Today's blog post is written by Dr. William Payne. Dr. Payne is the Harlan & Wilma Hollewell Professor of Evangelism and World Missions and Director of Chaplaincy Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary.
Contextualization is a theological imperative and a mission strategy. Succinctly, in the same way that God incarnated the divine self in Jesus by taking on the culture of a specific people, God calls the church to incarnate the faith into the cultural categories of the peoples that it seeks to reach as it “makes disciples of all nations.” Biblical faith is always a culture-specific faith. For this reason, world evangelization, contextualization, and indigenous Christianity go together.
Contextualization moves beyond cultural accommodation or translation of the Gospel. Through contextualization, God becomes Polish, Argentine, Chinese, and Mexican. In this sense, the incarnation is an ongoing process as the missional church continues to make Jesus Christ a living option to those who are separated from him by an assortment of social barriers related to culture, language, religion, and behavior.
Subcategories of people within a larger cultural group may continue the process of micro-contextualization. In the latter case, Jesus reveals himself to the poor, the disenfranchised, the abused, the neglected, the immigrant, and the unloved in specific ways. In the American context, Black theology is an example of contextualization. Theology is contextualized when a particular people who have internalized the gospel do theology from the perspective of their lived context.
Since there is an essential interplay between the community of faith, the scriptures, the Holy Spirit, and a given context, one should expect global diversity. In fact, global Christianity should reflect distinctive theological orientations and ecclesial practices. The reality of contextualization pushes against the idea of dominant global traditions with homogenous practices.
The diversity that contextualization fosters should be celebrated as a sure sign that the Holy Spirit is leading a people into a deepening encounter with God and the scriptures. Dominant traditions that use power to westernize, civilize, secularize, or Latinize indigenous faith communities are working against contextualization and the Holy Spirit. Since all theology is contextual theology, the imposition of a dominant theology onto a receiving people leads to theological imperialism and works against the goal of contextualization.
For this reason, denominational extensions must be carefully managed so that the receiving population is able to contextualize and adapt the faith to their lived context as they engage the scriptures under the direct leadership of the Holy Spirit. Missionaries are evangelists, guides, encouragers, representatives, and friends; not policemen.
Having stated the obvious, advocates for contextual theology do not argue that church tradition is unimportant or that theological orthodoxy does not exist. In fact, discrete peoples do theology within a given set of orthodox boundaries. Furthermore, all Christians affirm that there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one Church. When Jesus inaugurated the new humanity after his resurrection, he created a universal church in which the designation of “Christian” became a disciple’s primary identity marker. Because of that, the Body is not divided by race, gender, socio-economic status, political orientation, denominational affiliation, or geographic barriers. All Christians of every social location are called to strive for mutuality and unity in Christ. There is one, holy, apostolic, catholic church of which all true Christians participate. For this reason, Christians from a given context have a shared accountability with Christians from other contexts (mutual accountability).
Furthermore, contextualization is not an excuse for heterodoxy or for affirming practices that apostolic tradition and the witness of Scripture have rejected. For example, the New Testament Church argued against the Judaizers who tried to force Gentile believers to follow certain Jewish practices. Additionally, it rejected many aspects of the receiving cultures. The New Testament vice lists point to the church’s engagement with Hellenistic culture and its rejection of cultural practices that were not compatible with the Gospel. Just because the culture affirms something does not mean that God will affirm the resulting practice or related belief. The gospel is for culture and against culture at the same time.
In the same way that people have a fallen nature that needs to be transformed by grace, the cultures of the world are infected by the DNA of the fall. This is seen when the culture works against the purposes of God and becomes a means by which its people are kept in bondage, locked away from the truth of God and the liberation that God brings to those who receive Jesus.
Many evils are sanctioned by particular cultures around the world. The fact that a culture sanctions a behavior does not mean that the church should accommodate it. The scriptures do not affirm cultural relativism. For this reason, the church cannot support cultural practices that go contrary to the teaching of scripture.
Since contextualization is a process and not an event, after the people have enjoyed a sustained encounter with the Gospel, the fruit of social transformation should become visible. In the same way that the work of sanctification gradually moves forward in the individual, over time the community of faith will leaven the larger society as it lives into its calling to be salt and light. Social transformation should be an end result of contextualization.
Finally, missiologists do not use the term “contextualization” in the same way as other disciplines. For example, advocates for contextualized learning argue that true learning only takes place when teachers present information in a way that students can construct meaning based on their own experiences. Like a reader-response theological hermeneutic, a literary text or an old constitution does not have an independent or self-evident meaning. Rather, people give meaning to what they read based on their own experiences and social location. As such, the intent of the author is subordinated to the experience of the reader and the interpretation that arises from that.
The theology of scripture that emerges from the above approach views the scriptures as a cultural artifact that needs to be conformed to the modern context and the experience of the western reader. For example, demythologizing the text and the Jesus Seminar both reflect western attempts to contextualize the text to the western mind and its experience of reality. In the ensuing dance between gospel and culture, the culture is the leading partner. The theological outcome reflects the normative aspirations of secular society and creates a domesticated Gospel. That is, one fully decontextualizes the scriptures so one can reconstruct the scriptures in one’s own image. This process devalues the normative authority of scripture, overemphasizes a particular culture, and makes the church the master of divine revelation.
Traditionally, Methodists have affirmed the primacy of scripture and have argued that the church is tightly tethered to the scriptures. The scriptures are not a point of reference or a guide. Instead, they are a divine revelation that reveal God and show humankind God’s will. Even though the scriptures must be contextualized when they move from one culture to another, the meaning and intent of the scriptures cannot be changed. Otherwise, we move from contextualizing the text to reimagining the text. In the end, UM preachers are given authority to preach and teach the Holy Scriptures in light of our tradition. They are not given authority to change the meaning of the text in the name of contextualization or to accommodate culture in ways that the scriptures do not permit.
In conclusion, in the same way that God became a Jew in order to reveal the divine self and communicate God’s will to a people who were embedded within a cultural context, the church is called to “incarnate” the gospel into every culture so that the members of every society (people group) can have a culture-specific encounter with God and God’s revelation so that they can receive Christ and enter into God’s reign.