Christian Mission and Cultural Transformation

“Contextualization” is now, and has been for a long time, the buzzword for the day.1 Missionary effort in non-Western countries is all about “contextualization” — making our communication of the Gospel, if not the Gospel itself, fit into the culture to whom we from the West speak.2 There is, of course, an element of truth in this. Paul said that he becomes all things to all men. He conforms to Jewish dietary laws when eating with and preaching to Jews, but he will also eat pork with Gentile seekers who invite him for lunch. In this sense, “contextualization” is submitting to the cultural norms of the people to whom we minister. In Japan, I take off my shoes when I enter someone’s home. In America, it is not usually necessary. In matters of this sort, the minister of the Gospel may and should conform to the culture to which he is speaking. However, what is usually called “contextualization” is not limited to things of this sort, matters indifferent, “adiaphora.”

As I pointed out in previous articles, “contextualization” tends to absolutize the “context,” as if the Gospel needs to modified to fit the people to whom we speak. That may not usually be the intention, but in fact I believe “contextualization” often includes accommodations to culture that fundamentally compromise the Gospel itself.3 A full discussion of this would include a long hard look at the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), but in this article, I can only provide an introduction — a short soft look.

I believe we need to consider again the implications of the Great Commission not only for work on the mission fields of the world, but also, and perhaps even especially, for the Western world itself. I will briefly treat the Great Commission as a whole, but intend to concentrate on the part which says, “teaching them to do all things whatsoever I have commanded you.”

The Foundation

The Great Commission begins with Jesus’ words: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” There can be no real question about what this means, though there is great resistance to actually believing it, not only by those who oppose Jesus, but also by not a few who claim to be His representatives. On the side of those who believe this, N. T. Wright, for example, had the audacity to pronounce the evil “T” word in a lecture, and it created something of a scandal. He spoke the unspeakable word “Theocracy!” He explained and qualified what he meant by it, to remove offensive implications, but that did not prevent misunderstanding and opposition. The fact remains, however, that Christians of all sorts must reckon with the reality that the Great Commission is grounded in a declaration of absolute and universal Theocracy — all authority both in heaven and on earth has been granted to Jesus. Thus, the Gospel message can be summarized as the confession that “Jesus is Lord!” (Romans 10:9).

The apostle Paul looked forward to the realization of Jesus’ Lordship in words as absolute and universal as those of Jesus’ claim to authority: “Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11, NKJV)

Note that Paul’s language is not framed in terms of a recommendation. “It would be really nice if you would give Jesus a friendly greeting.” Bowing the knee and confessing that He is Lord is made of sterner stuff.

To conclude this point, Jesus claimed to be the Lord of heaven and earth, and Paul said that every knee in heaven and earth would bow to Him. It is hard to imagine a clearer or more forceful declaration of Theocracy. If absolute and universal Lordship should not be called “Theocracy,” what should we call it?

The Commands

After asserting His authority, Jesus commanded the disciples to go and “disciple” — in Greek a verb, which we usually translate “make disciples” or something similar. The problem created with such a translation of the verb is that the sentence virtually must continue “of all nations.” But “make disciples of all nations” is a misleading translation, which was hilariously illustrated by Hal Lindsey, who imagined that Matthew 28:19 included the Greek preposition “ek,” which is translated “out of.”4 Lindsey knows Greek better than I do, I am sure (he has a ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary in New Testament and early Greek literature). But in this case I suspect he forgot to check his Greek testament and just assumed that “of all nations” must have been in Greek “out of all nations” so that the commission is aiming at making some individuals “out of” every nation to become disciples of Jesus.

Not everyone will be as bold as Lindsey and insert a preposition that is not in any Greek text, but the fact is most modern Christians read the text as if it means what Lindsey says. That is why we should not translate “disciples” in the plural, as if the commission concerned individuals from every nation turning to Jesus — though it remains true, of course, that turning a nation to Christ happens through individuals and families being baptized.

Jesus used a verb, “disciple,” not followed by a preposition, but by a direct object “all the nations” We were not commanded to make plural “disciples” from every nation but to “disciple” all the nations of the world. Upon the basis of Jesus’ universal authority, He commanded His disciples to bring every nation of the world into submission to His Lordship. This is a command to universal conquest, for Jesus is a Greater Joshua. All the nations are to bow the knee to the universal Prince of Peace, so that they may know the peace of God which passes all understanding.

It is interesting to note that the word “go” in Greek is a participle. The command is to “disciple the nations,” “going” is part of the way the command must be fulfilled. Unless the disciples go, they will not be able to tell the nations the good news that Jesus is Lord.

There are two more participles that modify the verb “disciple.” The first is “baptizing.” Baptism into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is, among other things, an oath-taking ceremony. It is the first step of submission to Christ’s gracious Lordship. It is also an oath on God’s part, for in it He adopts us as His sons (Galatians 3:26-29) and bestows His Spirit upon us (Acts 2:38). The book of Acts shows us the practice of the apostolic church and the importance of baptizing those who profess faith. It is not my intent to cover this topic here,5 but in passing I want to point out how important for missionary labor baptism is both as a rite and therefore also as a theological topic.

With respect to “contextualization” baptism is foundational. The baptized person dies with Christ to the old man and the old ways of life, including the old worldview and cultural norms, and he rises with Christ to become a new person with a new way of life (Romans 6:1-14). The baptized person has “put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27), for those clothed in the Messiah, there are neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, for they are all one in the Messiah. Baptism confers a new culture, a new worldview, a new way of life in Christ.

As those adopted into the family of Abraham, the history of the old covenant belongs to the new humanity in Christ. My Irish, Welsh, German and Swiss (who knows what else?) background have been absorbed into Christ and remade. My identity is not grounded in the past, for baptism defines me in terms of my future conformity to the image of Christ and thus impels me toward Christ and His kingdom.

The next participial, “teaching” introduces the phrase on which the next parts of this essay will concentrate. Jesus commanded the disciples to teach “them to keep all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” Here is where the Gospel meets culture in a concrete fashion. Baptism is the beginning of the process of discipleship, learning to obey all the commandments of Jesus is the long road toward the culmination of salvation — conformity to Christ Himself.

The next article in this series will consider what Jesus commands with the word “teaching.”

Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church. 

References   [ + ]

1. Charles H. Kraft, Issues in Contextualization (Pasadena, CA: William Cary Library, 2016), See especially the Appendix, “The Development of Contextualization Theory in Euro-American Missiology.”
2. See my previous essays on contextualization and baptism.
4. See my reference to Lindsey in Ralph Allan Smith, The Baptism of Jesus the Christ (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2010), p. 197-98.
5. I have touched upon it in previous essays. Peter Leithart’s The Priesthood of the Plebs: A Theology of Baptism (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003) is the best foundational study.