and thereby it undermines the orthodox doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture.
We can rejoice that the more conservative advocates of contextualization do not always behave consistently with what they confess and are not explicitly calling for watering down or altering the content of the gospel. However, the notion that cultural (and even subcultural) contextualization is needed in order to make the gospel understandable simply disregards the reality that God has already communicated the gospel in a way that it can be understood. To say otherwise is to deny the perspicuity of God’s revelation, both in His Scripture and in His Son.
Further, if we choose our words precisely, the missional philosophy of ministry does not advocate contextualization at all. Rather, this philosophy appears to believe that the proper way to make the Bible understandable is to remove Scripture from its original context and place it into the current contemporary context. This practice would more properly be called de-contextualization, or even re-contextualization.
This is not our task. The proper way to “make the Bible understandable to today’s cultures” is to bring contemporary people into the context of Scripture. We must teach them Scripture and the gospel which lies at its center by bringing them into the cultural context in which the events transpired and in which the text was written. Unlike contextualization, this method allows for the necessary task of concept creation.
Contextualization aims to find common ground with unbelievers, hoping to make it easier for them to integrate the worldview of Christianity into their existing thought structures. Concept creation goes beyond this, recognizing that there are categories of biblical thought and biblical truth that will be entirely foreign to an unbeliever, who “does not accept the things of the Spirit of God…and cannot understand them” (1 Cor 2:14).
All Things to All Men
The biblical support for the missional practice of contextualization comes primarily from two texts. The first is Paul’s dealings with the Athenian philosophers on Mars Hill in Acts 17. I will return to this passage later in this post. The other is 1 Corinthians 9:19–23, in which Paul declares that in the context of ministering to Jews he voluntarily submits himself to ceremonial laws so as not to alienate them, and yet in the context of ministering to Gentiles he submits to their conventions so as not to alienate them. He summarizes his gospel focus in this way: “I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22).
Missional advocates claim that Paul was practicing contextualization. They leverage this text as an argument for asserting one’s Christian liberties in order to be perceived as relevant, and thus to gain a hearing for the gospel. If the subculture of your evangelistic target is marked by drinking alcohol, tattoos, crass music and crass language, become all things to all men by asserting your liberties in these areas.
The problem is, the principle Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 9 is actually the exact opposite of this counsel. In step with his forfeiting the right to marry (1 Cor 9:5) and his right to receive remuneration for his ministry (1 Cor 9:6–16), Paul teaches that faithful preachers of the gospel are willing to surrender Christian liberties—not assert them—in order to remove unnecessary, superficial offenses. Pastor MacArthur is helpful here:
I have heard this principle abused by people who use it to justify becoming like the world in order to see people come to Christ. Music leaders have said that their music needs to sound like the world’s music so that they can win people. Pastors have said that their sermons need to use illustrations from popular culture so that the gospel seems relevant to those in the culture. Some people even use this passage to justify adopting whatever pagan worldview is held by the culture that they are trying to reach. Ironically, these practices are the exact opposite of the principle Paul puts forward in 1 Corinthians 9. Paul believed that love limits our liberty, not that it expands it. The apostle was not teaching that the end justifies the means, as though fleshly methods (or an abuse of Christian liberties) should ever be used to create a common ground with unbelievers. Rather, his point was that he restricted the use of his Christian liberties, if necessary, in order to reach those whose consciences were overly strict (and therefore weaker than his own).
The notion that Christians should, as one pastor said, make church “as culturally accessible as possible” by asserting liberties in order to attract and reach unbelievers is precisely the opposite direction of Paul’s example. What Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 9 is the surrender of liberties so as not to give unnecessary offense. When you go from ensuring that you don’t needlessly offend to strategically trying to manufacture interest by adapting your language and music style, you have begun swimming in the river of pragmatism.
Point of Contact
The principle of studying the culture with a view towards contextualization aims to find a “point of contact” between the believer and the nonbeliever, a commonality of thought from which a relationship can be built and eventually the gospel can be proclaimed.
But let it be noted that unbelievers fail to see Jesus because they are spiritually blind to His glory (2 Cor 4:4).
Even if Christians could conjure Jesus’ physical presence and present Him to unbelievers,
it would not serve to compel them to follow Him
This is precisely what happened in Jesus’ own day: “But though He had performed so many signs before them, yet they were not believing in Him” (John 12:37). Indeed, they could not believe, for their eyes were blinded (John 12:39–40). Jesus said that if people are not persuaded to follow Him by the testimony of Scripture, “they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). If this is so, our use of cultural contact points will not change the fact that they do not see Jesus. The preaching of the gospel—not the preaching of ourselves—is alone sufficient to open blind eyes (2 Cor 4:5; Rom 1:16).
Secondly, Paul did not use contemporary topics of conversation as points of contact for the gospel on Mars Hill. He did not “join their conversation.” Instead, he strongly and repeatedly confronted the Athenians’ sinful idolatry, ignorance, and unbiblical worldviews, and called them to repentance.
Finally, the Christian’s “point of contact” with the unbeliever is not in any perceived superficial or cultural commonality. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit (John 3:6; cf. 2 Cor 6:14–16). The point of contact lies, as Van Til says, in the actual state of affairs between men as the Bible tells us of it. It is not in our musical preferences, wardrobe styles, socio-economic statuses, or ethnic backgrounds. Our point of contact is the reality that those without Christ are dead in their trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1–3), hostile to the God who created them (Rom 8:7–8; cf. 5:10), will face punishment as a result (John 3:18; 8:24), but that we have a message of life that offers forgiveness and reconciliation. This of course does not preclude believers from cultivating friendships with unbelievers. It simply means that the basis of our friendship with them lies in the actual state of affairs, in reality, not in our shared musical tastes or fashion sense.
It would be difficult to improve upon what Martyn Lloyd-Jones has said regarding this issue:
The glory of the gospel is that when the Church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is made to listen to her message, though it may hate it at first. That is how revival comes. That must also be true of us as individuals. It should not be our ambition to be as much like everybody else as we can, though we happen to be Christian, but rather to be as different from everybody who is not a Christian as we can possibly be. Our ambition should be to be like Christ, the more like Him the better, and the more like Him we become, the more we shall be unlike everybody who is not a Christian (Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 29).
Interestingly enough, though the church seeks relevance by conforming itself to its audience (even if such conformity is not doctrinal but only methodological), the church’s conformity to the world renders it decidedly irrelevant.
When the church ceases to distinguish itself from the world, it no longer has anything to offer the world. Apart from the bare promise of forgiveness of sins in Christ alone, the church has nothing to offer unbelievers that they don’t already have and pursue in what to them are more exciting, self-gratifying ways.
A light that conforms to the darkness renders itself useless
Salt which loses its saltiness is good for nothing, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men (Matt 5:13–16).
Appealing to Sinners in their Lostness
The practice of contextualization by finding a point of contact with unbelievers necessarily appeals to sinners in the natural state of their unbelief. Christians appeal to a superficial commonality that exists between them and unbelievers, hoping that if they can see that Christians are like them in ways that are significant, they might be interested in giving Jesus a try. The counsel of Charles Bridges is insightful at this point:
To have attached the world by adventitious accomplishments to ourselves, while the Master, whom we profess to venerate, is still with them a ‘despised and rejected’ Saviour, to a mind, reflecting upon Scripture principles, is a matter of far greater alarm than of self-complacency. If they could not endure the conciliating attractiveness of the son of God, even whilst devoting himself to their service at an infinite cost to himself—if they could count the great Apostle—(endued with so large a portion of his Master’s loveliness of deportment)—‘as the filth of the earth, and the offscouring of all things,’ they can only court our society upon the perception, that we approximate their own standard rather than to these heavenly models (The Christian Ministry, 117).
Those who seek to make Christ and His Church more attractive to unbelievers by appealing to them in the natural state of their lostness, by seeking to engage them by fleshly and superficial means, implicitly regard themselves and their methodologies as more glorious than Christ Himself. If unbelievers hate Jesus as He is presented in Scripture, and if they regard the Apostles as fools for their message, but they like us, it may be because we’re more like them than like our Savior.
For more on evangelism, see How to Handle Rejection and Should I Use the Sinner's Prayer in Evangelism?
John MacArthur, “Giving Up to Gain: All Things to All People,” in Evangelism: How to Share the Gospel Faithfully, eds. John MacArthur and Jesse Johnson (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 81, emphases added. For a fuller explanation and a competent refutation of the missional interpretation of 1 Corinthians 9:19–23, see the rest of this chapter, 77–92.