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Missions 101

Posts By: Jackson Wu

The Ethics of Missionary Strategy

Jul. 25, 2016By: Jackson WuAuthor Bio

Do you have an ethical ministry strategy? I’m guessing most people have never asked this sort of question. What does strategy have to do with ethics?

What’s strategy to do with ethics?

A few months ago, I heard a book survey different ethical approaches (e.g. utilitarianism, virtue theory, etc.). It dawned on me that the same basic ways that people think about morality orScreen_Shot_2016-07-18_at_5.01.05_PM ethics also shapes how missionaries (and pastors) determine their methods of ministry.

This is significant. Recognizing the connection enables us to evaluate more critically ministry methods. At times, the very same people who would reject a given approach to ethics in fact use that approach when choosing ministry strategy. As I explain more below, ask yourself which categories best describe you or the people around you.

We all have to make choices about what is good and best. In ministry, our sense of right and wrong will influence our priorities. In ethics, people try to identify consistent principles to guide our choices and behaviors.

Therefore, we have to ask ourselves, “What principle(s) do we use to decide our behaviors (e.g. strategies) in ministry?” Do we prioritize what is truly best? How do we choose between options?

Three Principles Shaping Ministry

I’ll briefly summarize an ethical perspective before showing how it bears on ministry practice.

1. Utilitarian 

In “utilitarian” ethics, the goal is maximizing the most good for the most people. At one level, this sounds ideal. Yet, the problems are apparent. How do you measure “good”? What distinguishes good from best? In the end, this approach easily devolves into pragmatic relativism that can overlook those in the minority.

What might this look like with respect to mission strategy?

Put simply, missionaries use a more utilitarian approach when strategy is largely shaped by speed and numbers. In a single sentence, they ask, “What method ensures the most people hear the gospel in the fastest amount of time so that the maximum number of people can be saved?”

Certainly, this is a worthy goal. However, the challenge comes when applying this ideal standard. More often than we’d like to admit, “success” cannot be measured empirically.

God defines success. The prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah were successful because they were faithful yet God told each one of them that no one would listen to their message (cf. Isa 6:8–13; Jer 1:19; 7:27; Ezek 3:7). 

Not surprisingly, one danger of this ministry approach is pragmatism. “Blessing” = numbers. When numbers and speed become the standard for success, what stops us from choosing any method that gets the result we think we want?

2. Rules vs. Freedom 

Some people emphasize freedom. In order to make moral/ethical decisions, a person must have the freedom to choose one action over another. The view certainly has merit. This perspective contrasts rigid, rule-based (“deontological”) approaches. Highlighting freedom need not imply lawlessness. The point is simply this: no set of rules can adequately guide a person in every circumstance.

How does the “rules vs. freedom” debate shape our ministry methods?

On the one hand, I know of mission leaders who compel or pressure people under them to adopt a certain type of ministry. Perhaps, everyone is expected to use T4T, C2C, 4 Fields, chronological bible storying, etc. This rule-based approach can take other forms.

For instance, mission organization might say or suggest that all missionaries should be “church planters” or “evangelists.” Accordingly, people who are not spending the majority of their time doing these “main things” are not actually doing the real work of missions.

On the other hand, the Apostle Paul highlights the freedom individuals have when doing ministry. This is evident in at least two ways.

• God intentionally grants believers a variety of different spiritual gifts (cf. Rom 12:3–8; 1 Cor 12:4–11; 1 Pet 4:10–11).

• Paul models flexibility by becoming “all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” (cf. 1 Cor 9:19–23)

Should not Christian workers enjoy and exemplify this pattern of ministry?

The Spirit who sovereignly equips each individual so that God would be glorified by the diversity of ministry by the church collectively. In different times and contexts, we will need to adjust our ministry methods.

Without this freedom, do we usurp divine authority and undermine practicing genuine unity?

3. Virtue 

In general, “virtue ethics” emphasizes the importance of character (above rules and goals). A person develops habits of mind and action that guide his or her when it’s time to make decisions about right, wrong, good, and best. No doubt, this approach is not easy because it’s not formulaic.

What does this look like in a ministry context?

Missionaries with this perspective lay stress on discipleship and the church’s character. They will be concerned with balance so as not to be one-dimensional and stunt the church’s growth. As a result, they might not see rapid visible results but they will more likely see fruit that lasts. Their holistic approach accounts for what is needed for long-term growth in the Christian life.

What drives them? The conviction that God is glorified in diverse ways. Professions of faith, planting churches, etc. are just one possible way God can get glory. Faithfulness, healthy families, and service to the needy glorify God as well.

They do not want to compromise by only glorifying God in a single, narrow aspect of ministry.


 
I think we should seek to be consistent in our ethical thinking and our choice of ministry strategy. What’s intriguing is that most Christians would reject pragmatic utilitarianism when it comes to ethics; yet, when doing ministry, they are unaware that they re-embrace the same sort of thinking.

How do you see the connection play out in your life?

Show Comments   |   Leave a Comment  |  Tags:  missions, ethics

Do We Foster Humility and Hutzpah?

May. 3, 2016By: Jackson WuAuthor Bio

Previously, I claimed that good contextualization requires two things: humility and hutzpah.

In this post, we want to ask a simple question, How are we doing? Do evangelicals encourage the people to have the humility and hutzpah to contextualize?

Do we foster these qualities?

It might be harder than you think to develop humility and hutzpah for the sake of contextualization. In some respects, it contradicts the ethos of much evangelical thinking. How so? 

Evangelicals are rightly keen to protect biblical authority. Given the historical roots of evangelicalism, people are sensitive to avoid anything that seems theologically “liberal.” In evangelical churches, one shows courage by resisting compromise to social pressures.

Are we convicted and just dogmatic?

There is however an important side effect to all this. Having strong theological convictions can all too easily veer into blind dogmatism. Stubborn insistence on tradition, conventional formulations, and customary strategies are then considered virtues. In fact, such responses demonstrate neither biblical humility not hutzpah.

To protect against compromise, hard lines are drawn around debatable issues. Leaders urge people to affirm second and third-level issues that possibly have implications for core issues. What happens when evangelicals question conclusions that lack strong or overt support? They are threatened with labels of being “liberal” or might made to feel marginalized.

Such evangelicals learn something like a “learned helplessness” fearing they ought not wander too far from consensus views. Consequently, this subcultural context doesn't foster the humility and hutzpah needed for healthy contextualization.

What's your starting point?

Another obstacle stands in our way. Despite recent incremental progress, evangelicals are far more comfortable talking about topics within systematic theology (soteriology, ecclesiology, etc.) in contrast to biblical theology. 

I’ll offer a rather simplified distinction between these two disciplines. Each has a different starting point.

Systematic theology begins with the readers’ questions and then looks to the Bible forScreen_Shot_2016-04-19_at_2.10.56_PM answers. For instance, one might ask, “What does the Bible teach about the end times?” This question directs readers’ inquiry; their attention spreads across the entire Bible to synthesize the biblical message concerning eschatology.

Biblical theology, on the other hand, begins with the author’s questions. Using this approach, the literary and historical contextual constrain the readers’ interpretation. Accordingly, an interpreter of John’s Gospel will be unable to develop anything substantial about the doctrine of justification since that discussion is largely restricted to Romans and Galatians. Instead, an interpreter of John will spend more time reflecting on the theme of “new creation” regardless of his or her personal questions about justification.

Of course, the two should not and cannot be entirely separated. However, that does not mean that basic methodological differences do not exist.

Ramp Up Expectations

Elsewhere, I’ve offered constructive suggestions to address these challenges.[1]  For now, I'll mention one essential step in the right direction.

Missionary training programs need to ramp up expectations and degree programs so as to equip workers to be as proficient in exegesis and biblical theology as they are in systematic theology. Mission sending agencies similarly could provide ongoing field training and increase training standards for missionaries going to the field.

Many missions mobilizers inspire the masses with calls to sacrifice their lives in another culture. If missionaries are to do that, they would do well to sacrifice their time and mental energy to equip themselves to become perhaps “the only Bible people will ever read” in other cultures.

--

[1] Jackson Wu, One Gospel for All Nations, 175–82.

Previously, I claimed that good contextualization requires two things: humility and hutzpah.

In this post, we want to ask a simple question, How are we doing? Do evangelicals encourage the people to have the humility and hutzpah to contextualize?

Do we foster these qualities?

It might be harder than you think to develop humility and hutzpah for the sake of contextualization. In some respects, it contradicts the ethos of much evangelical thinking. How so?

 

Credit: Wikimedia

Evangelicals are rightly keen to protect biblical authority. Given the historical roots of evangelicalism, people are sensitive to avoid anything that seems theologically “liberal.” In evangelical churches, one shows courage by resisting compromise to social pressures.

Are we convicted and just dogmatic?

There is however an important side effect to all this. Having strong theological convictions can all too easily veer into blind dogmatism. Stubborn insistence on tradition, conventional formulations, and customary strategies are then considered virtues. In fact, such responses demonstrate neither biblical humility not hutzpah.

To protect against compromise, hard lines are drawn around debatable issues. Leaders urge people to affirm second and third-level issues that possibly have implications for core issues. What happens when evangelicals question conclusions that lack strong or overt support? They are threatened with labels of being “liberal” or might made to feel marginalized.

Such evangelicals learn something like a “learned helplessness” fearing they ought not wander too far from consensus views. Consequently, this subcultural context doesn't foster the humility and hutzpah needed for healthy contextualization.

What's your starting point?

Another obstacle stands in our way. Despite recent incremental progress, evangelicals are far more comfortable talking about topics within systematic theology (soteriology, ecclesiology, etc.) in contrast to biblical theology.

 

Credit: Wikipedia

I’ll offer a rather simplified distinction between these two disciplines. Each has a different starting point.

Systematic theology begins with the readers’ questions and then looks to the Bible for answers. For instance, one might ask, “What does the Bible teach about the end times?” This question directs readers’ inquiry; their attention spreads across the entire Bible to synthesize the biblical message concerning eschatology.

Biblical theology, on the other hand, begins with the author’s questions. Using this approach, the literary and historical contextual constrain the readers’ interpretation. Accordingly, an interpreter of John’s Gospel will be unable to develop anything substantial about the doctrine of justification since that discussion is largely restricted to Romans and Galatians. Instead, an interpreter of John will spend more time reflecting on the theme of “new creation” regardless of his or her personal questions about justification.

Of course, the two should not and cannot be entirely separated. However, that does not mean that basic methodological differences do not exist.

Ramp Up Expectations

Elsewhere, I’ve offered constructive suggestions to address these challenges.[1]  For now, I'll mention one essential step in the right direction.

Missionary training programs need to ramp up expectations and degree programs so as to equip workers to be as proficient in exegesis and biblical theology as they are in systematic theology. Mission sending agencies similarly could provide ongoing field training and increase training standards for missionaries going to the field.

Many missions mobilizers inspire the masses with calls to sacrifice their lives in another culture. If missionaries are to do that, they would do well to sacrifice their time and mental energy to equip themselves to become perhaps “the only Bible people will ever read” in other cultures.

[1] Jackson Wu, One Gospel for All Nations, 175–82.

Show Comments   |   Leave a Comment

Humility and Hutzpah: Two Characteristics of Biblical Contextualization

May. 2, 2016By: Jackson WuAuthor Bio

Contextualization requires character more than competence.

Too few people talk about this. As a result, all discussion focuses on (important) intellectual issues but rarely is consideration given to the character that yields good contextualization. Yes, contextualization often requires a bit of creativity and experimentation. But what else goes into it?

You might be surprised to see what character attributes I emphasize and I how think they apply to ministry.

 Humility

Nothing is more essential than humility.

Let me be clear. If you manage to figure out some helpful ways to contextualize, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are a humble person. It might simply mean you've had a series of humble moments.

Humility is required to question your own beliefs. No one likes to think seriously about where they might be wrong or biased.

Being teachable and truly listening to contrary perspectives isn't natural. We need intentionality. This is helped by having the fundamental conviction that other people might be right. They might see something you don't.

Here are two tips to help. First, make a real effort to understand another’s view such that they can recognize their ideas in what you say. Be honest and don't settle for a caricature of others’ ideas.

Second, try your best even to prove contrary ideas. I didn't say you should settle for superficial proof texts. Rather, identify what is true (or mostly true) about the view you are considering.

This does not mean you'll blindly accept opposing idea. I know this from experience. Theologically, I only affirm believers’ baptism, not infant baptism. However, in seminary I tried earnestly to persuade myself to believe infant baptism. Why? I really admired so many Presbyterians and was looking ahead to what types of churches I might work in. Also, I found most Baptistic arguments terribly weak. Nevertheless, after a year of reading every resource I could find about infant baptism, I remained unconvinced. To my surprise (and disappointment at the time), I actually became more persuaded about believers (credo-) baptism.

 Hutzpah

You don’t have to speak Yiddish to know understand what it means to have hutzpah. One dictionary defines it as having “shameless audacity.”

Put simply, we need the courage of conviction.

Biblical contextualization is possible when we set aside fears about what others will think if we question the norm. It’s a risk to question tradition. You will be accused of becoming liberal, committing eisegesis, and “proof texting.”

You can be assured that someone will at least imply you're being proud. They will remind you of all the great minds who came before you yet they didn't see the things you are suggesting. Objectors will appeal to tradition. These conversations are a bit ironic. After all, this is the same sort of argument that medieval Catholics pressed against Martin Luther and the Protestants.

It takes hutzpah to challenge intelligent and godly teachers. Yet, we mustn’t forget these qualities don’t guarantee correctness. Many wonderful church leaders disagree. If we’re willing to admit it, people tend to have bias towards the past. We give benefit of the doubt to the ideas of previous generations. If we’re not careful, we’ll unintentionally grant teachers more authority and the Bible.

However, we should expect people today to have fresh insights previously unknown or overlooked. We benefit from decades and even centuries of scholarship that past teachers didn’t have. We have access to many more manuscripts of ancient documents, both biblical and non-biblical. Scholars enjoy greater knowledge of ancient cultures that influence our reading of Scripture.

Also, let’s not forget that technology allows for more collaboration between scholars and so a greater exchange of information. In addition to keeping informed about the latest findings in research, thinkers gain a broader cultural perspective from which to consider and solve problems.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––

What do you think? Think about good examples of contextualization. In those instances, did contextualization require humility and/or hutzpah?

Do evangelicals foster these qualities?

In the next post, we'll consider that last question, "Do evangelicals foster these qualities?"

Contextualization requires character more than competence.

Too few people talk about this. As a result, all discussion focuses on (important) intellectual issues but rarely is consideration given to the character that yields good contextualization. Yes, contextualization often requires a bit of creativity and experimentation. But what else goes into it?

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90

Credit: Pixabay

The Character of Biblical Contextualization

You might be surprised to see what character attributes I emphasize and Ihowthink they apply to ministry.

1. Humility 

Nothing ismore essentialthan humility.

Let me be clear. If you manage to figure out some helpful ways to contextualize, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are a humbleperson. It might simply mean you've had a series of humble moments.

Humility is required to question your own beliefs. No one likes to think seriously about where they might be wrong or biased.

Being teachable and truly listening to contrary perspectives isn't natural. We need intentionality. This is helped by having the fundamental conviction that other people might be right. They might see something you don't.

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90

Credit: Flickr

Here are two tips to help. First, make a real effort tounderstand another’s view such that they can recognize their ideas in what you say. Be honest and don't settle for a caricature of others’ ideas.

Second, try your best eventoprovecontrary ideas. I didn't say you should settle for superficial proof texts. Rather, identify what is true (or mostly true) about the view you are considering.

This does notmean you'll blindly accept opposing idea. I know this from experience. Theologically, I only affirm believers’ baptism, not infant baptism. However, in seminary I tried earnestly to persuade myself to believe infant baptism. Why? I really admired so many Presbyterians and was looking ahead to what types of churches I might work in. Also, I found most Baptistic arguments terribly weak. Nevertheless, after a year of reading every resource I could find about infant baptism, I remained unconvinced. To my surprise (and disappointment at the time), I actually became more persuaded about believers (credo-) baptism.

2. Hutzpah

You don’t have to speak Yiddish to know understand what it means to have hutzpah. One dictionary defines it as having “shameless audacity.”

Put simply,we need the courage of conviction.

Biblical contextualization is possible when we set aside fears about what others will think if we question the norm. It’s a risk to question tradition. You will be accused of becoming liberal, committing eisegesis, and “proof texting.”

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01

Credit: flickr

You can be assured that someone will at leastimplyyou're being proud. They will remind you of all the great minds who came before you yet they didn't see the things you are suggesting. Objectors will appeal to tradition. These conversations are a bit ironic. After all, this is the same sort of argument that medieval Catholics pressed against Martin Luther and the Protestants.

It takes hutzpah to challenge intelligent and godly teachers. Yet, we mustn’t forget these qualities don’t guarantee correctness. Many wonderful church leaders disagree. If we’re willing to admit it, people tend to have bias towards the past. We give benefit of the doubt to the ideas of previous generations. If we’re not careful, we’ll unintentionally grant teachers more authority and the Bible.

However,we should expect people today to have fresh insights previously unknown or overlooked. We benefit from decades and even centuries of scholarship that past teachers didn’t have. We have access to many more manuscripts of ancient documents, both biblical and non-biblical. Scholars enjoygreaterknowledge of ancient cultures that influence our reading of Scripture.

Also, let’s not forget that technology allows for more collaboration between scholars and so a greater exchange of information. In addition to keeping informed about the latest findings in research, thinkers gain a broader cultural perspective from which to consider and solve problems.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––

What do you think? Think about good examples of contextualization. In those instances, did contextualization require humility and/or hutzpah?

Do evangelicals foster these qualities?

In the next post, we'll consider that last question, "Do evangelicals foster these qualities?"

Contextualization requires character more than competence.

Too few people talk about this. As a result, all discussion focuses on (important) intellectual issues but rarely is consideration given to the character that yields good contextualization. Yes, contextualization often requires a bit of creativity and experimentation. But what else goes into it?

You might be surprised to see what character attributes I emphasize and I how think they apply to ministry.

Humility

Nothing is more essential than humility.

Let me be clear. If you manage to figure out some helpful ways to contextualize, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are a humble person. It might simply mean you've had a series of humble moments.

Humility is required to question your own beliefs. No one likes to think seriously about where they might be wrong or biased.

Being teachable and truly listening to contrary perspectives isn't natural. We need intentionality. This is helped by having the fundamental conviction that other people might be right. They might see something you don't.

Here are two tips to help. First, make a real effort to understand another’s view such that they can recognize their ideas in what you say. Be honest and don't settle for a caricature of others’ ideas.

Second, try your best even to prove contrary ideas. I didn't say you should settle for superficial proof texts. Rather, identify what is true (or mostly true) about the view you are considering.

This does not mean you'll blindly accept opposing idea. I know this from experience. Theologically, I only affirm believers’ baptism, not infant baptism. However, in seminary I tried earnestly to persuade myself to believe infant baptism. Why? I really admired so many Presbyterians and was looking ahead to what types of churches I might work in. Also, I found most Baptistic arguments terribly weak. Nevertheless, after a year of reading every resource I could find about infant baptism, I remained unconvinced. To my surprise (and disappointment at the time), I actually became more persuaded about believers (credo-) baptism.

Hutzpah

You don’t have to speak Yiddish to know understand what it means to have hutzpah. One dictionary defines it as having “shameless audacity.”

Put simply, we need the courage of conviction.

Biblical contextualization is possible when we set aside fears about what others will think if we question the norm. It’s a risk to question tradition. You will be accused of becoming liberal, committing eisegesis, and “proof texting.”

You can be assured that someone will at least imply you're being proud. They will remind you of all the great minds who came before you yet they didn't see the things you are suggesting. Objectors will appeal to tradition. These conversations are a bit ironic. After all, this is the same sort of argument that medieval Catholics pressed against Martin Luther and the Protestants.

It takes hutzpah to challenge intelligent and godly teachers. Yet, we mustn’t forget these qualities don’t guarantee correctness. Many wonderful church leaders disagree. If we’re willing to admit it, people tend to have bias towards the past. We give benefit of the doubt to the ideas of previous generations. If we’re not careful, we’ll unintentionally grant teachers more authority and the Bible.

However, we should expect people today to have fresh insights previously unknown or overlooked. We benefit from decades and even centuries of scholarship that past teachers didn’t have. We have access to many more manuscripts of ancient documents, both biblical and non-biblical. Scholars enjoy greater knowledge of ancient cultures that influence our reading of Scripture.

Also, let’s not forget that technology allows for more collaboration between scholars and so a greater exchange of information. In addition to keeping informed about the latest findings in research, thinkers gain a broader cultural perspective from which to consider and solve problems.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––

What do you think? Think about good examples of contextualization. In those instances, did contextualization require humility and/or hutzpah?

Do evangelicals foster these qualities?

 

In the next post, we'll consider that last question, "Do evangelicals foster these qualities?"

Contextualization requires character more than competence.

Too few people talk about this. As a result, all discussion focuses on (important) intellectual issues but rarely is consideration given to the character that yields good contextualization. Yes, contextualization often requires a bit of creativity and experimentation. But what else goes into it?

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90

Credit: Pixabay

The Character of Biblical Contextualization

You might be surprised to see what character attributes I emphasize and Ihowthink they apply to ministry.

1. Humility

Nothing ismore essentialthan humility.

Let me be clear. If you manage to figure out some helpful ways to contextualize, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are a humbleperson. It might simply mean you've had a series of humble moments.

Humility is required to question your own beliefs. No one likes to think seriously about where they might be wrong or biased.

Being teachable and truly listening to contrary perspectives isn't natural. We need intentionality. This is helped by having the fundamental conviction that other people might be right. They might see something you don't.

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90

Credit: Flickr

Here are two tips to help. First, make a real effort tounderstand another’s view such that they can recognize their ideas in what you say. Be honest and don't settle for a caricature of others’ ideas.

Second, try your best eventoprovecontrary ideas. I didn't say you should settle for superficial proof texts. Rather, identify what is true (or mostly true) about the view you are considering.

This does notmean you'll blindly accept opposing idea. I know this from experience. Theologically, I only affirm believers’ baptism, not infant baptism. However, in seminary I tried earnestly to persuade myself to believe infant baptism. Why? I really admired so many Presbyterians and was looking ahead to what types of churches I might work in. Also, I found most Baptistic arguments terribly weak. Nevertheless, after a year of reading every resource I could find about infant baptism, I remained unconvinced. To my surprise (and disappointment at the time), I actually became more persuaded about believers (credo-) baptism.

2. Hutzpah

You don’t have to speak Yiddish to know understand what it means to have hutzpah. One dictionary defines it as having “shameless audacity.”

Put simply,we need the courage of conviction.

Biblical contextualization is possible when we set aside fears about what others will think if we question the norm. It’s a risk to question tradition. You will be accused of becoming liberal, committing eisegesis, and “proof texting.”

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01

Credit: flickr

You can be assured that someone will at leastimplyyou're being proud. They will remind you of all the great minds who came before you yet they didn't see the things you are suggesting. Objectors will appeal to tradition. These conversations are a bit ironic. After all, this is the same sort of argument that medieval Catholics pressed against Martin Luther and the Protestants.

It takes hutzpah to challenge intelligent and godly teachers. Yet, we mustn’t forget these qualities don’t guarantee correctness. Many wonderful church leaders disagree. If we’re willing to admit it, people tend to have bias towards the past. We give benefit of the doubt to the ideas of previous generations. If we’re not careful, we’ll unintentionally grant teachers more authority and the Bible.

However,we should expect people today to have fresh insights previously unknown or overlooked. We benefit from decades and even centuries of scholarship that past teachers didn’t have. We have access to many more manuscripts of ancient documents, both biblical and non-biblical. Scholars enjoygreaterknowledge of ancient cultures that influence our reading of Scripture.

Also, let’s not forget that technology allows for more collaboration between scholars and so a greater exchange of information. In addition to keeping informed about the latest findings in research, thinkers gain a broader cultural perspective from which to consider and solve problems.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––

What do you think? Think about good examples of contextualization. In those instances, did contextualization require humility and/or hutzpah?

Do evangelicals foster these qualities?

In the next post, we'll consider that last question, "Do evangelicals foster these qualities?"

Show Comments   |   Leave a Comment

Confusing Law, Commands and Absolutes

Jan. 19, 2016By: Jackson WuAuthor Bio

Screen_Shot_2016-01-12_at_2.48.04_PM

Whenever people express concern to me about honor and shame, they inevitably reemphasize the importance of law. They are nervous that honor-shame threatens to displace “law” as a key biblical theme.

After countless conversations, I've realized what the real issue is. (After all, I repeatedly tell them that law is an important idea.) People are afraid that by not stressing law-language, we would relativize right and wrong.

This is a bad assumption that is based on their confusing law, commands, and absolutes. Even if there is some overlap, they are three distinct concepts.

Typically, this topic comes up when taking about the meaning of sin. I simply want to make a basic point: Describing sin in legal term is completely valid, yet “sin” is bigger than the law-metaphor. It is more than the breaking of a law (even God’s Law).

I know that can be hard for people to grasp. Here are two tips that may help.

1. Don't Confuse Laws with Commands

 

Sooner or later, someone will appeal to Gen. 3, saying that Adam and Eve broke God’s law when they ate the fruit. They suggest that humanity broke God’s law in the Garden.

The problem is this: God gave a command, not necessarily a law. A command is only a “law” when one’s metaphorical context is legal. What if we switched metaphors? As Creator, God is also Father. A father’s commands are not inherently reckoned “laws.” We do not typically peak of a child’s disobedience (to parents) as “crimes.” That would mix metaphors.

In short, a law can be a command but a command is not necessarily a law.

No doubt, sin can rightly be described as breaking a king’s laws, but we can talk about sin using other metaphors. For instance, it is just as valid to explain sin as dishonoring God.

 

2. Don't Confuse Laws with Absolutes

 

A number of people uphold legal metaphors as a way of protecting an absolute standard of right and wrong. They assume that an honor-shame perspective relativizes moral norms. After all, they suppose, honor and shame depends on context.

What one might fail to see is that laws are just as “relative.” A law only has authority within a certain sphere. As much of the world knows all too well, laws are often created and enforced according to the will of those in power. Thus, the inconsistency common to many legal systems does not people to associate legal metaphors with “absolutes.” If anything, laws may represent arbitrary abuses of power.

In other words, there is no inherent connection between the metaphor of “law” and absolute norms.

 

But God…

 

I know how some readers will respond. They will say, “But God is king of all nations, so His commands are absolute laws.” Yes, I agree. That is why legal metaphors are essential for understanding the full breadth of biblical truth.

However, we can emphasize morality and goodness in other ways (besides the law) without devolving into utter relativism. For instance, when our view of what is worthy of honor and shame is oriented upon Christ, we discern what is absolutely glorious and praiseworthy.

Paul’s own words beautifully illustrate the standard by which we should live and thus what we fail to do when we sin.In 1 Cor 10:31, he says: So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.

Show Comments   |   Leave a Comment

Two Kinds of Contextualization and Syncretism

Oct. 28, 2015By: Jackson WuAuthor Bio

What we don't know about contextualization CAN hurt our gospel ministry. Typically, people regard contextualization as a form of communication or application. This is not mistaken; but it is critically incomplete.blur-old-antique-book

Contextualization most basically is an act of interpretation. Only then can it be understood as communication or application. Contextualization is not primarily something we do to the gospel; rather, it is the mind’s perception of and/or response to the gospel. This is a broad description.

 

In actual fact, we can further subdivide contextualization into two kinds. The first is exegetical contextualization; the second is cultural contextualization.

 

Exegetical Contextualization

 

Exegetical contextualization refers to one’s interpreting Scripture from a cultural perspective.

 

It means locating the cultural context within the biblical text. Accordingly, someone with an East Asian worldview will more naturally see a number of concepts within the Bible that reflect the distinctives of his or her culture.

For example, one might more easily see themes like honor, shame, and collective identity. Exegetical contextualization means seeing what is true of our cultural context within the biblical text itself. I am not referring to eisegesis, whereby one forces foreign ideas into Scripture. Rather "exegetical contextualization" refers to a form of contextualization where one sees what actually is already in the text.

In short, we interpret Scripture through a cultural lens.

What might this look like in practice? In an East Asian context, an exegetically contextualized theology would take seriously language about God’s people not being “put to shame,” frequently used by biblical authors. Also, one could highlight instances of collectivism in both the Old and New Testament, such as when individuals are able to represent entire groups.

 

Cultural contextualization

 

Cultural contextualization refers to one’s interpreting culture from a biblical perspective.

 

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Hence, one looks at a culture and identifies various concepts that can already found in the Bible. It situates the biblical text within the cultural context.

When examining a culture like China, the contextualizer might notice that God is called Father and the church is a family. Likewise, one might observe common features within the histories of Israel and China. These may include each people’s suffering from imperialism and demonstrating strong degrees of ethnocentric/nationalistic prejudice against outsiders.

Cultural contextualization means seeing what is true about a culture as a result of one’s having a biblical lens. In this way, the Bible provides new and true ways of assessing a cultural context.

What might this look like in a particular social setting? One could think of rampant consumerism and the fear people have of losing face. In light of Romans 6, we might say that people have become slaves to their homes, cars, or even to their own families. They need God to free them.

Why does this matter?

 

1. Protecting Theology

First, recognizing these two forms of contextualization can protect us from other mistaken or distorted views. For example, when interpreting Scripture, one should never use contemporary culture as a function replacement of the biblical context. In effect, this is the problem with the work of K. K. Yeo, who seems consistently to collapse Chinese culture into Paul’s letters, as if Paul were actually writing to modern Chinese people.[1]

Contextualization that is faithful to Scripture will clearly differentiate two locations––that of the reader and that which is being studied. That is, we must distinguish between the things we are interpreting and the perspective we use.

Breakthroughs in contextualization happen where there is overlap between these two locations. Overlap of course does not mean equivalence. No ancient biblical culture can be equated with any modern culture. In addition, one should not deny the importance of biblical ideas that are not inherent to a particular culture. In time, contrasting ideas can complement areas of overlap. After all, no culture is complete in itself.

Two Types of Syncretism

 

People use the term “syncretism” to refer to one’s confusing culture and Scripture. Most often, people think of “cultural syncretism,” wherein one reads his or her own contemporary culture into the ancient world.

However, there is a subtler example of syncretism called “theological syncretism.” In this this kind of syncretism, people restrict Scriptural truth to their own theological traditions dressed in various cultural expressions.

Accordingly, the metaphors and explanations that make the most sense to one group of people becomes the standard to which people from other cultures are supposed to conform. Western theologians and missionaries, for example, run the risk of “theological contextualization” when law-guilt metaphors are so emphasized that they functionally exclude other images and themes, like honor and shame.

2. Contextualizing Assumptions

If we assume that contextualization is mainly about communication or application, then we inevitably assume the thing (e.g. the gospel) that we want to contextualize. However, any theological truth we claim to know is an interpreted truth.

To put it another way, our conceptions of the gospel are always contextualized. Bevins rightly says, “There is no such thing as ‘theology’; there is only contextualized theology.”[2] Consequently, we at best end up contextualizing a contextualization. We simply provide wording or illustrations as a bridge by which the listener can understand the cultural perspective from which we are communicating the gospel. Our presentations are always culture laden.

3. Developing Contextualizations

The distinction between exegetical and cultural contextualization can help people actually develop biblical faithful and culturally understandable contextualizations. The difficulty of relating text and context can result in paralysis.

Not knowing how to “balance” the two, people fear compromising Scripture and thus do little to nothing by way of contextualization. By recognizing these two orientations, one then must consider how they relate to one another.

Interpretation precedes application. In the same way, exegetical contextualization is the foundation for cultural contextualization. Order matters. If the order gets reversed, unclear or problematic notions from a culture could be forced into one’s exegesis of the biblical text.

Naturally, hermeneutics (i.e. interpretation method) is a central component to any contextualization.[3] This single observation has great significance for missionary training and strategy. Missionaries should be sound exegetes, proficient in their ability to interpret the Bible.

This kind of skill is something quite distinct from simply being well versed in systematic theology and various biblical doctrines. When a missionary teaches the Bible to locals, he aims to demonstrate how his conclusions are reached.

Otherwise, what are the consequences? First of all, local Christians cannot reproduce the given interpretation. Second and more serious, they essentially grant greater authority to the foreign teacher above the Bible itself.

For a more extensive discussion on contextualization, see One Gospel for All Nations: A Practical Approach to Biblical Contextualization.

 For a more rigorous demonstration of this approach, see Saving God's Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation through Honor and Shame.

 

_________________________

 

[1] For examples of his work, see K. K. Yeo, Musing with Confucius and Paul: Toward a Chinese Christian Theology (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade, 2008); K. K. Yeo, What Has Jerusalem to do with Beijing: Biblical Interpretation from a Chinese Perspective (Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press, 1998).

[2] Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, 3. Emphasis in original.

[3] David Clark, To Know and Love God, 104–10.

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