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.

Christian Missions: Destroyer of Cultures?

Cover of "Christ and Culture (Torchbooks)...
Cover of Christ and Culture (Torchbooks)

It has often been charged that Christian missions destroys culture. In my view, the response to this is clear…SOMETIMES.  To consider this further, we need to recognize some truths.

1.  Cultures are not static. They are constantly in flux… changing. Only dead cultures do not change. Living cultures change. Such change is normal and healthy.

2. There is no such thing as good or bad cultures. Cultures have good and bad characteristics. Each culture provides a structure for its people to survive, thrive, and interact. No culture does this perfectly. In other words, every culture can use some improving.

3.  Just as no culture is entirely good or bad… it is likely that no change is completely good or bad. Every change will have its winners and losers. Unintended consequences are always a possibility.

4.  The interaction of God’s revelation with a culture will engender change. Only that with no power will engender no change. There exists a lot of disagreement as to how God’s revelation should affect culture (refer to “Christ and Culture” by H. Richard Niebuhr for several viewpoints). However, no interaction/effect is simply not an option.

5.  Interaction with people of other cultures will engender change. Cultures in contact place  stresses on each other… resulting in change. We learn from each other.

6.  In this era of mass media and easy transportation, every culture will be affected and changed by other messages and people from other cultures. I remember when I was in Brazil, the Brazilian government was seeking to protect the indigenous tribes from outside influences. Part of this was the prevention of Christian mission work there. The problem with this, according to Brazilian Christians was that other people were still reaching these indigenous tribes. These were exploiters: drug dealers, illegal loggers, and other criminals. While the 19th century missionary David Livingston was exploring central Africa, he ran into his fair share of foreigners. These were commonly Portuguese and Arab slave traders. Christian missionaries are never the only outside influences of a culture.

7.  Change is good when it is based on what is true, and effectively discerns between what is good in a culture and what is bad. William Carey, early Baptist missionary to the Bengali people of India fought against suti (widow-burning) and against keeping girls uneducated. However, he also promoted the best of the local culture… even publishing and translating Indian and Hindu classic literature. Simply replacing one culture with another culture is not critically discerning. It is never a good idea.

8. Christian missions is always best in translation rather than diffusion. Lamin Sanneh describes translation as taking the message and translating and contextualizing it to a new culture and language. Diffusion is the replacing of a culture with the new culture. He uses Christianity and Islam as the examples. Christianity has recognized the message as above the language, so the Bible can and should be translated into the heart language of the people. The Quran is seen as eternally existing in 7th century Arabic. Therefore, the Quran does not exist in its true form except in 7th century Arabic. A translation of the Quran makes it something different and less than the original. Christian missions (based on the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15) recognizes that a good Christian in one culture may act noticeably different from a good Christian in a different culture. That is because one does not need to reject the local culture but transform it. Islamic understanding traditionally recognizes Arab culture (particularly as portrayed by its founder and the first four imams) as the ideal culture, and so other cultures should be replaced by it.  <Islamic missionaries sometimes practice a form of translation, and Christian missionaries all too often slide into a diffusion mentality, but the above stereotype is normative.>

So do Christian missionaries destroy cultures?  They can, and have certainly helped others do it at times. However, they have commonly done more to preserve cultures than the various economic exploiters who inevitably come.

Critical Contextualization Model (Hiebert)

Paul Hiebert speaks of “Critical Contextualization”. “Uncritical Contextualization” leads to syncretism (not really acceptable from a Christian perspective). However “Non-contextualization” can lead to Christianity being foreign or in being a veneer over the base cultural belief system. Additionally… noncontextualization can lead to cultural decay… which is also a bad thing.

In the Philippines, it is pretty clear that many of the missionaries who came here felt that Christians must live and act as they themselves live. Therefore, Christian churches in the Philippines tend to clearly mimic the churches of the missionaries’ home countries. It is not surprising therefore, the huge number and popularity of syncretistic cultic groups here (a common result of non-contextualization of faith). Admittedly, Islamic missions is worse. The local mosque essentially sequesters its 200 trainees and focuses on teaching Arabic and the Tawhid. In both cases, however, when one sees the other people that come to the Philippines, such as the economic opportunists and sexual tourists, I still realize that the missionaries have (generally and I hope usually) done more good.

Christian missions should not destroy cultures. It should affirm the good and help people in the local culture discover their true potential within their own unique cultural setting, serving God faithfully in their own language and style.

Miscegenation and Missions, Part II

Cover of "Anthropological Reflections on ...
Cover via Amazon

Some questions as a follow-on to Part 1 of this post topic.

  1. Does interracial or intercultural marriage lessen the foreignness of the Christian faith? In Asia and Africa the “Sword and Taxation” method of Islamic conversion had begun to falter well before that religion reached Southeast Asia. And yet some of the greatest success of this religion occurred here (particularly in what is now known as Indonesia). One of the major methods involved Muslim traders who would marry into the local tribes. By being part of the tribe or clan, the trader’s faith entered the group and would, sometimes at least, become the dominant faith system. It is hard to say that a religion is foreign if it is linked to a cultural group through blood. The common Christian missionary method of maintaining separateness from the local culture (through ‘missions compounds’ and maintaining familial separation) helped maintain Christianity as a Western/foreign faith.
  2. Can interracial or intercultural marriage provide a cultural bridge? Paul Hiebert (in “Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues”) refers to the children of missionary parents as providing a “bicultural bridge”. Since they are raised by parents of one culture, while living in another culture, they end up having neither culture and both cultures. They are sometimes called 3rd Culture Kids (TCK). This bridge can be used to extend and contextualize faith to a new culture. However, a marriage that is already bicultural can potentially have the elements of a bicultural bridge as well.
  3. Can an interracial or intercultural marriage provide logistical benefits in missions? With the greater difficulty of getting missionary visas, and challenges of in-depth language acquisition, it is quite possible that in some cases marriage removes many of the challenges that many missionaries have to commonly address.
  4. But… can interracial or intercultural missionary couples really do missions? Some would argue that they can only if they serve in a third culture. This seems patently false. Paul and Barnabbas worked within their own cultures in much of their mission work. Barnabbas was a Hellenistic Diaspora Jew from Cyprus and Paul was a Hellenistic Diaspora Jew from Asia Minor. The first mission point on their first Mission journey was to Hellenistic Diaspora Jews in Cyprus, followed by Non-Jews of the same general culture in Cyprus. The next mission points were to Hellenistic Diaspora Jews in Asia Minor followed by Non-Jews of the same general culture in Asia Minor. Missions is about going outside the church rather than going outside of one’s culture.

Don’t get me wrong. There are some things I am clearly NOT saying.

  1. I am not suggesting interracial or intercultural marriages as some sort of Macchiavelian route to missions effectiveness. I am simply suggesting that these marriages should not be looked upon as negative or a hindrance to mission work.
  2. I am not assuming that people in single culture marriages cannot be effective. I am suggesting a both/and rather than either/or attitude.
  3. I am not suggesting that there aren’t unique problems related to these sort of marriages in missions. Marriage made up of partners from two different cultures can be a strain. However, this is equally (if not more) true of different social economic strata, educational attainment, or vocational level. Additionally, sometimes these marriages become unequal where both partners share a common attitude of superiority of one culture over the culture being ministered to. In this case, the spouse from the local culture can do more damage than help.

Anyway, these are some things to think about.