Contextualization vs. Syncretism

“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” – 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (ESV).

English: Saint paul arrested

English: Saint paul arrested (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


In modern Christian missions, we see and hear terms like contextualization, syncretism, people groups, etc. Certainly every specialized group (e.g. missionaries, doctors, lawyers, engineers, government bureaucrats, sailors, computer geeks) has its own unique terminology, its jargon; so, we shouldn’t be surprised by such terms as the ones I mentioned. I want to focus on two of those terms: contextualization and syncretism.


In the book Introducing World Missions: A Biblical, Historical and Practical Survey, Moreau, Corwin and McGee define contextualization as follows: “The core idea is that of taking the gospel to a new context and finding appropriate ways to communicate it so that it is understandable to the people in that context. Contextualization refers to more than just theology; it also includes developing church life and ministry that are biblically faithful and culturally appropriate” (Moreau, Corwin and McGee, 2004, 12). They define syncretism as “the replacement of core or important truths of the gospel with non-Christian elements” (Moreau, Corwin and McGee, 2004, 13).


Sometimes, people who are communicating the gospel go too far with contextualization and end up straying into syncretism – as has happened with the modern, easy-believism, life-improvement gospel message so often communicated by Christians in the Western world. In many places, Christianity has become syncretized as it has been mixed with non-Christian elements such as animism in Latin America and Africa and individualism, consumerism and “the American dream” in America.


Perhaps the best example of contextualization that we see in scripture is how Paul delivered the gospel in Athens (see Acts 17). There Paul used the monument “to the unknown god” as his jumping off point, his way in, as something in Athenian culture that he could use to explain the gospel. He quoted from Greek philosophers as he was explaining God’s role in Creation. He didn’t change the content of the gospel, only how he explained it. In the passage that I quoted above from 1 Corinthians 9, Paul explained his reasoning behind using contextualization in his delivery of the gospel, that he used what was culturally relevant to his audience to communicate a gospel that transcends all cultures, a gospel that wasn’t just for the Jews, but for Gentiles as well. I especially like the note in the Geneva Bible for 1 Corinthians 9:22, “In matters that are indifferent, which may be done or not done with a good conscience. It is as if he said, ‘I accommodated all customs and manners, that by all means I might save some.'” In other words, Paul didn’t compromise the truth of the gospel or his Christian faith in his cross-cultural ministry.


Yet, contextualization isn’t just about how we communicate the gospel. It’s also about how Christianity is lived out in a particular culture. It’s about how we “do church” in that culture. Certain Pharisee converts to Christianity in the first century insisted that Gentiles who came to Christ had to, in effect, become Jews (not just religiously, but culturally) in order to be saved (see Acts 15). In his epistle to the Romans (see Romans 14) and his first letter to the Corinthians (see 1 Corinthians 8), Paul addressed the cultural issue of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols.


There is a long and unfortunate period in Christian history when missionaries didn’t contextualize, but tried to transplant Western Christianity into non-Western cultures – partly in the name of “civilizing the heathen,” but partly because they thought that how they “did church” in their home countries was how church was to be done everywhere. It has only been in recent decades that we’ve really caught on to the concept of contextualization, caught on to the thinking that we need to not only communicate the gospel in a way that is culturally relevant, but that how we “do church” and how Christianity is lived out must also be culturally relevant – without compromising the core, foundational truths (the essentials) of the faith. Beyond the core truths of the faith, what Christianity looks like in, say, the United States should be different from what it looks like in, say, Uganda. Sadly, missionaries often take with them not just the gospel but their home cultures as well. As James wrote in his epistle, “My brothers, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:10b ESV).


However, in our contextualization, we must be careful that we don’t fall into syncretism (or, perhaps, we should call it sincretism). We must be careful that we don’t replace biblical truth with cultural elements that are contrary to that truth. The animism that has been mixed into Christianity in much of Latin America is a clear example, but a not-so-obvious (to American Christians, anyway) yet equally syncretic example is the way American individualism and consumerism have infected Christianity in the United States or the way the social justice gospel (an American version of the heresy known as liberation theology) has infected primarily black churches in the United States.


The Apostle Paul communicated the gospel in a way that was relevant to the culture of his audience. He also adapted to those cultures wherever he went. Thus, he became “all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9:22 ESV). Yet, he never compromised biblical truth in the process. We must do likewise as we carry out the Great Commission (see Matthew 28:19-20).