Contextualization: A Few Basic Questions

by L.D. Waterman

Eight questions illuminate how church planters from a variety of backgrounds and ministries can agree on contextual strategies.

In discussions of contextual strategies, it seems church planters often fail to communicate effectively with one another. Sometimes this happens because we have different assumptions that we never verbalize; at other times, a desire to defend our own position prevents us from admitting good points others make. After all, we do not want to give any “ammunition” to those who disagree with us.

I have spent many hours of dialogue with church planters from a variety of organizations and perspectives, and I believe that answers to the following eight questions might illuminate some assumptions on which we could, but often don’t, agree. I begin with two foundational truths. First, the Bible, in its original manuscripts, is the infallible (inerrant) written Word of God—our final rule of faith and practice (2 Tim. 3:16-17; Ps. 18:30). Sound interpretation of scripture needs to be the foundation of our contextual approach, not a justification of some ideas we would like to try. Second, our attitude in discussing controversial matters should be humble, kind, gentle, quick to listen and slow to argue (2 Tim. 2:24-25; Eph. 4:2-3; James 1:19). Our goal should not be to defend our ideas, but to seek out the truth in love together.

Question 1: Can the Spirit of God work in ways that are contrary to our current interpretation of scripture?

Old Testament scripture required circumcision of all males (Gen. 17:10-14). Yet the Spirit-led conclusion of the Jerusalem council was that circumcision was not necessary (Acts 15:1-29). Clearly, God’s Spirit is free to do a new thing; however, we cannot draw from this case the principle that God’s Spirit might at any time call us to do something that violates correct interpretation of scripture. The issue in Acts 15 was not that the Judaizers were incorrectly interpreting scripture, but that in Christ God had brought new revelation that fulfilled and surpassed existing scripture (the Old Testament). This enabled the council to draw the principle (based on Amos 9:11-12, though not in an inherent or obvious way) that the biblical command of circumcision was no longer required of Gentiles who wanted to follow the Lord.

Since the canon of scripture is already complete (Heb. 1:1-2; 2 Pet. 1:3; Rev. 22:18-19), we can be confident that as God’s Spirit does new things, he will not contradict sound interpretation of existing scripture. Thus, the “new things” inherent in the incarnation of Christ and fuller revelation that came with it cannot be taken as models to justify supporting creative new ideas through sloppy exegesis.

We find in the Gospels and Acts numerous examples of believers who held major flaws in their understanding of what God was doing. For example, in Luke 24:25-27, we find that after three years with Jesus, the disciples still didn’t “get it.” And their question in Acts 1:6 (“Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”) shows that God’s next move was a huge surprise to them.

Peter’s acknowledgement that Paul’s letters “contain some things that are hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16) should encourage us toward humility in our interpretation. Yet the decisiveness of the “faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” and for which we are to contend (Jude 3) calls us to avoid the postmodern claim that interpretation depends entirely on the perspective of the reader. Having an inerrant scripture never guarantees the inerrancy of our interpretation. Yet we affirm that in the mind of God there are correct and incorrect interpretations, and he calls us to approximate those to the best of our ability. The Spirit of God can work in ways that are contrary to our current interpretation of scripture, but any work that is truly of God’s Spirit will be consistent with correct interpretation of the present canon of scripture.

Question 2: Who should be the prime decision maker(s) about contextualization in a culture newly receiving the gospel?

In a discussion that involves elements of local culture, the Apostle Paul includes in his instructions the command, “Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?” (1 Cor. 11:13). On other touchy issues, he often enunciates principles that must be applied according to individual conscience and discernment. For example, “Seek the good of others” (1 Cor. 10:24) and “Do not cause anyone to stumble” (1 Cor. 10:32).

He summarizes his discussion of “disputable matters” with the principle that “everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:1-23), thus leaving a lot of decision-making authority in the hands of individual believers and implicitly diminishing the role of cultural outsiders to make rules or impose patterns for a lifestyle of obedience to Jesus.

We should not neglect or minimize the biblical role of teaching by those who are more mature in the faith (Col. 1:28; 1 Tim. 6:2; Titus 2:15).
However, we would do well to confess that our teaching of standard patterns in a cross-cultural context may sometimes be rooted in (hidden) ethnocentric assumptions. These assumptions may include the belief that: (1) we understand the gospel’s outworking in the focus context better than those who have lived there all their lives, (2) we know which elements of culture are and are not acceptable or (3) we understand what approach will most effectively enable the gospel to take root and spread in that culture. Those most qualified to make wise contextual decisions are a plurality of mature believers from the insider group. Outsiders can point to relevant scripture and provide teaching on essential doctrines, but they should generally defer to mature Christ-following insiders in specific contextual applications of those scriptures.

Question 3: How much can function (meaning) be separated from the form (practice) of non-Christian religious ritual, such that the form can be filled with a biblical meaning and continued?

Paul warned the Galatians to watch out, lest they be “enslaved all over again…observing special days and months” (Gal. 4:10). And he wrote, “If you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all” (Gal. 5:2). So the spiritual life of new believers can clearly be endangered if they continue old practices without sufficiently grasping the freedom they have in Christ. Yet we also see Paul taking the contextual step of circumcising Timothy (Acts 16:3) before bringing him into his ministry team. And we see post-Pentecost apostles “going up to the temple at the time of prayer” (Acts 3:1).

In the context of food offered to pagan idols, Paul offers a nuanced set of principles by which believers can discern the best course of action in each situation (1 Cor. 8:1-13, 10:14-33). We would do well to note how Paul builds flexible applications on absolute foundations. A person not following the flow of his argument could think he has contradicted himself when the commands “Flee from idolatry” (1 Cor. 10:14) and “I do not want you to be participants with demons” (1 Cor. 10:20) are followed by, “Everything is permissible” (1 Cor. 10:23). The New Testament documents seem to intentionally avoid giving “one-size-fits-all” instructions on this question, preferring rather to give principles that believers can apply on a case-by-case basis.

In 2 Kings 5:17-19, Naaman confesses he will worship no god other than the Lord. He then asks that the Lord forgive him for one thing: when he accompanies his master to the temple of Rimmon, he will continue to bow down, along with his master. Elisha’s response to this request (“Go in peace”) would be interpreted by most as signifying the Lord’s okay (or at least permission) of this plan.

What principles for those living in a religious environment, with strong pressure to “bow down” along with the power-holders of the previous religion, can be drawn from this story? First, God is gracious to new believers living without fellowship in an oppressive religious context. Second, Elisha did not recommend (or attempt) extraction for the sake of purity; instead, he blessed Naaman’s return to an oppressive social and religious context. Third, the fact that Naaman asked for forgiveness shows that even as a new believer in an Old Covenant context, he understood that bowing down was wrong. Requesting forgiveness implied that if he had had a reasonable way (within that social context) to do so, he would have ceased bowing to the idol.

To acknowledge that an action may be permissible as a special case or temporary measure is quite different than church planters developing (from the outside) a strategy that encourages long-term continuation of activities easily understood to imply faithfulness to a different religious system. Also, we acknowledge that in a number of ways, bowing to a pagan idol does not serve as an exact parallel to the bowing associated with a particular modern religion.

Questions of form and function can best be decided by insiders—ideally, spiritually mature insiders. The fewer of these we have, the more tentative our opinions should be. Outsiders easily reject usable elements or accept elements that could be stumbling blocks. Thus, it seems most appropriate for outsiders to be humble and tentative in our opinions concerning how believers of a specific culture should handle these issues. We should serve more as resources to help them find all the relevant scriptures than as guides trying to steer them toward one choice or another. Often, the motive and understanding behind an action (and its effect on others) is more important than the act itself.

Question 4: Can a person be saved while holding to weak or flawed theology?

We see salvation promised to the thief on the cross, who likely understood very little gospel truth (Luke 23:41-43). He understood that Jesus was a righteous man who would soon have a position of authority in a heavenly kingdom. If he knew anything else beyond that, we are not aware of it. In John 4:25-42, we see that based on a minimal testimony, many Samaritans (with their significantly flawed theology) accepted Jesus as Savior. We read in Acts 19:1-6 of some disciples of John the Baptist who are given fuller teaching, including the need to receive the Holy Spirit and believe in Jesus. The fact that the biblical text calls them “disciples” who had “believed” indicates strongly that these were saved individuals, although they did not yet know of Jesus’ death or resurrection, let alone his divinity or the personhood of the Holy Spirit!

This should end the dogmatic claim that a person cannot be saved unless he or she has already understood and confessed the deity of Christ. However, we should also notice Paul’s immediate response to these “disciples” (Acts 19:4). He gives them more complete information about Jesus, and brings them to a fuller understanding of his truth. The goal is not simply to get people over the line of salvation, but to help individuals and fellowships to move toward a more mature understanding of Christ and his work. A fully developed theology is obviously not needed for salvation, and yet the New Testament clearly stresses the importance of mature doctrinal understanding and growth in the truth. Jesus commands his followers to teach disciples “to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20).

The goal of Paul’s ministry was that “we all…become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). He summarized his ministry among the Ephesians with the words, “I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God” (Acts 20:27).

Especially for those from a non-Christian background, coming to saving faith in Christ is often a process requiring a significant amount of time. During this process, there will frequently be some ambiguity and theological “messiness.” To do effective, God-glorifying ministry, we need to both leave room for the Holy Spirit to lead the seeker toward the truth at his pace, and at the same time guide and teach in the direction of sound and mature biblical understanding.

A person can be saved while holding to weak or flawed theology, but scripture never encourages staying in a condition of confused theology or leaving new believers to muddle for years in such a state. Neither does scripture favor developing or moving into a flawed theology as a strategy to attract more people to Christ. Any “hands off” approach that leaves individuals or groups endlessly in a state of doctrinal confusion or contradiction is settling for less than the New Testament goal.

Question 5: How much continuity or discontinuity should believers have with their previous lifestyle and social context?

Paul encourages each believer to “retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him” (1 Cor. 7:17). Thus, in all things that are not sinful or detrimental to faith, believers should maintain social continuity as much as possible. A new believer must come to understand his or her freedom from the bondage of his or her former life (Gal. 5:1; Col. 2:16). And those who grasp their freedom in Christ are liberated to use cultural parallelism as a bridge for the gospel (1 Cor. 9:19).

At the same time, the gospel includes a clear call to be distinct from one’s culture in certain ways (Matt. 5:16, 10:32-39). This Christ-like distinction will sometimes bring persecution, an unavoidable part of faithfulness to Christ (2 Tim. 3:12). Persecution cannot be assumed to result from “inadequate contextualization.”

Obedience to Christ involves both continuity and discontinuity with the social context. Both of these have a role to play in effective witness within the context we are ministering in. In dealing with questions of lifestyle, we can help believers from a certain culture to wrestle through the issues of how to balance freedom and new life in Christ with maintaining social connection for the sake of gospel proclamation. But ultimately, we return to scripture, the Holy Spirit and the conscience of the insider as the final arbiters, rather than ourselves.

In “disputable matters” (those having no clear biblical command or prohibition) believers should be allowed freedom to make their own Spirit-led, biblically informed decisions, so that each one can be “fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5).

Question 6: Is our highest goal to see as many unreached people as possible come to Christ?

Paul writes, “I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (1 Cor. 9:19) and “I am not seeking my own good, but the good of many, so that they may be saved” (1 Cor. 10:33). So reaching as many as possible is clearly a good goal. It is appropriate for us to share in the kind of aching Paul expressed in Romans 10:1-3 for religious people who “are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.”

However, we also find a higher goal portrayed in scripture: “Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people…to the obedience that comes from faith” (Rom. 1:5, emphasis mine). In the summary of this same epistle, Paul writes “so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify …God” (Rom. 15:6, emphasis mine) and “so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God” (Rom. 15:16b).

Romans 1 and 15 make clear that reaching the unreached is a vitally important way of glorifying God, but it is not the ultimate objective. The salvation of as many as possible is a noble and biblical goal; however, God’s glory is a higher goal. This implies submission to his word in all we do and teach. Without this, we run the risk of pragmatism: “If it appears to work, let’s do it. Surely if people are turning to Jesus, it can’t be bad!” A pragmatic approach avoids wrestling with the full scope of biblical teaching. Sadly, it often results in trying to do God’s work via subtly flawed human strategies, and in watering down the gospel more and more in search for something that “works better.” Seeing as many as possible come into full obedience to Christ is a great means toward the goal of God’s glory, which must steadfastly remain our highest ambition. If it does not, we are in danger of being pulled toward a pragmatic form of the gospel, rather than the message God intends—which puts his glory squarely at the center of all we do and say.

Question 7: Can a mature follower of Christ call Muhammad “a prophetic type of messenger” or “one who spoke in a prophetic manner or style” (in the sense that he condemned idolatry and called people to follow the one creator God, and taught many other true things)?

The Apostle Paul quotes a pagan “prophet,” both in his preaching and his writing of scripture (Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12). In 2 Timothy 2:24-26, we read that “The Lord’s servant…must be kind to everyone…Those who oppose him he must gently instruct.” This rules out abusive language toward the object of devotion of those we hope to reach. For Jesus’ followers, these verses supersede the example of Elijah’s mocking in 1 Kings 18:27.
Appropriate outreach looks for maximum common ground with our audience and presents our message in a winsome manner that avoids unnecessary offense.
At the same time, we need to be careful to speak accurately about spiritual realities in ways consistent with biblical truth. What Paul commands in 2 Timothy is not political correctness, but engaging proclamation of God’s truth. Jesus commanded his followers to watch out for false prophets (Matt. 7:15, 24:11). If a person fits that description, we shouldn’t avoid acknowledging it. To do so not only violates Jesus’ commands, but also endangers the spiritual health of those we lead.

If the issue under discussion is only Muhammad’s “manner” or “style,” we can agree that he spoke with force and conviction as a man confident he was proclaiming the very words of God. If the issue is the content of Muhammad’s message, we can agree that the Qur’an says many things consistent with the Bible, yet we have to honestly admit that it also says some things that disagree with the Bible at important points.

It might be acceptable to describe Muhammad as “a prophetic type of messenger” or “one who spoke in a prophetic manner.” However, I am not sure that doing so is helpful. Such descriptions can be and have been easily misunderstood. Even more importantly, I am confident that for a mature follower of Jesus to use the description “God’s prophet” (or “God’s messenger”) clearly violates the understanding of that term in both Christian and orthodox Islamic teaching (both of which define a prophet as an authoritative mouthpiece of God). And it is that confession—of Muhammad as God’s prophet—which is the crux of concern.

Courtesy and respect (1 Pet. 3:15-16) play an important role in our interaction with Muslims, especially seekers or those we do not know well. But for those who choose to follow Jesus, there should come a time when they gain increased clarity about the identity of Muhammad and the important differences between his path and that of Jesus.

Question 8: What are the appropriate evidences of allegiance to Jesus’ lordship?

According to Jesus, the appropriate evidence of allegiance to his lordship is obedience to his commands (i.e., baptism, love, witnessing; John 14:15, 21; 15:14; Matt. 28:19). The epistles make clear that this obedience should include turning away from—and getting rid of—any idolatry (1 John 5:21; 1 Thess.1:9). In fact, we could argue that turning from every kind of idolatry is implicit in the command to love God with our whole being (Matt. 22:37), but for some contexts it seems important to make this explicit.

As we encourage obedience to Jesus’ clear commands, we should leave room for God’s Spirit to guide believers into appropriate applications of scripture, including the timing of forsaking and/or adjusting previous practices which are not inherently sinful or idolatrous. Within the parameters of obedience to Jesus’ commands, we should neither judge those who manifest their discipleship differently than we do, push our own conclusions onto new believers from another culture, nor forsake interaction with the relevant biblical texts and principles.

As discussion of these questions continues, I am hopeful church planters can move toward more thorough agreement. After all, our purpose is not to defend, or even to hold, the “best” contextual approach. Rather, we have been called to glorify God by valuing scripture above human ideas and honoring the work of the Spirit of Christ in new believers and other church planters—even when their contextual approach differs from ours.


L. D. Waterman (pseudonym) oversees church planting teams with Pioneers. He has worked among Muslims in Southeast Asia for the past fourteen years. He holds a master of divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Copyright © 2008 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS. All rights reserved.

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