I have been pouring over 1 Corinthians 9 recently, and in so doing I have revisited some of the controversies related to the arguments for and against contextualization. In particular, I have to wrestle with what contextualization means in a city whose “official” motto is Keep Austin Weird. What follows are some lessons I have gleaned.

What is contextualization?

Simply put, contextualization is taking into consideration the cultural context in which we are seeking to communicate the gospel.  One missions strategist defines it as follows:

Contextualization is the word we use for the process of making the gospel and the church as much at home as possible in a given cultural context. . . .The question is not whether we’re going to contextualize.  The question facing every believer and every church is whether we will contextualize well.

One of the clear examples of contextualization we have in Scripture is the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, where he reminds the Corinthians that even though they have certain rights in Christ, love demands that they should be willing to forsake their rights and become slaves to all in order to win more to Christ as Paul had (see 1 Corinthians 11:1).

What is the basis for contextualization?

The basis for contextualization is the incarnation of Christ. Though he was God, he willingly forsook the glory of heaven in order to become a servant (Philippians 2:5-8). When God chose to save, by consequence, Jesus HAD to become like us (sharing in flesh and blood) in order to save us (Hebrews 2:14-18). Further, in the incarnation, Jesus came into a particular cultural context (Palestinian Judaism) at a particular time in history (the first century). Jesus forsook his rights and became a servant, and so should we (Philippians 2:5; 1 Corinthians 11:1).

What is the reason for contextualization?

Clearly, the reason for contextualization is the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:22-23). Paul willingly forsook his rights so that he would not put an obstacle in the way of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:12b). Paul “became all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:22-23).

What are the parameters of contextualization?

In other words, how far is too far? Should we become cannibals if we are to reach cannibals? Paul himself is clear that we identify with the people we are trying to reach within the parameters of Scripture. In order to reach those outside the Law of Moses Paul identified with these Gentiles who were outside the Mosaic Law; however, even in doing so he remained under the law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:21).  Just as Christ came into the world and yet was without sin, so also Paul identified with the people he was trying to reach, seeking to avoid sin by obeying our Lord’s commands. This is our model (1 Corinthians 11:1).

What contextualization is not.

Contextualization is more about removing obstacles to the gospel and identifying with the people we are trying to reach with the gospel. Contextualization is NOT an excuse for becoming like the world (Romans 12:2; Galatians 5:13-15). In a blog post, missiologist David Sills reminds us:

Some mistakenly believe that contextualization means making Christianity look just like the culture.  However, contextualization is simply the process of making the gospel understood. . . .  In fact, much of what many call contextualization is simply an effort to be trendy or edgy.  It may be effective, it may attract a hearing, it may not be offensive to hearers, but that is not contextualization; that is marketing.

What might contextualization look like for us?

First, we must identify, as much as Scripture allows, with the people we are trying to reach. A good illustration is when Paul circumcised Timothy in order that he would not become an obstacle to bringing the gospel to Jews (Acts 16:1-5).

Second, we must realize that such identification requires that we forsake our Christian rights/freedoms in order to become a servant to all. We must ask ourselves if we are willing to forsake our personal musical tastes for the sake of the gospel. What of our personal clothing choices? Maybe even our eating habits? It all depends on whom we are seeking to reach.

Contextualization is hard, diligent work. It requires self-control (1 Corinthians 9:24-25) and continual discipline (9:26-27). What is at stake is the gospel and the opportunity to share with all peoples in its blessings (1 Corinthians 9:27; see also 1 Corinthians 3:10-17). May God grant us the grace to deny ourselves in order to serve all!

Update: Here is Don Carson’s message on 1 Corinthians 9:23-27 from The Gospel Coalition 2009 National Conference.