On the banks of the Ganges River, Indian evangelist Sadhu Sundar Singh stood proclaiming the gospel. Speaking to the crowd with great conviction, he enraptured some with his message while enraging others. As he continued to preach the good news of Jesus Christ, someone in the crowd scooped up a handful of sand and flung it into Sundar Singh’s face. The sand in his mouth, nose, and eyes forced him to stop preaching. He walked to the river to wash it out. Several men, appalled by this despicable action, surrounded the culprit, took him into custody, and handed him over to the police.
Rinsing the sand from his face, Sundar Singh turned to the scene behind him: a man in police custody and an angry mob calling for him to be taken away and punished. Walking through the crowd and standing in front of the police officer, Sundar Singh did the unexpected—something that carried as much meaning as the words that had been cut short by the sand. Rather than demand justice, he asked for mercy. Filled with a compassion that revealed the truth of his preaching, he begged for the perpetrator’s release.
The man’s eyes widened in disbelief as Sundar Singh continued his plea, even refusing to preach until the suspect was released. As the police restraints dropped from his wrists, the man dropped to his knees at Sundar Singh’s feet. He begged forgiveness and declared his desire to hear more about the Jesus who was being preached.
An incident from my own experience reinforces the need for humble interaction with those who might oppose us. Some years ago our ministry decided to begin working in areas not previously exposed to the gospel. After a time, our staff and the new believers in one of the villages endured harassment at the hands of followers of another religion, and on one occasion the staff workers were badly beaten. When I visited the village, I was persuaded to contact those responsible for the attack to attempt an explanation of what we were doing. After some convincing, they agreed to meet with me.
Unfamiliar with the beliefs and traditions of the people I was about to visit, I asked those in our ministry who had come to Christ from that faith to tutor me on their customs and practices and how I should address them. From their suggestions, I developed a plan. It was important to ensure both that my convictions were uncompromised and that I was not unnecessarily offensive.
I agreed to meet with them at their place of worship. As I entered, I removed my shoes at the gate, according to their practice. I sat on the floor while their leader, who was younger than I, sat on a chair—a custom that expresses respect for the leader. I was simply following the customs of the people and the etiquette of the village.
Some in our group felt that I had compromised my faith by showing this type of respect, but I believed it was essential that I respect their traditions, especially when those practices did not contradict my beliefs.
In today’s pluralistic societies, the likelihood of interacting with someone whose belief system is very different from our own is increasingly likely. Therefore, followers of Christ should have guiding principles about how we interact with others, whether or not they share our beliefs. We must also have convictions about how to respond to their beliefs. In both the East and the West, the prevailing attitude of religious pluralism presents a challenge to those who would maintain traditional Christian beliefs.
The difficulties of interaction with those of other faiths are significant for Christians who are a minority in their nations. But those who live in places where Christianity is the religion of the majority are not exempt from these concerns. Our belief in the truth of the gospel does not mean that we should deny people of other faiths basic respect or the freedom to worship or share their faith.
Sometimes when I hear some Christians speak, I must confess they sound like fundamentalists in other faiths, suggesting that only Christian practices be allowed. But we need not be so afraid of other faiths that we restrict their freedom of worship. It was in a multifaith context that the early church grew and flourished. This could happen today too. Christians should defend the rights of those of other faiths, extending the grace and courtesy we would desire should we find ourselves in their situation (cf. matt. 7:12).
The need for followers of Christ to live as servants is as great now as it was when Christ told His followers that He expected just that (cf. matt. 20:25-28). If people see us as servants, not just of those who share our beliefs but of everyone, they may be challenged to think carefully about the gospel.
Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons were murdered in 1999 when a mob of religious militants set fire to the vehicle in which they were sleeping. Most devotees of that religion were greatly troubled by these murders and decried them. The outrage at the act was surely heightened by the fact that the Staines worked among those with leprosy, a group that was mostly avoided and neglected. But people witnessed an amazing expression of Christlike forgiveness by Mrs. Staines. In her affidavit for the commission on the death of her husband and two sons, she said:
The Lord God is always with me to guide me and help me to try to accomplish the work of Graham. . . . It is far from my mind to punish the persons who were responsible for the death of my husband, Graham, and my two children. But it is my desire and hope that they would repent and would be reformed.
What if large numbers of Christians adopted a lifestyle of loving servanthood? Would we be laughed at or exploited? Perhaps. But some would take note of the power and deep conviction of our testimony, and the door might be opened to accepting the message of a unique Christ.
When in Athens, Do as the
When Paul acted in ways appropriate to the people he was among, he demonstrated cultural sensitivity. He “reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there” (acts 17:17). The Jews and God-fearing Greeks were people who were already interested in the religion of the Bible, the Old Testament. Paul went to their place of worship and religious instruction, the synagogue. But he also went to the places where people “happened to be,” and mingled with them to share the gospel.
The Athenian marketplace was the economic, political, and cultural heart of the city. An ancient account of Socrates reads, “He was to be seen in the marketplace when it was most crowded.” There the great philosopher would enter into conversation with those he met.1 When Paul evangelized the city of Socrates (Athens), he used the method of Socrates—walking through the marketplace and conversing with the people. His message was different, but his method was similar.
But Paul didn’t always use the style he employed in Athens. When he came to Athens, he adapted to fit the Athenian culture. This is called contextualization. Contextualization takes place when the presentation and outworking of the gospel are done in a way that fits the context, whether it’s Athens, New York City, Mexico City, or a remote village in Uganda.
Contextualization becomes necessary whenever we interact with a person from a different culture. It is needed when a Chinese missionary travels to Brazil or to Peru. It is needed when an American shares the gospel with a German. But it’s also needed when a person from an inner-city neighborhood tries to witness to someone from an affluent city suburb. It is needed when a highly educated urban Indian tries to witness to a rural Indian who has little formal education, or when a Christian mother tries to witness to the mother of her daughter’s classmate who follows a different faith system.
Paul was determined to present the gospel in ways that were relevant and would impact those to whom he ministered. He told how he became like a Jew, as one under the law, when working with Jewish people. Yet he also became as one not having the law when he worked with a secular or pagan audience. He became “all things to all people,” and said, “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak” (1 cor. 9:22). This statement vividly shows the challenge before us. Paul adapted his approach and methods to match the habits and styles of those to whom he was ministering. This may mean learning new practices and habits or quitting practices we have had for some time. Paul reminds us of our motivation. All this is done “to win as many as possible” with the gospel of Jesus.
Contextualization, however, must be distinguished from syncretism. Syncretism takes place when elements essential to the gospel are dropped, or elements incompatible with the gospel are taken on in the practice and presentation of Christianity. It takes place when a Christian, trying to maintain his friendship with a non-Christian, refuses to insist that following Christ is the only way to salvation.
We see Paul’s style of contextualization clearly as we look at his speech in Athens (acts 17:22-31). Here, as in Lystra (14:15-17), he did not make any direct quotations from the Old Testament. This was very different from his speeches to Jewish audiences. The Jews accepted the authority of the Scriptures, so Paul quoted them (17:1-14). The Athenians did not accept this authority, so he didn’t use it as the basis for his argument.
Interestingly, Paul quotes from writers the Athenians looked up to. Of the two statements in Acts 17:28, there is a question about whether the first is actually a quotation, “for in him we live and move and have our being.” But the second certainly is:2 “we are his offspring.” Certainly Paul would not have agreed with the philosophical system out of which the statement arose—the words referred to one of the Greek gods—but he could agree with this individual statement and use it to buttress his argument. Yet his message was what it had always been—the centrality of Jesus as proved by the resurrection and the need to repent and make Christ Lord.
Paul’s message in Athens was thoroughly scriptural. F. F. Bruce says, “His argument is firmly based on biblical revelation; it echoes throughout the thought, and at times the very language, of the Old Testament.”3
John Wesley called this speech “a divinely philosophical discourse.”4 While Paul’s language and ideas were scriptural, the form of his Athenian address was most appropriate for his philosophically oriented audience. He commented on their religious practices, quoted from their own philosophers, and used their own logical style of argumentation in his attempt to persuade them to make Christ their Lord.
Some may question the use of certain methods to present the gospel on the grounds that they have also been used to present a decidedly non-Christian message. True, the methods we use may also be used in ways that dishonor God. But that does not disqualify the method. The method is not evil. Christians in Africa and Asia have used the drum effectively in Christian worship and expression even though animists have been using it for demonic rituals for centuries. There is nothing wrong with the method or in this case the instrument; it is the way that it is used that makes it objectionable.
The gospel does indeed transcend cultures, and followers of Christ may contextualize the gospel for their hearers. We have the freedom—and perhaps the responsibility—to creatively communicate the gospel in ways that are relevant and understandable to our hearers.
1 Cited in R. J. Knowling, “The Acts of the Apostles,” The Expositor’s Greek Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974 reprint), 365.
2 From the fourth-century BC writer Aratus of Soli in Cicilia. Cited in Hellenistic Commentary to the New Testament, M. Eugene Boring and others, editors (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 328.
3 F. F. Bruce, “The Book of Acts,” The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), 335.
4 John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament (London: The Epworth Press, 1966), 464.