Adapting Without Compromising
Scripturally Acceptable Latitude in Contextualization
It is usually stated among conservative and fundamental Christians, that the Bible is the only acceptable rule of faith and practice. This statement is often simply repeated without regard for what it truly means in practice. In saying that the Bible is our only rule of faith and practice, one usually means that he does not hold to traditions that contradict or undermine the authority of the Bible. This point of view agrees with the general teaching of the Scriptures, as well as with the Reformation call for ‘Sola Scriptura.’ In reality, however, certain Christian movements place demands of conformity based on ecclesiastical or denominational traditions that go beyond Scriptural teachings. Consequently, in foreign missionary efforts, Scriptural teachings and practices are often bound together with the traditions of the missionaries. This ‘all-inclusive’ package blurs the difference between the universal principles of God’s Word and other adopted elements, which in turn brings an unnecessary burden to the new believers in the target culture, as it also often is in the very culture of the missionary. In order to fully practice the principle of ‘Sola Scriptura’ as stated above, I believe it is imperative that one learns to discern between what the Scriptures say and the practices for which we may invoke certain portions of the Scriptures in their defense.
The words of the apostle Paul in I Corinthians 9:18-24 are perhaps the key to understanding the range of adaptation permitted or desired by God: „What is my reward then? Verily that, when I preach the gospel, I may make the gospel of Christ without charge, that I abuse not my power in the gospel. For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law; to the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak; I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.“ One can easily discern Paul’s aim in his adaptability from this text: he wished to save some by all permissible means. Assuming this goal to be one of the main ones in any missionary task, each missionary is inevitably forced to ask the question: how does one adapt to another culture without compromising absolute standards found in the Word of God? Although the apostle Paul very clearly states in the text above that he became as one of those to whom he was preaching, it is also clear from others of his New Testament epistles, that he was not willing to compromise principle. To come to a reliable answer, one has to be willing to study the Scriptures thoroughly in order to discern between God’s absolutes and man’s opinions.
One of the principal adjustments that my family and I had to make as missionaries when we moved to Germany in 1994, was to realize that we were confronted with a culture that was not generally accustomed to American thinking, especially as it relates to Church practices. If we had not eventually learned the difference between our opinions and traditions and what the Bible actually says, we would have trapped ourselves into the common rut of traditional missions, full of importation of foreign ideas, often not really grounded in the Bible. Truly, missionaries naturally carry over the structures and habits from their Churches in their country of origin. These structures and habits may not be necessarily bad, but to pass them on to a foreign culture that, not only is not accustomed to it, but that also does not understand the reason for having them, is a missions’ practice that does not have its root in the New Testament. Preachers and missionaries are often rightly reminded not to compromise the Word of God. But those sent to carry the Word to a new audience do not have the right to elevate their opinions to the level of the Word of God, presenting them as unchangeable and inflexible, even when these opinions do not explicitly contradict the Bible. I would like highlight some salient points and illustrations in order to emphasize the kind of discernment one needs to exercise, on one hand continuing to be true to God’s Word and on the other hand allowing it to take root in a new culture without admixture with the missionary’s traditions.
° It is important to realize that cultures give different degrees of importance to various things.
o Greetings, for example, are held as very important in certain cultures. In a culture that is more formal in character, like that of Germany, acknowledging a person in a group and bidding good-bye when leaving it, is an integral part of the relationship among people. More informal cultures, as the American typically would be, would not necessarily attribute such high value to the way one departs from one another.
o There are cultures that take a lengthy amount of time to explain things while others are concerned mainly with getting things - many things - done.
o Formality in dress is held high among certain cultures, while in others an “ideal” personal appearance is of little value. That was the case in the part of Germany where we lived. On the other hand, though not very concerned with people’s dress styles, they were a lot more observant of one’s attitude. The Germans among whom we lived would not be extraordinarily impressed by a fine-looking, well-dressed person, and even less, if his/her attitude were negative. They would, on the other hand, give little thought to the outward appearance, if the person had agreeable and kind manners.
o Our American Churches try to handle their affairs in a very business-like atmosphere. Pastors are expected to dress like businessmen and also behave very much as such. To the German culture with which we were involved, this experience would be much too similar to the ecclesiastical clericalism that is found in the German State Churches. Those who have come to Christ and want to be a part of a biblical New Testament church typically reject this State Church format. A missionary attempting to do things „first class“ may appear to them to be trying to follow the State Church pattern. It would be advisable to find out from the people whom we serve what appears improper to them and learn where the balance is. Although American fundamental Baptists would think of themselves as informal (because they do not think of themselves as following a ‘high-church’ pattern), a German may perceive such a highly organized, planned and “business-like” Church service or activity as too formal.
° Words need to be properly defined.
o The Apostle Paul told Timothy that he should „charge“ the people before the Lord that they should not strive about words to no profit. Words have meanings, but not the same meaning everywhere. If one does not understand this simple fact, one can easily find himself in ridiculous situations, striving over „apples and bananas“ (a phrase I used to tell my children meaning that an argument would go on and on about whether a certain item is red or yellow, without either party realizing that one person is talking about an apple and the other about a banana. Yes, it is red, if we are talking about an apple. Yes, it is yellow, if we are talking about a banana.). Until one defines what is being talked about, there is no need to continue a discussion. Baptists find themselves trying to get people that are not familiar with the term „Baptist“ to see that it is an absolutely proper and ‘necessary’ tag, but fail to explain carefully and patiently why that word is used and what it represents. In German, the word for baptism is „Taufe“. Therefore, the word „Baptist,” which is not even a commonly known term of a particular denomination, does not even sound to a German speaker like „baptism,” thus leaving the German hearer clueless as to its real meaning. A missionary can save himself much unnecessary heartache if he learns how to teach them, not just enforce a term. Interestingly enough, the Word of God says that a bishop (pastor) - which a missionary often functions as, at least for the time that he is with a particular work - should be apt to teach, not just to preach. It is not uncommon for Christians themselves not to know how a New Testament Church should operate. They may have been raised in a traditional denomination or in a State church. But the disparity between traditional denominational practices and biblical practice is often enormous. What the Bible actually teaches about the Church needs to be taught to those we are ministering to, but a structure does not need to be applied to them without giving them the opportunity to gain an understanding of the reasons and of the basis for it. I believe it is wise to learn to grow with them and not to lord over them, keeping the words of the apostle Paul in mind: „to the weak became I as weak.“
° Reasoning patterns are often different
o Perhaps because of the educational system in which they were trained, a people group may have very different reasoning patterns. In general, Germans give directions differently than Americans (not only the language is different). It was also my experience when I first went to Germany that offering too many Bible citations one after another during a message or a Bible study would be distracting rather than beneficial, as their tendency was to attempt to completely grasp all there was to know in a particular text, before they went to the next. I discovered that I was the one who needed to adapt and help transmit the message in a manner that would be truly beneficial to my audience. This awareness led me to a more thorough research of the topic or text with which I was dealing and a conscious avoidance of “blanket statements.”
° Discernment between absolute and provisional rules or guidelines
o As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, it is imperative to learn to discern between what one really can and should hold as absolute truth, and what appears normal and absolute due to our familiarity with it.
o Biblical morality is absolute. It cannot be changed. To change it would be to compromise the Word of God. Through Scripture one can see that lying is always wrong; so is adultery or idol worship. These are absolute guidelines found in the Bible which no Christian who wishes to be faithful to the Lord could deny. Along with these, there is a host of other absolute instructions found in the Scriptures. Such are unconditional and unvarying, regardless of the culture with which one may be trying to relate.
o There are customs which are peculiar to a particular country, most of which have their foundation in historical events or practices of a nation’s past. The concept of patriotism, for example, as it is viewed in the United States, is held often to the level of a biblical, Christian duty or grace. In Germany, due to the political extremes that resulted in World War II, patriotism is often identified with Nazism, a political philosophy now rejected by the overwhelming majority of Germans, as it is around the world. In view of this, a missionary should understand that he is not in a country like Germany to preach patriotism. The Scriptures do teach in Romans 13, that we should respect and obey the civil authority that God has placed over us. But this should not be confused with ‘patriotism.’
o Terms such as „standards“ and „convictions“ are often used in the same sentence without distinction. A conviction is something of which one is assured of as being universal and absolute in its application, an assurance presumably arrived to through a proper understanding of the Scriptures. A departure from a clearly universal command found in the Word of God is called a transgression or a sin. On the other hand, a standard can simply be a precaution to keep one from falling into a sin about which we have convictions. Also, it should be understood that every conviction is a standard (for example: „Thou shalt not commit adultery“), although not every standard is an absolute ‘requirement’ that should be understood as a ‘conviction.’ A standard is a precautionary measure to avoid committing the action of transgressing against the Law (absolute) of God. We can further illustrate this with the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis: as he worked in Potiphar’s house one day, he found himself alone near where Potiphar’s wife was. She tried to tempt him to commit adultery with her but he ran away (as he should have). If they had not been alone, the rest of the story might have been different. Many would choose for themselves never to be in a place alone with a person of the opposite sex (excluding wife and close relatives) as a standard of protection. Although this is a wise choice, this is not a requirement of Scripture. In Joseph’s case, the fact that he was there alone fulfilling his duties in his master’s house is definitely not identified as a sin in the Bible. In view of this, the condemnation of another person’s actions when he or she does not follow our personal code of standards, is not justifiable, since the other person is not guilty of breaking God’s Law. Another facet of these two concepts is the fact that there are standards which are based on biblical principles, but are not as obvious to the new reader of the Word of God. Such standards need to be taught, but with the understanding that they may not be as obvious at first glance for new converts or uninstructed Christians as it may be for the one teaching it. One needs to remember where he/she began his/her journey with the Lord, and the time that God has taken to bring us to where we are now.
So, what is one to do, then? Be faithful to God’s absolute standards, but do not present your opinions in a manner that gives the impression that, if one breaks them, one has violated God’s Law. My personal ministry experience has allowed me to be intimately acquainted with these controversies in several mission fields of the world. The overwhelming reality that I have discovered through these experiences is that people „see through us“ if our statement does not „hold water.” If this is their impression of our judgment or discernment, they are very likely to reject even those items of doctrine that are sure and absolute.
I recall hearing a pastor from the Kansas City area who had previously been a missionary in Central America make the following statement: 95% of the differences in the cultural aspects among various nations do not involve sinful practices. In other words, his understanding is that there is a large area of culture of any particular nation that does not need to be challenged, because they do not violate God’s principles. I have never personally listed the cultural differences between Germany and the United States altogether in order to calculate a specific figure. However, by personal experience, I would heartily agree that the percentage would be similarly high. If that is truly the case, the attempt to impose our wishes upon the people we are ministering to in areas which pertain to the „95%“, is unnecessary, useless and often counterproductive. As long as the Scriptures are not violated, we should be willing to make adjustments in these flexible areas.
American churches have customary times of services, as well as a typical programmatic pattern and church activities. Missionaries can impose all of these traditional things on the people they minister if they will. But when the people whom we are ministering to does not perceive a need to do it in that fashion, or does not understand the meaning and the reason for them, missionaries find themselves in unnecessary conflicts.
The job of the missionary should be to instruct people on what the Bible says, not on what we think the Bible says. If one stays with God’s instruction Book and presents: a) absolute warnings against sin and absolute criteria for Church affairs as absolute; b) standards based on biblical principles in a careful, understandable fashion („apt to teach“); and c) our opinions as exactly what they are: opinions, it will be more likely that their respect will be earned and, most of all, they will truly grow deep spiritual roots. If one says that the Word of God is complete and without error, then opinions should never be presented as if they were „infallible“, as if they were part of God’s text! It would serve us well to heed the Lord’s warning in his condemnation of Pharisaic doctrine in Mark 7:7: “Howbeit in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of man.”
Most of the learning in the area of cultural adaptation and contextualization is attained through personal interaction with a particular culture, rather than through books and articles. Other missionaries that have lived in a particular culture can also be a valuable resource of information and wisdom. The newly-arrived missionary should not be so self-assured that he despises these veterans and their experiences. Nevertheless, we must all realize that we do not have all the answers, only the Lord Himself. A spirit or mind-set of understanding and respect of the culture on the part of the missionary is the launching ground for a ‘successful’ adaptation to the culture and contextualization of the absolute truths of God’s Word.
In closing, I would like to reiterate the following recommendations:
1. Take time to discover your Bible. Discover once again what the essence of Biblical Christianity is and what the Scriptures actually teach.
2. Learn to distinguish these from one another: a) clear absolutes, b) absolute principles that need to be carefully and patiently taught, and c) your opinions or ideas. You may keep in mind the practices of your original church culture (various evangelistic programs, specific ways to deal with people). These may be a help to someone in your new field at some given time, but decide from the start not to come at your new people a haughty attitude as if you were „God’s gift to the world.”
3. You can keep your opinions and even share them. But if they are only opinions and not clear biblical truth or a standard based on a biblical principle, then do not damage someone’s character or reputation, nor despise their usefulness because they are otherwise persuaded.
4. Be ready to adapt - without compromise – or . . . get ready to start dying through discouragement.
Written by Elsen Portugal
Missionary to Germany
April 4, 2001
Review finished November 19, 2011
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