Why Acts 17 and 1 Corinthians 9 are not examples of “contextualization”

Scott Aniol

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Evangelicals today often highlight primarily two passages of Scripture in support of their view of contextualization. First, they often look to Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill in Acts 17:16–34 as the supreme example of missional contextualization, so much so that Mark Driscoll even named his church “Mars Hill”:

When the apostle Paul stood atop Mars Hill, he proclaimed good news to a diverse people steeped in philosophy, culture, and spirituality. Mars Hill Church seeks to continue that legacy in modern-day Seattle. Our city is a place much like first-century Athens: a marketplace of ideas, a vibrant arts community, and a metropolitan hub.

Our church is more than a building, an organization, a man, or a Sunday. Mars Hill Church is a group of missionaries united by a common relationship with Jesus Christ. We want to share him with Seattle by serving and loving the city and preaching the gospel like Paul: using the artifacts and language of our culture to point to Jesus.1http://www.marshillchurch.org/newhere; accessed February 15, 2008.

Paul’s engaging of the culture of Athens in his attempt to win them to Christ serves as a model for missional churches. Stetzer and Putman comment, “The culture of the hearer impacted his missional methods,”2 Ed Stetzer and David Putman, Breaking the Missional Code: Your Church Can Become a Missionary in Your Community (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), and Van Gelder notes that “Paul argued philosophy with secular philosophy on secular terms.”3Craig Van Gelder, The Missional Church and Leadership Formation: Helping Congregations Develop Leadership Capacity (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009), 118. A missional church will immerse itself in its culture so that it can understand and engage its culture on its own terms.

Evangelicals also often appeal to 1 Corinthians 9:19–23:

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

Stetzer and Putman say of this passage, “Paul is the model for us in that he made himself a slave to the preference and cultures of others, rather than a slave to his own preferences.”4Stetzer and Putman, Breaking the Missional Code, Stanley Parris comments, “Paul held deep personal convictions, yet he searched for customs and traditions with which he could sympathize in order to place himself in the position to win them to Christ.”5Stanley Glenn Parris, “Instituting a Missional Worship Style in a Local Church Developed from an Analysis of the Culture” (PhD diss., Asbury Theological Seminary, 2008), 28.

However, a brief analysis of the key passages cited as examples of biblical contextualization will further clarify whether such comparisons are valid.

Mars Hill

Acts 17 records Paul’s attempt to evangelize three cities, each of which had very different kinds of people. Paul’s audience in Thessalonica was predominantly Jewish. He spent time in the synagogue there speaking to Jews and Jewish proselytes, but it was not a receptive audience. Some did come to Christ, but for the most part, Paul’s audience was hostile. Verse 5 records that these Jews were jealous when a few began to convert to Christ, and so they stirred up the crowd against Paul. In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians he notes that they received the gospel amid affliction (1:6). In his second letter he reminded them that they accepted his message in the midst of much conflict (2:2). So evidently the few who did come to Christ did so despite much persecution.

In Berea, Paul’s audience was mostly Jewish, but these Jews were generally open to his message. Verse 11 states that they were more noble than the Thessalonians because they received Paul’s message with eagerness, so this audience was similar to the one in Thessalonica except that they were much more receptive.

After Berea, Paul went to Athens, where his audience was much different than the other two cities. Athens was the center of Greek mythology, which in verse 16 Paul noticed when he saw that the city was full of idols.6Mal Couch, A Bible Handbook to the Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2004), 338–39. Furthermore, this city contained a number of high class philosophers, exemplified by whom Paul meets in verse 18, a group of Epicureans and Stoics. Epicureans were pure materialists who did not believe in the spiritual world, similar to secular humanists today. Stoics were pantheists. Not only did they believe in many gods, but they also believed that all people have divinity within them, similar to modern New Age beliefs.7John B. Polhill, Acts (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 1992), 336–37. So this was a completely different kind of audience than those that Paul had found in Thessalonica and Berea.

Thus Acts 17 records Paul’s attempt to communicate the gospel to these three different audiences. The question is whether Paul contextualized the message depending on the culture he was in, and if so, to what degree. Verse 2 records that he reasoned with the Jews in Thessalonica from the Old Testament Scriptures. These Jews would have respected the Scriptures as inspired by God, and so it was natural for Paul to start there. Verse 3 records that he explained those Scriptures to them and proved that the Messiah had to die and rise again, and then he explained to them that the facts about Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled these prophesies about the Messiah. The proper response, then, would be to believe in Jesus Christ. Paul could make assumptions with these Jews, he could leave some things unsaid, and he reasoned from Old Testament prophecies. His method was evidently similar with the Berean Jews.

Paul’s method differed with the audience in Athens, which needed more information than the Jews. He had to tell them that God created all things and ruled them all, that God expected them to serve him, and that judgment was coming for those who did not. The Jews already believed this, but he had to explain these issues to the Athenians because, as he said, they were ignorant. In Athens, Paul did not reason with them out of messianic prophesies, trying to prove that predictions about the Messiah and facts about Jesus’s life matched, which would have made no sense to them. Instead, he appealed to the needs he knew the Athenians had and showed them why they needed to turn to God.

So in this sense, Paul presented the same gospel message in different ways depending on his audience. The first way Paul communicated differently was in relation to their religion. With the Jews in Thessalonica and Berea, Paul was able to build on the foundation of their current religion and explain new revelation concerning Jesus. He could not do that with pagans since they had a different understanding of the nature of the world, and so Paul had to consider their current religious understanding and then explain what was necessary to correct their faulty thinking. He does this in verses 22–23:

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.

Paul had evidently spent some time studying the religion of Athens, and he used that knowledge to present the gospel in the best way possible, but what Paul thought about this religious culture is enlightening. Verse 16 reveals that Paul was “provoked” (parōxyneto) by the culture he saw in Athens.8Cf. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church, and the World (Bible Speaks Today), Reprint (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 278. He did not adopt their culture; he did not approve of their culture; he despised it.

Furthermore, Paul did not try to garner respect by speaking positively about their beliefs. In verse 22 when he says that they are “religious,” he is not complimenting them. The word here is deisidaimōn, literally “superstitious,” which would have been considered a negative charge.9David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009), 494. Cf. Polhill, Acts, 371. Although some might suggest that the term is neutral, Paul’s other use in Romans 1:20–23 is a decidedly negative tone and communicates spiritual ignorance.10Darrell L. Bock, Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 564. This is reflected further in verse 23 where Paul references their “unknown” god. Again, some missional advocates suggest that Paul was seeking to gain common ground with his audience.11Lynn Allan Losie, “Paul’s Speech on the Areopagus: A Model of Cross-Cultural Evangelism,” in Mission in Acts: Ancient Narratives in Contemporary Context, ed. Robert L. Gallagher and Paul Hertig … Continue reading However, Paul’s use of the term agnoeō here again connotes a negative charge of ignorance. The NASB is perhaps the clearest translation here: “What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.”12Polhill, Acts, 372; R. Kent Hughes, Acts: The Church Afire (Wheaton: Crossway, 1996), 233.

Even the phrase “objects of your worship” is used elsewhere in Scripture only negatively.13Cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:4 and Romans 1:25. Thus Paul was accusing his audience of being ignorant in their religious beliefs. In fact, he implies their ignorance again in verse 30 and says that God commands them to repent of it.

Paul continues by addressing their philosophy. In verse 28, Paul quotes their own philosophers: “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’” Some might insist that this is an example of Paul immersing himself in the culture of Athens and quoting their own philosophers as a way to gain respect from his audience. However, careful consideration of Paul’s argument here clarifies the issue. His primary argument begins in verse 24:

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us.

Paul’s argument is that God is the Creator and Ruler of all and that he is not served by human hands. Then he quotes their own philosophers who admit that they come from a god, which reveals their inconsistency. They say that they came from a god, and yet they still try to bring that god under their control by making idols. Paul is attempting to discredit them by pointing out this glaring inconsistency in their thinking. He reveals that purpose in verse 29:

Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.

Paul was not using cultural references in a positive light; again, he was showing how futile they were. He was discrediting the popular religious philosophy of the day.

Paul did communicate the message of the gospel differently to pagans than he did to Jews. However, the difference involved the fact that he could build on the truth of the Jewish religion, while his attitude toward the religion of the pagans was one of disgust and condemnation. He did not immerse himself in their “culture” in order to reach them; instead, he exploited the ignorance and superstition of their religion in order to confront them with the truths of the gospel. Rather than highlighting similarities between his worldview and that of the Athenians and seeking to express the gospel in their philosophical categories, as missional authors suggest, Paul was pressing the antithesis between their worldviews and ways of life in order to reveal the inconsistencies in their own thinking and highlight the authority of the Christian worldview.

All Things to All Men

As mentioned above, Evangelicals also appeal to 1 Corinthians 9:19–23 as an example of cultural contextualization. Evangelicals often use this passage to support the position that churches must be willing to change any aspect of their ministry for the sake of the gospel. This philosophy is at the root of desires to change worship style, for example, and provides the basis for Stetzer’s assertion that worship must not be “constrained by the values and vision of supporters who are already Christ followers.”14Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches, 267.

In order to discern the central message of this passage, it must be understood in its larger context of a discussion about meat that had been offered to idols in 1 Corinthians 8–10. Paul argues in chapter 8 that the meat itself is good, but for several reasons expounded in the subsequent chapters, Paul suggests that in some circumstances Christians may be wisest to refrain from eating. If the meat is so strongly identified with the idol worship that it causes weaker Christians to stumble into sin, then the stronger Christian should not eat the meat (8:13). In chapter 9, Paul reinforces his point by listing other rights that he would be willing to forego for the sake of the gospel. For Paul, unhindered communication of the gospel motivates him to forsake what are legitimately his rights (9:18).

In this context Paul makes his famous “all things to all men” statement. Evangelicals understand this to be a positive statement of adopting the culture of a target audience in order to reach them for the gospel. However, the context of the argument proves differently. Paul is not suggesting that the evangelist adopt cultural practices in order to engage his audience; rather, he is insisting that the evangelist be willing to eliminate practices that may be within his rights if such practices will hinder the advancement of the gospel.

This is John Makujina’s argument. “Contextualization” in this sense, according to Makujina, should be “preventative and defensive” rather than “offensive.” Paul is not attempting to create a “persuasive advantage with his hearers when the gospel is presented”; rather, he removes barriers to the gospel in order to create a “zero, neutral ground from which he may preach Christ crucified.”15John Makujina, Measuring the Music: Another Look at the Contemporary Christian Music Debate (Willow Street, PA: Old Paths Publications, 2002), 20–23. Terry Wilder summarizes:

Paul willingly gave up the exercise of his rights “on account of the gospel” and by doing so saw himself as participating in it (9:23). . . . For the sake of Christian love and the propagation of the gospel of Christ, we need to be willing to refrain from the exercise of any rights that we may have as believers or individuals.16Terry L. Wilder, “A Biblical Theology of Mission and Contextualization,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 55, no. 1 (Fall 2012): 16–17.

Thus, the evangelical idea of contextualization cannot be proven from the passages discussed above. Adjusting methods of communicating the gospel based on religious differences or removing legitimate practices that would hinder the gospel are not the same as the contemporary evangelical notion of contextualization that involves immersing one’s self in the cultural practices of a target audience in order to gain a hearing for the gospel.

For more on this, see my book By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post Christian Culture (Kregel, 2015).

References

References
1 http://www.marshillchurch.org/newhere; accessed February 15, 2008.
2 Ed Stetzer and David Putman, Breaking the Missional Code: Your Church Can Become a Missionary in Your Community (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006),
3 Craig Van Gelder, The Missional Church and Leadership Formation: Helping Congregations Develop Leadership Capacity (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009), 118.
4 Stetzer and Putman, Breaking the Missional Code,
5 Stanley Glenn Parris, “Instituting a Missional Worship Style in a Local Church Developed from an Analysis of the Culture” (PhD diss., Asbury Theological Seminary, 2008), 28.
6 Mal Couch, A Bible Handbook to the Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2004), 338–39.
7 John B. Polhill, Acts (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 1992), 336–37.
8 Cf. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church, and the World (Bible Speaks Today), Reprint (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 278.
9 David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009), 494. Cf. Polhill, Acts, 371.
10 Darrell L. Bock, Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 564.
11 Lynn Allan Losie, “Paul’s Speech on the Areopagus: A Model of Cross-Cultural Evangelism,” in Mission in Acts: Ancient Narratives in Contemporary Context, ed. Robert L. Gallagher and Paul Hertig (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), 229–30.
12 Polhill, Acts, 372; R. Kent Hughes, Acts: The Church Afire (Wheaton: Crossway, 1996), 233.
13 Cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:4 and Romans 1:25.
14 Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches, 267.
15 John Makujina, Measuring the Music: Another Look at the Contemporary Christian Music Debate (Willow Street, PA: Old Paths Publications, 2002), 20–23.
16 Terry L. Wilder, “A Biblical Theology of Mission and Contextualization,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 55, no. 1 (Fall 2012): 16–17.
Author BTboBLT

Scott Aniol

Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief G3 Ministries

Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries. He lectures around the world in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. You can find more, including publications and speaking itinerary, at www.scottaniol.com. Scott and his wife, Becky, have four children: Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline. You can listen to his podcast here.