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How Then Shall We Live? (Contextualization, Part III)

“Will you burn incense for your dad?” My mom looked at me expectantly as she asked.

Within a month, we fly back to Taiwan to take my dad’s ashes home. My grandparents have already purchased a family lot, where we will lay his remains. Because they practice Buddhism, they will expect us to burn incense in honor of their deceased son.

According to traditional Chinese belief, the smoke from burning incense carries one’s prayers to the heavens. A person can burn incense both to honor a deceased family member and to ask them for blessings. For example, one relative would ask her deceased husband to bless their grandchildren’s studies.

Because I’m the seminary graduate of the family, my answer will influence my mom’s actions—and our relationship with our Taiwanese relatives, who have limited knowledge of the gospel. My answer will impact how we, as Chinese-American Christians, honored my dad’s memory—and even how (or whether) our loved ones receive the good news of Christ.

Following Christ within Culture

My mom is not alone in her question. Over the centuries, many believers have wondered what cultural practices they can keep and what they should forsake to follow Jesus.

We doubt whether we can wear skinny jeans or expose tattoos during Sunday Service. We debate whether we can dance in worship, add drums and electric guitars, or retell a myth to explain the gospel. We argue whether to tolerate interpretive Bible translations, or whether translators should just “stick to the text.”

Centuries ago, the Corinthians asked whether they could eat meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8).

Because we love Christ and desire to follow him, we often err on the side of caution. We decide that to “lay aside the old man [self, ESV]” and “put on the new man [self, ESV]” (Eph. 4:22–23; cf. Col. 3:9–10) means to leave behind our old cultural practices and adopt the traditions of the church into which we were baptized.[i]

What Does It Mean to “Put on the New”?

Paul was not advocating against all former cultural practices. Instead, he meant that an inner transformation must take place in believers’ lives. To follow Christ, believers needed to lay aside old patterns of thoughts and adopt new ways of thinking.

As the apostle explained, the Gentiles’ old self lived in the “futility of their thinking” (Eph 4:17). The Greek term ματαιότης, “futility,” suggests a state of being without use or value.[ii] Unbelieving Gentiles lacked true purpose without God’s revelation to guide their conduct (cf. Rom 1:21; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:12; 1 Pet. 1:14). As a result, they filled the emptiness in their lives by practicing “every kind of impurity with greediness [i.e., a continual lust for more]” (Eph. 4:19).[iii]

In contrast, the new self lives “in [the] righteousness and holiness that comes from truth” (Eph. 4:24). Because believers’ minds have been made new, their thoughts are no longer futile. Believers reflect this change in the way they treat their neighbors (Eph. 4:25–32).

Putting on the new does not mean that we must abandon all cultural practices. Instead, it means that we ought to have the same attitude toward one another that Jesus had for us. As Paul wrote to the Philippians:

Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself. Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but about the interests of others as well. (Phil. 2:3–4)

We thus have freedom in Christ for the benefit of others.

Freedom in Christ for the Gospel’s Sake

Paul writes to the Corinthians that he became all things to all people. He did not engage in the lusts of the Gentiles simply because he believed he could, however—in fact, he warned believers to flee from idolatry (1 Cor 10:14). By becoming all things, Paul adopted certain customs of the people he visited, so that he could share the gospel with them (1 Cor 9:19–23; cf. 10:23–33).

We should thus adopt cultural practices as far as they build others up.

Contextualization Revisited

In this series, we’ve seen that not all syncretism is bad. Syncretism can contextualize the gospel in a way that “honors both a person’s culture and their orthodox faith as a follower of Jesus and his ways.”[iv]

Because biblical writers inhabited a particular time and place, they drew from the common cultural foundations of their region to communicate concepts about God.[v] In doing so, they synthesized faith, belief, and practice without taking away from the authority of Scripture and orthodoxy.[vi]

How Then Shall We Live?

Given the freedom that we have in Christ, we can love our neighbors by contextualizing the gospel within their particular culture. Although we may choose to worship in one way, we can allow others to worship in a way that makes sense for them, thus making the gospel accessible to a wider audience. We can be flexible in our thinking for Christ’s sake.

As the German theologian Rupertus Meldenius wrote: in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.

His slogan has implications in various spheres. Consider the following:

  • Bible Translation: Jesus describes himself as the “bread of life.” Bread is a staple in many cultures—but not all. Can we describe him as the “rice of life” in Far Eastern cultures, where rice is the essential carb?[vii]
  • Sunday Service: Perhaps we can introduce different instruments into the worship service.[viii] Perhaps pastors can preach in skinny jeans and with their tattoos on display.
  • Cultural Worship: Local instruments and customs can be used to honor and glorify God. In the first column in this series, I shared the example of a Christian worshipping in a sweat lodge with a drum.[ix]
  • Local Artists: When we bring the gospel to another culture, we can invite local artists to create music, dance, and art for the church.[x]
  • Disabilities and the Church: Some members of the community require accommodations for themselves or a family member. What can the church do to help people with disabilities and their loved ones feel welcome?

As we embrace more cultures, perhaps the church may look less like the one in which we grew up or in which we were baptized. But perhaps the church will look a little more like the church of Revelation 7:9.

Will I Burn Incense for My Dad?

Earlier, I shared that my mom asked me if I planned to burn incense in honor of my deceased dad.

In light of the meaning of contextualization/syncretism, what matters most is a person’s heart allegiance. When I burn incense, am I being led to Christ? Am I honoring the authority of Scripture and orthodoxy even as I honor my cultural heritage?

Scent is strongly associated with memory.[xi] For me, the smell of incense carries me back to summers at my grandparents’ home—and the love I felt from the people there.

When I burn incense for my earthly father, I will remember that Jesus has prepared a place for believers in his Father’s house (John 14:1–3). Although I grieve my dad’s death now, I will see him again when heaven comes down to earth and all things are made new (Rev 21:1–5). Burning incense will remind me that, one day, we will dwell with our heavenly Father, and I can pray for the same for my grandparents.

Burning incense will ultimately be an act of love because I can share these thoughts and prayers with my Taiwanese relatives. I can share the good news that brought my dad home.

This is the conclusion to a three-part series on contextualization. First, we examined the difference between contextualization/syncretism and counteractive syncretism through the lens of American Born Chinese. Last time, we looked at biblical precedence for contextualizing our faith. Today, we discussed how we can contextualize our faith to share the gospel.

[i] Jesus spoke on a similar topic when he gave the metaphor of replacing the old garment and old wineskin (Luke 5:36–39). Whereas Paul wrote to Gentile believers, Jesus spoke to the Jews. For the purposes of this column, we will focus on Paul’s instructions to Gentile believers.

[ii] BDAG, 621.

[iii] Harold W. Hoehner, “Ephesians,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, eds. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, (Colorado Springs: David C Cook, 1983), 636.

[iv] Syncretism goes too far and becomes counteractive syncretism when it “directs a person’s primary allegiance to someone or something other than Christ, resulting in the rejection of core Christian beliefs.” See Crystal, “The Gospel in ‘American Born Chinese’: An Introduction to Contextualization,” bible.org, February 13, 2024, https://blogs.bible.org/the-gospel-in-american-born-chinese-an-introduction-to-contextualization/. See also Richard Twiss, Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015), 35–36.

[v] The writers of the Hebrew Bible (what we call the Old Testament) drew from Ancient Near-Eastern practice of understanding history through myth to demonstrate the sovereignty of their Lord. To make the gospel accessible to a Hellenistic audience, Paul informed the people of Athens about the identity of the unknown god they worshipped. For further discussion, see Crystal, “Contextualization, Part 2: Making Known the Unknown God,” bible.org, February 27, 2024, https://blogs.bible.org/contextualization-part-2-making-known-the-unknown-god/.

[vi] For further discussion on syncretism that upholds the authority of Scripture and orthodoxy, see Twiss, Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys, 30, 33.

[vii] Consider The Message, in which Eugene Peterson uses contemporary idioms to make the biblical text relevant—and understandable—to a contemporary audience.

[viii] Until the late 1800s, the organ served as the church’s primary instrument; the piano was considered a secular instrument. The organ itself was not introduced in Western Christian liturgy until the 10th or 12th century. Before that, Christians typically worshipped through unaccompanied vocal music. See Elesha Coffman, “When did churches start using instrumental music?,” Christianity Today, August 8, 2008, https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2008/august/when-did-churches-start-using-instrumental-music.html; Theodore L. Gentry, “The Origins of Evangelical Pianism,” American Music 11, no. 1 (Spring 1993), 90–111.

[ix] Crystal, “The Gospel in ‘American Born Chinese’,” https://blogs.bible.org/the-gospel-in-american-born-chinese-an-introduction-to-contextualization/.

[x] For an insightful discussion on the importance of ethnodoxology to global mission and ministry, listen to Dr. Robin Harris speak on the topic (Dr. Robin Harris, “Ethnodoxology: The Praise of the People,” DTS Chapel, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, TX, September 23, 2021).

[xi] Everyday Einstein Sabrina Stierwalt, “Why Do Smells Trigger Memories?,” Scientific American, June 29, 2020, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-smells-trigger-memories1/.

Crystal holds a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary. A freelance writer and editor, she has the pleasure of helping others tell their own stories. Her passion lies in uplifting vulnerable populations. In her leisure time, you can find her walking her rescue dog, drinking a cup of hot tea, or getting lost in a good book. You can also follow her on X and Instagram @writecrystalc and on her website writecrystal.wordpress.com.

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

Sandra Glahn, who holds a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and a PhD in The Humanities—Aesthetic Studies from the University of Texas/Dallas, is a professor at DTS. This creator of the Coffee Cup Bible Series (AMG) based on the NET Bible is the author or coauthor of more than twenty books. She's the wife of one husband, mother of one daughter, and owner of two cats. Chocolate and travel make her smile. You can follow her on Twitter @sandraglahn ; on FB /Aspire2 ; and find her at her web site: aspire2.com.

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