Contextualization & Church Ministry: Does It Matter?

I’d like to begin a series of posts on “contextualization and church ministry.” I must confess at the outset some hesitation and even trepidation. Addressing Christians who are engaged in ministry about the topic of contextualization is like being asked to speak to a group of young mothers on the topic of breast-feeding vs formula feeding. It’s like being invited to address a group of young techies on the question of whether the Apple iOS system is superior to Android. It’s like being asked to give a lecture to a group of Calvinists on the question of whether the Bible supports infralapsarianism vs supralapsarianism.

Differences of Opinion on Contextualization

Contextualization is one of those topics concerning which men in Christian ministry often have strong opinions. For some the mere mention of the term causes their heart rate to increase. For others contextualization is what church ministry is all about. They seem to eat it, drink it, and dream about it. Of course, there’s probably a third category of people who aren’t sure what to think about it or haven’t even heard the term before.

In any case, I’d like to acknowledge at the outset that I’m addressing a topic that can be and has been controversial. Part of the reason for its controversial nature resides in the fact that the concept has been misused. There’s an unbiblical version of contextualization, as we’ll see. But I believe another reason for differences on the question of contextualization resides not so much with the concept or principle itself but with the specific applications of the principle in particular situations.

As I’ll try to demonstrate, contextualization involves the application of biblical principles to varying situations in ways that reflect the exercise of biblical wisdom. As a group of pastors or ministerial students discusses the question of how best to apply several biblical principles to a given situation, there’s bound to be some differences. One man says, “This is how I would do it.” Another says, “I think I’d take a slightly different approach.” And a third chimes in, “I don’t like either one of your approaches.”

My primary goal in these posts is to get us on the same page with respect to the principle of contextualization. I plan to suggest some concrete applications of the principle. But I don’t expect everyone in my audience to agree with all of my specific applications. That’s okay. In fact, that’s to be expected. Each of us is ministering in a different context. Moreover, some of our thinking about applying biblical principles to specific situations will be influenced by our own ministry experiences, which are not always identical.

The Importance of Contextualization

Contextualization is one of those topics concerning which good men will not always agree on the particulars. Nevertheless, I believe it’s a topic Christians need to discuss.

For one, contextualization is something we’re already doing in church ministry whether we know it or not. None of us preaches or teaches in Hebrew or Greek. No one here is wearing the first century toga and sandals of Jesus’ day. Even the places where we worship are different from those in which the early Christians gathered.1

Moreover, to varying degrees the contexts in which we minister and the people to whom we minister have changed and will continue to change to some degree. As I’m going to argue, we need to be sensitive to these changes, and we’ll need to make some adjustments—even if slight—as these changes occur.

So contextualization is a challenging topic to address. Nonetheless, it’s a needful topic to address and hence the reason for this series.

The Motivation for Contextualization

The apostle Paul not only engaged in contextualization, but he also provides us with his motivations for doing so:

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 Cor 9:19–23).

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ (1 Cor 10:31–11:1).2

I’d like to make four brief observations from the texts above.

1. Paul had a passion to win people to Christ.

Five times Paul speaks in chapter 9 of “winning” people (vv. 19, 20a; 20b; 21; 22). If we have any questions as to what Paul means by winning people, he clears that up for us in the second half of verse 22 where he writes, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (emphasis added).

If Paul’s language weren’t inspired, we might be tempted to question its appropriateness. After all, doesn’t Paul know that “salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:8)? Doesn’t he realize that no man can come to Christ unless the Father draws him (John 6:44)? Is Paul ignorant of the fact that God, not man, is the one who does the “saving?”

Of course, Paul knows and believes these things. If a person receives Christ as Lord and Savior, Paul would be the first to trace that person’s conversion back to God’s effectual call and even further back to God’s eternal decree (Rom 8:29-30). Indeed, Paul has already affirmed God as the ultimate “soul winner” earlier in this epistle where he says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor 3:6). Clearly, Paul’s soteriology is monergistic.3

Nevertheless, Paul also believes that God normally saves through personal agents who proclaim the gospel. And in our text Paul expresses a strong desire that he might be one of those agents whom God uses to draw “the elect” to Christ.

2. Paul had a passion to win not merely some but many.

Note carefully the language of verse 19: “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them” (emphasis added). Paul wasn’t merely concerned to see a few sinners saved. Paul had a passion to see “more of them” won to Jesus Christ.

Once again, some of us might feel a tad uncomfortable with Paul’s language. His language sounds similar to some of the “mega-church” leaders in our day who seem too preoccupied with quantitative growth and not sufficiently concerned with qualitative growth. If these were not the words of an apostle, we might be tempted to interject and say, “Paul, don’t focus on success; focus on faithfulness, and leave the results to God.”

But I think Paul would tell us that it doesn’t have to be “either/or.” Being faithful to God in ministry does not require us to be indifferent to numbers. The Holy Spirit certainly wasn’t indifferent to numbers. It was he who inspired Luke to record the fact that “numbers” of people and sometimes “multitudes” were being added to the church (Acts 2:47; 5:14; 16:5), giving the approximate amounts in some cases (Acts 2:41; 4:4).4

Now we, like Paul, want to see genuine converts added to the church. For this reason, we’re appropriately wary of the kind of preaching and church ministry that removes the rough edges from the gospel because of an inordinate concern for numbers.

Nevertheless, I don’t think an earnest desire for numerical growth is incompatible with a strong commitment to faithful ministry. It’s possible to preach the whole counsel of God while simultaneously and continually expressing a longing to see Christ’s churches “full.” Like Paul, we should desire God to use us to bring sinners to Christ through our ministry—and not just a few. “More of them” ought to be our constant longing. To use the language of C. H. Spurgeon’s prayer: “Lord, hasten to bring in all Thine elect— and then elect some more.”5)

3. Paul believed that successful evangelism is to some degree contingent on good contextualization.

In other words, Paul believed that he needed in certain respects to become like those whom he was seeking to win in order effectively to win them. Notice again the language Paul uses: “I have made myself a servant to all that I might win more of them” (9:19); “I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews” (9:20); “I became as one outside the law [i.e., Gentile] that I might win those outside the law” (9:21); “I became as the weak, that I might win the weak” (9:22); “I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (10:33).

What’s Paul saying? First, and most obviously, Paul is talking about change. The Greek verb translated “became” (γινομαι) refers to a transition from one state to another. Whatever Paul was, he wasn’t a “stick in the mud”—at least in respect to some things. When it came to ministry, there were ways in which Paul “changed” or “adapted.” To the Jews, Paul became as a Jew (9:20). To the Gentile, Paul became as a Greek (9:21). To the weak, Paul became weak (9:22).6

Second, and more importantly, Paul accommodated himself to the people he was trying to win in order to enhance the effectiveness of his ministry. In a word, Paul sacrifices his rights or preferences and accommodates himself to his target audience out of a conviction that such accommodation was a determinative factor in the success of the gospel.7

In subsequent posts, we’re going to explore more fully the nature of Paul’s change or accommodation. Before we do, let me highlight one more observation from our passage.

4. Paul enjoined ordinary believers to imitate his passion and his accommodation, just as he was imitating Christ.

For any who may be inclined to view “contextualization” as the unique responsibility of the apostle or the pastor-teacher and, therefore, as something with which ordinary laypeople need not concern themselves, Paul concludes his discourse in a way that strongly suggests otherwise:

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (10:31-11:1).

There’s a strand of teaching circulating in Reformed circles today that defines healthy church life and ministry almost exclusively in terms of what the ordained man does in church on Sunday. It’s all about the preacher and the pulpit. But that’s not what Paul says. The responsibility to evangelize and win the lost rests on the shoulders of the church as a whole and not solely on the ordained preacher, church-planter, or missionary.8

Moreover, while the success of the church’s evangelism ultimately depends on God’s sovereign grace, it also depends, in a secondary sense, on the effectiveness of the church’s gospel witnesses. And the effectiveness of the church’s witness hinges in part on our ability to become “all things to all men,” i.e., to contextualize.

In Summary

The apostle Paul views a contextualized ministry and evangelism as the responsibility of the church as a whole. According to Paul, the effectiveness of the our ministry and outreach as a church will be contingent in part and to some degree on our ability to adapt to or to accommodate the people we are trying to win. For this reason, we need to spend some time reflecting on the precise nature of the contextualization Paul has in view and how we should apply it to our own ministry context. In our subsequent posts, we’ll attempt to define biblical contextualization by clarifying what it’s not and by specifying what it is.

B.G.

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  1. As Mark Driscoll and Gary Breshears observe, “Every church is culturally contextualized; the only difference is to what year.” Vintage Church: Timeless Truth and Timely Methods (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 268. []
  2. All Scripture citations are taken from the English Standard Version (Crossway Bibles, 2011) unless otherwise noted. []
  3. A view of salvation (i.e., soteriology) that understands conversion as “accomplished totally by the working of God.” Millard Erickson, Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1986), 107. []
  4. Here are some of the relevant texts: “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls…. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:41, 47; emphasis added). “And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (Acts 5:14; emphasis added). “So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily” (Acts 16:5; emphasis added). Luke isn’t recounting a crisis in the church in order to alarm his readers. Rather, the inspired historian is recording God’s blessing on the church in order to encourage his readers. And I don’t think was he boasting in a sinful way. Instead, he’s rejoicing that souls are being saved and the new covenant community is increasing in number. See my brief article “Who’s Afraid of Church Growth?” (Oct 2012) on the Internet: http://drbobgonzales.com/2012/whos-afraid-of-church-growth/. []
  5. According to William Y. Fullerton, Charles Haddon Spurgeon: A Biography (1920). The quote is drawn from the end of chapter 8, “An Intimate Interlude”; accessed Feb 9, 2012 on the Internet: http://www.spurgeon.org/misc/bio8.htm. See also Lewis Drummond, Spurgeon: Prince of Preachers, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1992), 122. []
  6. It’s possible that Paul’s reference to “the weak” is not a reference to a separate third category of people but rather a further explanation of the particular Jews and Gentiles he was trying to reach (i.e., “weak Jews” and “weak Gentiles.”). See John Calvin, The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, trans. John W. Fraser, vol. 9 of Calvin’s New Testament Commentary, eds. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance (1960; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 195-97. On the other hand, the weak may refer to “weak Christians.” In that case, Paul’s three-fold categorization here would correspond to 10:32: “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God.” In this case, “to win” and “to save” would denote an idea somewhat broader than conversion proper. For a lengthier discussion see Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, in The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. F. F. Bruce (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 427-33, and David Garland, 1 Corinthians, in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Robert W. Yarbough and Robert H. Stein (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 429-37. []
  7. A “determinative factor” is something less than an exclusive or ultimate factor. []
  8. See my article “Giving Proper Due to the People in the Pew, Part 2: A Biblical Defense of Lay-Evangelism,” The Founders Journal 83 (2011): 11-27, which is also accessible on the Internet: http://www.founders.org/journal/fj83/article1.html. []
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