Contextualization, Evangelism, Worship

(Original posting 10/26/2017) When the Apostle Paul said, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22), did he mean that anything goes in missions and worship? If not, what did he mean? Well, that’s the topic of this afternoon’s post from my music ministry philosophy exam. Read this brief overview of the topic for yourself:

What is the relevance of Acts 17:16-34 and 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 to discussions of cultural contextualization?

First of all, what is contextualization? As it relates to ministry, contextualization has a spectrum of definitions, all having to do with communicating the biblical message from its ancient context into a contemporary culture. This spectrum ranges from merely translation of the gospel into a local language, to allowing each culture to determine what its own gospel truth is. The difference in philosophy from one end of the spectrum to the other is quite striking. What can we learn from these two scripture passages to help us evaluate these positions?

Acts 17:16-34 and 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 are often used to justify radical modifications of the gospel message for the sake of contextualization. One very common application is the use of pop culture art forms, i.e., music, to make “church” more appealing. But to what degree, if any, was the Apostle Paul actually using contextualization in these passages?

The Acts 17 passage narrates Paul’s encounter with the Athenian philosophers on Mars Hill. Prior to the encounter Paul had toured the innumerable altars erected across Athens and had been deeply grieved at this idolatry (v. 16) and was moved to fervently proclaim the gospel. Speaking to the philosophers, Paul notes that the Athenians practice religion actively – “are very religious” – and have many idols, including one dedicated “to the unknown god.” Some argue that Paul was commending the Athenians for their efforts to find God. They then reason from this that we should accommodate non-Christian cultures by modifying the gospel message and our worship practices. However, the impression that Paul was commending the Athenians is suspect. The meaning of the phrase translated “very religious” has been greatly debated among translators for centuries. Its meaning could range from the above, “very religious,” to “extremely superstitious,” to “devoted to demons.” Given that Paul was greatly disturbed at their idolatry it hardly seems likely that he was approving of their worship. At best, “very religious” should be taken as a neutral observation and certainly not approval. It could even be seen as polite criticism. Further, Paul’s observation that they had an altar to an unknown god likely isn’t a commendation that the Athenians were somehow close to knowing the true god. Rather, judging from Paul’s subsequent preaching, he used this to take a subject in which they had great interest and show them the ignorant emptiness of their worship practices. His charge of ignorance would have been a great challenge to the intellectual ego of the Athenians. He followed up by showing them their need for Christ, and to call them to repentance.

Thus, the Acts 17 passage certainly is an illustration of how to present the gospel to a different culture. But rather than justification for contextualizing the gospel to a culture it is an encouragement to use a common point of interest to boldly present the eternal truths of the intact gospel. Paul’s presentation of the gospel in Athens was unique to the audience but the message was the same one he preached across the Roman Empire.

1 Corinthians 9:22 contains the well-known phrase, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” This phrase is sometimes used to justify contextualization of the gospel and, in the worst case, dilute the gospel to avoid offense. However, the context of the passage clearly shows that all Paul advocates is for Christians to lay down their liberty for the sake of the lost so as to avoid unnecessary offense in the delivery while boldly proclaiming the unavoidable offense of the gospel message (“for the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor 1:18).

​From these two passages we see that Christians are to use humility, compassion, wisdom, knowledge, and skill in our encounters with divergent cultures, but the gospel message is to be exactly the same as what Paul preached nearly 2,000 years ago.

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