Baptism and Contextualization, 1

I can imagine someone reading the title of this essay and saying to himself, “I have two questions. First, what in the world is “contextualization”?” Second, even before hearing the answer to the first question, he may wonder, “what does baptism have to do with such an awkward and vague notion?” Let me begin by trying to answer these two questions.

What is “contextualization?” To be honest, defining “contextualization” is like trying to wrestle with a jellyfish. There are some, like Ed Stetzer, who emphasize that “contextualization” is about communication. He writes, “Contextualization, then, is simply about sharing the Gospel well. Those who deliberately practice the process of contextualization desire to have an element of intentionality in their Gospel sharing; they desire to share the Gospel in way that is most relevant to the culture they are addressing.”1

So, for example, the apostle Paul — no doubt enlightened by his study of cultural anthropology at the feet of Gamaliel — wrote these often quoted words: “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.” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

If this is all “contextualization” means, we hardly need such a cumbersome term. Paul made himself a servant to all men because he was following his Lord, Christ, who considered others more important than Himself and so humbled Himself to become a servant (Philippians 2:3-11).

In fact, however, the word “contextualization” is used in ways that have more ambiguous and dubious implications. Consider this from Charles Kraft, one of the leaders in modern missionary theology for decades: “But by applying anthropological insight to the biblical revelation, we learned that the Creator interacts with humans within the cultural worlds they (we) have created. This insight, then, enabled us to make sense of the times when God worked differently in the Old Testament than in the New because He was adapting His approach to the culture of the people He was working with. We began to understand biblical texts like 1 Corinthians 9:19–22, in which Paul states his commitment to adapt culturally in order to witness effectively, as an articulation of God’s own approach to humans through culture.”2

Kraft sees differences between God’s ways in the old covenant and the new covenant as God “adapting His approach to the culture of the people He was working with.” For Kraft, “contextualization” is what God has done in revealing Himself and leading His people through history. If Stetzer’s comment above can be summarized as saying, “Concern for context is about communication” Kraft’s can be summarized as saying, “Context is king.” Even God has to conform.3

Perhaps the most egregious examples of “contextualization” used as “Gospel conforming to culture” appear in the West more than on the mission fields of the world. Though there is no stated intention to “contextualize” the Gospel, the Church of Sweden shows us what it means when the Gospel and Scripture must be expressed in language that conforms to the culture. After eight days of meeting, leaders from the Church of Sweden decided to urge clergy to refrain from using words like “Lord” or “he,” which are gender specific, substituting instead the word “God,” which does not necessarily imply a horrible “He” up above.4

In other words, the notion of “contextualization” easily slides down the slippery slope into syncretism. Gailyn Van Rheenen has edited a book which discusses and debates the dangers of “contextualization” becoming syncretistic, Contextualization and Syncretism: Navigating Cultural Currents. I refer to this just to make the point that this is a very real concern on the part of many of the same missiologists who promote “contextualization.”

In conclusion, it seems to me that the very word “contextualization” almost necessarily carries with it the idea that the Gospel must be forced to fit a predefined Procrustean cultural bed. The word implies a process, “ization,” in which things outside the context are brought in, willingly or not. I believe is it a fundamentally wrong approach, not because it is wrong to be all things to all men that we might save some, but because self-denial is not about fitting a context, but about imitating Jesus.


That brings me to the second question: What does baptism have to do with “contextualization.” Or, to state is in different and rather less awkward language, what does baptism have to do with culture? The short answer is, everything! The long answer would require a book.

Before we actually begin to consider the matter of baptism, however, it is important for us to be reminded of Paul’s situation in the apostolic age. Unlike the earliest protestant missionaries in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Paul did not come from a culture that was religiously homogenous, or virtually so. In William Carey’s England, there were no Buddhists or Hindus in London, unless they came as visitors. Foreigners from pagan lands were few. Also, there were no Mosques or pagan temples in England. In other words, religious pluralism as a fact of life was not part of the experience of the earliest Western missionaries. They knew denominational diversity, but not the kind of pluralism Paul experienced. Even the implicit paganism of the Enlightenment would not have been part of the experience of the common man in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Paul grew up as an earnest Jew in a Roman world that was profoundly and pluralistically pagan. Polytheism cannot be anything else. There was also Greek philosophy, which Paul obviously knew. Epicurean and Stoic philosophies were not merely “secular” options, they were fully religious worldviews, with competing notions of the nature of God, the world, and mankind. Thus, though Paul was raised as a Pharisee, he was in constant contact with competing worldviews.

So, even though early Western missionaries may have been culturally blind in some respects because of their almost mono-cultural experience, Paul was not at all culturally naive. Jesus, too, though He never traveled like Paul, knew of Roman, Hellenistic, and Jewish culture and religion. He would have had contact with Romans, Hellenistic Jews, and Pharisees from his youth. He probably spoke Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic and knew at least some of the Septuagint as well as the Hebrew Bible.

Jesus, in His perfect humanity, and Paul, as a slave of Christ, knew well the problems of relating the Bible to the culture of the day, in terms of communication, lifestyle, customs, religious practice, and political application. We must not read the Bible as if it were a post-Enlightenment handbook on how to be spiritual that needs to be translated and adjusted to meet the needs of postmodern cultural realities, whether in the West or other parts of the world. The Bible was given to us as revelation from God. That it is written in an ancient language and refers to the customs and situation of the times does not mean that God was “adapting” Himself or His Word to the culture. God is in charge of history. He directed the course of the world from the beginning so that Paul himself and the world around him would be exactly what was needed to reveal His message. The whole world and its history has been and will continue to be formed and directed for God’s, often inscrutable, purposes. In the end, His kingdom will come and His will will be done on earth as in heaven.

In the next essay in this series, we will address the matter of baptism and culture directly. 5
Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church. 

References   [ + ]

2. Excerpt From: Charles H. Kraft. “Issues in Contextualization.” iBooks.
3. It appears that Kraft reads the Bible through the spectacles of cultural anthropology instead of seeing Scripture as the lens through we must learn to view all things.
5. I was provoked to think and write about contextualization and culture because of reading Peter Leithart’s contributions to the book Four Views on the Church’s Mission, edited by Jason S. Sexton and Stanley N. Gundry.