I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.
(1 Corinthians 9:22 – ESV)
“All things to all people” means appreciating cultural and community customs, not accommodating doctrine or changing the substantive content of our preaching. This entails being a gentleman, understanding local history and language, not bringing offense to local standards that are matters of choice for the Christian, etc. It does not mean compromising your doctrine or diluting the message. We try and not give any extra offense to people, but the message of the cross will always be against the current of any society and every soul that is unregenerate.
Paul would not change his doctrine or message to appeal to different groups (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:22-23), but he would change his behavior and manner of approach. He was willing to offend people over the gospel, but wanted to offend them only over the gospel.
Paul could “speak the language” of his particular audience. He would do it without compromising the essentials. If he was talking to Jews, he could reference the Law, keep kosher, and show how it points to Christ. If he were speaking to Gentiles, he would speak of not having to be under ritual and such, but about how faith works. To those who were a little over scrupulous, he would avoid the meat sacrificed to idols and other things that might offend those who didn’t understand their liberties yet. To those who were suffering under persecution he may talk about how he was being chased by a mob of angry people and how he had been beaten and perhaps about his thorn in the flesh or other bodily ailment (cf. Galatians 4:13). To a Roman he could talk about what being a Roman citizen meant and how allegiance to Caesar cannot triumph allegiance to Christ. He could speak many actual languages, which of course was a help.
He tried to identify with them on some level and then show them that whatever their situation may be, the gospel was the answer to their most important questions. Paul brought them into the story by identifying with them, so that they might identify with Christ. He showed them that he understood and was concerned about their circumstances, and then would lead them to see how the gospel meets their real needs.
He gains the right to be heard because he heard them as they were first. He already knew who they were, in a sense, sinners, and what they needed, the gospel. Yet they didn’t know that he really understood their situations and was genuinely concerned for them, so he identified with them so as to gain an audience for the gospel.
It is kind of like how you love your spouse, they know that you love them, but you have to break through to each other in a way they can appreciate depending on the circumstance. Sometimes it is easy sometimes it is hard. God does this with us as well. Think about it, contextualization is a very big deal, and that is why it can get perverted on both sides, over and under, because Satan knows it is a great tool, and absolutely necessary. So he is constantly attacking it, getting some people to dismiss it and act as if that is pious, while others go too far and act like they used to before they were saved, and I don’t mean riding a motorcycle, I mean getting drunk and destructive with the gang.
Paul was willing to adapt regardless of what inconveniences it might mean to him personally. But he would not adapt his message, or practices, in a way that would contradict what he was preaching. We can adapt to all kinds of disadvantages personally to witness to unbelievers, so long as that doesn’t mean participating in things that are abhorrent to God.
Contextualization is not compromise, but often compromise is mislabeled as contextualization. Paul was not catering to what his audience wanted, but giving them what they needed. This is the big issue in contextualization, to make sure we are using enough of the cultural elements to make the message clear, at the same time making sure that we are not clouding it.
Some believe that contextualization means making Christianity look just like the culture. Biblically based contextualization is not marketing, although much of what passes for contextualization or “missional” is simply an effort to be trendy and edgy. Biblical contextualization is simply the process of making the Gospel understood. Missionaries and Bible translators do this. Preachers do this. They preach in English, not Greek or Hebrew. They wear the clothes of today, like suits and ties, not robes or togas. They usually illustrate their sermons from modern life, not from the life of ancient biblical times. If the audience is different, say children, or those with lower levels of academic attainment, they simplify their sermon. The problem is not the practice of contextualization; it is a misunderstanding of what the word means.
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. Contextualization without compromise is the goal!
A faithful minister doesn’t ever set aside truth, but he sometimes sets aside liberty. In contrast, 2 Corinthians 2:17 gives us an idea of people who are not faithful ministers, but hucksters who use God’s Word as a tool for selfish gain, whether money, influence, popularity, self esteem, or comfort at the expense of telling the whole truth. Their idea of contextualization was to avoid whatever truth was necessary to get what they wanted. The word picture is someone who places the good looking bits on top of the basket and hides the less attractive parts. Paul’s idea was to bring the truth in a different basket. The most important stuff remained the same.
In Acts 17, Paul uses the Greek culture of pantheism in Athens to his advantage. They were always interested in hearing new philosophies and ideas (vs.18-21). Paul was well versed in rhetoric (Acts 22:3), and so he used that style with them (vs.22ff). He quoted from their literature (vs.28). He knew they didn’t mean the real God, but he applies what they already believed (vs.29 – cf. 1 Corinthians 15:32 / Titus 1:12). Jesus contextualized by using illustrations about farming, fishing, shepherding, etc. He ate with the sinners, yet did not defile himself with them.
Regarding contextualization, here are some other examples of Paul in action: Paul forbid Titus from being circumcised (Galatians 2:3-5), and then later the Jerusalem council agreed it was not a requirement (Acts 15:1, 5, 19-20, 28-29). Why then, after these things, did he circumcise Timothy (Acts 16:3)? Also, in Acts 21:18-26 – James, who presided over the Council of Acts 15, asks that Paul will stand by the right of Jewish Christians to keep on observing the Mosaic Law. Paul did as they asked. Why?
Titus was pure Greek, and the whole principle of Gentile freedom was at stake. Circumcision was obviously not even a consideration for him; it would only harm, and had no advantage.
However, Timothy was both Jew and Greek (Acts 16:1), and he would have a different set of circumstances. With Timothy it was not about accepting it for salvation, which is what Paul means and is warning about in Galatians 2:2-3. Unless circumcised, Timothy could not have been allowed to preach in the synagogues. Paul voluntarily removed this stumbling-block to the ministry of Timothy to the Jews. It was a question of efficient service, not an essential of salvation. Timothy was not being circumcised to keep the Law but to keep the Jews at bay.
As for Acts 21, Paul agreed and participated in Jewish purification ceremonies, which he knew were not necessary for his own life, because he hoped would help build a bridge of ministry to the Jews. He did it because they asked him to do it and because he knew it would help those weak brothers who took the Nazarite vow (Numbers 6:1-21) to see him in the right light. It was a strategic decision by Paul, and it seems he did this more than once (cf. Acts 18:18). Perhaps it was suited only to that time and place in redemptive history. The principle of not giving unnecessary offense, however, is still valid.
I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings – Paul wants to share his passion with others; he desperately wants to see people saved, and he wants them to enjoy the wonderful good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a way of life. Paul knew he was given a commission and he had an obligation to fulfill it (Romans 1:14).
“Living For Today With An Eye For Tomorrow”©
Labels: 1 Corinthians, Bible, Compromise, Contextualization, Evangelism, Gospel, Issues, Ministry, Paul, Radio / Podcast