This is a summary of Herbert Hoefer’s article entitled “Rooted or Uprooted: The Necessity of Contextualization in Missions” (Int’l. Journal of Frontier Missions, July-Sept. 2007).
In a previous article, I discussed the authorization the first church council gave for contextualization. Yet, we see in the biblical account that this decision did not settle the matter for many in the Jerusalem church. “Judaizers” went out to ensure that the Gentile converts became “real” Christians, following the lifestyle and customs of those in the mother church. St. Paul vigorously fought against such well-intentioned cultural imperialism in the Lord’s Name. He knew such cultural impositions were totally unnecessary and would seriously undermine the spread of the faith in the Gentile world.
However, questions on the proper relationship between faith and culture continue to this day:
In most societies, religion is an integral part of culture. How does a convert reject his past religion but not his past culture? Which practices of the culture are actually religious? How does one make a clear witness to Jesus Christ while still participating in the culture? (p. 132)
In addressing such fundamental questions, it is essential to set down some basic theological principles. Here are eight.
1. God’s Valuing of Culture
Throughout Scripture, God the Father is the creator of the cultures of the world. The Final Judgment is portrayed as all these cultures celebrating before Him in their own languages and ways. (Re. 7:9)
2. God’s Redeeming of Culture
Scripture recognizes that all cultures have become sin-ridden. All need to be redeemed. No culture is one on which all other cultures must be modeled.
3. Orders of Creation
God has ordained certain cultural structures that hold a society together, in spite of human sinfulness tearing it apart: marriage, family, government, court, etc. These structures are organized differently in different cultures, but they are always there and they are one complex unit. Any change in one part seriously undermines another. We do everything we can to keep these orders of creation intact, opposing or reforming only those practices that are clearly contrary to God’s good will.
4. Adiaphora Principle
A theological principle that arose among 16th century Reformation theologians was the “adiaphora principle.” They were trying to determine which practices and concepts in the Roman Catholic Church needed to be addressed, either reformed or eliminated totally. The term “adiaphora” means “things that do not matter.” The reformers attempted to identify which issues really did not compromise the gospel and could be maintained for the continuity and stability of the church among believers.
5. Two Kingdoms Distinction
Another Reformation principle was the relation between church and state. Since the 4th century, the church and state had been increasingly intertwined, and the integrity of each had become compromised. The reformers recognized that both had their God-ordained roles in society, the state to control evil and the church to cure it with the gospel.
All through mission history, missionaries have been warned against syncretism. They must avoid any doctrine or practice that undermines true teaching, particularly the doctrine of salvation. In this regard, the adiaphora principle is brought into play: Does this cultural form or concept contradict or undermine the saving act of God in Jesus Christ?
7. Giving Offense
Often believers have resisted cultural adaptations expressing that these approaches give offense. The biblical expression “giving offense” (Rom 14:12-23, I Cor 8:9-13, Mk 9:43) occurs in the context of doing something that will cause newcomers to the faith to falter in their walk with the Lord. Scripture cautions us to avoid anything that will cause the weak to stumble and fall from faith. When one states that a person is “causing offense” to oneself, s/he is stating that the other’s pursuance of a particular action will cause him/her to fall from faith. It is not a term to be used by the strong in faith to control the weak.
8. “In the World but not of the World”
Jesus’ expression of “being in the world but not of the world” (Jn 17:15-19) is axiomatic in keeping people rooted in their culture. It is there that they are called to be light and salt and leaven and ambassadors. Rather than extricating themselves, we should encourage and support devotees in culturally relevant and respectful ways.
Keeping these principles in mind, what are some cultural forms that must be respected and utilized?
- Styles of Logic – People think and argue differently in different cultures. Their approach to theologizing is culturally determined.
- Spiritual Layers – Most cultures recognize the reality of a multitude of spirit worlds that must be addressed spiritually.
- Symbols – Western Christianity has adopted and adapted many pagan symbols, festivals, and practices. Other cultures will inevitably do the same as they contextualize.
- Styles of Communication – Interpersonal relations in every society operate under certain rules. Mission approaches and congregational activities will follow local societal practices.
- The Arts – Every society has developed its own forms of art in music, dance, visualization, song, instrumentation, etc. As people are rooted in their home culture they will want to use these forms in their worship and outreach.
- Sources of Authority – In the orders of creation, there is some form of societal authority to achieve harmony and coordination. We will want to respect these forms and adapt them to church life as well.
- Gestures – Particularly in worship, gestures are central to the expression and evoking of emotions. Culturally rooted congregations will utilize these forms.
- System of Education – Every society passes on information between generations and between people. In the nurturing of members and the training of leaders, these culturally established forms can be utilized.
- Social Order – Societies are organized in many different ways, with inherent strengths and weaknesses. We should not impose new structures, but work with existing ones in a redemptive way.
Jesu Bhaktas seek to remain culturally rooted. They do so for all the theological reasons and social ways described above.