IN TRYING TO CONTEXTUALISE WE SHOULD BE CAREFUL OF SYNCRETISM.
Inspired missionaries know that they must contextualize their ministry to their receiving culture. Missionaries seek to present the eternal truth of the gospel in a way that a non-Christian culture can understand and respond to God’s voice. The most obvious form of contextualization (though not always the most simple) happens when a missionary crosses a language barrier to communicate the truth. For example, a missionary from Texas who travels to France to spread the gospel must first learn how to speak French before they do anything else. This is called contextualization – learning how to communicate effectively in a different culture.
What is clear for missionaries in foreign cultures is not always clear for missionaries on their home turf. In other words, learning to communicate the gospel to a people group that is foreign to you makes the contextualization steps abundantly clear. The missionary sees quickly that he is an outsider and that he needs to adopt new styles of dress and speech and patterns of behavior in order to work in this new cultural context. But what does contextualization mean in your own cultural context? How do you use the language and patterns of your native culture to effectively communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ?
One of the reasons that this is exceedingly difficult is because the line between contextualization and syncretism is thin. Whereas contextualization is entering a cultural worldview for the sake of clearly communicating God’s eternal truth in an understandable way.
Is a philosophy or belief that seeks to mix different religions and theologies into one. From the Greek verb sunkretizein, “to combine”, the term came to prominence during the 17th Century when a German theologian named Georg Callixtus attempted to combine the Lutheran and Calvinist churches of the Reformation with the Roman Catholic Church by encouraging all three groups to unify under the church creeds of the first 5 centuries and dismiss their other doctrinal differences.
syncretism is therefore the merger of two worldviews into one new worldview. In other words, if we are not careful in our missionary work especially in our own culture but also in foreign cultures, we will enter the worldview of those around us not to challenge it but in order to adopt it and merge it with Christian theology.
When you travel overseas, syncretism is fairly easy to see. If Christians in another context have adopted non-Christian beliefs from their culture, you are more likely to see them as an outsider to both cultures. But discerning syncretism in your own culture is exceedingly difficult. Let’s look at two biblical examples to further illustrate the difference between effective missionary contextualization and unhealthy theological syncretism.
First, let’s look at Paul’s missionary work in Athens in Acts 17:22-34. In this passage, Paul goes to the place of religious practice for his receiving culture, the Areopagus, and intelligently engages the pagan culture. He obviously had read their poets and knew their philosophers. He spoke their language and knew their customs. Paul identifies with them and speaks highly of their religiosity. However, in the midst of entering the Athenian worldview, he also challenges it with biblical truth. He enters the worldview to challenge the worldview – which is the key of missionary contextualization. Please note in this passage that Paul goes to the people he is ministering to and does not critique their morality. He gets below the surface of their activities to their idolatry. He wants to speak to their foundational beliefs, not their outward behaviors. He understands the worldview of those he is trying to reach (and explains it clearly) so that He can engage it intelligently and challenge it biblically (with the metanarrative of Scripture).
To see a clear illustration of crossing the line into syncretism, let’s look at the Israelites in Judges 2:11-15. Instead of driving the foreign peoples out of the Promised Land like they had been commanded, the Israelites assimilated the religious beliefs and practices of those around them into their own faith system. This is essential to understand. They did not abandon Yahweh completely. They abandoned Yahweh uniquely. In other words, they continued to worship Yahweh and bring sacrifices to Yahweh, but they also wanted to include the gods of the Canaanite religions in their worship. This is called syncretism – adding the gods of another worldview into the Christian worldview to form a new melting-pot religion. The result is a mixture of Christian language and theology with pagan language and theology.
Dangers of Syncretism: “Take heed to yourself, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land where you are going, lest it be a snare in your midst. But you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images (for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God),lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they play the harlot with their gods and make sacrifice to their gods, and one of them invites you and you eat of his sacrifice, and you take of his daughters for your sons, and his daughters play the harlot with their gods and make your sons play the harlot with their gods.” (Exodus 34:12-16).
“You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord’s table and of the table of demons.” (1 Cor 10:21).
You can see how difficult the task of the missionary is in a different cultural environment – studying a worldview at the level of understanding it and being able to communicate within it without adopting the beliefs and values of that worldview. In the current American culture, the dominant worldviews are materialism, hedonism, secularism, pluralism, naturalism, and moralism. As we engage each one of these religious systems (which they are) with the gospel of Jesus Christ, we must be aware of the danger we face of uncritically adopting the idols associated with each.
Moving forward, the challenge for Christian missionaries is to effectively contextualize our work without falling into theological syncretism. May God give us wisdom and insight into our tendencies as His servants so that we can avoid the traps that would hurt our witness for Christ.