Saturday, April 24, 2010

Contextualization Without Compromise

From Tullian Tchividjian at the Resurgence:

The principle behind Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 9:22 to “become all things to all men” is what Christian thinkers call “contextualization.” Contextualization is the idea that we need to be translating gospel truth into language understood by our culture. Cross-cultural missionaries and Bible translators have been doing this for centuries. They take the unchanging truth of the gospel and put it into language that fits the context they are trying to reach. Contextualization simply means translating the gospel—in both word and deed—into understandable terms appropriate to the audience. It’s gospel translation that is context sensitive.

For some well-meaning Christians, contextualization means the same thing as compromise. They believe it means giving people what they want and telling people what they want to hear. What they misunderstand, however, is that contextualization means giving people God’s answers (which they may not want) to the questions they’re really asking and in ways they can understand.

Why We Can't Ignore Contextualization

This misunderstanding of contextualization has led these people to argue that cultural reflection and cultural exegesis are at best distractions, at worst sinful. They admonish us to abandon these things and focus simply on the Bible. While this sounds righteous, it ends up being foolish for two reasons. First, the Bible itself exhorts us to understand our times so that we can reach our changing world with God’s eternal truth. To not contextualize, therefore, is a sin. And second, we all live inescapably within a particular cultural framework that shapes the way we think about everything. So if we don’t work hard to understand our context, we’ll not only fail in our task to effectively communicate the gospel but we’ll also find it impossible to avoid being negatively shaped by a world we don’t understand.

Contextualization Is Not Just 'Fitting In'

On the other hand, becoming “all things to all people” does not mean fitting in with the fallen patterns of this world so that there is no distinguishable difference between Christians and non-Christians. While rightly living “in the world,” we must avoid the extreme of accommodation—being “of the world.” It happens when Christians, in their attempt to make proper contact with the world, go out of their way to adopt worldly styles, standards, and strategies.

When Christians try to eliminate the counter-cultural, unfashionable features of the biblical message because those features are unpopular in the wider culture—for example, when we reduce sin to a lack of self-esteem, deny the exclusivity of Christ, or downplay the reality of knowable absolute truth—we’ve moved from contextualization to compromise. When we accommodate our culture by jettisoning key themes of the gospel, such as suffering, humility, persecution, service, and self-sacrifice, we actually do our world more harm than good. For love’s sake, compromise is to be avoided at all costs.

Totality and Tension

As the Bible teaches, the Lordship of Christ has a sense of totality: Christ’s truth covers everything, not just “spiritual” or “religious” things. But it also has a sense of tension. As Lord, Jesus not only calls us to himself, he also calls us to break with everything which conflicts with his Lordship.

This is the challenge: If you don’t contextualize enough, no one’s life will be transformed because they won’t understand you. But if you contextualize too much, no one’s life will be transformed because you won’t be challenging their deepest assumptions and calling them to change.

Contextualization without compromise is the goal!

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2 comments:

AT said...

I thought this was another great article.
I don't know if there's a discrete way to do this, but are there particular "well-meaning christians" or ministries to use extreme discernment with... I feel at liberty to ask this because so many ministries have such high visibility on the web, and therefore should be held accountable in a similar manner, and even to a higher standard - especially if the ministry isn't connected to a local church.
Private message is fine too. Thanks in advance.

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