Essential Contextualization

Paul Hiebert in his article “Critical Contextualization” describes three types of contextualization:  Non-contextualization, Uncritical Contextualization, and Critical Contextualization.

20a. Critical Contextualization
Critical Contextualization Model (Hiebert)

One can, however, say more. As Jackson Wu states in his book One Gospel for all Nations, “Contextualization is inevitable.” That is, in effect, non-contextualization is still contextualization, just done very poorly.

“David Sills drives home the point clearly when he says, ‘If one does not contextualize, he is doing just that– changing the gospel. He becomes a modern-day Judaizer. He is in effect telling his hearers that they must become like him to be saved.’ I venture to say few missionaries would do this intentionally. However, the implicit message is heard clearly.” (pg. 10)

Dean Fleming highlights a second danger– syncretism. Syncretism emerges whenever the biblical message is made to harmonize so closely with a given culture (or subculture) that the biblical truth is compromised. Syncretistic theology and practices reflect the culture more so than the biblical text. His comments remain among the most important I’ve read on this topic.

‘But could it be that refusing to contextualize the gospel poses an even greater risk of syncretism? Consider the situation today– not unlike that of Colossians– when the gospel meets worldviews that are burdened with fear of unseen powers thought to control practical realities such as crops, health, and family relations. In many cases, the Christian message that has been imported to these contexts from the West has failed to address such issues. As a result, people can easily assume that Jesus is powerless to overcome the forces that influence their daily lives. Like the Colossian syncretists, converts may look for supplements– shamans, amulets, rituals, or occult practices– to protect them from hostile spirits. Ironically, a gospel that neglects such worldview issues may unwittingly end up promoting syncretism instead of preventing it. ‘ (pg 10-11)

So two things one could add to Paul Hiebert’s model:

  1.  Non-contextualization can lead to syncretism, just as over-contextualization. Paul Hiebert’s further teaching on “The Excluded Middle” (as essentially described above by Fleming in terms of the Colossian syncretists) could be in itself seen as Syncretism– a formal high-end (veneer) theology on top of local practices.
  2. The three categories of contextualization arguably are three categories of interpretation, communication, and application of the gospel. That is, non-contextualization is actually a bit of a misnomer. Non-contextualization is very much a form of contextualization. In saying this, it is more than simply saying that an absence of something is still something (like the absence of color, black, is still a color). Rather, when one is not contextualizing the gospel to the recipient culture, one is contextualizing it to another culture.

But I might add that non-contextualization can have results that are non-intutitive. In the Philippines, Christianity has been normally presented in one of two contexts:  Spanish or American. The implicit message is that one or more of these two constitutes where Christianity is properly situated. In so doing, the Philippines is a good place for Christianity as long as Christians there embrace a Spanish or American form. Some Korean missionaries in recent years have done a similar thing but from their own perspective. An interesting twist on that, however, is the growth of “Jewish Culture” Christianity here: Jewish diet, Jewish holidays, learning and idealizing Jewish words and concepts, in some of the church movements in the Philippines.

On a certain level, this reaction makes sense. If Christians here were taught (commonly unintentionally) that a foreign culture is more ideally Christian than Filipino culture, then it is hardly surprising if many Filipinos ask the logical question:

Which is the ideal culture for Christianity–

Ancient Jewish (or 1st century Greek)


American (or Spanish)?

The correct answer is actually that the best cultural soil for Christianity in the Philippines is Filipino. But if local Christians haven’t been helped to understand this, it is hardly surprising if they don’t recognize this.


Missiological Implications of “Judging Not”

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the same measure you use it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2)

People with little knowledge of the Bible, often know these verses… these words of

Missiologist, Paul Hiebert

Christ. Some take the statement in a radical sense… never judge, never evaluate, never critique. Only the dead can (and should) exist this way. Some interpret the passage in an antinomian (anti-law) fashion. However, the lawless are as likely to be judgmental as anyone else, and to charge someone with being judgmental is, likewise, to be judgmental. Some seem to accept the passage as a bit of Christian “kharma.” If you judge expect to be judged. Neither one appears to find the concept of grace that is embedded in the passage.

Instead of dwelling on a hermeneutical understanding of the passage, I would like to look to look at a few missiological implications of not being judgmental.

A. One possible way of looking at this passage is that judgment should be delayed. After all, evaluation has to happen on some level. We don’t really have an option to not judge on some level at least, but we have the choice of judging from a position of knowledge or ignorance.

Critical contextualization is a term from Paul Hiebert that requires first studying a culture carefully, and sympathetically, before making judgments regarding what parts of the culture are beneficial and what parts are destructive. Sharing the gospel of Christ in a culture is more likely to be successful if it has been critically contextualized.

Additionally, trends over the last few decades have moved missionaries away from being experts/teachers to being learners. Effective learning again requires a certain withholding of judgment. As counselor John Bradshaw said (quoting others as well), once you are sure you are right about something, you cease to be creative and cease to learn.

B. Another possible way of looking at this passage is that one needs to recognize one’s limitations. Since we are limited by time, space, knowledge, and wisdom, it is appropriate to be slow to judge. After all, Benjamin Bloom defined the ability to evaluate/judge as the highest level of attainment in understanding.

It is becoming better understood that in a postmodern environment, truth and judment are not as valued as experience and “the quest.”: Some are bothered by this, but commonly this is because the training of Christians has often been built around a modernist perspective. However, since faith in the Bible is built on a level of doubt and lived out experientially, one might argue that a more effective way to share the faith is through joining people in their quest. This is similar to the findings in counseling where it is found that being a “wounded healer” is a powerful symbol to providing appropriate care. Perhaps Christians would be better witnesses if they focus on their own humanity with its limitations rather than embracing divinity with its claims of perfection.


Related to this is the growning understanding that dialogue (respectful listening to and sharing of beliefs) is more effective in many environments over proclamation and apologetics. While one does not necessarily have to suspend judgment to do dialogue, it does help to be open to listen respectfully… open to learning something new.

C. A third way of looking at this passage is that there are some things that we should really never judge. Sure, we can judge whether we like peanut butter and jelly over bologna and mustard, or not. However, perhaps there are things we simply should never judge.

A challenge often found in evangelical circles is determing who is saved. Curiously, the Bible doesn’t really tell us, but tells us how to judge ourselves, regarding our relationship with God. Perhaps we should not judge this. Paul Hiebert, again, provides insight in this area as well with is work on bounded versus center sets. Instead of going over that again, it would be better just to get to the conclusion… one should focus more on pointing people towards Christ. It actually makes sense. If they are not a believer, you point them to Christ. If they are a new believer, you point them to Christ. If they are committed Christians, you point them to Christ.

I personally believe that one does not need to embrace one single clear understanding of this passage regarding judgment. After all, withholding judgment regarding how to interpret this passage appears to agree with the spirit of the passage. Wrestling with a passage, while being slow to certainty, leaves one open to learn… and learning is good.

Critical Contextualization in the Early Church

Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus. While there is disagreement as to when this epistle was written we know it was quite early. Some place it back to around 130AD. Some place it closer to 200AD. I personally think that the parts of the epistle noting the newness of Christianity does suggest that it is an early document. However, the self-description of the unknown writer as being a disciple (“mathetes”) of the apostles does not necessitate an early date. Regardless, this is a very early understanding and apology of the Christian faith. However, I would like to look a part of this letter from the aspect of contextualization of faith. I believe Chapter 5 describes nicely what some would call “Critical Contextualization.”

 CHAPTER 5 For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind either in locality or in speech or in customs. For they dwell not somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor practice an extraordinary kind of life. Nor again do they possess any invention discovered by any intelligence or study of ingenious men, nor are they masters of any human dogma as some are. But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians as the lot of each is cast, and follow the native customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life, yet the constitution of their own citizenship, which they set forth, is marvelous, and confessedly contradicts expectation. They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like all other men and they beget children; but they do not cast away their offspring. They have their meals in common, but not their wives. They find themselves in the flesh, and yet they live not after the flesh. Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, and they surpass the laws in their own lives. They love all men, and they are persecuted by all. They are ignored, and yet they are condemned. They are put to death, and yet they are endued with life. They are in beggary, and yet they make many rich. They are in want of all things, and yet they abound in all things. They are dishonored, and yet they are glorified in their dishonor. They are evil spoken of, and yet they are vindicated. They are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and they respect. Doing good they are punished as evil-doers; being punished they rejoice, as if they were thereby quickened by life. War is waged against them as aliens by the Jews, and persecution is carried on against them by the Greeks, and yet those that hate them cannot tell the reason of their hostility. (Lightfoot & Harmer, 1891 translation)

What does this passage say about how Christians lived (culturally) at that time… or at least how they perceived themselves to live?

A. They were culturally similar to those around them. Christians:           

  • Were not distinguishable from the populace in locality (no ghettoization or cloistering)           
  • Were not distinguishable in speech (used the local dialects)           
  • Were not distinguishable in customs (carried out normal lives like those around them)           
  • Were similar to others in dress           
  • Were similar to others in food           
  • Were similar in “other arrangements of life”           
  • Lived lives as responsible citizens of their respective countries and communities           
  • Married and raised families like others           
  • Obeyed local and regional laws

B. They also had cultural differences. Christians:           

  • Saw themselves as sojourners, strangers wherever they live… citizens of heaven            
  • Did not do things such as infanticide or sexual infidelity,            
  • Sought to not just obey local laws, but to surpass them.            
  • Blessed, respected, and loved others, and rejoiced in the face of persecution

Elsewhere in the epistle other differences are shown such as their rejection of idols. However, it is pretty clear that the early Christians felt that true Christianity was lived out in the culture around them. They appeared to follow a “critical contextualization”:           

  1. That which is clearly evil in the culture (based on Christ and the apostles) is rejected           
  2. That which is virtuous in the culture is followed, and even surpassed          
  3. That which is not clearly evil becomes part of the culture of the local Christians         
  4. Love is the guide in areas of doubt

I believe as missionaries and as Christians, we see a desire to separate ourselves from the culture around us on one side and another tendency to be culturally indistinguishable from the surrounding culture. I believe this early church writing clearly has something here for us today.