Posted by: stpowen | January 28, 2013


Eph 5:11. ‘For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness and truth), finding out what is acceptable to the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them.’
1 Cor. 9:19-23. ‘For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law to Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the Gospel’s sake, that I may be a partaker in it with you.’

Contextualization is one of the latest buzz words to hit the evangelical churches at the present time. There seems to be, however, some uncertainty as to what the word means. To the Church Growth movement, personified perhaps by Acts 29, it is the understanding that in order to reach unchurched people with the Gospel, it is necessary to interact with their culture. To the more conservative churches, including John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church {1} and those in Britain who subscribe perhaps to Affirmation 2010, it is compromising with sin and worldliness in order to ingratiate oneself with the culture. In his recent comment on this blog {2} Dr. E.S. Williams felt he needed only to mention the word in order to condemn those he feels are guilty of it. It seems therefore to be a good idea to find out what both sides of the debate mean by the word, before trying to decide whether it is a Good or a Bad Thing.

The word Contextualization appears to have been in use among the churches only since the 1970s. Given the number of words that have been written about it and the importance that the Church Growth Movement attaches to it, one wonders however missionaries in the last 2,000 years have managed without it. William Carey, James Hudson Taylor and others certainly adopted practices that would today be called contextualization. They adopted Indian or Chinese dress and used Bible translations that the ordinary native people could understand. However, they did not automatically accept local practices in order to ingratiate themselves with the people. Carey campaigned relentlessly against Suttee, the custom of burning widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres, whilst Hudson Taylor opposed the Chinese custom of foot-binding, despite the opposition it brought him.

There is no doubt that the Apostle Paul used what might today be called contextualization. Whenever he arrived in a new town, it was Paul’s practice to make his first call at the local synagogue. There, in his preaching to Jews and to Gentile ‘God-fearers’ (cf. Acts 13:16), he reasoned from the Old Testament and from Jewish history to show that Jesus is the Messiah. The best examples of this are Acts 13:16ff and 17:1-4. However, when Paul was confronted by Gentiles who had no knowledge of, or respect for, the O.T. Scriptures, he spoke instead of the God of creation and reasoned from there (Acts 14:15-17; 17:22-31). However, this does not mean that Paul shied away from contentious doctrines. In Acts 17:31, we find that he did not hesitate to speak of the Resurrection, knowing that it would be a stumbling-block to the Athenian philosophers, as indeed it proved (v.32). We should never be afraid to preach or teach the ‘whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:26-27), but our approach to a Jehovah’s Witness or a Roman Catholic, who might be assumed to have at least some familiarity with the Bible, will, initially, be different to our witness to the bulk of the population who have no such knowledge. As soon as possible, of course, we should be ensuring that new converts are taught to have a familiarity with the whole Bible. Paul expected the Gentile Christians in Rome, Corinth, Galatia and Ephesus to recognize and understand the O.T. quotations and allusions in his letters.

An interesting example of contextualization occurs in the Christianity Explored course. In the explanation of the meaning of Grace, Rico Tice instances the book by Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, which has become a popular stage show and more recently, a film. More people are likely to have seen Les Miserables than have read the Bible these days, and the example of Jean Valjean receiving undeserved kindness from the Bishop in the face of active demerit, is a good picture of God’s free grace towards sinners. Although I would not normally recommend my readers to go to the cinema (on the grounds of Phil. 4:8), I do suggest that they see Les Miserables (take at least two handkerchiefs!) so as to be ready to use it in their witnessing. Paul also instanced contemporary culture when it suited his purpose (Acts 17:28).

What we dare not do in our witnessing is to play down any aspect of the Gospel because we think that it might be unacceptable to our audience. A good example of that will be Creation. Almost everybody in Britain today has been taught the theory of Evolution as a fact. However, we will not be able to give any realistic explanation of the presence of evil and suffering in the world today unless we mention the Fall. That will almost certainly involve speaking of Adam and Eve, which may well present an issue for our audience. Yet we dare not omit it. Without the Fall, mankind is not helpless in the power of sin (Rom. 5:1), is therefore able to haul itself up by its own bootstraps though education and has no need of a Saviour.

With these thoughts in mind, we can now consider Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 9:19-23, quoted at the start of this article.

‘For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more….’

Paul is saying that although he is a free man and a Roman Citizen, and under no obligation to anyone, nevertheless, as a bondservant of Jesus Christ and for the sake of the Gospel, he did not put his own needs and desires first, but ministered to the needs, prejudices and concerns of others in order to reach them with the Good News of Christ Jesus.

‘….and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law…..’

Paul was of course, a Jew by birth, and could trace his ancestry back to Benjamin and Abraham (Phil 3:4-5). Since coming to Christ, however, he did not regard it as necessary to observe the Old Testament ceremonial and dietary laws (Rom. 14:14). But when in Jewish company, Paul was prepared to fall in with their practices in order not to be a stumbling-block to them. He had Timothy, who was half-Jewish, circumcised (Acts 16:3) so the he could teach with Paul in the synagogues, and went along with certain Jewish ceremonies if they did not hinder the Christian faith (Acts 21:23-24). But he would do nothing that might compromise the Gospel. He stood against the Jews who wanted all Gentiles to be circumcised, and opposed Peter ‘to his face’ when he (Peter) was intimidated into no longer eating with Gentiles (Acts 15; Gal. 2:11ff; 5:1-2).

‘……… to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law to Christ), that I might win those who are without law……..’

When among the Gentiles, Paul was prepared to eat whatever was put in front of him, even food that had been sacrificed to idols, so long as no one made an issue about it (1 Cor. 10:23-28) and did not observe Jewish feast days (Gal. 4:9-10). As we have seen, he absolutely refused to circumcise Gentile believers and resolutely denounced those who sought to do so (Gal. 5:11-12; Phil. 3:2-3). But he was not prepared to tolerate for one moment the immorality that was so rampant among the Greeks and Romans of his day (1 Cor. 6:9ff; Eph. 4:17ff) in order to be more acceptable to them.

‘……….. to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the Gospel’s sake, that I may be a partaker in it with you.’

Paul was prepared to forgo his own freedom in Christ for the sake of others. If there were those who were uneasy about eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols or about drinking alcohol, then Paul would eat vegetable and drink water instead (Rom. 14:14-23; 1 Cor. 10:28-33). So we ourselves need not be worried about eating halal meat in an Indian restaurant. The fact that a Moslem has prayed over it makes it neither better nor worse. But if it makes a stumbling-block either to a Moslem friend to whom you are witnessing or to Christians who are uneasy about the matter, then either eat the fish or go to an Italian restaurant instead. These things do not affect the Gospel.

But we cannot compromise with Moslems about the divinity, death and resurrection of Christ. These things will be a stumbling-block to them just as they were to the Jews (1 Cor. 1:23-24), and we need to pray that the Holy Spirit will open their hearts to receive the truth. Likewise, we should not back off speaking of the miracles or about creation to secularists. We must preach the whole counsel of God, every part of it, to all people and races, and rely upon the power of God to bring us the harvest we seek (1 Cor 2:1-5).

Contextualization seems to me to be something different from the ‘Seeker-sensitive’ movement. There are churches that have grown numerically by abandoning all mention of sin and repentance and concentrating instead on the ‘felt needs’ of the congregation and a ‘life affirming’ message. Having attended, for a short time, a church that practised these techniques, I can say that if all that matters is bottoms on seats, then they work very well. If, however, our desire is to save souls and to exalt the Lord Jesus Christ, then I believe they are a failure. The very first recorded public message of our Lord was a call to repent (Matt. 4:17). By omitting that call, churches become nothing more than social clubs and are sending their congregations to hell with a pocketful of false promises.

One of the examples given by supporters of contextualization is the supposed need to use modern translations and modern songs with amplified music. I myself prefer to use a good translation {3} in modern English, but it is simply a fact that use of the Authorized Version has not stopped men like Peter Masters, Vernon Higham and John Thackway building up substantial congregations and seeing many genuine conversions. I know of other, failing, churches that have ditched the A.V. and Christian Hymns for the NIV and Mission Praise, but it has not halted their decline. Personally, I prefer the older hymns for aesthetic reasons, but they also tend to be filled with sound theology. I do not believe it is necessary to avoid the best of the newer hymns and songs, but hymnody should never be used for purposes of entertainment; hymns should be carefully chosen to reinforce the reading of the word and the sermon, not to show off the skills of the guitarist or drummer. The churches should not seek to emulate the world, either in message or music; on the contrary, it should seek to be utterly different, and confront newcomers with a message that will challenge and convict them, not soothe and cosset them.

In summary, I see no reason for the word contextualization, nor for the plethora of books and DVDs that it has spawned. The best advice offered by the contextualization gurus is nothing but common sense, and the worst provides a Gospel which is no gospel at all (Gal 1:6-7, NIV). However, nor do I see any reason for the blanket execration that comes from ultra-conservative quarters. Christians should follow the examples of our Lord and the Apostle Paul, and provide no offense or stumbling-block to any, save that of the cross which will always be an offense to Jew and Gentile alike unless God works mightily in their hearts. A good example of a balanced approach is found in the ministry of Alistair Begg, who is not above using lyrics from pop songs to illustrate his sermons, but who is at the same time steeped in the Puritans and Reformers and quotes freely from both. “Therefore every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things both old and new” (Matt 13:52).


{1} See, for example:
{2} See his comments on
{3} One of the many things that put me off the ministry of Rick Warren is his use of the Message paraphrase of the Bible which bears only a passing similarity to the original. The Bible should be written in language that people can readily understand, but it should also be an accurate translation.



  1. Affirmation 2010 is not subscribed to by congregations, it is subscribed to by individuals.
    Affirmation 2010 does not mention Contextualisation at all.
    Dr ES Williams is not a signatory of Affirmation 2010.

  2. Thank you, Mr Main.
    Your points are taken and I have edited my post to reflect that.
    You will note that I did not actually state that DR Williams is a subscriber to Affirmation 2010.

  3. John MacArthur made a comment on contextualization recently with which I rather agree:

    “Pastors are supposed to be under-shepherds of Christ. Too many modern preachers are so bent on understanding the culture that they develop the mind of the culture and not the mind of Christ. They start to think like the world, and not like the Savior. Frankly, the nuances of worldly culture are virtually irrelevant to me. I want to know the mind of Christ and bring that to bear on the culture, no matter what culture I may be ministering to. If I’m going to stand up in a pulpit and be a representative of Jesus Christ, I want to know how He thinks—and that must be my message to His people too. The only way to know and proclaim the mind of Christ is by being faithful to study and preach His Word. What happens to preachers who obsess about cultural “relevancy” is that they become worldly, not godly.”

  4. […] Contextualization @ Martin Marprelate […]

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