The Biblical Case for Contextualization

Photo  taken from the Wikipedia article  Paul the Apostle

Photo taken from the Wikipedia article Paul the Apostle

Last week, we began our discussion on contextualization, examining its purpose and many of its misconceptions. Regarding the ministry of the Church, contextualization seeks to understand the way another person or group of people thinks, feels, and acts and then proclaims the Gospel responsively. This, however, is not a new concept discovered for the 21st century Church. Though recent books and conferences have garnered a renewed interest in the necessity and benefit of contextualized and incarnational ministry, most of the principles of contextualization that are practiced today can be traced all the way back to the biblical writer and apostle, Paul.

Writing to the church in Corinth, Paul described how he changed the method of his ministry to fit each new context he was trying to reach with the Gospel:

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

1 Corinthians 9:19-23

For Paul, effectively pointing to Jesus meant contextually living for others. It did not matter whether someone was born into a religious practice or had no prior religious experience, Paul strived to find a connecting point to meet and serve people where they were. Rather than selfishly hold onto his own personal lifestyle preferences, Paul was willing to adjust areas of his life not related to the Gospel or the ethics the Gospel creates in order to break down cultural barriers and reach more people for Jesus. He actively contextualized in order to be “all things to all people.”

On his journey to Athens, Paul put this idea of contextualization into practice. After walking through the marketplace and observing the people and culture of the city, Paul made his way to the Aereopagus, the primary gathering area for philosophers and thinkers. Recognizing philosophy, intelligence, and religion as the primary creators of culture in Athens, Paul decided that here was the best place to begin engaging the city with the Gospel.
However, he did not merely recite the story of Jesus. Instead, Paul used his knowledge of Athen’s polytheistic religious practices to find common ground from which to connect. In Acts 17:22-23 Paul makes this connection, saying:

Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, “To the unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.

Obviously, the Athenians were not referring to the Jewish God when they created this statue. It was simply a catchall to signify the multitude of gods they believed were in existence yet simply not revealed to them yet. In this recognition of an unknown god, Paul noticed a great opportunity. He found common ground in agreeing with the Athenians that there was another God out there whom they had yet to know. This was enticing for the Athenian philosophers and cultural leaders, giving Paul an opportunity to reveal the Christian God as the God over all other gods. In sharing with the Athenians, Paul even quoted one of their own poets in verse 28. Clearly, contextualization was both useful and intentional in the life and ministry of the apostle Paul.

Next week we will conclude our 3 week series on contextualization, examining some practical ways to apply it in everyday life.

This is the second in a 3-part series on Contextualization. Check out parts 1 and 3:

What is Contextualization?

How to Practice Contextualization in Everyday Life