“Contextualizing,” “Syncretism,” and Whetting Jehoiakim’s Knife

A couple of posts back I opined that one of the church’s modern sins is the process by which the message of the cross is made culturally palatable through the process of “contextualization.” I was mildly chastised for making that suggestion, and for rebuttal purposes the passage in C0lossians 4:5-6 was referred to as evidence that I was wrong. I believe my challenger to be mistaken either about the point of my post, or the context of Col. 4:5-6 (and most likely both), but I suppose the question does give me the opportunity to explain more completely what I mean by “contextualization.” Here goes:

  • “Contextualization” is a code word meaning that we blunt the force of passages relating to male and female, and especially those relating to the sins of homoeroticism, so that the LGBTQ promoters and defenders can feel affirmed and accepted in our churches.
  • “Contextualization” is a code word meaning that we remove any mention of separate roles for male and female in our congregations, so that anyone and everyone can decide on their own what sex they prefer on any given day, and what role they decide they can perform within the Lord’s church.
  • “Contextualization” is a code word meaning that we, especially within the Churches of Christ, should abandon centuries of understanding of what worship is, because the world does not understand what congregational, acapella worship is all about.
  • “Contextualization” is a code word meaning that we strip our meeting places and meeting times of any outward appearance of “religious” symbolism, and that we employ “praise bands,” “praise teams,” “liturgical dance teams” and any other number of entertainment features so that the world can see that the church is really no different than it is. This is the guiding “north star” concept for the Bill Hybels’ (Willow Creek) “Seeker Sensitive” pablum that I was forced to swill during my graduate studies.
  • “Contextualization” is simply a reincarnation of the millennial-years-old concept of syncretism: you take one main philosophy or teaching, and then add to and subtract from that root teaching until what you finally end up with does not resemble either the parent philosophy nor any of the other teachings that were pillaged. Aaron could have claimed contextualization when he created the golden calf in Exodus 32 – ostensibly the calf was made to represent Yahweh to the people, but Moses appropriately identified it as idolatry. Jeroboam could have claimed contextualization when he made the golden calves to worship at Dan and Bethel – both places were shrines to Yahweh, at least in the sense that the shrines were for the worship of the “gods who led you out of Egypt.” (1 Kings 12:25ff) Never-the-less, God called it idolatry. Jehoiakim could have claimed contextualization when he burned Jeremiah’s scroll – it simply had no meaning for his world-view. God proved Jehoiakim wrong.

At one time the word “contextualization” might have had a positive connotation, such as speaking to scientists in language scientists can understand, and to creative minds in ways that creative minds can understand. But at least for me, it no longer can have that meaning. At one time the word might have been used in the sense of Colossians 4:5-6 and 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, but no longer. Now the word is simply a subterfuge – it is used as an excuse to contradict, or to even excise completely, passages of Scripture that make certain elements of our culture feel uncomfortable. Don’t like passages condemning homosexuality? No problem, just make those passages refer to rape or, even more creatively, social injustice. Don’t like passages referring to the differences between male and female (and the fact that God created us to be one or the other, and that there are unmistakable anatomical and psychological differences)? No problem – just excise those passages as being written in a “pre-scientific” historical context. Don’t like those embarrassing stories in the Old Testament? No problem – simply “unhitch” your Christianity from the Old Testament. Don’t like the fact that our worship services have a specific reason for the “liturgy” that is associated with them? No problem – just remove the crosses and the emblems of the Lord’s Supper and add a bunch of rock music, dance teams, and smoke machines, and tell the world that the cross and the Lord’s Supper are really not that important after all.

You might surmise that I am just a little hot under the collar here, and I am. I do not appreciate seeing the church that Jesus died for being diluted into meaninglessness through a process that is being promoted as the best way to save it. The gospel of Jesus is not that everyone is okay, and that we just need to sing our worship songs set to deafening rock music. The gospel of Jesus is not that we can choose our sex – or our sexual partners – in any way that we see fit on any given day. The gospel of Jesus is not that we as humans can think our way out of the pit of hell that we have created for ourselves.

The gospel of Jesus is abhorrent to a culture that rejects the very idea of an all powerful, and all righteous, God. And no amount of “contextualization” is ever going to change that fact. But the gospel of Jesus is also a very beautiful thing to individuals in that culture who have come to accept that the feast the world has set before them is nothing but poison and death. The gospel of Jesus is life, and purity, and holiness – but it can only be preached as such if it is recognized that this world is a horribly bent and broken place.

May God save his church from its friends!

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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