Contextualizing Ecclesiology


9Marks: How long have you, an American, been living in an overseas context?

Ed Roberts: I spent one year in Latin America and 19 years or so in Asia, mostly Central Asia.

9M: Can you generically describe the kind of places you’ve been living in?

ER: In Latin America, I lived in a huge city and also in a small village at the end of the paved road, literally. A kind of syncretistic Catholicism seemed to be the main religion with a growing Protestant minority, even in the villages.

In Central Asia, I’ve lived in one huge city (untold millions), one large city (4 million) and a smaller city of ½ million inhabitants. Multiple languages were spoken in one city where Islam had gone underground for 2 to 3 generations and the religious scene was mostly folk Islamic with some Sufistic influence. People were technically literate in one language but basically not good readers in any language.

In another city, all speak one language. Almost all (95%) profess Islam but religious practice and adherence to Islamic dress and customs varies greatly from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Official and unofficial persecution of followers of Jesus and particularly leaders (including imprisonment) is the norm in one city, whereas in the two other cities, there are a few small churches meeting publicly, though without official legal status. The percentage of Christians in these Central Asian cities is less than 0.1%, or less than 1 per 1000 citizens.

As part of my work, I also interact regularly with workers from a wide variety of contexts in Central Asia where there are zero churches and only a handful of believers, if that.

9Marks: 9Marks has been thinking lately about the sufficiency of Scripture for church leaders in planting and growing their churches. So how important has this topic of contextualization been for you in your work?

ER:  It’s been an essential part of my work. Every time we try to communicate the gospel or plant a church we have already been involved in the task of contextualization. And in cross-cultural contexts one has to contextualize well or people will misunderstand what you are saying.

Contextualization is a complex process, but here’s a simple definition:

(Cross-cultural) Contextualization is the attempt to learn and listen carefully to culture(s) and so communicate clearly the message of the gospel and who Jesus Christ is and what it means to be a fully devoted follower of Jesus in a context different from that of the Bible and/or that of the communicator.

Since we all contextualize, we might as well try to do it well! Or at least have the right goals in mind. Here are some suggestions for good cross-cultural contextualization:

1. Realize that our goal in contextualizing should always be to clarify the gospel and biblical doctrine. Our goal must not be to make others comfortable with Christianity or the Bible. It’s not to minimize persecution by minimizing the offense of the cross. And we do not want to confuse our culture with the gospel. We do not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord (2 Cor. 4:1-6).

2. Realize that all cultures are fallen and in need of transformation. Yet because of God’s goodness and the image of God in all people, not every feature of a culture is evil and hostile to the gospel. Every culture will offer both barriers and bridges to the gospel. Learning and listening to a culture helps us identify which is which.

In Acts, we see how first-century Judaism contained bridges and barriers to the gospel. In Paul and John’s writings, we see how common concepts could be a bridge to communicate the gospel, while certain pagan terms were barriers and had to be torn down and rebuilt with Christian meaning. Yahweh adapted certain elements of ancient Near Eastern treaty culture. David, too, adapted current poetic devices and filled them with godly content.

3. Realize that as the gospel message takes root in a particular culture it simultaneously confronts fallen aspects of that culture and the gospel messengers themselves. This is true for local churches also. Scripture is always confronting and challenging us in our local church communities, calling us to greater faithfulness to the Word.

4. Realize that we have to be patient in cross-cultural pioneer church planting. We will make mistakes. The first churches in a pioneer setting will need time and encouragement to become healthy. We have to teach and train. And we have to trust the local believers and the Holy Spirit at work in them. It is Christ’s church, not ours.

5. Realize that we are all prone to confuse our application of biblical doctrine with the biblical teaching itself. In other words, the goal of cross-cultural contextualization involves the attempt to communicate biblical truth clearly while allowing believers of a different culture to apply or communicate the truth in ways different and even odd to us.

For example, we might think that a church that doesn’t keep a membership list cannot be serious about membership. Well, perhaps. But perhaps there are only ten people in that local church and everyone knows one another very well, and knows who is a baptized insider welcome at the Table, and who is not. Do they have a list written out on paper? Who cares! They practice biblical membership!

9Marks: Where would you draw the line between wise and unwise contextualization?

Wise contextualizers embrace biblical goals for contextualization. They are humble and astute interpreters of culture, but they always start with Scripture and return to Scripture. Wise contextualizers are engaged in a kind of hermeneutical dance. They read, hear, and obey the Scriptures. They are increasingly aware of and adjusting (discarding?) their own cultural lenses so that they see the biblical truths more clearly. And they listen to the local context so that they may communicate and apply those truths more and more clearly. Wise contextualizers are not afraid to say, “I was wrong about that. This is what Scripture says—or doesn’t say. And I didn’t see that before.”

Unwise contextualizers operate independently. They disdain or ignore any cautionary questions from people outside their immediate context: “You don’t know these people like I do!” They don’t listen to church history. Unwise contextualizers start with local context and culture rather than Scripture and its context. They listen well to the local culture and context, but do not hear the Scriptures as well.

Unwise contextualizers never seem to get around to confronting or challenging a culture with God’s Word. Instead, they take all their cues from the culture. They only answer questions that the culture is already asking. But the Bible answers some questions that cultures may not naturally ask.

It can be difficult to draw that line between unwise and wise contextualization from afar because we often don’t understand what people in a foreign culture mean when they do or say certain things. Here’s a provocative example:

You are traveling in Central Asia and are introduced to a bearded man wearing flowing beige clothing and sandals. He speaks a little English. You have been told that he is a Christian, a former Muslim believer. His English is broken but you do catch him saying, “I love going to the mosque!”

Aha! One of those Insider Movement syncretists! But what the brother means is that he visits the mosque regularly to meet his friends and share the gospel with them. He never visits the mosque during the time of daily prayers and never performs the ritual prayers. He is part of a small church that meets in homes on Sunday nights. He tells others that Jesus is Lord, and that Islamic religion is not compatible with following Jesus as Lord. And for now at least, he is still welcome to chat and visit with his friends in the mosque.

An outsider who didn’t take time to ask and probe might call that unwise contextualization. Or if we don’t understand that mosques function like social gathering places, information centers, and even hostels in Muslim areas, we may think that every visit to a mosque is a religious observance. It is not.

9Marks: How does the topic of contextualization relate to the doctrine of Scripture’s sufficiency?

ER: The Scriptures are sufficient to teach us everything we need to know about cross-cultural discipleship, but they do not address exhaustively every question that may arise in cross-cultural communication. Contextualization deals with culturally specific and often very local details that the Scriptures were not designed to address. The Scriptures do provide principles and doctrines that inform and control all of our life circumstances.

The Scriptures provide all the universal constants for the process of contextualization. But the particular application of those constants requires prayerful learning and dialogue in community. And we don’t always get it right!

A proper understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture also helps cultural outsiders guard against imposing culturally specific details that are not inherent in the biblical truth or doctrine. So if Scripture is sufficient, then we won’t insist that others have or not have membership lists, have or not have people walk the aisle, or insist that they stand and teach behind pulpits for not less than 45 minutes. We will insist that Jesus the Lord requires our full and exclusive religious allegiance, and that being a follower of Jesus precludes participating in any rival religious community.

9Marks: Now, I want you to be honest here. Does a “9Marks model” work in your context? What contextualizing adjustments need to be made? And if adjustments do need to be made, does that mean 9Marks is not so biblical after all?

ER: First, if contextualizing adjustments have to be made in applying a model cross-culturally, that does not mean the model is not biblical. The “nine marks” do not exhaust what the Bible says about healthy churches, but they are helpful core essentials.

I am very thankful for 9Marks and its emphases! As I understand it, 9Marks was itself initially designed to challenge unhealthy aspects of church culture in the West, particularly in the USA. So starting with Scripture, 9Marks has been a contextualized approach to applying scriptural practices in order to encourage more healthy church life. Healthy churches are also what we aim to plant here in Central Asia, but the context is sometimes very different.

9Marks’ model needs less adjustment in cultures that are literate and already have churches going and pastors pastoring and deacons deaconing and staffs staffing and so on. It works better in a place where there is very little persecution and considerable freedom of religious expression and assembly. I say this because the model arose within a very literate culture that gives space to the establishment and marketing of institutions and organizations.

Institutions and institutional churches are a good thing in many ways, but in Central Asia, we often don’t have that freedom or opportunity, at least not yet. That doesn’t mean the nine marks don’t work in Central Asia. It does mean that the how of implementing the nine marks in Central Asia may require some adjustment.

For example, take a dirt-poor bi-vocational pastor with limited or no English and only one book in his house. How he can learn to preach expositionally or learn biblical theology? The answer is going to be different in some ways than it is for an urban full-time international pastor who speaks English and has internet access. Of course some advice is identical: read and re-read the text in context; pray the text into your own life first; and so on. And both individuals may end up doing very good jobs of teaching expositionally. But it may look different.

How do you teach “expositional sermon preparation and delivery” in a setting that doesn’t yet have a complete Bible in translation, or has only the Bible and no other resources, or whose overseers have only a couple of hours a week to prepare for teaching, and who have precious few, if any, models of good teaching to observe? They might be easily discouraged by our answers to the how question if we answer only from our own resource-rich experience.

We all tend to replicate the methods that were useful to us in our training. We all have a tendency to view our application of the core as the core itself. But if your goal is to communicate a 9Marks model of “expositional sermon preparation and delivery” in a cross-cultural setting, you need to be aware of these temptations and make adjustments.

Another example: 9Marks teaches that churches should aspire to plural eldership with biblically qualified elders, and elders should be “able to teach.” But what that will look like will very from culture to culture, just as teaching methods and approaches will vary.

Or consider how churches should cultivate a culture of discipleship. 9Marks says this this is absolutely essential and biblical for healthy churches. I think that’s right, but how to do that and how to create that will vary across cultures, even though some aspects do not change. In Washington DC, discipleship might occur through reading a book with someone one. But that will not work so well in cultures where one-on-one conversations are extremely rare—and people don’t often read.

We all make mistakes in contextualization. But an important first step is recognizing the need for doing contextualization well, which means growing in our cultural self-awareness.

Wise contextualization works hard at communicating what’s the biblical core and what’s up for grabs. The 9Marks answers to the how questions all communicate well with minimal adjustment in some contexts that are culturally similar, even in Central Asia. Urban, cosmopolitan areas where English is the lingua franca, or where international churches can afford full-time pastors and staff, reflect much less cultural distance to the USA than some places in Central Asia.

In cross-cultural settings, it is very difficult to know how to communicate clearly if we have not first listened and learned from those with whom we are trying to communicate. So if 9Marks wants to really make a lasting difference in cross-cultural settings where the church doesn’t exist, or where the culture is very different, it will need to be very intentional in how it approaches cross-cultural discipleship.

If the 9Marks model is in theory adjustable for these kind of culturally specific situations, and I think it is, then bravo! My hope is this: that diverse but biblically acceptable examples of how to apply the 9Marks model be repeatedly communicated in cross-cultural settings.

Ed Roberts

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

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