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Guest Editorial: Contextualization Without Compromise

by Tullian Tchividjian

The principle behind Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 9:22 to “become all things to all men” is what Christian thinkers call “contextualization.” Contextualization is the idea that we need to be translating gospel truth into language understood by our culture. Cross-cultural missionaries and Bible translators have been doing this for centuries. They take the unchanging truth of the Gospel and put it into language that fits the context they are trying to reach. Contextualization simply means translating the Gospel—in both word and deed—into understandable terms appropriate to the audience. It’s Gospel translation that is context sensitive.

Genna, my eight-year-old daughter, loves going to her Sunday School class for various reasons. She loves seeing her friends and singing her favorite songs. But she also loves to learn from her capable and creative teacher. He works hard to use language, concepts and illustrations that she and the other children in the class will understand as he faithfully teaches them the Bible. And as a result, Genna gets it. She walks away Sunday after Sunday excited about what she’s learned. This thrills Kim and me. We’re both grateful that her teacher understands the need to contextualize.

Similarly, every English Bible translation is an effort to contextualize the Scriptures (originally written in Hebrew and Greek for ancient peoples) for an English-speaking audience of today.

Contextualization also involves building relationships with people who don’t believe. We don’t expect them to come to us; we go to them. We meet them where they are. We enter into their world by seeking to identify with their struggles, their likes, their dislikes, their ideas. Chuck Colson speaks of it as entering into people’s “stories”.

We must enter into the stories of the surrounding culture, which takes real listening. We connect with the literature, music, theater, arts and issues that express the existing culture’s hopes, dreams and fears. This builds a bridge by which we can show how the Gospel can enter and transform those stories.

Edith Schaeffer, wife of the late Francis Schaeffer, wrote about a visit the two of them made to San Francisco in 1968. One night, they went to Fillmore West to hang out with the druggies and hippies and take in a light show. She records how heartbroken they were as they witnessed on that night “the lostness of humanity in search of peace where there is no peace.” She concluded, “A time of listening is needed—listening to what the next generation is saying, listening to the words of the music they are listening to, listening to the meaning behind the words. If true communication is to continue, there is a language to be learned.”

Contextualization begins with a broken heart for the lost and a driving desire to help them understand God’s liberating truth. Only by real listening and learning can we hope to persuasively communicate God’s unchanging Word to our constantly changing world.

Sadly, some well-meaning Christians conclude otherwise. For these Christians, contextualization means the same thing as compromise. They believe it means giving people what they want and telling people what they want to hear. What they misunderstand, however, is that contextualization means giving people God’s answers (which they may not want) to the questions they’re really asking, and in ways they can understand.

This misunderstanding of contextualization has led these people to argue that cultural reflection and contextualization are at best distractions, at worst sinful. They admonish us to abandon these things and focus simply on the Bible. While this sounds virtuous, it ends up being foolish for two reasons. First, as we’ve already seen, the Bible itself exhorts us to understand our times so that we can reach our changing world with God’s eternal truth. To not contextualize, therefore, is a sin. And second, we all live inescapably within a particular cultural framework that shapes the way we think about everything. So if we don’t work hard to understand our context, we’ll not only fail in our task to effectively communicate the Gospel but we’ll also find it impossible to avoid being negatively shaped by a world we don’t understand.

In a recent interview, pastor Tim Keller put it this way: “to over-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of their culture, but to under-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of the culture you come from. So there’s no avoiding it.”

Whether translating the Bible or developing relationships with non-Christians, we’re to be missionary minded in everything we do. That takes work—the hard effort of maintaining the big picture and communicating comprehensibly and compellingly to those who don’t share our convictions and worldview. Therefore, every day and in every circumstance, we need to be consciously and rigorously translating our faith into the language of the culture we’re trying to reach.

This is the challenge: If you don’t contextualize enough, no one’s life will be transformed because they won’t understand you. But if you contextualize too much, no one’s life will be transformed because you won’t be challenging their deepest assumptions and calling them to change.

Becoming “all things to all people”, therefore, does not mean fitting in with the fallen patterns of this world so that there is no distinguishable difference between Christians and non-Christians. While rightly living “in the world,” we must avoid the extreme of accommodation—being “of the world.” It happens when Christians, in their attempt to make proper contact with the world, go out of their way to adopt worldly styles, standards and strategies.

When Christians try to eliminate the counter-cultural, unfashionable features of the biblical message because those features are unpopular in the wider culture—for example, when we reduce sin to a lack of self-esteem, deny the exclusivity of Christ or downplay the reality of knowable absolute truth—we’ve moved from contextualization to compromise. When we accommodate our culture by jettisoning key themes of the Gospel, such as suffering, humility, persecution, service and self-sacrifice, we actually do our world more harm than good. For love’s sake, compromise is to be avoided at all costs.

As the Bible teaches, the Lordship of Christ has a sense of totality: Christ’s truth covers everything, not just “spiritual” or “religious” things. But it also has a sense of tension. As Lord, Jesus not only calls us to Himself, He also calls us to break with everything which conflicts with His Lordship.

Contextualization without compromise is the goal!

Tullian Tchividjian is the grandson of evangelist Billy Graham and author of Unfashionable: Making a Difference in the World by Being Different.


Author: Staff

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  • Gary Capshaw

    One issue of contextualization I fear gets far too little consideration is “contextualizing” how what we as Christian’s say and do is interpreted by our target audience. With the coming Great Commission Resurgence (GCR) being proposed for we Southern Baptist’s, I think this is a critical issue which we need to address.

    Whenever we, as a denomination or even as the Church of Jesus Christ, enter into the political fray, we can’t help but immediately alienate anyone on the other side of a particular issue. That makes taking the Gospel to a lost and dying world far more difficult. Worse, what we see as moral in nature, the lost see purely in political terms.

    For instance, when the SBC adopts a public position opposing same sex marriage, we believe we’re standing up for Godly principles, which we are. But, we forget that such an issue is both moral and political by nature and that the homosexual community does not see it as a moral issue. They are convinced in their own minds that it is not immoral, so they preceive our response to an issue important to them as bigoted and prejudicial, not as an act of faith. That means when we go out into that community to witness the Gospel, we’re immediately rejected as inconsequential and not worth listening to. How can we spread the Gospel to that community if we’ve already shot ourselves in the foot by taking a public stand against something they value? This same self-defeating process can be found in other hot-button issues of the day, such as God in schools, religious monuments on public property and a host of other issues which have a political component.

    No, I’m not suggesting that we should approve of un-Godly behaviors. That would be going too far in the wrong direction. We certainly DO have an obligation to defend our faith and the teachings of Jesus Christ. But, when we do it as an official act of the entire Christian community, we find ourselves in the unenviable position of actually driving people AWAY from the Gospel message! Is that something we should be doing? Should we be making our committment to “saving” America from God’s wrath by standing up for Godly principles more important than seeing the lost come to Salvation? Ask yourself this: Which did Jesus tell us to do?

    If, as a part of our contextualization, we don’t see what we do through the prism of their context, we risk becoming even more irrelevant than we are now. Remember, baptism’s are down, church membership is down, the pews are empty across the spectrum of organized Christianity and this may be a very large part of why. We’re offending the lost. Instead of meeting them where they are as an act of love, we’re publicly meeting them with our judgmental fingers extended and driving them away from the message of Jesus Christ.

    Unless, and until, we strip the Southern Baptist Convention of anything and everything which makes witnessing Jesus Christ more difficult and focus JUST on evangelizing the lost, we run the risk of the GCR being just another “program” which yields nothing.

  • Jean

    I agree with this article.

    Gary, I agree with you wholeheartedly. In particular, about homosexuals. I lived in Asheville, NC, where this came to a very ugly head in the newspapers and in the courts. I was even ashamed to be called “Christian” when I read the hate filled letters written to the editor from “Christians”. The issue was for equality in working for the city to be extended to gays and lesbians. When this issue went to a town meeting, a man sitting in the audience was dressed very conservatively in a suit. Around him there were people whispering and talking about what they were going to do to some of the gays who were there, even speaking directly to some in very threatening ways, saying how they were going to beat them up after the meeting. This man, later in the meeting, stood up and went to the front. He was the attorney for the gays! You could see the shock on the faces of those who had been sitting near him and talking about beating folks up, etc.

    One young lady was quoted in the newspaper, after the town meeting, “they actually hate us. They don’t want us to have a place to live or to have jobs. They don’t want us to live.” And my heart ached, knowing that Jesus was a friend of sinners.

    That brought home to me the terrible revelation that we have lost our witness to people who are in this lifestyle, because they see us as haters, who want them dead.

    How can we tell them that Jesus loves them, if we, his followers, hate them? Don’t we realize that we are all sinners? We all have come short of the glory of God? We have no right to pick up stones? There is no sin that cannot be forgiven? There is no addiction or perversion too great for the blood of Jesus to cleanse?

    My son once said to me that he had met so many gays and lesbians who had turned to paganism, witchcraft, new age, or even become atheist, because they were rejected and turned away from the church where they had gone to for help.

    This may be an issue that pastors are not equipped to deal with, but there should be a way so show the Love of Christ to every sinner, regardless of their type of sin. I will be more inclined to listen to a message of love, than one of hate. But how can they “hear” the message of love, if we are perceived as people who hate them?

    This is not just about gays. I was director of a home for battered and abused women, and when these women would accept Jesus as their Savior, they would love to spend time in the Word, asking questions, growing in faith. I also found that the church did not want to accept these women because of their past history. I’m not talking about the church not wanting to accept them as members, I am talking about the people of my particular Baptist church not wanting to accept them. Period.

    There is a young man in my church that was set free from homosexuality twenty years ago when he was saved and filled with the holy spirit. He has the gift of evangelism like I have never seen in any one before. If he is standing in line to see a movie, he will talk to the person in front of him and the person in back of him and lead them to Christ. He will get their phone numbers and will call them and take them to church the next week. I think it is very true, that he who has been forgiven much, loves much. Surely, love for Jesus and for the sinners is what motivates this redeemed young man. Oh, that it could motivate us!

    For God so loved the world (I think that includes everybody) that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him, should not perish, but have everlasting life. John 3:16

  • Gary Capshaw


    Your post reminds me of the realationship I have with a woman who is a practicing lesbian. We are great friends and can talk about any topic which comes up freely and openly, including the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Sadly, she says I’m the first openly Christian person she’s met who doesn’t condemn her for her lifestyle.

    Make no mistake: She knows I don’t approve and she knows why, but that’s not the same thing as telling her she’s going to hell for being a homosexual. I accept her just as she is, not as I wish she would be or as I think she should be. It’s not that hard to do.

    The upshot is that I CAN witness the Gospel to her and she listens because she trusts me. I pray that one day she’ll come to a saving knowledge of Christ, but that’s up to the Holy Spirit and her. All I can do is present the Word.

    I’m not saying this to pat myself on the back, but to give a real-world example of how it CAN be done if we get off our moral high-horses and understand that homosexual’s are NOT going to hell because of what they do. If they go to hell at all, it’ll be for the same reason all sinners will go: rejecting Jesus. And the same thing would apply to any other sinful life we come in contact with, which we surely can’t do if we’re standing on the corner pointing our self-righteous fingers at everyone who passes.

    When we point those fingers as an official, collective act of the whole body of Southern Baptist’s or believer’s, we make witnessing to the lost so, so much more difficult!

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