Teaching Christ in Context

I live in Melbourne, Australia. Everyone here knows what the word ‘football’ means. It means AFL, or ‘Aussie Rules’ or usually just ‘footie’. If I lived in Brisbane ‘football’ would mean Rugby League; in Manchester it means soccer and in Chicago it means gridiron.

Christians know that context is important. When we are taught how to study the Bible, we learn the importance of putting a passage into its context. If you don’t carefully read a bible passage in its context, you risk misinterpreting it. That’s because the meaning of words is determined by their context.  

In the earliest years of the Church, God’s people faced a serious dilemma. How were they to obey Jesus’ command to take the gospel to the ends of the earth? Three possible strategies lay before them:

  1. To take the gospel only to Jewish people. 
  2. To take the gospel to Jews and Gentiles, but to expect the Gentiles first to understand the customs and culture of Judaism. 
  3. To enter into the cultural, linguistic and social framework of the Gentiles and explain the gospel through whatever terms were understood by them. 

After much debate, the early church decisively adopted the third option. Since then, God’s people have been explaining the gospel using the language of the people they are seeking to reach. This means entering their worldview and learning their culture. This is called ‘contextualisation’.

Contextualisation must be taken with caution as, in the hands of some, it has been an excuse to change the gospel to make it fit a particular context. But the New Testament does not allow us this licence. It insists that the one message of Christ crucified is universally applicable to all people everywhere.

Evangelical contextualisation is not about changing the gospel. It is about learning another person’s language and culture so they can hear and understand the good news. It is about enabling someone to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ in their own tongue. Mission Partners invest years in the painstaking work of learning to communicate the gospel in someone else’s language and culture. But it is of non-negotiable importance if we are to be faithful to the task of mission.

Written by David Williams