Shall We Contextualize the Gospel?

feature-article.gifContextualizing the gospel is the only way the church can impact our culture. If we want our message to gain a hearing, we must contextualize it—we must communicate it in a way that our hearers can relate to and understand. For example, since postmodernists reject the concepts of authority and truth that previous generations assumed, our approach cannot remain the same. The world has changed, and if we refuse to change with it, the gospel will get left behind.

Or so we are told by the prophets of contextualization.

Mark Driscoll is one proponent of contextualization. He is a theological conservative who genuinely preaches the gospel. However, his understanding of contextualization has led to his citing the Simpsons and Madonna during his preaching, using crass language and edgy jokes (he has been dubbed “the cussing pastor”), and his church’s embracing of Indie rock music—all to help him communicate the gospel to his particular culture.

Far worse is Brian McLaren, the Emergent Church guru who has even Driscoll shaking his head. McLaren hasn’t just adapted his language and music; he’s thrown in the gospel itself for good measure:

“I don’t believe making disciples must equal making adherents to the Christian religion. It may be advisable in many (not all?) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu, or Jewish contexts” (McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, p. 260).

McLaren, who is fond of using bridges to illustrate contextualization, has essentially crossed the bridge from contextualization to syncretism.

One of the biblical passages most frequently cited as an example of contextualization is Acts 17, where Paul preaches at Mars Hill (or to the Areopagus). In fact, Driscoll’s church in Seattle is called “Mars Hill Church.” It is often argued, even among fundamentalists, that Paul adapted his message to gain a hearing among the Athenian philosophers. This is not a new opinion; the message of Paul before the Athenian Supreme Court, or Areopagus, has been debated for centuries. Did Paul contextualize his message—did he adjust it to be especially appropriate for that unique setting? Yes—and no. Paul does begin his message with a reference to a local shrine (a point of departure which took all of ten seconds) and make two illustrative references to popular Greek poetry. He does not, however, adjust the content or even the method of his message. Though his illustrations might have changed, the heart of his message was unaltered. Let’s take a closer look at Paul’s ministry in the city of Athens and see if it supports the type of contextualization being proposed in our day.

Paul Confronted the Athenians with Their Ignorance and Sin
If ever a city were celebrated for its unique culture, Athens is that city. The birthplace of democracy and the cradle of philosophy and the arts, it was also home to a stunning number of idols, and it was the city’s idolatry that especially caught Paul’s attention during his brief visit. Paul had seen impressive temples and idols as he journeyed from Macedonia to southern Greece, but Athens far out-distanced other pagan cities for the sheer number and splendor of its gods. It is estimated that 30,000-plus public idols literally filled the city of only some 25,000 inhabitants. The images that moved others to wonder and envy moved Paul to indignation (v. 16). When he had the chance to preach to the Athenians—first in the synagogue (v. 17a), then in the agora or marketplace (vv. 17b–18), and finally before the Areopagus (vv. 19–31)—he gave full expression to that burden.

Much is made about Paul’s mentioning the altar to the “unknown god” (v. 23). It is suggested that his claim to declare that God to them was an attempt to establish “common ground,” as though their worship was in some way very close to his own. However, such an understanding ignores the rest of Paul’s message. Paul used the altar as an admission of their ignorance about God—a point he would note two other times and make a major theme of his message (vv. 23, 30). In addition to asserting that they worshipped in ignorance (which would make a rather awkward palm branch), Paul did nothing to tone down his message, but was extremely confrontational. Though surrounded by idols and temples, he dismissed them out of hand (vv. 24–25, 29). Though they were confident that the gods were pleased with them, he insisted that the one true God was not at all pleased, but that He would judge them along with the rest of the world (vv. 30–31). Despite their rejection of the resurrection, he presented to them a resurrected Savior—and he did so without attempting to prove that it was so (v. 31)! Rather than altering his message, Paul instead went straight for the jugular, condemning their polytheism, idolatry and ignorance, and demanding their repentance.

Paul Contrasted Their Idolatry with Biblical Monotheism
As already noted, rather than establishing “common ground,” Paul boldly highlighted the differences between the Athenians’ polytheistic idolatry and his monotheistic Christianity. He did nothing to minimize the distinctions between their paganism and his Christianity; indeed, he maximized them. He preached to them a stout theology proper as revealed in the Scriptures, contrasting their false gods with the one true God:

  • He preached God’s uniqueness and creative power (v. 24).
  • He preached God’s transcendence and sovereignty (vv. 24b–26).
  • He preached God’s immanence and goodness (vv. 27–28).
  • He preached God’s spirituality (v. 29).
  • He preached God’s waning patience (v. 30).
  • He preached God’s judgment (vv. 30b–31).
  • He preached Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection (v. 31b).

Paul De-Contextualized the Gospel
In addition to theology proper, Paul presented a sound anthropology to the Athenians. Rather than adjusting his message to meet the presuppositions or prejudices of his particular audience, Paul de-contextualized it: he repeatedly equated the Athenians with all men of all times and all places. Despite their sense of superiority over other peoples, Paul preached Scripture’s universal themes regarding humanity:

  • All men were created and are sustained by God (vv. 24–25).
  • All men are equal before God—and equally condemned (v. 26).
  • All men are accountable to God (vv. 27–30a, 31).
  • All men are commanded by God to repent (v. 30b).

The response of Paul’s hearers indicates that they didn’t understand Paul to have established “common ground.” He was mocked in the agora as a philosophical hack (literally a “seed-picker, ” v. 18). What he preached was considered “strange” to them (vv. 18, 20); it was something “new” (v. 21), not just a new twist on their own religion. His reception before the Areopagus was no warmer. It appears that his message may have been cut off before its conclusion (v. 32). Though a few believed and others had their interest piqued, most either ignored or mocked him (vv. 32–34). We read of no church being planted in Athens.

Paul Preached the Same Message He had Preached Elsewhere
Despite claims to the contrary, Paul’s message before the Areopagus is actually very consistent with other evangelistic messages in the book of Acts. Although he didn’t specifically quote Old Testament Scriptures with which his hearers were unfamiliar, he presented the Athenians with the same message that was repeatedly preached to the Jews throughout the Old Testament—including creation, God’s uniqueness, transcendence and spirituality, the inability of temples to contain him and the evils of idolatry. Contrary to some accounts, Paul didn’t appeal to biblical revelation with the Jews and natural revelation with the Greeks. Instead, his preaching of Jesus and the resurrection in the agora (v. 18) and before the Areopagus in Athens (v. 31) was precisely the same message which had so angered the Jewish Sanhedrin in Jerusalem (Acts 4:2). Paul’s message was as offensive to the Athenian idolaters as it had been to the Thessalonian Jews (Acts 17:1–15), for it was essentially no different.

This is an important discussion. What is at stake is not merely a method of gospel presentation, but the very nature and power of the gospel itself. Contextualization run amok leads to another gospel. Further, to argue (as I have heard people argue) that taking in the latest movie or pumping out the latest music is an essential part of one’s gospel witness is a denial of the power of the gospel to effect sinners apart from human posturing. Paul, the alleged contextualizer of Acts 17, insisted that he did not handle the gospel as a product to be peddled (2 Cor 2:17). He certainly wouldn’t advocate our moving it to the clearance rack.

The gospel needs to be understood. I appreciate the desire of a man like Mark Driscoll to communicate the truth to a perishing world. Like Paul, I rejoice that Christ is preached (Phil 1:18). Furthermore, I suggest that we think critically about our own evangelism. We should use words that make sense to our hearers and we should explain essential theological terms. (“Dude, what is propitiation?”) We should be empathetic enough to consider whether our messages are flying over the heads of the unsaved and unchurched. Whether preaching a sermon or speaking with our neighbors, the goals of our evangelism should include clarity as well as accuracy. And frankly, all of us “contextualize” to some degree in this sense: our illustrations and vocabulary when speaking in children’s church will be (or had better be) at least somewhat distinct from what we do on a typical Sunday morning. Let’s work to communicate effectively.

However, the gospel doesn’t need to be updated; we need no Gospel 2.0. Our basic approach—regardless of our audience—is still confronting sinners with God, sin, Christ and believing repentance. Our vocabulary and illustrations may change a bit, but the essence of our message must not. We have no right to alter the gospel; we have no right to establish common ground with unbelief; we have no right to debase the gospel by tying it to ungodly speech, events, or associations. People are still people, whether in 1st century Athens or 21st century Atlanta. God’s message is still the crucified and risen Christ. God’s method is still the clear and authoritative communication of the gospel. God’s threat is still eternal judgment. God’s command is still that men repent—all men, everywhere.

February 2007


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