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One of the panels at T4G focused on contextualization.  If you like, you can listen to the panel here.  It was one of the panels cut short due to time constraints.  As a consequence, we didn’t have time to develop important conversations about basic definitions and about current applications like “insider movements” and so on.  So, I think many people (myself included) were left hoping more conversation could have happened.

In this post, I want to debrief by offering a number of questions and statements about contextualization–not as a “final word” or even a complete word, but as a way of getting questions and thoughts out of my own head.  So, I’m thinking out loud here.  And I welcome your thoughts and interactions.  Let me offer these things in three sections: general agreements or stipulations, observations/questions about contextualization in a domestic context, and observations/questions about contextualization in predominantly Muslim or cross-cultural contexts.

General Agreements

It seems to me, as was the case on the panel, it’s useful to state a few basic things right up front to hopefully avoid confusion and unnecessary debate.  Among these general statements:

1.  On some level, everyone contextualizes their communication/message.  We all try to get information from one context to another in a way that the receiver can understand and receive.  In that sense, as I see it, contextualization is simply a subset of good communication where the first rule is “Know thy audience.”

2.  At least among the folks likely reading this blog or attending T4G, we all agree that our efforts at contextualization should not distort the gospel message or the necessary entailments of the gospel.  No one looks to fabricate a different message which is really no gospel at all; the intent is to transfer the truth about our Lord in a responsible and responsive way.

I’m sure there are other basic agreements, but these are the ones that seem to repeatedly come up in conversation and ought to be acknowledged at the start.  The real substantive conversation lies somewhere beyond these basic statements.  Especially when it comes to application, we begin to see diverging and sometimes competing points of view.  Which brings me to my observations and my hope that you’ll sharpen my thinking.

Observations Regarding Domestic (largely shared) Cultural Contexts

Of course, contextualization is not merely a communications issue.  Proponents really offer contextualization as a necessary missiological strategy.  The intent is to find ways to faithfully communicate the gospel message to other cultures (though not all missiologists and practitioners hold to this principle or are successful at its application).  In the domestic context, doing missions where we live, I have a few questions and thoughts I’m trying to flesh out:

1.  What limitations are created or ought to be acknowledged when one takes a principle developed for truly cross-cultural settings and applies them in settings where everyone shares the same basic cultural milieu and world view?  Is there anything that needs to be adjusted when you move from Western missionaries in tribal India to American pastors in rural Indiana?  The folks in rural Indiana or even in metro Washington, D.C. would by-and-large share the same cultural milieu and worldview even if they’re members of distinct subcultures.  Does the fact that different folks in rural Indiana or metro D.C. are closer in kind than the missionary from England and tribal member in Northern India matter for how the pastor in Indiana or D.C. thinks about and practices contextualization?  I suspect it might, but I haven’t seen anyone exploring these adjustments.  I think this is a really important thing to think through because I see a number of groups (campus ministries for example) that are placing major emphasis on contextualization in their evangelism strategy but they’re essentially reaching out to people just like them.  Aside from simply running the risk of over-emphasizing strategy and under-emphasizing doing, it seems this kind of situation fosters an unhealthy blindness to our own position in the culture.  Any good reads out there covering this?

2.  In the domestic context, does the increased similarities and the likelihood of substantially shared world and life views blur the distinctiveness of church v. world?  Let me try to explain because I’m still working on this thought.  It seems to me that good contextualization is like throwing a boomerang.  You send the message out on a particular arc, hoping to make contact with a cross-cultural recipient, and to bring that recipient out of an unregenerate state (inclusive of some fundamental world and life views) into a regenerate state and membership in the church.  This is the “I became… so that I might win some” trajectory I assume Paul to mean in 1 Cor. 9:19-23.  He flexes and communicates in order to bring people to where he is in Christ.  The messenger doesn’t move from his position in Christian world and life views; rather, the message goes out with the hopes of bringing others to where he/she is.  That arc and direction seems clear when the situation is clearly cross-cultural.  But what if we’re sharing the same cultural position?  Isn’t contextualization then a bit more like throwing a stone rather than a boomerang?  ”Contextualizing” in shared cultural space might simply be immersing ourselves more deeply in the culture we’re already in, which, I think, is another way of describing increased worldliness.  We’re not actually bringing people out of one position into a distinctively Christian identity and culture, but we’re actually joining them in a more entrenched worldliness.  Does that make sense?  What’s the strength and weakness in this thinking?

3.  It seems to me that a lot of the popular discussion of contextualization suffers from an incomplete statement of the goal.  Contextualizing isn’t the goal.  I think everyone who pauses to think about this even for a moment would agree with this.  But what’s missing is, imo, a robust statement of the goal.  What’s the end we ought to have in mind as we employ this strategy?  What does Paul have in mind when he says “so that I might win some”?  It’s not simply Christian profession.  Nor is it simply personal discipleship.  Neither is it simply church membership.  If Paul means to win people to the position he himself occupies, it also includes such a radical redefinition of personal identity that he and the convert can become all things to all men (a kind of loose grip on natural identity itself, or a radically enlarged notion of freedom in Christ).  If the goal isn’t adequately and repeatedly stated, then the great danger is goal displacement and a glacial drift into worldliness or sub-Christian identity, behavior, etc.  Does this make sense?  Surely there are folks who’ve thought this through.  Any recommendations for further reading?

4.  We really need a solid working definition of “culture.”  Personally, I don’t think the Evangelical world is anywhere near as sophisticated as it sometimes imagines itself to be when it comes to defining and “engaging” the culture.  This, too, can contribute to the church’s mission drift, to pastoral misdirection, and to creeping worldliness.  Many of the popular appeals to “engage the culture” and the defenses of contextualization that rely on “exegeting the culture” seem to me too simplistic and naive at points.  I enjoyed Crouch’s Culture Making, in part, because he clearly understands that though we “shape culture” the culture shapes back!  (though I find Crouch’s definition of”culture” as “things we make in/of the world” terribly reductionistic).   I’m a bit behind in getting to Hunter’s To Change the World, but I look forward to exploring his notion of “faithful presence” (which intuitively appeals to me).  I’m hoping Hunter’s book delves into notions of culture beyond the artifacts (Crouch) and the popular aesthetics (dress, etc.) to think about the “deep structure” of culture.  We need good work in this area; or better yet, perhaps I need to be made aware of good stuff on this topic.

Observations Regarding Cross-Cultural Contexts

I really regret we didn’t have opportunity to discuss this at greater length in the panel.  Apart from Al Mohler’s concluding comments, we didn’t touch this aspect at all and this is perhaps where the greatest challenges to gospel faithfulness, church vitality, and pastoral practice originates.  Perhaps the most hotly contested contextualization missions strategy right now is the so-called “insider movements” and even the viability of the C1-6 contextualization scale.  From where I sit, these forms of contextualization (by which I mean levels 4-6 as I understand them) misunderstand Islam in five critical ways.

1.  These views of contextualization seem to me to misunderstand the nature of cross-carrying, persecution-facing, costly conversion and the nature of the rewards promised to those who suffer for the Name of Christ.  In saying this, I am not making light of the potential or actual suffering and persecution of MBBs.  I’m simply saying that it seems to me that the C-scale has no place for radical costly discipleship in its conception of conversion and following Christ.  That’s a fatal omission and ultimately a fatal distortion of NT Christianity.  Scripture passages regarding suffering and reward abound.

2.  These views of contextualization seem to me to misunderstand the nature of the called-out, visible local church.  Without suggesting that wise strategies for safety ought to be thrown to the wind, it does seem to me that there’s a fundamental level of identification with the people of God as the people of God that must be maintained.  Strategies that intentionally hide the church ultimately place a blanket over what Christ means to be revealed.  They hide the light under the bushel.  Such strategies may prize individual “conversions” over the formation of local churches replete with qualified spiritual leadership, the sacraments, witness, and disciple-marking love.  C4 and beyond move in the wrong direction, toward hiding the church.

3.  These contextualization strategies seem to me to misunderstand the nature of Islam as a system that emphasizes outward obedience and forms combined with social and cultural expectations and pressure that form a steel shackle on the mind and heart.  I suspect this is difficult to understand unless you’ve been a Muslim.  But Islam is all about the forms, the ritual, and culture.  It’s difficult to know where Islam begins as a religion and where Muslim culture ends.  The culture carries the religion and the religion enforces the culture.  I doubt someone can ever be a healthy Christian while pretending to be a Muslim or engaging in the outward forms of Islam.  When we intentionally adopt strategies that leave MBBs inside Muslim contexts, we can do more damage to them than if we encouraged them to come out and face persecution.  They will be rewarded for their persecution, but may be damned for failing to name Christ among men!

4.  These contextualization strategies misunderstand the necessity of thinking about and pursuing a Christian identity with biblical entailments that sever the grip of ethnic and religious backgrounds.  This is a tough one because it’s bound up with so much bad mission practice and abuses among western missionaries who have confused Christianity with Western culture.  In some respects, it seems that some of the higher level contextualization strategies are reactions to these abuses.  But the answer to abuses is not to default to ethnic cultural forms and religious expression.  Those forms are not value neutral. They’re part of the “deep structure” of culture.  What’s needed instead is a movement from Muslim community to biblical community.  We need deeper identification with/in Christ, one that radically reorients us from our natural backgrounds to a primary identification with the new humanity in Christ.  What’s needed is an outworking of Gal. 3:28–“There is neither Jew nor Greek” nor Arab or European or American or African but we are all one in Christ.  I’m concerned we may unwittingly be teaching people to prize their ethnic and social location over their position in Christ, thus perpetuating the ethnocentric blemish that has haunted the church since Acts 6 and certainly in modern missionary contact between Whites and the two-thirds world.  This seems like a re-run of earlier episodes of situation tragedies on the mission field, only with different motivation.  We’re too concerned about letting people be “Arab” or “Paskistani” or “Indian” (which we can’t distinguish very well from being “Muslim”) and too concerned about exporting western ideals (which we can’t distinguish from biblical).  We need a tighter grip on what we’re trying to make people–Christ-ians–and less concern for cultural preservation (ours or theirs), as unpopular as that statement is likely to be.  The cost of souls is far greater than the cost of culture.

5.  It seems to me that these contextualization approaches misunderstand one of the core apologetic issues in Christian engagement with Islam–the inerrancy, inspiration, reliability and superiority of Christianity, including Christian purity and faithfulness to the Scripture.  I’ve yet to engage in a discussion with a Muslim apologist or before a Muslim audience where someone did not contend that Islam was superior to Christianity because it governs all of life.  That’s the party line.  The talking points in defense of that party line include Muslim perceptions about errors in the Bible, the insufficiency of the Bible for directing the lives of the faithful (no law), the lax moral lives of Christians, and the perceived injustice of the gospel (especially Christ’s substitutionary atonement for sinners).  I’m concerned that these views of contextualization effectively concede these points by adopting and validating Muslim forms and practice.  Aren’t C5 and C6 practices akin to Schleirmachian capitulation to the Muslim “cultured despisers of Christianity”?  It’s difficult to see how such contextualization isn’t completely subjectivizing and individualizing the faith in a way that ultimately abandons the faith rather than defend it–if need be with our lives.

In the end, the entire C-scale presents syncretism rather than faithful contextualization.  It blends Christianity and Islam in such a way that, if taken seriously, leaves neither Islam nor Christianity intact.  Such adherents will never be accepted among Muslims and radically misrepresent Christian faith and practice. We need strategies that foster faithfulness and distinctiveness in Christian life and obedience, not strategies that obscure the costly grace of following Christ.


So, I have questions and concerns as I start to learn more about contextualization as both a communication and missions strategy.  Honestly, I’m less concerned with superficial adaptations and adoption of cultural artifacts, styles and expressions (some clothing, some music, figures of speech, etc.).  I don’t think all adaptations and adoptions are harmless, but some level is inescapable.  My bigger concerns have mostly to do with “what’s the end game?”  Where are we really taking the church and taking converts once we’ve implemented our contextualization strategies?  Have we really thought through the boomerang or the rock and where either lands?

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24 thoughts on “T4G Debrief: Questions about Contextualization”

  1. Timothy Reynolds says:

    Thank you, Thabiti, for these thoughtful and thought-provoking comments. I also appreciated the panel discussion. I thought the reminders that the gospel is alien in every culture and also that in the hands of the Holy Spirit it crosses every cultural barrier were very helpful. We just need to be careful (a) to communicate clearly, (b) not to wrap the gospel in unbiblical cultural stuff.

    Thought of you all at the conference and missed being with you this year!

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Dear brother,
      We missed you, too! Hoping to correct that in Chicago next year!

      Thanks for the comments. I think you’re correct: One of the most helpful comments on the panel was Al’s remark that the gospel is alien in every culture. Good stuff.


  2. Love your line of questioning and your critique of the C1-C6 scale.

    For what it’s worth, the best resource I know of on these matters is Carson’s “Christ and Culture Revisited”. His grappling in the first chapter with defining “culture(s)” is worth the price of the book.

  3. James Steer says:

    Thanks for your post. I think you raise some helpful points, especially about Islam and the C-scale. I would also echo your concerns about Muslim evangelism and IM’s.

    One starting point that that I think can often be overlooked in discussing contextualization is the issue of contextualization in the NT. One v helpful book on this aspect is Dean Fleming’s “Contextualization in the New Testament.” I think this is important foundation as it helps us understand what the apostles did in their contextualization, which will then help us think Biblical about any contextualization that we will do.


    1. Salaam Corniche says:

      Mr. Steer:
      As much as you seem happy about Dean Flemming’s writings, I have to object somewhat. His treatment of Paul at the Areopagus reflects more of German liberal philosophy with his talk of “convergance” than the Biblical view of other religions that brother T. is advocating. Case in point:
      Flemming states: “Although distressed about the idolatry he finds in Athens, Paul refuses to flatly condemn the pagans or their religious and philosophical systems. Instead, he recognizes that the Athenians, their past, and even their religious yearnings, have been touched by the grace of God.”
      This is not helpful. Elsewhere he says: “He [Paul] takes advantage of the convergences between the Jewish Scriptures and Hellenistic thought in order to construct apologetic bridges to his listeners. Paul views Greek philosophy as an appropriate conversation partner in his attempt to contextualize the Jewish Christian gospel for his educated contemporaries.”
      For a longer treatment on the views of other religions in Acts 17, please check out a piece entitled “THE AREOPAGUS:

      As they say in business: “buyer beware”
      Many thanks to you brother Thabiti for your post, as I listened with interest to the panel discussions and like you I found them short of time.

    2. Salaam Corniche says:

      As to how the apostles did contextualization, James, is not quite as straightforward as it might appear. Flemming’s work is not entirely helpful even though he correctly tries to have an irenic stance with other religions.
      Dean Fleming suggests that “Although distressed about the idolatry he finds in Athens, Paul refuses to flatly condemn the pagans or their religious and philosophical systems. Instead, he recognizes that the Athenians, their past, and even their religious yearnings, have been touched by the grace of God” and that it is important “to recognize the signs of grace wherever they are found.” From the book you cited, p. 83.

      In many ways Fleming stands on the shoulders of a number of German scholars, namely Martin Dibelius, Hans Conzelmann, and Ernst Haenchen whose influence has also touched the likes of Clark Pinnock , all with a very positive and inclusivistic view of other religions. They all assert that the Areopagus speech was a synthesis of Greek and Biblical ideas. The word convergence, after all, implies a movement towards union or uniformity. Fleming agrees. Earlier he had written:
      “He [Paul] takes advantage of the convergences between the Jewish Scriptures and Hellenistic thought in order to construct apologetic bridges to his listeners. Paul views Greek philosophy as an appropriate conversation partner in his attempt to contextualize the Jewish Christian gospel for his educated contemporaries .” Dean Flemming, “Contextualizing the Gospel in Athens: Paul’s Areopagus Address as a Paradigm for Missionary Communication,” Missiology: An International Review 30.2 (2002), p. 203.

      Malcolm B. Yarnell III in his white paper entitled, Shall We “Build Bridges” or “Pull Down Strongholds”? which examines the emergent church and Acts 17 questions Flemmings assertions and states:
      Acts 17.16-34, which contains Paul’s famous Areopagus or Mars Hill speech,
      is neither an excuse to find general revelation in other religions, nor is it a paradigm for finding relevancy in culture rather than Scripture…..
      ….we must build bridges of honest communication through proper translation of Scripture; however, like Paul we must also burn bridges of deception resident within all human cultures.”

      If I may be so bold, I find brother Thabiti’s post leaning much more strongly to Yarnell’s work, than Flemming’s.

  4. Roger Dixon says:

    I love the comment by HeadHeartHand blog- “..worth a study if you have 5-10 minutes
    This contextualization issue which is laid out nicely by Thabiti has been discussed for decades with no significant reconciliation between various views. In fact, due to Insider Movement (Jesus Movement) people and others, the issues get more complicated and diverse, even bordering (if not actually) on heretical boundaries. Great minds are needed here to uphold biblical principles, theology, worldview, etc. Please give it more than 5-10 min.

  5. Salaam Corniche says:

    Good work brother Thabiti.
    I am glad you are cutting through the fog of this supposedly “latest greatest thing since sliced bread” that is taking a whole generation of young missionaries down the garden path.
    It seems the question always is “with whose text do you analyse the con-text?” You have pointed out, as others did on the panel, that it must be the Biblical one, and not the one driven by culture.

  6. James Steer says:

    Thanks Salaam for your comments. I think Fleming is in general helpful at looking at what the NT authors do, but I also completely agree with you regarding Acts 17, which is a vital passage to rightly understand. I agree that Paul’s not “building bridges” with the Athenians, but rather he’s calling them to repent (17:30) and turn from their idolatry because such idolatry is entirely contrary to the gospel. Similarly today, we *cannot* (must not) “build bridges,” for their is nothing to build them on – there is no “common” or “neutral” ground between the gospel and other religions, rather there is a radical discontinuity between them.


  7. Doug Coleman says:

    A friend sent me an email about your post earlier but I’ve just now gotten around to reading it. My focus is cross-cultural contexts, so I won’t comment on the domestic side.

    I completed my dissertation last year at SEBTS, writing on biblical and theological issues related to Insider Movements. The paperback and Kindle version are available on Amazon if you’re interested in reading it. A search of my name on Amazon should generate hits for both. I’d welcome your thoughts.

    I’d like to make a couple of comments and ask a couple of questions.

    1. IM proponents are usually quick to deny that the strategy is an effort to avoid persecution. They state that a number of “insider believers” have been killed because they won’t stop talking about Jesus. I don’t have any personal verification, but assume they are speaking truthfully. We all have mixed motives at best, so of course it’s possible that there are multiple motives involved. However, the stated goal of IM proponents is retaining relationships for the purpose of evangelism. I’m not defending the approach here, just noting a common point of contention.

    2. In regard to your point 3 above (in the second half of the post), at least some IM proponents are offering interpretations of Islam that differ significantly from how it has typically or traditionally been understood (not that it has always been interpreted monolithically, of course). I interact with one of these significantly in the third chapter of my dissertation.

    1. In what way do you see C4-6 hiding the church? Are you referring to a literal, physical hiding, a “hiding” in terms of failing to distinguish itself from other religious or spiritual communities in the same context, or something else? At what point do we cross a point from avoiding the implication that a new follower of Jesus must become Western (or of some other culture) in order to be Christian to “hiding the church”? In other words, if we all contextualize to some degree, how does one know if he has moved from appropriate contexutalization to compromising contextualization?

    2. In point 3 you write, “It’s difficult to know where Islam begins as a religion and where Muslim culture ends. The culture carries the religion and the religion enforces the culture.” This is one of the arguments IM proponents use in favor of the methodology. I’ve lived in Muslim cultures for almost 15 years, so I think I understand the statement, and agree there’s truth in it. However, unless new believers in Jesus and new churches are going to be totally extracted (either physically or culturally), we have to try to discern some lines, don’t we? (That’s not a rhetorical question, by the way.) Otherwise, an Insider Movement is the only other alternative, and I argue in my dissertation that it’s not biblically faithful. It seems that some things are clearly religious (Friday prayers at the mosque), and some things are surely simply–or almost totally–cultural, aren’t they (musical preferences, etc.)? In other situations it may be more difficult to discern. Could it be that this was part of what was involved in Paul’s discussion of things sacrificed to idols in 1 Cor 8-10? Paul clearly prohibits participation in a pagan ritual feast (an act of pagan worship), but allows eating of the meat elsewhere if certain conditions are met. I realize 1st-century Corinthian paganism is not exactly the same as Islam today, but do the same principles apply?

    I’ve already written too much for one comment. Thanks for the post.


    1. Thabiti says:

      Hi Doug,

      I pray you’re well, brother. Thanks for the very thoughtful post. Congratulations on finishing the PhD and the dissertation! That’s awesome, brother.

      1. In what way do you see C4-6 hiding the church? … In other words, if we all contextualize to some degree, how does one know if he has moved from appropriate contexutalization to compromising contextualization?

      Yes, I’m primarily referring to the called-out, visible, local church with biblical leadership, worship, and fellowship. The “hiding” refers not necessarily to a literal physical hiding, but an obscuring of the organism/church itself.

      Even in the unique transitional period recorded in the early chapter of Acts, it was not difficult to identify the followers of The Way from the mass of Jewish worshipers from which they came. Any reading of Acts should easily recognize that (a) the early Christians were a known quantity, rejected by the majority religious culture from which they came, (b) did not remain mono-cultural but spread into other peoples (Gentiles), which required substantial redefinition of the community, and (c) both retained and changed many aspects of their religious background. Acts 15, as your study points out, plays an important role in our understanding.

      And there is one massive disanalogy it seems to me: Christianity enjoys a real genealogical relationship with Judaism that it does not share with Islam. Christianity is a child of Judaism, a fulfillment of the covenant promises made to the Patriarchs. There are genuine religious continuities between them. Christianity has no such relationship with Islam, which itself claims to be the seal, correction, and perfection of all previous biblical religious claims. To be an “insider” in Islam or a practitioner on some level at least tacitly admits the superiority of Islam’s claims and moves in the wrong direction (away from Christianity), imo.

      At this level, the question has little to do with Western culture. After all, Christianity is not “Western” in origin. It simply has to do with whether or not any religious syncretism is allowed in the Christian faith. I don’t know where all the lines are re: contextualization, but it seems better to be an “underground church” in such contexts than a “syncretized church.” That crosses the “come out from among them” line it seems.

      2. “Unless new believers in Jesus and new churches are going to be totally extracted (either physically or culturally), we have to try to discern some lines, don’t we? … Could it be that this was part of what was involved in Paul’s discussion of things sacrificed to idols in 1 Cor 8-10? I realize 1st-century Corinthian paganism is not exactly the same as Islam today, but do the same principles apply?”

      It seems the call to congregate as the church (i.e., Heb. 10:24-25) and to be separate (2 Cor. 6:16-18) establishes one line. Another line might be established by the Bible’s teaching on Christian freedom, which seems to be what Paul delineates in 1 Cor. 8. A third line might be the impossibility of participating with both Christ and the demonic powers behind idols, as Paul writes in 1 Cor. 10. I don’t think there’s any difference between 1st century idolatry in 1 Cor. 10 and the idolatry of Islam. I do think the same principles apply.

      What’s important to note is that these lines are all gospel/religious lines that cut across individual and cultural concerns. First, Paul curtails individual Christian freedom with a concern for causing a brother to stumble into idolatry (1 Cor. 8). The apostle would rather give up meat altogether than cause his brother to fall and be destroyed by idolatry. Second, the command to gather and “come out” clearly cuts across social and cultural expectations as the primary social glue becomes the fellowship rather than host cultural routines (2 Cor. 6). And third, 1 Cor. 10 certainly severs any connection to pagan religious practice because of the “participation” or spiritual communion taking place in religious practice. Either we commune with Christ or Belial. Christ cuts ties with all the cultural expectations in these settings. He turns a man against father and mother. He brings a sword, not peace.

      However we think about our cultural backgrounds, our cultures are clearly secondary to Christ. And admitting this is not the same as conceding a “Western” cultural adoption. To assume so is just the hubris of the west which reads the biblical text as though it belonged to European history and culture. We certainly should be able to imagine people remaining the ethnic people God made them to be while simultaneously becoming less culturally-bound in some sense in order to be more fully Christian in another (“neither Jew nor Greek”). At least we should imagine people reading the texts with their own cultural filters just as we read the text with our own. The important thing is to allow the text to be the normative rule rather than our cultural filters, however difficult that can be. The text of scripture will sort the cultural issues, just as it should do with us. The grayer the areas the more important it is we let the scripture do the sorting. But in IMs, we’re not talking gray areas. We’re talking clear, important, and in some cases primary areas like what constitutes conversion and what constitutes the people of God.

      Now I apologize for my long answer. I pray there’s something helpful and worth considering here. I’m grateful for your comments and your more substantive engagement with this in your dissertation.

      The Lord bless you in all your endeavors for His glory!

  8. Benelchi says:

    You stated that “From where I sit, these forms of contextualization (by which I mean levels 4-6 as I understand them) misunderstand Islam in five critical ways;” however, the debate has been long framed as the “c4/c5 controversy” because orthodox Christian doctrines are not compromised until one reaches the c5 level of this scale. There are many things about c4 that make me very uncomfortable but there are also things that some western churches do that also make me very uncomfortable. Unless a church compromises essential Christian doctrines, I believe that I must accept the validity of the expression of faith regardless of my discomfort.

    Here is my understanding of c4:

    They reject the doctrines of Islam.
    1) They do not believe the Qua’ran to be the inspired word of God.
    2) They do not believe Mohammad is a prophet.
    3) They do not worship in the Islamic Mosques.
    4) They do not identify themselves as Muslims.
    5) They do meet together as believers in Christ.
    6) They acknowledge a belief in the divinity of Jesus (as God’s son) and the Trinity.

    They do adopt some truly cultural aspects of Islam.
    1) They use prayer rugs, and pray prostrate.
    2) They dress in ways that are culturally acceptable within Islam.
    3) They eat a Halal diet (Islamic version of Kosher).
    4) They chant Christian Scriptures in ways that sound like the Islamic chants of the Qua’ran.

    In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in everything charity.

    1. Thabiti says:

      Dear Benelchi,

      Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. I appreciate your spirit and share with you the dictum: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in everything charity.” May the Lord grant that all our discourses be filled with that spirit.

      As for the post and your comments, I include C4 as the problem spot precisely because it’s where the ambiguities and discomforts begin. To be sure, discomfort is no sufficient reason for rejecting something. But insofar as the discomfort has to do with truth claims, sometimes embodied in forms, it is at least wise to stop and examine both the discomfort and the cause.

      Personally, I’m uneasy with the claim that the C4 adoptions you include in the second list are “truly cultural aspects of Islam.” In fact, I think the use of your phrase proves the point made in the post: “It’s difficult to know where Islam begins as a religion and where Muslim culture ends. The culture carries the religion and the religion enforces the culture.” What does it mean to speak of “truly cultural aspects of Islam” as though those “cultural aspects” were somehow independent of Islam as a religion? Can we speak of Islamic culture without by definition simultaneously speaking of religious worldview and practice? I doubt it. And if we can’t divide those things neatly, then how much Islam can we safe add to Christianity? That’s why I put the line at C4; it seems to me that’s where the syncretism begins (though I must say, I think the entire spectrum is irredeemably flawed and ought to be rejected).

      Let me try to illustrate the difficulty of dividing Islamic culture from Islamic religion using your list of things:

      1. Prayer rugs and prostration. Many rugs will feature Arabesque patterns, which is an art style that’s technically almost synonymous with Islamic art. Those patterns are embedded in mosques and other religious structures (and civil) and prayer rugs will usually include motifs representative of Islamic belief and history. Westerners tend to think of this as “pretty” artistic design; Muslims recognize an insignia of the religion.

      We find examples of prostrate prayer in many traditions, including Jewish and Christian traditions. Overwhelmed with a sense of awe, for example, many biblical characters fall prostrate before God in worship. But there’s an important distinction when it comes to Islam. Islam commands prostration as a sign of submission. It’s a rule that must be adhered to in traditional prayer. In other words, it’s part of the religion, not just the culture. But, we should ask, “What does a distinctively ‘Christian’ posture in prayer look like?” Perhaps 1 Tim. 2:8 should give us more direction than culture?

      2. They dress in ways that are culturally acceptable within Islam. Do you mean culturally acceptable within Islam or culturally acceptable within the Arab, Middle Eastern, Pakistani, Indonesian, or Filipino context? Those are very different things. Or are they? A Filipino Muslim that covers, which would be culturally appropriate in Islam, is doing something that non-Filipinos do not find culturally warranted. In the Middle Eastern context, “covering” is very often seen as a sign of fidelity to the faith. Many Arab women who do not cover are seen as worldly, western, or morally loose. Those are religious notions, not cultural. And the key question is this: Why should Christians of any ethnicity be subject to the cultural expectations of another religion?

      3. They eat a Halal diet. Again, are Christians not free from the law? Is not all food clean according to the vision Peter receives in Acts? As a faithful Jew, Peter would have had as much aversion to pork as a faithful Muslim. And yet, the Lord forbids the Christian Peter from calling “unclean” anything He has made. Do you see? This practice tends in the wrong direction. What you’re calling “truly cultural” has its origins in the religious teaching of Islam. Christianity sets free and reminds us that God made all things for our enjoyment (1 Tim. 6:17). But Islam enslaves. Suggesting that folks from Muslim backgrounds should take up the outward forms of Islam seems to me a grave mistake.

      My point is simply that it’s impossible to divide culture from Islam. As most faithful Muslims will tell you, Islam is and provides the culture. If we’re interested in avoiding the imposition of Western ideals and culture (and we should be!), it seems to me we need to examine the issue at the level of ethnic culture rather than religious culture. When we speak of “Islamic culture” rather than Ajman, Asir, Bali, Al Mahri (Arab peoples), Dayak, Korowai and Kombai (Indonesian peoples) cultures, then we’re bound to confuse religious practice with cultural preference. And, imo, the confusion can be devastating to the proper spiritual growth and witness of the Christian.

      I’m not opposed to people retaining cultural expressions and forms. Not in the least. But here we have a missiological strategy with good intentions and disastrous results.

      Again, I’m grateful for your spirit in this exchange. Sorry my response was so long. Please consider the length of this answer a ‘hat tip’ to the thoughtfulness of your comments.

      Grace and peace,

  9. Benelchi says:


    Realize that many Christians from the middle east reject some aspects of worship as expressed in the western church because they see pagan influences in the iconography and langauge used in our churches (particular around the the celebration of Christmas, Easter, and Halloween). Even the word “god” in English originally referred to a pagan deity rather than the living God described in Scripture. In the west, we realize that many of our churches have so successfully disassociated the pagan origins of some iconography and vocabulary that most in the church are no longer even aware of their pagan origins, but there are still areas where we in the west still struggle with knowing how to address iconography with pagan origins as can seen in the widely divergent ways churches address Halloween, the Easter bunny, Santa Claus, etc… In the west, our answers to these kinds of issue span a very wide spectrum. Some lean uncomfortably towards legalism and other lean uncomfortably worldliness.

    As I look at the issues of the c4 church, I agree strongly with most of your concerns but I think it is important to recognize that these are only areas of potential problems (like many similar issues in the western church); they are not problems in and of themselves. Take for example the dietary restrictions which some have chosen to adopt; there is nothing sinful about adopting these dietary restrictions and choosing to do so could potentially open doors that would better enable these congregations to share Christ with their Islamic neighbors. However, scripture is clear that we should not reject fellowship with other Christians or look down on them because they have made different choices about diet than we have. The one who has chosen greater freedom should not look down on the one who has not, and the one who has chosen to restrict their freedom should not look down on the one who has not. The potential problems around dietary choices only become a real problems when then cause Christians to break fellowship from one another because of their choices.

    P.S. I believe the “insider movement” is serious heresy and something that should not be accepted by any church. But I also believe it is very important not to blur the lines between those aspects of “contextualization” that are truly heretical and those aspects that do not compromise the message of the gospel of Christ.

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Thabiti Anyabwile

Thabiti Anyabwile is a pastor for Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC and a council member of The Gospel Coalition.

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