by Dr. Gerald Bilkes
Increasingly, we hear the charge that the church has lost its way in terms of the missionary call of the Bible. Many think the church has curved in on itself, trying to maintain the status-quo. The mandate to reach the lost for Christ seems far removed from what churches are doing. Even churches that heavily support missions seem to divert their resources to other countries as opposed to areas close to home.
Rather than becoming defensive, let us take such a reproof in the spirit of meekness. It would be better for us to humble ourselves and look in the mirror of God’s Word. The church indeed has lost its way on many fronts, and only in returning to the Lord will things truly change for the better.
When discussing the church’s lack of outreach, people often raise the matter of a changing culture. In fact, a relatively new word has made itself into Christendom: “contextualization.” When it is used, it usually means something like “translating concepts into different contexts or cultures.”1 Seminaries started using the term a few decades ago, as did mission boards. Now it is heavily in vogue for Christians all around us to use it. Ministers might hear the following: “Pastor, you need to contextualize your message to today’s culture.”
Even though they didn’t use this term, our spiritual forebears understood at some level that everyone is a child of his time and culture. Many saw incredible cultural shifts through the world wars of the twentieth century. Moreover, those who immigrated to a North American context would not help but note that the culture they left behind was different from the culture they were entering. Of course, many tried to retain parts of the culture they were used to. People were at different stages in that process, and churches often reflected the position of the majority of their members. The American churches came from an earlier wave of immigration, the Ontario churches came from a later wave, and the Western churches from yet a later wave.
The word “culture” is another fairly recent term, appearing first in the nineteenth century. Nowadays, people would define culture as a set of codes of conduct (usually unspoken) that enable people to relate to each other, make sense of shared experiences, and navigate through challenges and difficulties. The term comes from a Latin word that means “to cultivate. “ As people cultivate themselves and cultivate relationships with each other, a “culture” develops.
In some cultures, you look people in the eye when you speak with them. In other cultures, that would be offensive and rude. In some cultures, people are quickly on a first-name basis. In other cultures, that would be unimaginable. In some cultures, you decline an invitation a few times before you accept it. And so on. We are all used to various cultures and we move within these different cultures without much difficulty.2 There’s the culture at the doctor’s office; another culture at the company we work for; and yet another at the border crossing. There are certain things that would be acceptable in one place that would be considered a problem in another context.
I believe there are some dangers with a heavy emphasis on context and culture. And yet, there are some benefits as well. Very basically, it helps us be aware of what messages we are sending that we might not realize we are sending. And this is important for the following three reasons:
1. It belongs to our duty to examine ourselves. In self examination, we seek to bring our actions, words, thought, and emotions under the scrutiny of God’s Word. We seek to uncover our motives, our aims. And though we seldom analyze how we relate to and project our “culture” in various situations, there is certainly no reason why we shouldn’t. Just as we should examine whether we are using our tongues in the most God-honoring way, so it is important to examine whether we are conducting ourselves in the most God-honoring way in all circumstances.
2. It may help us see where we are mixing God’s commands with our traditions or desires. Scripture frequently warns us not to treat our traditions with the weight that the Word of God alone can have (Mark 7:13; Col. 2:8). This does not make all traditions necessarily wrong; there are many good ones. But we should take care not to confuse mere tradition with the Word of God.
3. It may help us identify some of the unnecessary obstacles in bringing the gospel to the ends of the earth. The natural heart of man, of course is the real obstacle to faith in Christ. By nature, man cannot and will not surrender to the claims of a sovereign God, or come into subjection to the grace of God. All the contexualizing in the world will not take away this fundamental, spiritual problem. Nevertheless, there may also be obstacles that we are putting in the way, perhaps without even realizing it. For instance, if we give the impression, even without realizing it, that people first need to look and dress and talk like us before they can become Christians, we have cast a stumbling block before them.
The Reformers did not use the word “contextualization,” but they frequently use the Greek word adiaphora. This refers to things that could be considered indifferent; you could go one way or another without violating biblical commands. Of course, we need to be careful; sometimes people have widened the definition of indifferent matters to include things Scripture clearly does address. In addition, churches have mutually agreed to adhere to common policies that may go beyond the Scriptures, so we should not break our agreement without first ensuring that we may do so. All in all, however, we must be more attuned to what cultural choices we are already making and why.
If, however, by contextualization we mean (what is being commonly argued today) that we can “separate” the timeless truths of Scripture out of their culture and simply translate these truths into our own – provided we know our own well enough – we have sadly left the track of Scripture. The Bible cannot be handled with a knife that cuts out this and chips away at that with the excuse that these things are cultural. Note the following necessary cautions:
1. Beware of the baggage of contextualization. This term comes with rationalistic baggage from recent philosophies.3 I cannot go into it in this short article, but the philosophy of existentialism and neo-orthodox theology brought us the term of contextualization, and there are huge problems with both of these movements.’
2. Beware of captivity to our present culture. Reaching our culture is not as simple as “translating timeless truths through timely trends,” as it is often said. Our society has shed many traditional values, many of which are derived at least in part from the Bible or Christian foundations. Thus there are cultural pressures that absolutely must be resisted. In a way, this is nothing peculiar to our age. Our grandparents faced the pressure to join Masonic lodges and unions. Now there is the pressure to be “politically correct” so as not to offend anyone, regardless of right or wrong. There is the pressure to abandon the biblical definition of marriage; the pressure to work on the Sabbath; the pressure to be tolerant of all views and behaviors. These are pressures that come with our contemporary culture and these must be resisted.
3. We need to beware of removing the offense of the gospel. John McArthur once heavily criticized the emphasis on contextualization: “I function under a divine mandate, not under a cultural one.”4 This is indeed an important point. Dealing with issues of context has a place as a preliminary matter, but it can never become a major, and certainly not the main, preoccupation of the church. Attention to culture will never remove the offense of the gospel – of a sovereign God saving people lost in sins and trespasses and unable and unwilling to submit to the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ. Mark Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C., put it this way: “In fact, one test you can use very practical[ly]… is to ask if [you have] made the offense of the Gospel clearer.”5
A Biblical Culture:
Our failure to reach people around us should not make us open the flood-gates to our current culture. The culture we need is that of the Holy Spirit as set forth in the Scriptures. We need His cultivating work upon our hearts and lives. This spiritual cultivation will bring into being a culture that will both bridge many human cultures and be at odds with any culture.
Having rebelled against God, the human heart loves enslavement to anything besides God and His law, especially if the person can still believe himself to be free. Thus it is no surprise that the church would enslave itself again and again. For this reason, the Christian church needs to be reformed (reformata) and always reforming (semper reformanda). We need continuing reformation.
To that end, the Holy Spirit uses the preaching of the gospel. By means of His Word, the Holy Spirit exposes our idols and our captivity. He exposes how short we fall from what we have been created and called to be. But He also leads into the truth of Christ and His finished work. Through the preaching of the Word, the Spirit remakes sinful men, women, and children after the image of Christ. He brings us under subjection to the commandments of God and calls us to be prophets, priests, and kings in this world.
Have you ever experienced a greater closeness to Christians from other cultures than to non-Christians from your own culture? I remember a couple telling me about being guests at the home of Christians in Eastern Europe, who knew no English. An interpreter who was scheduled to be with they could not be present, and as a result they could not converse together. Yet together they experienced an extraordinary sense of fellowship over a loving meal and over singing of hymns filled with the name “Jesus.” These things bridged the great cultural distance. How true it is that the Holy Spirit cultivates the hearts of Christians to create a new culture – a radiant culture of tender love.
A Culture of the Holy Spirit:
Allow me to highlight five aspects of this culture of the Holy Spirit. It will be:
1. A Culture of God-centeredness.6 The Spirit directs His people into the love of God and the patient waiting for Jesus Christ (2 Thess. 3:5). A community that thus centers on the Triune God will be a great antidote against captivity to any human culture.
2. A Culture of Truth. The Spirit guides His people into all truth (John 16:13). They cherish the scrutiny of God’s Word and the guidance it affords through the twists and turns of our world. The Spirit will cultivate His people to be single-minded witnesses to the free grace of God in Christ.
3. A Culture of Repentance. As the Spirit applies the truth of God’s Word, the church will become a place of continuing repentance (Rev. 2:5, 7a). Thus we will not place ourselves above others and alienate them needlessly through pride and self-righteousness.
4. A Culture of Prayer. The Spirit is called the Spirit of grace and supplications (Zech. 12:10). He will bring His people to fervent prayer. Then we will not be complacent and content with the status quo, but seek God’s glory in the conversion of sinners.
5. A Culture of Mercy. The Spirit cultivates the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), which includes mercy and love. When God pours out His love in our hearts, we will be melted with the plight of the lost among us and around us. We will not hide behind rules and regulations, but reach our lost neighbor out of the mercy God has shown to us.
We could mention more things. It will be a culture of covenant and discipleship; of witness and care; of singleness of heart and meekness. It will be a culture of sacrifice and service. It will be a culture of heat and light.
No, it will not be a perfect culture.7 It will not be heaven on earth. Even the best saints have only a beginning of the new obedience. There is strife and coldness among God’s people. there is indifference to the condition of the lost around us. But, as Spurgeon would say to himself, every time he climbed the pulpit: “I believe in the Holy Spirit. I believe in the Holy Spirit.” As the Holy Spirit cultivates the garden of His church, something comes about that God is not ashamed to call “His habitation” (Eph. 2:22), and people will be added to the Lord (Acts 11:24). This is the culture we need.
1 A standard treatment of this concept is David Hesselgrave and Edward Rommen, Contextualization: Meanings, Methods, Models (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989).
2 See D. A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 68-71
3 David F. Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in the Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 6-8.
4 John McArthur, “Compelling Reasons for Biblical Preaching, Part 1,” http://www.gty.org/Resources/Sermons/90-351. Accessed January 23, 2009
5 Mark Dever, “Improving the Biblical Gospel: Exercises in Unbiblical Theology,” Address at the 2008 Together for the Gospel Conference. Audio available at http://www.sovereigngraceministries.org/Resources/T4G.aspx.
6 I owe this point to Joel R. Beeke, whom I thank for his careful reading of this article. I also thank David Murray for his helpful comments on the whole article. My thinking owes a lot to our collegial cooperation, for which I am deeply grateful.
7 Carson (Christ and Culture Revisited, 224-225) helpfully says: “Above all, we must grasp that even the most intellectually robust theory of how things work, or ought to work, falters in practice within a generation or two, because human beings falter: we overlook something, or we distort the balance of things, or, because this is a fallen and broken world, our well-intentioned actions invite a nasty reaction on the part of unbelievers, and the tension between Christ and culture spins off in some new direction.
Dr. Berald M. Bilkes is Professor of Old and New Testament at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and an elder of the Free Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Reprinted with Permission from the Messenger.