Contextualization has become a buzzword in Christian mission discussions for some time now. There are proponents who extol the value of building bridges for people groups unfamiliar with biblical concepts and terminology, and there are others who accuse ‘contextualizers’ of syncretism.
Referring to terms like contextualization and syncretism, one author commented,
“As commonly used, [these terms] function on the boundary line between heresy and orthodoxy, with a strong suspicion that syncretists have crossed the line into heresy while contextualists have enabled people to experience new creativity and depth in their faith” (emphasis added).
Many have understood this as a reality and have thus attempted to distinguish where the “boundary line” should be drawn. Drawing this line has proven a difficult task indeed.
Defining our primary term of interest, one author wrote,
“Contextualization is ‘taking the unchanging truth of the gospel and making it understandable in a given context.’”
This essay has adopted this definition for its usefulness and clarity. If one understands contextualization in these terms, then one can hardly accuse such of syncretism. After all, making the Gospel understandable is the goal of any person engaged in evangelism.
The muddying of today’s contextualization water seems to have come from a particular interest in applying this principle to Muslim or Islamic people groups. In such a context, one may rightly understand that the “goal is not to make Scripture as Islamic as possible; rather, it is to communicate the unchanging truth in a particular Islamic context so it makes sense.” Again, this seems fairly straight forward thinking for the purpose of evangelism.
In addition to the social and religious context that is the makeup of the Islamic or Muslim worldview, one question that arises is the use of non-Christian sacred texts in evangelism. Miles explains the use of these texts in relationship with the Bible or Scripture in the following terms.
“The search for truth must begin with Scripture, must be submitted to scripture, and must honor the one to whom Scripture points. Where non-Christian sacred texts corroborate the truth of Scripture they may be used apologetically or evangelistically.”
From this view, any perceived sacred text may be used (to one degree or another) as it aligns with the biblical truth, but only as a secondary and complimentary source at best. Representing a different view, Dutch says, “The gospel is… initially perceived as harmonious with – and to some extent supported by – Islamic scripture.” In this view, the Islamic sacred text is in some way ‘harmonious’ with the Gospel itself.
Miles, however, goes on to say, “Any non-biblical sacred text that is quoted should be ‘lifted out of its original setting and clearly reoriented within a new Christocentric setting.’” Non-biblical texts do not present themselves as “disoriented truths about the Almighty,” but they intentionally claim an entire worldview. Therefore, contrary to the claims of Dutch, the Gospel may not be perceived as harmonious with the Islamic text; rather, the Gospel would stand in stark contrast to the whole of the Islamic text.
Another concern for those engaging Muslims for the sake of the Gospel is that of cultural and religious identification. Some Christians have gone as far as calling themselves Muslims in order to gain acceptance by the Muslim community, but Leffel points out,
“identifying one’s self as a Muslim in only the cultural sense or in a radically reinterpreted religious sense is grossly misleading.”
He also reminds us, “Evangelicals have long deplored the semantic mysticism of liberal theologians as they import deceptive meanings to biblical terms that are utterly foreign to their context.” It does not seem honest or beneficial for Christians to attempt such a covert operation in the name of evangelism.
However, labeling Christians who evangelize Muslims does not seem to be nearly as difficult as categorizing Muslims who have converted to faith in Christ. Dutch rightly notes,
“We should remember that the term ‘Christian’ does not come as a God-ordained label for followers of Jesus. The name arose as a local – and probably derisive – name for Jesus disciples in Antioch (Acts 11:26).”
In addition, the term “Christian” has been perceived through faulty lenses in the Muslim culture for a very long time. It simply does not carry an accurate meaning in the mind of a Muslim.
However, it is not only the label “Christian” that seems to bother some of those attempting to evangelize Muslims. There is also an allergy for many of the biblical distinctives and an aversion to separating from many or all Islamic religious routines and structures. Just how much does a Muslim have to look like a Christian in order to be considered a follower of Christ?
In order to measure the progression from the look and feel of Western Christianity to what has been called Muslim-background believers, a spectrum or scale was devised known as the “C-scale.”
The C-scale begins with C1, described as “a church foreign to the community in both culture and language,” and ends with C6, described as “secret believers, may or may not be active members in the religious life of the Muslim community.”
This scale is helpful in organizing the categories of Muslims who have been evangelized based on their various responses to the Gospel. Of particular interest is the significance of a Muslim’s new identification with Jesus or Isa (the Arabic name for ‘Jesus’), and the significance of his remaining identification with Islam.
In an attempt to extract the C-scale from its primary focus (namely ‘how Muslim can a former-Muslim remain while he professes to have a new identity in Isa or Jesus Christ’), Mark Williams provides a loose analogy in the form of “Christian Music.” Measuring his selections and placing them along the C-scale, he names hymns as C1 level “Christian Music” and changes only the instrumentality for the C2 category (still singing hymns, but using a wider variety of instruments).
For the C3 level he names “Maranatha Music” (a very eclectic and modern style of music with much less content) and for C4 he lists a wide-ranging musical style that fits under the heading of “Contemporary Christian Music.” This style is even less substantial in content than the aforementioned hymns. Lastly, Williams recognizes that the “music [listed under the headings of C5 and C6] might not even be considered Christian by any of the [other] four ‘C’ types;” then he proceeds to list the band “Evanescence” as an analogous the C5 level of “Christian Music” and the singer “Lenny Kravitz” as an example of C6.
Unless one is personally involved with either Lenny Kravitz or any of those associated with the band Evanescence, one cannot know their personal worldview or theological positions, but I think it safe to say that none of the music put out by Evanescence or Lenny Kravitz has any distinctly Christian themes whatever. In fact, it seems hard to imagine someone referring to either of these as “Christian” music or “Christian” artists with any real sincerity.
If Williams’ analogy is accurate, then there is no reason whatever to consider C5 and C6 as remaining under the umbrella of Christianity at all, and there should be serious reservations about what is included as such under the C4 heading.
Much of the debate over contextualization seems to stem from some disagreement about identity and obstacles that may hinder a person or group from finding their identity in Christ.
While there is certainly value in removing obstacles, and such a goal is worthy of further conversation, it should not be overlooked or quickly dismissed that the Gospel message itself is an obstacle. The Apostle Paul says that the Gospel of Christ is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). In other words, it is a barrier to the Jews and foolishness (another kind of obstruction) to everyone else.
While evangelism demands that we present the Gospel in understandable terms, the Gospel itself – when contextually understood – will still remain intolerable to some.
It seems that the chief goal of evangelism should not be to make the Gospel more palatable but to make it understandable.
If one understands the Gospel, then he may find it wonderful or offensive, but we may not adjust the call to abandon all else for the sake of Christ simply because it is an offensive call.
Dutch, Bernard. “Should Muslims Become “Christians”?” International Journal of Frontier Missions 17, no. 1 (Spring 2000).
Heideman, E. S. “Syncretism, Contextualization, Orthodoxy, and Heresy.” Missiology: An International Review Missiology: An International Review 25, no. 1 (1997): 37-49. WorldCat.
Leffel, Jim. “Contextualization: Building Bridges to the Muslim Community.” Xenos Online Journal. Accessed June 20, 2014. http://www.xenos.org/ministries/crossroads/OnlineJournal/issue1/contextu.htm.
Miles, Todd L. A God of Many Understandings? : The Gospel and a Theology of Religions. Nashville, Tenn.: B & H Academic, 2010. WorldCat.
Oksnevad, Roy. “Contextualization in the Islamic Context.” Lausanne World Pulse, April 2007, 16-19.
Williams, M. S. “Revisiting the C1-C6 Spectrum in Muslim Contextualization.” Missiology: An International Review Missiology: An International Review 39, no. 3 (2011): 335-51. Accessed June 20, 2014. WorldCat.
 Syncretism carries the idea of mixing Christianity with non-Christian ideas without regard for the purity of the Christian Faith.