Tag Archives: culture

Our Stance with the World: Anabaptist or Reformed?

Schleitheim Confession

The question of how Christians are to relate to the unbelieving world (including unbelieving culture) is an ancient one.  However, it’s always relevant.  Every generation has to struggle with this question anew.  I remember my own struggles with this question after becoming serious about the gospel and serving the Lord.  As often happens, for a time I went to some extreme positions.  I eventually came to realize that my views were more historically Anabaptist than Reformed.  The historic Anabaptist stance with regard to the world is one of flight or complete separation.  The Anabaptist view says that the world is evil, and therefore the church must have nothing to do with the world.  The Reformed view, historically, has been one that recognizes the need for the church to be in the world and to engage the world.  The idea of communities of faithful believers almost completely isolated from unbelievers is an aberration in Reformed thought and practice.  It’s an idea that is typically Anabaptist, not Reformed.

The classic expression of the Anabaptist view can be found in the Schleitheim Confession of 1527.  The Lutherans and Reformed were not the only ones to write confessions.  Anabaptists did as well.  You can find the full text of the Schleitheim Confession here, but I just want to quote the first paragraph from the fourth section.  This gives the gist of the Anabaptist view:

A separation shall be made from the evil and from the wickedness which the devil planted in the world; in this manner, simply that we shall not have fellowship with them (the wicked) and not run with them in the multitude of their abominations. This is the way it is: Since all who do not walk in the obedience of faith, and have not united themselves with God so that they wish to do His will, are a great abomination before God, it is not possible for anything to grow or issue from them except abominable things. For truly all creatures are in but two classes, good and bad, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who (have come) out of the world, God’s temple and idols, Christ and Belial; and none can have part with the other.

Those who know their Bibles will recognize the language.  The Schleitheim Confession is paraphrasing various Scripture passages here.  The point is that there is an absolute antithesis between the believing and the unbelieving.  Therefore, believers can have nothing to do with unbelievers.  Christians must be separate in every way, withdrawn from the world.  Moreover, the Confession states that Christians can also have nothing to do with whatever unbelievers produce in terms of culture.  Unbelievers only produce abominations and Christians should flee from these wicked things.

The Anabaptist view, while sounding biblical, misses two key biblical distinctions and one key biblical principle.

Reformed theology maintains the biblical notion of the antithesis.  There is belief and unbelief, good and bad, darkness and light, etc.  The Bible is clear on that.  However, and this is what the Anabaptist view misses, there is a distinction we make between what is true in principle and what is true in practice.  In other words, in this world, there are inconsistencies that exist on both sides of the antithesis.  Regenerated Christians still have the remnants of a sinful nature with which they have to wrestle (Galatians 5:16-17).  Also what we do as Christians continues to be stained with sin.  On the other side, however, unregenerated unbelievers also have their inconsistencies.  Confessing total or pervasive depravity does not mean that we believe non-Christians are all as wicked as they possibly could be.  In Romans 2:14, Paul writes of the Gentiles who outwardly “by nature do what the law requires.”   Their law-keeping does not please God or earn anything before him, but yet they do what Reformed theology has termed “civic good.” The unbelieving nurses in the neo-natal ward taking care of premature babies are doing a good thing, and in so doing, they are inconsistent with who they are in principle.  In principle, they are thorough-going rebels against God and everything good.  In practice, they show love to tiny human beings.

A second key biblical distinction missed by the Anabaptist view is between being in the world and being of the world.  “Being in the world” means that we inhabit the same space as everyone else.  We are not to be separate from the world in the sense of cutting ourselves off from the world.  But “being of the world” would mean that we are indistinct from the world.  If we are of the world, then we belong to the world, and we are no different.  A Christian living in the world must and will stand out.  This is because we are like our Saviour.  He said of his people, “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (John 17:16).  Yet Jesus lived in this world.   He was sent into this world (John 17:18) and lived amongst us.  He did not cut himself off from unbelievers, but went out and engaged them.  He interacted with sinful human beings like the Samaritan woman in John 4.  Christians are to be like the Saviour to whom they’re united.  Not of the world, but definitely in the world.

The key biblical principle lost in the Anabaptist position is that even with unbelievers and what they produce, truth, beauty, and other virtues are sometimes in evidence.  Christians do not have a monopoly on producing “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable” (Phil.4:8).  In fact, sometimes what Christians produce in terms of cultural products falls far short.  Some of the worst literature ever made has been created by Christians — a notorious example is the Left Behind series.  Sometimes unbelievers produce music, literature, or film that leaves us in amazement at the skill and creativity involved.  Yes, they can produce junk too.  And certainly, they can and do bring out culture that accentuates and celebrates human depravity as well.  Yet the Apostle Paul recognized that unbelievers can say things that are true and beautiful — he quoted from Aratus and likely Epimenides in Acts 17.  Epimenides makes another appearance in Titus 1:12.  Paul was obviously familiar with pagan poetry, and by quoting it, confirms that there are times when unbelievers get things right.  This is not only borne out in Scripture, it’s common sense.  Unbelievers can and do produce remarkable things in science, art, music, literature, and so on.  Only a fool would deny it.

The Anabaptist view leaves one with at least two attitudes towards the world.  The first is fear.  We must fear the world and everyone and everything in it.  We must always be afraid of being contaminated or compromised by the world.  The second attitude is arrogance.  We are the righteous and they are the unrighteous.  We shoot prideful glances at them from our holy ghetto.  As a result of both attitudes, the lost continue to be lost and the moniker “frozen chosen” becomes well-earned.  By contrast, the Reformed position seeks to inculcate discernment, humility, and love.  In our churches, families and schools, we aim to teach people how to discern the good, the true, and the beautiful.  We teach believers how to appreciate these things no matter from whence they come and to build on them.  We want to teach humility — so that we recognize our own inconsistencies and failures to live up to what we confess.  Finally, when it comes to the people who make up the world, we want believers to love their neighbours.  We shouldn’t be afraid of them, but love them and engage them.  Don’t flee from them, but pursue them with a heart of compassion.

Although it’s the easy route, world-flight is not the Reformed way.  The harder route is the one to which we’re called.  It’s the route where we have to think hard about things.  It’s the route where we have to love people.  It’s the route by which God will be glorified, both in terms of our cultural mandate, and in terms of the Great Commission.


Contextualization (2)

Part 2 of the revised text of a lecture for the Grade 11 Bible class at Credo Christian High School, Langley, BC in 2007.  Part 1 can be found here.

Contextualization in Scripture

So that gives you a bit of background on this subject.  Let’s now look at contextualization in the Bible.  In Acts, we see a number of examples of contextualization, even if the apostles and early church didn’t call it that.  Now remember that contextualization deals with two main issues:  communication and identity.

We see an example of a contextualized communication of the gospel in Acts 14:1-20.  The event we’re interested in took place in the city of Lystra.  Paul and Barnabas arrived there after fleeing from Iconium.  Verse 7 tells us they were preaching the gospel there.  As they did this, there were two problems.  First, there was the matter of language.  As you may know, there were two main languages in the Roman Empire at this time:  Latin and Greek.  Greek was the language used most often for trade and debate, and so on, especially in Asia Minor.  But in Lystra things were different.  Lystra was a unique place – it didn’t have any major trade routes running through it, so it was rather isolated.  Hellenism (Greek culture and its influences) had little impact on this backwater.  So, rather than Greek, most people spoke the local language known as Lycaonian.  Greek was not the best language to use in communicating with them.  There was bound to be a communication mix-up.

But the more important issue was with respect to the culture of the people of Lystra.  Paul and Barnabas were the new guys in town and they had no clue about the culture in this place.  They weren’t familiar with the local legends and mythology.  One of those ancient legends was about the gods Zeus and Hermes (even though they didn’t speak Greek and were not Greeks, the people in Lystra still shared the Greek pantheon).  According to this legend, Zeus and Hermes had disguised themselves as men and had come to the hill country looking for hospitality.   One couple welcomed them – and in so doing, they were richly blessed with a home renovation project:  their modest little cottage was transformed into a golden temple.  All the other citizens were punished with the destruction of their homes.

Now when Paul and Barnabas came to town and healed a crippled man, the Lystrans believed that Zeus and Hermes had returned and so they were not about to make the same mistake as before.  The missionaries don’t seem to have been aware of this legend, but when the Lystrans started worshipping them and calling them Zeus and Hermes (names they would have understood), eventually they figured it out.  When they did, the message they preached was adapted to the situation.  They began with the Lystrans’ frame of reference in polytheism.  They urged the Lystrans to turn from useless idols to the living God, from the old to the new.  This kind of preaching was quite a bit different from when Paul and others were preaching to the Jews who were familiar with the Old Testament and for whom idol worship was repulsive.  And so, in this example from Acts 15, the apostles were looking to communicate the command to repent and believe the gospel in a culturally appropriate way.

We can be sure that Paul learned something from this experience.  In Acts 17, Paul went to Athens.  Of course, Athens was the center of Hellenistic culture, a culture Paul would have been quite familiar with.  When he arrived there, he observed the wide-spread idolatry of the city.  Idols of gods and goddesses were everywhere.  This bothered Paul and led him to do some on the spot evangelistic work while he waited for Silas and Timothy.  He went to the Jewish synagogue, but also to the marketplace where he encountered followers of different Greek philosophies.  These Epicureans and Stoics brought Paul to the Areopagus, or Mars’ Hill.  This was the central place in Athens for important discussions on morals, education, and religion.

As Paul began to speak on the Areopagus, he took his starting point from his observation of the many idols in the city.  He said he noticed an altar with the inscription, “To the Unknown God.”  He used that as his starting point to preach the truth about the God of the Bible and Jesus Christ.  I want you to note three things:

First, what we have in Acts 17 is a summary of Paul’s address.  Though it is no doubt an accurate account of what he said, it is not a verbatim record, not word for word.  In all likelihood, he said a lot more than what Luke wrote here.

Second, Paul’s introduction starts with his general observation about the idols and then a particular observation about the one altar with the inscription to the unknown God.  He establishes a common point of reference with his audience.  That common point is that there is a God who is unknown to them.  They have said so themselves and Paul agrees.  In taking this approach, Paul did not compromise any biblical truth.  In fact, the Bible agrees with his observation.

Third, in the content of his address, Paul uses the same approach.  He quotes three Greek poets, Epimenides, Cleanthes, and Aratus.  As an aside, this proves that Paul was indeed intimately familiar with Hellenistic culture.  Yet he does not base what he says on those poets by themselves – only insofar as those poets agreed with what the Bible itself says.  Much of the rest of what is recorded for us in Acts 17 consists of quotes or paraphrases of various Old Testament passages.  Moreover, while Paul starts with their frame of reference, he strongly challenges their way of looking at everything.  He turns everything upside down.

Among many Greek philosophers, the assumption was that everything is basically one.  Against that, Paul preached the biblical doctrine of creation.  While those hearing him looked at the nearby Parthenon (a Greek temple), Paul proclaimed that God does not live in temples made with hands.  Against the Epicureans and Stoics, he proclaimed the biblical truths of God’s providence and God’s revelation to each man.  When the Areopagus was built, it was said that Apollo had stated there is no resurrection.  Paul diametrically preached against that, maintaining that Christ has risen.  Further, against the Greek idea of cyclical history, Paul proclaimed clearly that there is a beginning and an end to the history of the world.  Nobody would have come away from the Areopagus that day thinking Paul was simply bringing a different form of Greek religion.  What he was preaching was radically different and antithetical, even though he used a common starting point in a simple observation.  So, in communicating the gospel, Paul took into account his audience, but not to the point where he watered down the message so that it lost its offense.  What he preached was clearly the Christian gospel.

So there you have a couple examples from Acts where communication was contextualized.  We also want to briefly look at an example of contextualization with respect to identity.  We find that example in Acts 15.  A council was called at Jerusalem to decide the question of whether or not Gentile believers had to be circumcised and whether they had to follow the Jewish ceremonial laws.  In order to guard the unity of the church, the council decided there had to be a minimum of ritual cleanness, but there could be no insistence on circumcision.  Here we see that the early church recognized that there are some things that go beyond or transcend every culture.  There are other things that can exist in one church, but do not have to necessarily in another.

Click here to read part 3…


Contextualization (1)

Revised text of a lecture for the Grade 11 Bible class at Credo Christian High School, Langley, BC in 2007.

As most of you know, for the first few years of my ministry, I served as a missionary in Fort Babine, BC, north of Smithers.  There were many difficult issues to work through as a missionary.  One of these was the relationship between native culture and the Christian faith.  There were some native Christians who said, for instance, that when you became a Christian you could no longer go to potlatch feasts.  They said the potlatch was all tied up with native spirituality.  Others said that potlatch feasts were okay for Christians or at least some potlatches were okay and others weren’t.  These sorts of issues not only come up in Fort Babine – they come up all over the globe.  In what follows, I want to look at this relationship between Christianity and culture.

I’m going to speak about something called contextualization.  I know that’s a word you may not have heard of before.  But if you ever doing any reading in the area of missions, you’ll soon come across it.  It’s probably the subject that gets the most discussion by people who study mission.

So, what is contextualization?  We can define it like this:

Contextualization is taking the gospel of Christ to a new context and finding appropriate and effective ways to communicate it so the people in that context can understand it best.  It also includes developing a church life that is biblically faithful and culturally appropriate.

There is a lot there in that definition.  But it can be boiled down to two things:  communication and identity.  First, when we bring the gospel to people from another culture, how can we effectively tell them about Christ?  Second, there’s identity.  How do people from another culture take the gospel and make it their own?  What does accepting the gospel do to their cultural identity?  When we take these two things together, we’re looking at the interaction between culture and faith, particularly a new faith that comes from outside the culture.

Before we go any further, we have to think for a few moments on the definitions of communication and culture.  First, let’s define communication:

Communication is transmitting information that influences and/or informs the behaviour and thinking of other creatures.

We sometimes think communication is just a simple matter of using words to get something across to somebody else.  But the reality is that communication is a very complicated thing.  It’s not just about words.  Whether we realize it or not, a lot of our communication is non-verbal.  We send messages with our body language.  When we communicate with one another, we also work with a shared understanding of what the world is like, or worldview.  Coming from the same culture, we share the same understanding of the various social structures – so we know that talking to our parents or teachers is different than speaking to our friends and so on.  Communication is a complicated thing.  When we’re in our own culture, we can take it for granted.  But when you go to another culture, if you want to be effective as a missionary, you have to be sensitive to the complexities of communication.

Culture is also complex.  What is culture?  There are dozens of definitions floating around.  For our purposes, we can use this one:

Culture is the complex, dynamic whole of human existence which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, customs, and the resulting artifacts.

The two key words I want you to note there are complex and dynamicComplex means it’s made up of many parts.  Dynamic means it’s constantly changing.  Someone once said that culture is like a lava lamp – very true.

So, it’s these two things that contextualization is concerned with:  culture (identity) and communication.  Up till now that sounds a bit abstract and theoretical, but we need to get a bit of background before we move into the more concrete side of things.  Let’s do that now.

Sometimes in our churches collections will be taken for Middle East Reformed Fellowship (MERF).  This is an organization that does mission work primarily among people in the Middle East who are Muslims, followers of Islam.  Over the last couple of years, there has been a lot of discussion among missionaries and mission scholars about missions to Muslims.  The hot issue is contextualization.  How can Christian missionaries effectively communicate the gospel to Muslims, people who have their own unique culture?  What does it look like for a person with a Muslim background to become a Christian?  To help in discussing and answering these questions, one missionary who goes by the name of John Travis (not his real name) came up with what he called the C-spectrum.

The C-spectrum gives a framework of different ways of being a so-called Muslim Background Believer (MBB) – this is related to the question of identity. The framework looks like this:

C1 refers to a traditional Western church that uses a language foreign to the people (English, for example).  The people in this church are trying to be culturally Western and the believers there openly refer to themselves as Christians.

C2 is a traditional Western church using the language of the people (Arabic, for instance).  The believers found here refer to themselves as Christians, but some of their language reflects their Muslim background.  However, their most important religious vocabulary is definitely Christian.

C3 is used to describe churches that use the language of the people but also other cultural forms (music, dress, artwork, etc.) that these believers consider to be neutral.  They still refer to themselves openly as Christians.

C4 is similar to C3.  However, it includes more Islamic practices that are considered to be biblically permissible.  For instance, C4 believers will pray with raised hands, avoid pork and alcohol and they will use more Islamic language.  Also, C4 believers do not refer to themselves as Christians.  Instead, they will say that they are followers of Isa the Messiah (Isa is the Arabic name of Jesus).

When we come to C5, we’re speaking about Messianic Muslims.  Legally and socially, they remain within the Islamic community.  Parts of Islamic theology that go against the Bible are rejected or reinterpreted if possible.  Others in their community regard them as Muslims and they refer to themselves as Muslims who follow Isa the Messiah.

Finally, C6 refers to small communities of underground believers.  They typically live under totalitarian governments in closed countries.  For fear of persecution, they worship Christ entirely in secret.  As opposed to C5 and the other groups, C6 MBBs are silent about their faith.  They are regarded as Muslims by those around them and they simply identify themselves as Muslims without adding anything or qualifying that further.

The C-spectrum provides a helpful framework for debate and discussion about contextualization with Muslim background believers.  Some believe that only C1 and C2 are valid forms of contextualization.  Others say that C4 to C6 are equally valid.  From this you can concretely see the kinds of issues that are at stake here.

If we bring those issues down to one main concern for those who take the Bible seriously, it is the matter of syncretism.  Syncretism is what happens when two belief systems are brought together and then the resulting combined system is a dangerous compromise.  With the example above of the C-Spectrum some people are concerned about mixing Christianity and Islam.  If you want a clear example of syncretism, we could look at the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico.  Roman Catholics around the world worship the Virgin Mary, but in Mexico and other places in Latin America it gets very extreme.  This is because when the Roman Catholic Church came into Latin America, the native inhabitants had a pagan nature goddess named Cihuacoatl.  The Roman Catholic Church replaced this pagan nature goddess with Mary, whom they call our Lady of Guadeloupe.  This has taken place in other places in the world as well.  The Roman Catholics have always very easily incorporated pagan elements into their worship.  This is what we call syncretism and this is one of the biggest concerns when we discuss contextualization.  We want to avoid syncretism because that means compromise and possibly losing the gospel message itself.

Click here to read Part 2.