Putting Contextualization in its Place


Editor’s note: The author of this article is a missions strategist for Central Asia.


Contextualization is one of the hottest topics in missions today. Simply put, contextualization is the word we use for the process of making the gospel and the church as much at home as possible in a given cultural context.

American Christians have a tendency to think of contextualization as something missionaries and overseas Christians do “over there,” and then they worry about how far non-Western churches go in their contextualization efforts. However, every Christian alive today is actively involved in contextualization.


Every American Christian worships in a contextualized church. As much as we like to think of our churches as “New Testament churches,” there actually are no New Testament churches in existence today. Our cultural context is dramatically different from the world of the New Testament, and as a result, any modern church would look bizarre and alien to a first-century Christian.

This is true at every level. The first century church met in places like the Temple porch in Jerusalem, the school of Tyrannus in Ephesus, or most often in private homes. There were no church buildings during the New Testament period. Our buildings, with their modern construction materials, their style and appearance, and their electronic gadgetry, would look like they had come down from outer space if they were plopped into a first century setting.

Our seating arrangements, with people sitting on pews or chairs rather than on the floor, and with unrelated men and women sitting side by side, would seem strange (and perhaps a bit scandalous) to a first century Palestinian believer.

The programs that make up so much of modern church life—Sunday School, Youth Group, RAs and GAs, Awanas—all came into being in recent centuries, and were unknown to the early church.

The music we sing is based on a totally different tonality from that of the ancient Mediterranean world, and it uses very different instruments. (The piano was not invented until the modern era, and the organ was originally a Roman circus instrument, considered unfit for Christian worship.)  Our music would have sounded strange and unpleasant to them, and vice versa. (It should be noted that all Christian music, at some point, has been “contemporary Christian music,” and that even the most traditional songs today were probably regarded as risqué by somebody when they first came out!)

The language we speak did not even exist in biblical times. English as we know it developed during the Middle Ages, centuries after the New Testament was completed. First century Christians worshiped in Aramaic, Koine Greek, or Latin. And the social customs and cultural practices of the first century church were much closer to the modern culture of the Middle East or Central Asia than to contemporary North America.

Our culture is radically different from the culture of the New Testament, and, as a result, our churches are radically different from New Testament churches. In countless ways, every believer alive today, whether in North America or South Asia, contextualizes the gospel and the church. The question is not whether we’re going to contextualize. The question facing every believer and every church is whether we will contextualize well. Anyone who fails to realize that they are doing it, and who fails to think it through carefully and biblically, simply guarantees that they will contextualize poorly. Syncretism can happen as easily in Indiana or Iowa as it can in Indonesia.


Those working in the Muslim world have taken a variety of approaches to contextualization. These approaches are typically classified along a spectrum designated C1 to C5 (or sometimes C6). C1 is the label given to those who simply reproduce their own (foreign) culture on the mission field. If a foreign worker were to reproduce First Baptist Church of Anywhere, USA somewhere overseas, complete with architecture, hymnal, order of service, style of worship and teaching, and church programs, this would be an example of C1 contextualization. At the other end of the spectrum, C5 contextualization aims at a phenomenon sometimes referred to as an “insider movement.”  In this approach, new believers in Jesus are encouraged to maintain a Muslim community identity and to continue Islamic practices. Often, such movements affirm that Islam, its prophet and its book are of divine origin, but simply need to be completed in Jesus. C2, C3 and C4 represent intermediate stages between these two extremes.

This classification system is widely used, and it provides a useful common language for the conversation about contextualization. However, there is a problem inherent in this approach. This system implies that we Westerners are the standard. It measures the distance from us, as though the Western cultural expression of Christianity is what God actually intended, and others are to be evaluated by how much they are like us or different from us.

We have to admit that every Christian everywhere instinctively tends to think this way. What we have always done feels like the “right” way to do things, and we have a hard time not reading our own experience into the Bible. However, given the fact that all of us practice contextualization, we need to remind ourselves constantly that Scripture, not our experience, is the standard by which all things are to be evaluated. Scripture is inerrant, authoritative, and sufficient. Where Scripture gives a command, or a prohibition, or a binding model, the issue is settled. When Scripture sets a boundary, we may not cross it.

However, within those boundaries, there is nothing particularly sacred about our cultural ways of doing things. Throughout the ages and across the globe, there have been other cultural expressions of Christianity that are just as faithful to Scripture as our own. Indeed, in the case of the Muslim world, their culture is actually closer to the culture of the New Testament than is ours, so their churches may actually look more like New Testament churches than ours do. At the same time, every culture, including our own, has its besetting sins. In every setting, there are points where cultural orthodoxy contradicts the Word of God, resulting in cultural pressure toward compromise and syncretism. The key is to let the Bible be our judge, and for all of us to allow the global body of Christ to speak the Word of God into our particular blind spots.


What does the Bible have to say, then, about contextualization? Are there grounds for it in Scripture?

In fact, the process of contextualization begins in the New Testament itself. There are several examples, and these examples both establish the legitimacy of contextualization and teach us something of how to go about it ourselves.

The Name of God

One of the most pervasive examples of contextualization in the New Testament is also one of the most subtle. It is the use of the Greek word theos to refer to God. Theos in origin was a thoroughly pagan word, used to refer to the capricious and immoral deities of the Greek pantheon. In content and conception, it was light years away from the biblical understanding of God.

However, when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek in the centuries before Christ, theos was the word chosen to translate the Hebrew Elohim, and this choice was ratified (as it were) by the Holy Spirit when he inspired the writers of the New Testament to continue to use this word to refer to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Rather than transliterate a Hebrew word into Greek, or invent a different term altogether, the New Testament took the pagan word that was closest in meaning and infused new content into it.

Incidentally, this precedent should be a source of relief for all English-speaking Christians. Early missionaries to northern Europe took the Germanic word “god,” which originally referred to the Nordic pantheon of  deities like Wotan, Thor and Freya (whose names remain in the words Wednesday, Thursday and Friday), and infused that word with new, biblical content.

The example of the New Testament tells us that we can use a pagan word without necessarily falling into pagan idolatry ourselves.

The Apostle Paul

The apostle Paul gave an instructive example of contextualization in his sermon on the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:22-30). First, Paul used a pagan altar to an unknown god as a bridge to taking about the true God. We already know from Acts 17:16 that Paul’s spirit was provoked by the idolatry he saw in Athens. He certainly was not condoning a pagan altar, nor was he implying that the Athenians had been worshipping the true God without actually knowing it through that altar. Still, he felt free to use something in their (utterly wrong) religious system as a bridge to bring them along to accurate thoughts about the real God.

Second, he follows the reference to the altar by two different quotations from pagan poets: one probably from Epimenides of Crete, and the other from Aratus. Both of these quotations make reference to Deity, but the deity they had in mind was a mix of pagan Greek idolatry and philosophical Greek speculation. Paul felt free to take these quotations and connect them to biblical truth about the biblical God, even though the poets who wrote these words had a very different god in mind.

In similar fashion, when Paul wrote his letter to Titus, he quoted Epimenides of Crete again, calling him “a prophet of their own” (Titus 1:12). This time he is drawing a warning about Cretan cultural depravity from the writings of someone whom even a pagan Cretan would recognize as knowing what he was talking about. By calling Epimenides “a prophet of their own,” Paul is not saying that he thinks that Epimenides was actually a prophet of the living God, nor that he thinks that Epimenides’ words were given by inspiration from God. In fact, this is quite an insult. Greek culture in biblical times was not exactly noted for its moral purity. If even one of their own pagan writers, whom they regarded as a prophet, thought they were always liars, evil beasts, and lazy gluttons, they must have been pretty bad! The point is that Paul knows pagan Greek culture, and he feels free to use it to his advantage to point people toward biblical truth.


Perhaps the most widely-quoted passage of Scripture that teaches about contextualization is 1 Corinthians 9:1-23:

1 Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord?  2 If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

3 This is my defense to those who would examine me.  4 Do we not have the right to eat and drink?  5 Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife,1 as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?  6 Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living?  7 Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?

8 Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same?  9 For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned?  10 Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop.  11 If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?  12 If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more?

Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.  13 Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings?  14 In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.

15 But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting.  16 For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!  17 For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship.  18 What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.

19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.  20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.  21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.  22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.  23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

This text is worth close examination. In interpreting this passage, it is important to remember that Paul was a Hellenistic Jew working in a cross-cultural setting in Corinth. In fact, Paul in many ways is what we today would call a “Third Culture Kid.” He grew up in the Greek culture of Hellenistic Tarsus in modern-day Turkey, but he grew up there as a Jew. He trained in Jerusalem as a rabbi and a Pharisee. He had a foot in both worlds. Corinth itself was a grossly immoral and idolatrous city. The church there faced issues that the church in Palestine would never even imagine.

The specific context of this passage is Paul’s extended discussion of whether or not Christians should eat meat sacrificed to idols. This discussion could only arise in a Gentile setting like Corinth. The kosher laws of rabbinic Judaism would have made this entire issue impossible, so Paul was forced to deal with something for which his theological education gave him no training at all. He does so pastorally, in the context of what it really means to love our brothers and sisters, recognizing that some brothers and sisters have stronger consciences than others. In the process, he broadened the discussion to address how our freedom in Christ intersects the work of the gospel in a cross-cultural setting.

The key to understanding this passage is found in verse 12: “We endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.” Paul’s passion was the advance of the gospel, and he didn’t want anything unnecessary to hinder that advance. This did not mean that he would compromise any biblical truth or biblical command in the process. Verses later on in the chapter make that clear. However, he was willing to endure any inconvenience or personal hardship that might enable the gospel to spread more effectively.

He expanded on that thought with some key principles for cross-cultural ministry.

1. Give Up Your Rights

First, Paul voluntarily chose not to make use of legitimate rights. He had a right to eat meat, to take along a believing wife, and to receive monetary support. He would not be sinning by doing any of those things. Indeed, such things would be considered normal and even expected, and other apostles apparently did them. Nevertheless, Paul gave up those rights in order not to put any obstacle in the way of the gospel.

We Americans struggle with this. We are raised to demand our rights. As a free American, I have a “right” to do a lot of things that would be offensive in my new cultural context: wear my shoes indoors, eat or touch someone with my left hand, put up   a fence around my own yard without my local community leader’s permission, or even leave a Central Asian birthday party before the rice is served! I have the “right” to dress how I want, eat whatever I want, and decorate my house how I want. However, at the same time, I do not have a biblical command to do any of these things.

The issue in exercising these rights is not obedience to God, but my own comfort and convenience. If anything that I do makes it harder for Muslims to hear the gospel from me, other than those things that Scripture commands me to do, I need to give them up voluntarily.

2. Become a Servant of Non-Believers

Second, Paul adopted a posture of servanthood toward non-believers. In verse 19, he wrote: “Though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.”  Paul approached non-Christians with the mindset of a servant. It is clear that he is not talking here about serving Christians, because he is serving those who need to be won. So Paul not only chose not to make use of his rights, he went farther and chose to make himself the servant of those whom he is trying to reach with the gospel.

This idea also rubs our flesh the wrong way, especially when we are in the throes of culture shock. We want to set people straight, not serve them! Yet Jesus himself came not to be served, but to serve. He served people who were wrong, who were in rebellion against him, and who would eventually kill him. Paul understood the mind of his master well at this point.

The posture of servanthood reflects the character of Christ, shatters stereotypes of the ugly American, and causes barriers to drop. Servanthood is an essential characteristic of effective cross-cultural ministry, and it paradoxically defines how we are to make use of our freedom in Christ.

3. Adapt to Others’ Lifestyle as Much as Possible Without Sinning

Third, Paul chose to identify with the people he was trying to reach, and to adapt to their lifestyle as much as he could without compromising the law of Christ (see verses 19-23).

Paul was a Jew. The Jews really were God’s chosen people. If any culture had a right to consider itself intrinsically more godly than all others, it was Jewish culture. Paul certainly had a “right” to maintain his Jewish cultural heritage. At the same time, Paul had been set free from the burden of the law. He was certainly free from the rabbinic hedge around the law. He had a “right” to ignore any of the endless extra-biblical rules and regulations of Pharisaic Judaism. Yet, with Jews he acted like a Jew. With Gentiles he acted like a Gentile. With the weak – people with lots of scruples and hang-ups – he lived within their scruples.

He became all things to all people that by all means he might save some. He identified with the people he was trying to reach. He adapted his lifestyle to theirs in anything that might block them from hearing the gospel. He valued the gospel more than his own rights, more than his own comfort, more than his own culture. If there was any offense in the gospel, he wanted it to be the offense of the cross, and not the offense of foreignness.

4. Stay Within the Bounds of Scripture

Fourth, however, Paul insisted on staying within the bounds of Scripture. In the middle of his statement on identification and adaptation, he inserts an all-important parenthesis: “not being outside the law of God, but under the law of Christ.”

Although free from the requirement of keeping the ceremonial law, and free from the penalty of failing to keep the law of God perfectly, and certainly free from the burdensome rabbinic superstructure of rules built around the law, he still very much regarded himself as under the authority of God expressed in his word. Scripture, in its theology, worldview, commands and principles, set the boundaries for his adaptation to the people he was trying to reach.

The same must apply to us. Every human culture reflects common grace, but every culture also reflects the fall. We must not adapt to that which contradicts Scripture.

Paul’s understanding of this principle becomes clear when the entirety of his writings are examined. He refused to accommodate to the “wisdom” of the popular Hellenistic worldview around him, because he realized that it negated the gospel at its very heart, however sophisticated it might have sounded. Indeed, Paul never condoned diversity or accommodation in matters of doctrine. He did not accommodate the seedy practices of contemporary itinerate teachers. He most certainly did not accommodate the “acceptable” immorality of Corinthian society. Human culture and human tradition are negotiable. God’s Word is not, ever.

Contextualization, then, is both unavoidable and good. The gospel can, and should, transform people in every culture. And we must identify with those we are trying to reach and adapt to their culture, no matter what discomfort it causes us. However, the gospel also challenges and condemns every culture at some points (including our own). Where the Bible draws a line, we must draw a line.

The point of contextualization is not comfort, but clarity. The gospel will never be completely comfortable in any fallen society or to any sinful human being. Our goal is to make sure that we do not put any obstacles in the way of the gospel, and that the only stumbling block is the stumbling block of the cross itself.


How do we apply these principles to the work of the gospel in the Muslim world? Based on years of wrestling with the task under the authority of the Word of God, here are guidelines for our work in the Muslim world, founded on these biblical principles. The guidelines are grouped under three headings: the messenger of the good news, the message of the good news, and the church.

The Messenger of the Good News (with primary focus on us, the foreign workers)

  • We must openly identify ourselves as followers of Jesus. Hiding our identity is out of bounds. Jesus made it clear that we must not deny him before men. Security concerns are real, and we need to take them seriously. However, we must never let security concerns drive us into hiding our identity as disciples of Christ. To be known as his is worth getting kicked out a country, and even dying.
  • We should work hard to become part of the community we are trying to reach. We need to build relationships and put down roots among the unbelievers of our focus people group. We must beware of our team becoming our primary focus and primary community. Team is a means to an end, but it must never become an end in itself. In an age of email, SMS, and Skype, we also need to beware of excessive communication with the U.S. It is simply too easy to move overseas and yet never bond with the people we are trying to reach, due to the possibility and comfort of maintaining our primary community with English-speaking loved ones. We must consciously invest in relationships in the community we are trying to reach, and that community needs to become our primary community, as much as possible.
  • We should be lifelong learners of language and culture. Those who know the language best are those who want to keep on learning. Beware of getting stuck at a survival language level, and beware also of getting stuck in initial, superficial impressions about the culture. We communicate most effectively when we communicate in their heart language, and when we understand what they think and how they hear what we say.
  • We should voluntarily give up freedoms that erect barriers to the gospel.
  • We should choose our housing and decorate our homes in ways that are comfortable to those we are trying to reach, even if it is less comfortable for us.
  • We should dress in ways that show respect for our host culture. We need to be appropriately modest, even if the weather makes us uncomfortable in the process. At the same time, we should be attentive to changes in the culture. Our aim is to be unremarkable in our attire.
  • We should act in ways that show respect for our host culture. Find out what is and is not appropriate for anyone in that setting. Find out what is and is not appropriate for someone your age, gender, occupation, and station in life. Dig deep, and do not be content with superficial answers or with exceptions made for you as a foreigner. Things that might never occur to you as significant can have great significance in another culture. Watch closely, listen carefully, ask lots of questions, and ask lots of different people.
  • We can, and should, distance ourselves from forms of cultural Christianity that dishonor God or that cause unnecessary stumbling blocks to our host culture. Christianity is often seen as a cultural or ethnic thing, and it is associated with colonial conquest and exploitation, or with the worship of images and drinking alcohol, or with the immoral behavior seen in movies and TV programs from the “Christian” west. It is perfectly appropriate that we not identify ourselves with that image! Instead, we should explain our identity in ways that point to Jesus and not to the unfortunate legacy of cultural Christianity.
  • In this context, the word “Christian” can be particularly problematic. To much of the Muslim world, America, Europe, and Russia are “Christian” societies, and whatever is true for those countries is true of Christianity. Thus, when a Central Asian Muslim asks me if I am a Christian, what they mean by “Christian” is an alcohol-drinking, pornography-watching, sexually promiscuous, picture-worshipping Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic person who is part of the culture that has attempted to conquer and oppress them for centuries. Therefore, I never simply say yes. However, since Christian is a biblical word, neither do I say no. I define who I am in biblical terms apart from their historical experience.
  • We should serve our host community. We should look for ways to be a blessing, on their terms and according to their understanding of their needs.

At the same time,

  • We must never give the impression that we have converted to Islam.
  • We should not deny the label Christian – we may simply need to redefine it in a biblical way.
  • We should not contextualize ourselves more than the host culture requires. We need to understand where a culture is going as well as where it is, and make sure that we don’t adapt ourselves to the past instead of the present.
  • We must not adopt any local cultural practice or attitude that violates Scripture. In this context, we need to especially be careful about our attitudes. We can unconsciously pick up ungodly attitudes from our host culture (toward women, for example, or toward other ethnic groups).

The Message of the Good News

  • We can use their book as a bridge to the gospel, as long as we do it in a way that does not imply divine inspiration or equality with the Bible.
  • We can choose our terminology carefully, and delay the use of red-flag terms like “Son of God” in favor of other equally-biblical terms until we have reached the point where we can explain those red-flag terms biblically.
  • We can and should utilize the full scope of biblical narrative to establish a worldview in which the gospel is intelligible. The Bible doesn’t jump straight from the Fall of Man in Genesis 3 to the birth of Jesus in Matthew 1. God took centuries to establish who he is, what he requires, what humanity is like, and what he intended to do about it, before he brought Jesus onto the scene. The worldview of the Old Testament is essential to understanding the biblical gospel. Most Muslims who come to Christ do so after exposure to a broad scope of biblical revelation over a period of time. Take the long view. In each conversation, ask yourself, “What Bible/gospel content can I add to their understanding today?”  In this context, and in the oral cultures that make up so much of the Muslim world, chronological Bible storying is a wonderful tool!
  • We can and should utilize a variety of communication genres and media to communicate the message of the gospel. Some cultures revel in poetry, songs or proverbs, all of which are found in Scripture. Explore the internet, audio, TV, video, and print media. Find out what genres they use to communicate worldview truth. Find out what media they use and respond to the most. Use any and all genres and media that are appropriate.
  • We can use whatever name for God is most appropriate in any given language, including Allah.  Keeping in mind that our goal is always to clarify rather than confuse distinctions, we must import biblical content and correct past understandings with any word we use for God.
  • We can utilize the Arabic forms of other names and terms in the Bible, rather than forms from other foreign languages like English or French or Russian or Dutch.
  • We should stress that we are calling people to a new relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and not to ethnic treason and the abandonment of their cultural identity.
  • We do not need to attack Islam directly.

At the same time,

  • We must never downplay the central doctrines of the gospel – particularly those that contradict Islam or that cause offence to Muslims. Many examples could be given here, but in a Muslim context we need to take special care that we never deemphasize the deity of Christ, the reality of his death and resurrection, the necessity of his substitutionary sacrifice, salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, the integrity, inerrancy, and finality of the Bible, and the radical nature of conversion, which is so extreme that it can only be described in terms of death and new life.
  • We must never downplay the necessity of repentance.
  • We must never deny or excise any part of Scripture or any biblical terminology, including the term “Son of God.”
  • We must never construct a chronological Bible story set and call it an oral Bible. Chronological Bible story sets are wonderful tools for evangelism and discipleship, but only the full text of the Bible is the Bible, and an oral Bible must be the actual words of the Bible presented in audio rather than print format.
  • We must never remove, substitute, or downplay the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
  • We must never give the impression that we believe that Islam, Muhammad, or the Quran are of divine origin.

The Church

  • Muslim background believers in Jesus (MBBs) should be encouraged to remain in their community as much as possible.
  • MBBs should be encouraged to maintain their ethnic and cultural identity as much as they can without compromising their obedience to Scripture.
  • MBB churches should be encouraged to be indigenous in their expressions of their faith and worship, without compromising Scripture. This is particularly true in matters of style. The church should look, sound, and feel local, not foreign.
  • New believers and churches should be pointed to the Bible, and not to the foreign expert, to answer their questions about Christian belief and Christian living.
  • New churches should be encouraged to apply Scripture to the issues they face in their cultural setting, and to express their faith in ways that engage their culture directly. Their teaching and their confessions of faith should respond to the specific issues they face in their culture.
  • New churches can utilize local cultural practices that are consistent with Scripture.
  • New churches should be led by local believers and not by foreigners, as much as possible.
  • New churches should be financed locally (in so far as they need financing at all), and not by foreign money.
  • New churches should take full responsibility for the Great Commission from the start.
  • A church can meet anywhere. Neither the presence nor the absence of a building belongs to the biblical essence of church.

At the same time, insofar as it lies with us,

  • MBB churches must have a clear identity as belonging to Jesus.
  • MBB churches should not present themselves as being still essentially Muslim.
  • MBB churches should not teach or believe that Islam, its prophet, or its book are of divine origin.
  • MBB church teaching, and church confessions of faith, should maintain as central that which is central in the teaching of the Bible. It is true that each culture and each generation raises different issues which the people of God must address from the Word of God. However, there are also core doctrines in the Bible which are central to the faith in every age and every place.
  • MBB churches should seek to embody all of the elements of a biblical church.
  • MBB churches need to be careful about the theological and spiritual baggage that local cultural and religious practices may carry.
  • MBB churches need to recognize their connection with the global Body of Christ.

Editor’s note: The author of this article is a missions strategist for Central Asia.

9Marks articles are made possible by readers like you. Donate Today.