by Gary Corwin
There is a need for more objective criteria to assess when contextualization has crossed the line into syncretism.
What’s the rule-of-thumb definition for the difference between contextualization and syncretism? Simple: it’s contextualization when I do it, but syncretism when you do it!
If that sounds facetious, it was meant to. But discussion on this issue does often reside at the level of subjective feeling rather than objective standards.
In recent years new contextualization scales have described various approaches for penetrating Muslim and Hindu cultures with the gospel. Those scales frame much of the discussion on best strategies for mission in those contexts. The debates they have generated point to the need for more objective criteria to assess when contextualization has crossed the line into syncretism.
The answer lies, I believe, in clarifying our assumptions and definitions. To get the ball rolling, I propose these important assumptions:
1. God loves cultural diversity and established it for our good (to hinder our tendency to rebel against him).
2. No culture is neutral—all are subject to divine judgment for their conformity or lack thereof to God’s revealed will.
3. The church is (or ought to be) God’s counter-culture within any culture—affirming that which harmonizes with his revealed will, and contrasting starkly with what does not.
4. Contextualization occurs when the church in a culture gets this right; syncretism when it does not.
What about definitions? Shades of degree for both contextualization and syncretism make this tricky because a spectrum of subtle differences exists. The spectrum ranges from highly effective contextualization, to less serious forms of syncretism (which also means less effective contextualization), to syncretism in its most detrimental forms. Because our own cultural assumptions and values are almost invisible to us, the church in any culture tends to be blind much more to its own compromises than to others.
Five questions can help us to understand the subtleties in a society:
1. What biblical practices or mandates are often over-emphasized to either good or bad effect? The least harmful type of failure is to overly emphasize an otherwise excellent activity or focus. For example, legalisms are developed to enforce how often or long a person prays, simply because that culture tends to set standards for such practices.
2. What cultural assumptions significantly impact for good or ill the gospel’s incarnation? These assumptions tend to be widely accepted and almost invisible to those who hold them. In the USA, for example, assumptions about progress and rugged individualism affect our ecclesiology. One result is that Christians tend to separate from those with whom they disagree, and start their own churches in order to achieve or maintain theological purity.
Such beliefs are not inherently bad or totally lacking as reflections of spiritual truth, but failing to recognize them as cultural assumptions obscures larger and more balanced understandings of spiritual truth.
3. Is the gospel’s essence as the Bible presents it fully embraced by the church? This critical focus area addresses matters of content, for example, to whom we should pray, or what we should pray about. (The issue of content is more serious when it involves the trappings of the culture’s dominant religion.)
4. Is anything added to the gospel? An important distinction within the content area arises over the difference between how eternal truth is received, and what in a culture may appropriately co-exist with eternal truth. The first instance distinguishes between how gospel truth is presented and interpreted properly or improperly within the particular culture. In the second, the question is how truth claims from within the culture are embraced or rejected based on their compatibility with the gospel. The appeal of a prosperity gospel in Western cultures might be a syncretistic example of the former, and ancestor veneration in an Asian or African culture might exemplify the latter.
5. Does the typical church and believer remind people of Jesus or simply of any good citizen? Issues of practice are most visible, and therefore likely to gain the most attention. However, they may be either more or less important than content issues, depending on whether the practices are a conscious response to previous decisions about content, or an unconscious habit not yet thoroughly examined in this light.
The key question for any church is whether it is a haven and breeding ground for individual disciples who are genuinely born from above.
Where does such an understanding of all these subtleties leave us? I believe with some simple but important tools for examining the seriousness of the contextualization/syncretism issues in any setting. Every issue—whether a matter of emphasis, assumption, belief or practice—falls somewhere along that category’s seriousness spectrum. And each category, from emphasis to practice, is itself increasingly more serious. The farther along either spectrum that we go, therefore, the greater the potential risks and rewards are, and the more care we must take. Let’s make sure we treat these issues with the great caution and boldness they require.
Gary Corwin is associate editor of Evangelical Missions Quarterly and a special representative with SIM in Charlotte, N.C.
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 3, pp. 282-283. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.