GBC Sermon Audio – June 6 PM, 2010
I was recently asked by a church member about Bob Harrington, who was named “The Chaplain of Bourbon Street” by the major of New Orleans in 1963. I had almost forgotten about him. Billy Graham said Bob Harrington was “bringing a witness for Jesus Christ to the middle of hell.” Bob Harrington engaged a wicked culture for 20 years until that culture overtook him and he fell into immorality. His daughter gives her perspective on this sad episode in her family’s life. She writes about her “Prodigal Father.” Engaging the culture is like trying to stand on a razor’s edge. You can easily fall to the left into syncretism or to the right into isolationism. Paul’s three principles will support us to maintain our balance.
1. We Do Not Change our Message to Engage our Culture. See Part 1
2. We Do Adapt our Methods to Engage our Culture.
We want to observe three Biblical examples of our second principle (Timothy, Paul, and Jesus).
A. This is what Paul did with Timothy in Acts 16 when Paul had Timothy circumcised. There are two differences between the circumcision of Titus and Timothy. Paul would not allow Gentile Titus to be circumcised by Jewish Judaizers because the issue was salvation. Paul did permit Timothy who was half Jew and half Gentile to be circumcised in order to witness to Jews. Timothy was to be circumcised because the men in his Jewish audiences were circumcised. This is called “Incarnational missions.”
J. Hudson Taylor lived among the Chinese and became one with them to win them. Without changing his message he dressed like the Chinese and cut his hair like them because he was one of them. He shaved his head except for a long pony tail. He engaged their culture without compromising his message.
If you are going to reach unsaved motorcycle gangs you don’t wear a three piece suit and drive a BMW. You wear boots, blue jeans, a leather jacket, with your wallet chained to your belt and ride a Harley.
B. Paul gave guidelines on how far we go in adapting to the culture we are seeking to reach in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 . We do what we do for “the sake of the gospel.” We have gone too far when the Gospel message has been diluted.
1. To the Jews Paul became like their Jewish culture. This is why Paul had Timothy circumcised. Paul in Acts 18:18, after observing a Jewish Nazarite Vow, cut his hair.
2. To the Gentiles Paul became like their Gentile culture.
When Paul preached to Jews, he preached from the Old Testament. When Paul preached to Gentiles, he did not preach from the Old Testament. In Acts 17:22- 27, Paul built bridges to the pagan culture. He refers to the altar of the unknown God and told them that he was going to inform them who that unknown God was. I had a student one time who was witnessing to a Jehovah’s Witness and used her Bible to prove the deity of Christ and to win her to the Lord. This is not the same as using the Koran which declares belief in the deity of Christ blasphemy. The altar to the unknown God was not a denial of the deity of Christ. The New World Translation is the Bible mistranslated in key verses pertaining to the deity of Christ, however, with other verses that can be used to prove the deity of Christ.
Tim Keller contrasts Paul’s methods:
Examples of how Paul adapts to new cultures abound in Acts. They are literally everywhere. Even Jay Adams, fairly rock-ribbed conservative in everyway, wrote a book Audience Adaptations in the Sermons and Speeches of Paul. In Acts 13 we see Paul sharing the gospel in a synagogue to those who believed in the God of the Bible, and in Acts 14 we see him sharing the gospel to a pagan, blue-collar crowd. The differences and similarities are striking.
a) His citation of authority is very different. In the first case he quotes Scripture and John the Baptist. In the second, he argues from general revelation–greatness of creation.
b) They differ in emphasis of content. Hard to miss that with Jews and God-fearers he ignores the doctrine of God and gets right to Christ; with pagans here and Acts 17, he labors the very concept of God.
c) Finally, they differ in even the form of the final appeal–how to ‘close’ with Christ–is different. In Acts 13:39 Paul speaks of the law of God and says, essentially: “you think you are good, but you aren’t good enough! You need Christ to justify you.” But in 14 he tells them to turn from “worthless things”–idols–”to the living God” who he says is the real source of “joy”–he, not material things–is the real source. So he is saying, in effect: “you think you are free–but you are not! You are enslaved to dead idols.”
d) Despite all these very profound differences– (1) Both audiences are told about a God who is both powerful yet good (13:16-22; 14:17), (2) in both he tells the hearers they are trying to save themselves in a wrong way (moral people by trying to obey the law 13:39 and pagans by giving themselves to idols and gods that cannot satisfy 14:15), and (3) both tell hearers not to turn to some scheme of performance, but that God has broken in to history now to accomplish our salvation. Even the speech of chapter 14, which was a spontaneous outburst, though it doesn’t mention Christ directly, still points to the fact that salvation is something accomplished by God for us in history, not something we do.
3. Paul adapted to his audience without changing his message.
C. Jesus adjusted to His culture according to John 1:1, 14.
1. The Son of God not only became man but He became a Jewish man. Jesus was circumcised, attended the synagogue, ate Kosher food, and keep the Sabbath. He perfectly kept the Jewish Law (Matthew 5:18-18).
2. Jesus adjusted to his culture without compromising His message. It was because of His clear claims to be the Messiah and God that His Jewish culture perfectly understood. They just disagreed and crucified Him as a false prophet.
3. Jesus was also criticized for going too far in His associations with sinners. Jesus was accused of being a glutton and binge drinker (Matthew 11:19). Martin Luther said if you are never accused of antinomianism you are not preaching the gospel.
4. Engaging the culture, however, can go too far and lead to syncretism. King Solomon in his exposure to the surrounding cultures, succumbed and added the gods of the pagan cultures to Israel’s religion (1 Kings 11).
The SBC International Mission Broad (IMB) Principles of Contextualization says, “The theological construct represented by the term “Allah” in the Quranic system is deficient and unacceptable. However, the primary issue is not the term. The same name is used by devout Christians and it represents a sound, scriptural view of God. In fact, historically, the Christian use of “Allah” predates the rise of Islam. The missionary task is to teach who “Allah” truly is in accord with biblical revelation.” Even though Ed Stetzer approves this method I have some problems with the extent of this contextualization. Why not just teach the Muslim culture a new word, “God” or “Jesus?
Another example is provided by John Hammett. “Phil Parshall, one of the leading advocates of contextualizing the church in Islamic culture, has recently written of the danger of contextualization crossing a line and becoming syncretism, a harmful blending of Christianity with other teachings. He examines the strategy of a Christian missionary joining a Muslin mosque for the purpose of becoming a Muslim to reach Muslims, and concludes that the practice is open to the charge of unethical and sub-Christian activity” (John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology. Grand Rapids: Kregal, 2005, 345).
I like this example from David Sills on the contextualizing the gospel without compromise: Many missionaries provide a biblical worldview by teaching the grand narrative of God’s revelation through chronological Bible story telling. Some detractors of contextualization believe that we need only preach the gospel as we do back “home,” and this will be sufficient. However, in matriarchal societies, for instance, the mother is the most important figure. Women run the home, serve as rulers, and inherit from their female family members. If the father is even known, he is viewed as a biological necessity and not as an important person in life. When there is an important male figure, it will be the mother’s brother. How will we present the gospel here? Without studying to know the culture to contextualize the gospel, a sermon on God the Father would leave the hearers with a deficient view of God. In such cases, should we allow the culture to contextualize at will and preach God the Mother? Or, should we strike a compromise and preach God the Uncle? Of course, none of these would result in a biblical understanding of the gospel. The missionary preacher who has studied the culture must recognize the challenges and teach the culture the biblical view of God as Father. While such a practice flies in the face of modern anthropology, it is the biblical approach to properly contextualizing the gospel and Christianity among a people.
In my next post, I will give the third principle for engaging our changing culture without compromising our message.