Critical Contextualization and Culturally Prevalent and Deep-rooted Sins



Appropriate or critical contextualization means that the Word of God is our controlling authority and that:

-we do not accept another’s culture uncritically-the Word is our touchstone.
-we do not accept our own culture uncritically-the Word is our touchstone.

I was talking not long ago with an elder who helped start and shepherd a church in a place where there is considerable disincentive for doing such things! All told, we’ve probably spent 6-7 hours together in the past 5 years, so I don’t know him that well, but there is a closeness between us that only the Spirit brings so quickly.  As we took a walk and drank tea together, we reached a level of vulnerable, transparent conversation that God often uses to teach and change his children.

As I opened up to him about struggles in my own life with a besetting sin that is in some ways connected to my cultural upbringing and values, I realized that more than likely his cultural heritage had “protected” him from this particular prevalent or besetting sin. But, he seemed to understand and agreed to pray for me. Translating “culturally inherited or adopted deep-rooted besetting sin” was an interesting challenge. (I checked afterwards with a cultural insider and I didn’t get it exactly right, and may have “coined a phrase”, but the meaning was clear…hmmm….)

Anyway, we talked some about how it is that every culture, subculture or ethnic group seems to have it’s own treasure chest of besetting sins or blindspots and culturally acceptable reasons why it might be that we don’t allow the Word of God to confront those areas. The short answer of course is that we’re sinful and sometimes we’d rather hide our sins than confess them and repent. Indeed, often we don’t even talk about them. We’ve deliberately or carelessly lost the key and there’s no need to look in that treasure box. We might even have suppressed the truth in unrighteousness, preferring blindness to the light of His Word.

My friend then spoke about a struggle in the church which he is now planting. Together, we recognized that a besetting, prevalent cultural sin had been identified. In this case, I’m the one who had been mostly “protected” from struggling with that particular sin. We talked about how the whole set of social and cultural “games” in his family and culture encouraged this sin, how various actions could have different meanings and not all were sinful, but that getting to the heart of the actions and communication meant looking at the intent and motivations of the hearts of those involved in this sin, and identifying it as sin and unacceptable for followers of Jesus Christ. This is exactly what I’ve been trying to do with my own treasure chest sin(s).

Then he quoted NT teaching which clearly addressed his culture’s particular besetting sin as a former worldly, cultural pattern for the Ephesian believers. Then my friend completed the verse where Paul clearly prescribed a totally new and different way of living for the believers.

When it came to this sin of his people or my sin of my people or any sin of any people, there was no cultural wiggle room. On that, we both agreed.

We talked together about the potential value of church planters and local elders or believers identifying early on the treasure chest sins of a culture or subculture, and prayerfully, relentlessly teaching about those culturally acceptable but hateful to God areas of culture. Modeling confession and repentance of that sin, we agreed, might be an important feature of church leadership. We talked about how every culture has its preferred set of sinful and rebellious attitudes, its own sinful values, sinful actions and culturally acceptable means of expressing those sins.

The longer we wait to address those treasure box sins in new believers, in new churches, in our own lives, the more likely that we’ll begin to ignore them and minimize their sinfulness, even to discount their hatefulness to God. Hateful sins are the only ones that Christ atoned for.

We ventured another tentative conclusion: All this about confronting besetting prevalent deeply rooted cultural sins was something for church planters to teach and train elders to model and do.

We talked about this also: When we sin in deed or speech, as opposed to in thought or attitude, we manifest our sin in cultural forms and actions which sometimes have quasi-unique intended meanings in a specific culture. It’s really easy for outsiders to misunderstand those meanings and to assign mistaken, positive meanings to cultural practices that are actually expressions of sin. Insiders who are informed by the Word and filled with the Spirit, are in a position to identify these sinful cultural habits, biases and practices. In other words, certain cultural practices may appear harmless or even positively good to the outsider, even to a Word-informed mature Christian believer. Often, only the insider knows the values, intention, and biases that motivate that cultural practice or communication and the meaning communicated to the insider by that action or practice.

That is why in order to teach and train well, we have to aim for the believers’ heart issues, the motivations, attitudes, values and biases that conversion to Christ must necessarily change. So, when we teach or train cross culturally, we have to trust our local elders as we also trust the Holy Spirit to use us and His Word to encourage and enable them to identify sinful heart issues even when those heart issues are dressed up in their culturally acceptable expressions. And they can wear a thousand attractive costumes! This is part of what makes critical contextualization messy and slightly uncomfortable for everyone, but very important.

I’m guessing it would work the other way too, that outsiders might assign a negative, sinful meaning to a cultural practice that Word-informed insiders would say is not necessarily sinful. But we didn’t talk about that; it was a hot day, and we’d already drunk a lot of tea.

Ed Roberts

Ed Roberts has been planting churches in Central Asia for nearly twenty years.

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