One often hears the question, Can one remain a Muslim or a Hindu after becoming a Christian? I think that question needs to be reframed. Perhaps a more accurate way to pose the question is to ask, “Can someone enter the kingdom of God without becoming a follower of Jesus?” To maintain fidelity to the Bible, the answer is unequivocally “No!” (Acts 4:12; John 14:6). But if we ask, “Can someone enter the kingdom of God without becoming a Christian?” that’s a more complicated question and deserves a more nuanced response. When the term Christian was first used in Antioch (Acts 11:26), it simply meant a Gentile follower of Jesus and was often used pejoratively to describe those who were followers of Jesus. Today, however, 2,000 years later, the term Christian has become encumbered with many extrabiblical trappings that are now part and parcel of the Christian religion with all of its religious traditions. Therefore, the term Christian today is no longer synonymous with simply following Jesus. Tragically, hundreds of millions of people call themselves “Christian” but have never followed Jesus because it never occurred to them that being a Christian meant following Jesus. If we reframe the question to ask if a person can enter the kingdom of God without joining the Christian religion, then I think we are asking the right question. And here the Bible can help us think through the answer. The lessons from the decision of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 that Gentiles did not have to become Jews to follow Jesus, and Jesus’ own ministry among Gentiles, point to the fact that one can enter the kingdom of God and confess Jesus as Lord and Savior without necessarily changing one’s religion. At first blush this may sound scandalous to us conservative Evangelical Christians. Nevertheless, many Muslims today are attracted to Jesus but turned off to Christianity, which for them conjures up negative images of the Crusades, colonialism, a foreign religion, and the “Christian” West where we eat pork, drink alcohol, and watch R-rated movies. No wonder they don’t want to be identified as “Christians,” but they certainly want to follow Jesus and make Him Lord of their lives.
The question is frequently asked, “Where should we draw the line before contextualization becomes syncretism?” Because many of the debates seem to circle around where to draw the line, some are comfortable with a C5 expression of Christianity, but others are uncomfortable with going that far in contextualizing the gospel. As long as we argue over where to draw the line, we will never get far in understanding what God is doing in the world, encouraging people to know and understand Jesus in a wide variety of religious and cultural contexts.
If the debate over where to draw the line before contextualization erodes into syncretism is an unhelpful approach, is there a better way? Hiebert’s concept of “critical contextualization” gives us a useful procedure for determining how to distinguish appropriate contextualization from inappropriate syncretism. I want to suggest that perhaps a more fruitful approach would be to look at the underlying meanings that are expressed through contextualized forms. We will find much more common agreement if we focus on the Christian meanings being expressed in different forms. However, when we focus on the diversity of forms instead of the underlying meanings, it will cause great debates in the Christian community. The global church cannot even agree on the “correct” form of baptism or what elements should be used for the Lord’s Supper. Perhaps we would find much more consensus if we focused on the underlying meanings of both ordinances.
Radical biblical contextualization such as we see in C5 expressions of Jesus movements within Islam creates much debate and sometimes dissension because the forms used by these Muslim followers of Jesus appear so unfamiliar to us. For example, if we see a Muslim follower of Jesus (Isa in Arabic) praying to Allah five times a day with forehead touching the ground, it will be hard for us to believe that he or she is praying to Jesus because the form of prayer looks so Islamic and so different to us in the Christian tradition. However, the form of the prayer is not as important as the meaning it expresses. It is the meaning of following Jesus that must be maintained to have an expression of vital Christianity. In fact, when the “Christian” forms continue but the underlying meanings are lost, the result is that “they will hold to the outward form of our religion, but reject its real power” (2 Tim 3:5 GNB). When this happens, we have classic nominal Christianity. Tragically, we find this throughout the world.
I am convinced that there are no sacred forms, only sacred meanings. This does not mean that forms are not important. They are important, but they are important precisely because of what they point to, that is, the underlying meanings. Some forms are undoubtedly incapable of carrying Christian meanings, but that decision must be made by local believers who understand their culture and who, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, decide which forms are redeemable and which ones are not. While growing up in a conservative Evangelical church in the 1960s, I was taught that the twang of a guitar and the beat of drums in the church were not forms that could be used to worship God. They were pagan. Today that same church has a praise band, complete with noisy guitars and banging drums, all making music in praise to our Lord. What happened? Did the church go liberal? No, not at all! The people in that church came to realize over time that these musical instruments could be used in acts of meaningful worship to Almighty God.
I have developed the following grid to help us sort through the distinction between forms and the meanings they convey. If we can separate form and meaning in our thinking, it makes it much easier to understand radical biblical contextualization and movements of God’s Spirit like the Insider Movements among Muslims. The horizontal axis of FORM at the bottom of the diagram moves from Western on the left to Indigenous on the right. The vertical axis of MEANING to the far left of the diagram moves from Christian on the top to Pagan on the bottom. When you combine these two axes, you get four possible outcomes. In our cross-cultural mission efforts we need to understand the important difference between Indigenous Christianity (which we want to promote) and Syncretism (which we want to avoid).
This combination of the two axes, Form and Meaning, gives us four different outcomes as explained below.
Quadrant 1. When Western forms are combined with Christian meanings in other parts of the world, we have nonindigenous (typically Western) Christianity, which is frequently perceived to be foreign in that context. This was one of the consequences of mission in the age of colonialism, and we find expressions of Western Christianity all over the world today. In other cultures this form of Christianity is more prone to becoming syncretistic or nominal over time because of the difficulty people in that culture have in adapting imported foreign Western forms and applying this imported faith to the real issues of their lives.
Quadrant 2. When Western forms are combined with pagan or non-Christian meanings, we have syncretism, which is the combination of Christian and non-Christian beliefs and practices. The resultant form is distinct from both Christianity and the pagan religion. It is neither Christianity nor traditional religion. It is something entirely new and different, as I have explained elsewhere:
Religious syncretism is essentially a response to the problem of meaning. In the interaction between Christianity and animism, if the newly introduced Christian forms are given pagan meaning, then syncretism results—the new belief system is neither Christianity nor is it traditional primal religion; it is a mixing of both, and thus the product is qualitatively new.
Quadrant 3. When indigenous forms are combined with pagan meanings, we have no change at all and so the traditional non-Christian religion continues. But how does one encounter traditional religion with the claims of Christ? Our standard approach has often been to introduce Western Christianity, perhaps because we felt confident that if potential converts adopted our forms they would also follow our Christian meaning. Yet this approach is more likely to lead to syncretism because syncretism comes from striving after meaning. So, if the introduced foreign forms do not make sense to converts, it will be easy to revert to traditional non-Christian meanings in order to fill the void left by foreign forms.
Quadrant 4. When indigenous forms are combined with Christian meanings, we have indigenous followers of Christ, that is, contextualized Christianity that is appropriate to the context. Christ-centered communities that fit the C5 category are good examples of those found in this quadrant, where the forms are appropriate to the context, but they are used to communicate Christian meanings. Far from being the slippery slope that so many neocolonial missionaries fear will lead to syncretism, contextualized Christianity is the best hedge against syncretism.
I believe the answer to the debate over where to draw the line in contextualization is better understood if we ask a different question: “Do the forms that are appropriate to the culture of the converts adequately convey biblical meanings?” Forms are easy to see; meanings are hard to detect. But we must trust the Holy Spirit to lead followers of Christ into discerning what forms are usable in a particular cultural context for the sake of the gospel.
Much of Hiebert’s writing has been aimed to help us find a way through the sometimes complex world of contextualization so that the universal meanings of the gospel can be understood and lived out in contexts appropriate to the culture in which followers of Jesus live. To move into this missiological arena of radical biblical contextualization will require that we relinquish our need for certainty in exchange for our quest for understanding. May God give us the wisdom and courage to do so.