Proclaiming the Gospel Cross-Culturally
The Apostle Paul put himself forward unashamedly as an example for other believers to follow e.g. 1 Corinthians 11 v 1: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (NIV).
This command comes as the climax to a section in his letter to the church at Corinth, beginning in chapter nine, which deals with his own missionary practice. Paul makes plain his determination not to exercise his own rights and prerogatives. Instead he declares that he has “become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some,” 1 Corinthians 9 v 22 (NIV). Eckhard Schnabel writes: “Paul formulates in this passage the rule of his missionary existence,” (Early Christian Mission, Vol 2, p953).
Paul adopts this practice “for the sake of the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9 v 23), desiring above all to share in its blessings. The Corinthian church needed his explanation in order to grasp why they should imitate him – we would do well to listen attentively today. There are two great convictions bound up in Paul’s statement, and together they shape the Apostle’s active engagement in God’s mission, compelled by the love of Christ.
Two great convictions
First, the Apostle is convinced that the gospel is inclusive – it is for all people from all backgrounds and in all places. Although Jewish in its origins, this gospel was as much for the Gentile as the Jew. Although born in Bethlehem Jesus was raised in Nazareth, (the region known as Galilee of the Gentiles) and came as the Shepherd King who laid down His life not only for the lost sheep of Israel but also for, “other sheep not of this sheep pen … so there shall be one flock and one shepherd,” (John 10 v 16). Although a Pharisee by training, Paul knew his message was, “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, first for the Jew, then for the Gentile,” (Romans 1 v 16). We need to make sure that we pay more than mere lip service to this great truth. The fact is that the gospel is not a Western, let alone an English invention, but rather the gospel of God. It is a middle-eastern message, born within Judaism and proclaimed across the Graeco-Roman world of the first century, so that not even the great Apostle had ownership of it or editorial rights over it (e.g. Galatians 1 v 6-9). This gospel, summarised by Paul as the message of “Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2 v 2), is the good news of salvation that God sends to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 49 v 6; Acts 1 v 8). It arrived in Africa before it was heard in Europe (see Acts chapter eight). It addresses every person’s greatest need. As such it must be proclaimed in ways sympathetic to the hearer’s cultural milieu, as the Apostles demonstrate throughout Acts, provided that such proclamations remain true to the gospel’s given, core content (as e.g. 1 Corinthians 15 v 1-3).
Today this means the recognition that the scope of God’s agenda for mission includes both men and women, both old and young and representative of every people and nation on the face of the earth. It means embracing the fullest range of languages, lifestyles and cultures, and where these are represented within the orbit of our church’s influence we must, out of love for the lost, ensure that the ‘alls’ of 1 Corinthians 9 v 19-22 are being adhered to.
Secondly, the Apostle’s conviction is that salvation is found exclusively in Jesus – He is the only way of salvation and “to win some” is Paul’s ambition. As a former Pharisee, he knew the attraction of the zealous pursuit of religion, and he also knew its powerlessness to rescue from God’s wrath. Paul would have been strongly intolerant of any suggestion that it was only the irreligious that needed to hear the gospel or that somehow it was the pagan outsider alone who needed to be saved. “We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin,” he writes elsewhere (Romans 3 v 9), and as “children of God’s wrath” (Ephesians 2 v 3) Paul was convinced that they, and he, would be saved by grace alone (through repentance and faith in Christ and His atoning sacrifice), or not at all. It’s no wonder Luke records that: “salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved,” (Acts 4 v 12).
This exclusivity (Jesus as the only way) goes hand in hand with Paul’s inclusivity (the three ‘alls’ of 1 Corinthians 9 v 22) and together they lay the foundation for the Apostle’s way of working. Shaped by these two great convictions, gospel exclusivity and gospel inclusivity, Paul declares that he acts with principled flexibility, becoming, “all things to all men so that by all means I might save some...”. For him this meant adapting his speech, dress, eating habits, personal disciplines etc. in order not to cause offence (without, of course, removing the inevitable offence of the gospel e.g. 2 Corinthains 2 v 16). This led him to take great pains to “seek the good of others”, understanding this ‘good’ to constitute their salvation (1 Corinthians 10 v 33). For us it can hardly mean anything less, especially as we find ourselves living in the context of modern Britain’s cultural diversity. Now, the traditional English divisions of class and education continue to hinder the progress of the gospel alongside new challenges arising from the multiplicity of languages, lifestyles and dress. How easy it would be to rest content with becoming just some things to some people. We should note that there is no triumphalism in the Apostle’s language, he knows full well that he will not win everybody, but at the same time there is a determination to eschew a narrow preoccupation with one or another element of society. How can we imitate Paul in this? Will those of us who engage in the vision of A Passion for Life do so in a way that follows Paul’s example?
For more than 200 years British mission societies have encouraged Christians to look beyond our island shores to distant lands, and to send godly men and women to proclaim the gospel. Now, in our day and generation, many from overseas choose to live here – the world has come to us.
Those who venture abroad to proclaim the gospel are taught to understand the reality of culture as a powerful determinant of thought form, world view and presuppositions. Importantly, culture is not merely something we encounter ‘over there’, but is also part of the baggage we carry with us. The gospel judges all cultures, so it is essential not only to respect but also to test cultural distinctives in the crucible of scripture. To recognise such differences need not rob us of confidence in the relevance of the gospel, since we know it is God’s gospel for all peoples. Rather, it provides a starting point for articulating that gospel in modes of language and thought form that demonstrate a Christ-like love for all mankind. The same mankind which is precious and made in the image of God.
In today’s Britain this requires a rigorous appraisal of our churches from the perspective of the outsider – in our preaching, our teaching materials and in our behaviour. It demands of us a willingness to make an effort in understanding other people and then in translating our gospel proclamation into words and deeds that actually communicate. For instance, let’s check which languages Bible translations are available in, both for general church use and for sale on our bookstalls. After all, the Bible is not an English book, but a collection of 66 books, written mainly in Hebrew and Greek, which we have translated into our own language and exported around the world. Let’s assess to what extent our services and programmes assume an English middle class education for effective participation and ask whether this needs to be changed. In our preaching let’s make sure that we are making applications of Bible truth not only to traditional English religious misconceptions, but also to the presuppositions of alternative religions and contemporary worldviews.
Other significant questions include asking ourselves: Are our fellowships genuinely open and accessible to all-comers? Are we praying for this? Do our public prayers reflect God’s concern for all peoples to be saved? Are we writing material with people from other backgrounds in mind, or merely writing for ourselves? Do our Sunday Schools and youth groups make the kind of effort that is obligatory in our day schools in order to accommodate children and young people for whom English is a second language? Are we looking to experienced school teachers to help us in this? Are we alert to the evangelistic opportunities provided by the desire to become proficient in English? Are we willing to listen and learn from our mission partners abroad, not merely about their work in gospel proclamation, but to invite them to advise us how we can better go about our work here? Are we recommending books that open windows into other world views? Are we engaging with people as they actually are? Are we urging gospel inclusivity as strongly as we teach gospel exclusivity?
What would Paul do?
To engage in this mission (to ‘all’ people) in this way (becoming ‘all’ things) is immensely costly and in the end we will do it only if we are convinced that we must. The New Testament gives us Paul’s example; the key question to ask is, “What would Paul do?” Let’s make his mission practice our study as we prepare for Easter 2010 and let’s also remember that in this the Apostle is following the example of Christ, “who did not seek his own good but the good of many”. This is not to espouse a so-called ‘incarnational’ model of missionary engagement. Again, as Schnabel puts it:
“I submit that the use of the term ‘incarnational’ is not very helpful in describing the task of authentic Christian mission. The event of the coming of Jesus into the world is unique, unrepeatable and incomparable, making it preferable to use other terminology to express the attitudes and behaviour that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 9 v 19-23. (Likewise) the Johannine missionary commission does not demand an ‘incarnation’ of Jesus‘ disciples but rather their obedience … it is precisely John who describes the mission of Jesus as unique. (In the same way) in Philippians 2 v 5-11 it is not the incarnation of Jesus that is presented as a model for Christian behaviour but rather Jesus’ consistent humility. The terms ‘contextualisation’ or ‘inculturation’ certainly are more helpful.” (Early Christian Mission Vol 2 p1575).
Nevertheless, it is to take seriously the task of communicating the gospel to the lost for whom Christ died, and to determine to do so in a way that imitates the Apostle in his inclusive exclusivity.