Friday, October 17, 2014

Just Say No to Contextualism

It seems like everywhere I turn these days in our evangelical ghetto, everybody's trying to contextualize the Gospel.

Mark Driscoll became famous for doing it.  And now that he's resigned in disgrace from the church he founded, church growth experts are trying to figure out what went wrong where.

Reporters for evangelical media outlets are fawning over rap and it's current star attraction, Lecrae, as if dropping some Christian lyrics into a genre of music birthed in urban violence and socioeconomic jealousy serves as an appropriate vessel for the Gospel's light and hope.

Reformed theology's current celebrity preacher, Tim Keller, was recently quoted in as saying unbelievers can't be evangelized "if you just preach about doing God's will."

"You have to demonstrate to a non-Christian that you understand what it is like not to believe," Keller told a group of church planters attending a conference, as if the Gospel's credibility depends on what it supposedly saves us from.

One of the main messages I've been trying to convey through this blog is my earnest belief in the Gospel of Jesus Christ as being singularly powerful, solely necessary, and imminently effective for anybody, anywhere, facing anything, regardless of that person's culture, gender, nationality, race, or prior religious persuasion.

It's become frustrating and depressing for me to watch the eagerness with which so many people within our evangelical ghetto seek to view the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the lens of our particular culture.  Contextualism, for example, helps to perpetuate the racial divide among our churches, and contextualism rationalized the Insider Movement among Muslim ministries.

Meanwhile, I thought we were supposed to view our respective cultures through the lens of the Gospel!  I believe we're to view everything through the Gospel's lens!

Am I wrong?

I don't think so.  If Christ is all, and in all, and is the Word, and existed before this world did, then He is the lens.  Period.

Can I get an amen?

OK, if not, is it because you don't believe me?  After all, I have no seminary degree, and I've never pastored a church.  Maybe you'd prefer to hear this stuff from somebody who has.

So, OK!  How about John MacArthur?  He's pretty famous here within our evangelical ghetto.  Here's what he has to say on the subject of whether or not we should contextualize the Gospel:

"The contextualization of the Gospel today has infected the church with the spirit of the age.  It has opened the church’s doors wide for worldliness, shallowness, and in some cases a crass, party atmosphere.  The world now sets the agenda for the church."
- from "Contextualization and the Corruption of the Church," September 22, 2011

"Where did Christians ever get the idea we could win the world by imitating it?  Is there a shred of biblical justification for that kind of thinking?  Many church marketing specialists affirm that there is, and they have convinced a myriad of pastors.  Ironically, they usually cite the apostle Paul as someone who advocated adapting the gospel to the tastes of the audience.  One has written, 'Paul provided what I feel is perhaps the single most insightful perspective on marketing communications, the principle we call contextualization (1 Corinthians 9:19–23).  Paul … was willing to shape his communications according to their needs in order to receive the response he sought.'

"This much is very clear: the apostle Paul was no people-pleaser.  He wrote, 'Am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God?  Or am I striving to please men?  If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ' (Gal. 1:10).  Paul did not amend or abridge his message to make people happy.  He was utterly unwilling to try to remove the offense from the gospel (Gal. 5:11).  He did not use methodology that catered to the lusts of his listeners.  He certainly did not follow the pragmatic philosophy of modern market-driven ministers.

"What made Paul effective was not marketing savvy, but a stubborn devotion to the truth.  He was Christ’s ambassador, not His press secretary.  Truth was something to be declared, not negotiated.  Paul was not ashamed of the gospel (Rom. 1:16).  He willingly suffered for the truth’s sake (2 Cor. 11:23–28).  He did not back down in the face of opposition or rejection.  He did not compromise with unbelievers or make friends with the enemies of God."

-  from "All Things to All Men," September 2, 2011

So, how did Paul live out the Gospel?

"In order to [win people to Christ], Paul was willing to give up all his rights and privileges, his position, his rank, his livelihood, his freedom—ultimately even his life.  If it would further the spread of the gospel, Paul would claim no rights, make no demands, insist on no privileges (in relation to 1 Corinthians 9:19-23)."

"Not that [Paul] would modify the message to suit the world, but that he would behave so that he personally would never be an obstacle to anyone’s hearing and understanding the message of Christ.  He was describing an attitude of personal sacrifice, not compromise.  He would never alter the clear and confrontive call to repentance and faith."
- from "Giving Up to Gain," September 4, 2011

Now, obviously - and I'm coming back to my own opinions here, not John MacArthur's teachings -  one's presentation of the Gospel is going to look and sound a bit different depending on the audience, and even one's own personality.  God doesn't make automatons, He creates individuals with our own characteristics, including language and, yes, culture.  I can't go to Burkina Faso, for example, in Africa, and share this blog there with much hope of people understanding it - or me.  For one thing, they speak French there, and I don't.  We also live in a far different environment here in the United States than Christ-followers do in virtually any part of Africa.  So to a certain extent, cultural context will inevitably play some role in the way Christ's Gospel is proclaimed and lived.

But always, always, always - no matter the country, or culture, or language, the Gospel of Jesus Christ comes first.

Think about it:  how many problems that we're facing just in the United States might have been avoided - or lessened - if Christ's followers were living in America's culture, but weren't a part of it?  We're to be in the world, but not of it.  What if we viewed our lives, and our participation in the world around us, through the lens of Christ's Gospel, and not our culture?

Some people say "context is everything."  But that's not true.

Christ's Gospel is everything.


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