Good and bad contextualization

(David) I happened across this post by Internet Monk (Michael Spencer) and found him ably hitting a theme Tim and I strongly agree with: contextualization is not only not wrong, it is essential in the work of the Gospel. We must not ignore context. To go to the uncircumcised without approaching as one uncircumcised, to go to those without the law without approaching as one who is lawless, to go to the weak without approaching as one who is weak is not only non-Pauline, it is unChristlike.

I suspect that my brother Tim does not mean to be critical of Redeemer Church and Tim Keller for seeking to accommodate, in general terms, the culture of NYC and Manhattan any more than he wishes the rest of us to criticize him and his church for, for example, worshipping to rock and roll in the specific context of a Big Ten-university village. But Paul adds this caveat to his statement that for those outside the law he became as one outside the law, "not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ," and it's this boundary on contextualization that seems increasingly at issue in these debates.

Is contextualization which seeks to smooth offensive splinters from the Word Pauline or Christ-like? Is contextualization which accommodates cultural sin appropriate--even if such accommodation itself is arguably non-sinful?

Iain Murray closes a recent piece on biblical church unity with three warnings. He warns, first, that those who seek unity must remain equally concerned to contend for the truth--and ends by calling for care in labeling and diligence in love and service to others. His third warning concerns the danger of creating new causes and organizations rather than seeking to discern the Spirit's path in the world. But then, in the middle of these warnings comes this rather stunning assertion:

2. We need to be alert to the threat that innocently adjusting services to the musical taste of modern culture poses to the reverent worship of God. God’s powerful works have always been accompanied more by awe, penitence, and silence than by noise and "celebration." Practice, as well as faith, needs to conform to the simplicity of the New Testament. The fear of God and the comfort of the Holy Spirit belong together (Acts 9:31). True worshippers should know something of what is said of Jacob: ‘He was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven’ (Gen 28:17)."

Is there no distinction between ordaining women deacons and playing contemporary music? To some the two are apparently equally unscriptural. A young Reformed Baptist pastor recently told me that after inviting a long-time mentor to preach at his fledgling church, he received a note from the man (a close associate of Iain Murray's) saying he could no longer support him or his ministry simply because the church had worshipped to contemporary music the morning he had been with them.

How far does appropriate contextualization extend? To untucked shirts? Woman deacons? Rock and roll music in worship?

The checkered legacy of the Regulative Worship Principle (RWP) looms unhappily large over such discussions. The RWP, though simple in theory, becomes cloudy and argumentative at precisely the point where it should provide greatest clarity--the divide between appropriate and inappropriate contextualization, between personal proclivity and Divine prohibition.

In the case of Redeemer, I have no problem saying that Scripture teaches an ordained office of deacon possessing real authority, that elevation of women to that office is not only diminution of the office, but accommodation to the (sinful) feminist ethos of our age and therefore non-Pauline and unChristlike.

But beyond such objective skirting of Scripture let Tim Keller address New Yorkers as a New Yorker; let Mark Driscoll preach in his untucked shirt; let John MacArthur mount the pulpit in his suit and let my brother Tim have his worship band.

Each of these decisions in itself is not inherently sinful or contrary to Scripture--which, of course, is not to deny the possibility of sin down the road. But at that point--down that road--defining sin becomes a subjective rather than objective exercise and requires us to search our own hearts. The danger of the RWP's theoretical objectivity is that it too often promotes Reformed Pharisaism rather than true worship of the heart: it frees from heart-searching only by promoting law-fulfilling.

I love Iain Murray, I've been honored to have him preach at my church, but is it really a full expression of Biblical truth to suggest that, "God’s powerful works have always been accompanied more by awe, penitence, and silence than by noise and 'celebration.'"? If Iain Murray can go so wrong here, the dangers the rest of us face in considering legitimate and illegitimate forms of contextualization are great--demonstrating, ironically, Murray's own point of the need for charity until an objective tenet of Scripture is specifically denied in preaching or in practice.

Comments

But Phoebe was a deacon in Paul's service. That completely contradicts your argument that female deacons are un-Pauline.

Dear Fran,

As the contestant in Monty Python's "Stake Your Claim" says:

"Ah well, this is where my claim falls to the ground. There's no possible way of answering that argument, I'm afraid. I was only hoping you would not make that particular point, but I can see you're more than a match for me."

David Bayly

P.S. Read the skit in its entirety here: http://www.skepticfiles.org/en001/claim.htm

I don't understand your point. But I got a good chuckle from reading the Monty Python skit.

Dear Fran,

My point is merely that you see Phoebe as holder of a titular office of the church whereas I disagree.

If your assumption about Phoebe is correct, then I'm clearly undone.

But it's not as easy a victory as you may think. For more on the classic understanding of Phoebe as deaconess and the office of deacon see my brother's post here: http://www.baylyblog.com/2008/02/women-deacons-o.html

In Christ,

David

Ok. I understand. Since reading the qualifications of elders and deacons in the NASB (which uses "women" instead of "wives"), I've never understood the argument against women as deacons. But I see that's another argument for another blog post (one you had back in February).

God bless.

Fran,

People on both sides of the deaconess/women deacons issue are aware of Romans 16:2. However, throughout the overwhelming majority of church history, Christians have understood Scripture to teach that office of deacon is open to men only. And in the few cases where women did serve as deacons, they did not serve with the exact measure of authority and function as did male deacons.

So regardless of which side someone embraces, this is but one reason why we must insist on better exegesis than "Phoebe was a deacon" to substantiate the claim that qualified women can and should serve in the office of deacon. It was not in the past, and is not now, a slam dunk passage to support women deacons/deaconesses. It is surprising to me that so many otherwise careful ministers of God's word do little, if anything, more than simply say, "Phoebe was a deacon" to support their position that women should be deacons.

"However, throughout the overwhelming majority of church history, Christians have understood Scripture to teach that office of deacon is open to men only. And in the few cases where women did serve as deacons, they did not serve with the exact measure of authority and function as did male deacons."

I agree in part with the second sentence, but I don't see how the first is supportable at all. We know from Pliny's letter to Trajan in 112 that the Church had deaconesses by that point. Theodoret talks about them. Calvin deals with them (and thinks the NT church "widows" and deacon(esses) were the same thing). Ironically, the early Church had deaconesses partly because a) it was considered inappropriate for men to minister very directly to women, b) they believed women converts should be catechized. There's an interesting collection of source references in Bingham's Antiquities about this.

Travis,

I agree with you. There were some who believed in deaconesses, but I don’t know of any widespread practice where male and female deacons carried the same authority and functioned in the same way. Whatever authoritative aspects deacons had were by in large, reserved for qualified, ordained, male deacons only.

My larger point was that whatever view you take has to be grounded in better exegesis than, “Phoebe was a deacon. Therefore, qualified women can serve as deacons in the same way qualified men can.” Keller – who I think is one of the most gifted preachers out there – even does this in his paper, “Women in Ministry.” Of course, he wasn’t trying to write an exegetical paper, but I still think you’ve got to do a better job supporting a view that men and women alike can serve in the same office (deacon) in the same way, especially when that view is neither supported by Church history nor by the BCO.

This discussion has given me a possible insight into our southern fundamentalist friends - they are perfectly contextualised for and to the southern environment they have come from, therefore explaining why they are so often at cross-purposes with everyone else. This is well-illustrated by their arguments over the KJV, music ... and a complete inability to recognise that they have been shaped by that culture they have come from.

>>I suspect that my brother Tim does not mean to be critical of Redeemer Church and Tim Keller for seeking to accommodate, in general terms, the culture of NYC and Manhattan any more than he wishes the rest of us to criticize him and his church for, for example, worshiping to rock and roll in the specific context of a Big Ten-university village.

First, our music is an eclectic mixture that includes rock and roll, although to call it that doesn't quite do it justice. Let's just say that in some of our worship music we've replaced the pedals of the pipe organ with an electric bass. But having so many classical musicians in our congregation, it's a rare Sunday we don't also have a cappella hymns, and every Sunday some worship is accompanied solely by our grand piano. Following the reformers, we believe worship should be "in the vulgar tongue," and we're working to discipline our roots in upper middle class reformed aesthetics. This particular contextualization has nothing to do with being in a university community; we would do the same in Wheaton or Philadelphia.

Second, let's state the obvious: There are aspects of our university community we ought not accommodate. Take, for instance, the pervasive pride that accompanies higher education. In the same way, there are aspects of the culture of New York City that shouldn't be accommodated, and then defended as contextualization.

Making an equal-opportunity appearance in both communities is the pressure to silence the testimony of God's Word, that Adam was created first, and then Eve, and that this order is God's good gift to us and has, by His decree, consequences throughout life.

Precisely here, neither Church of the Good Shepherd nor Redeemer in Manhattan may silence the Word of God and cover our unfaithfulness under the guise of doing the work of contextualization.

May I encourage our readers to take the time to read my most recent post on father-hunger? Here I try to present a deeper statement of what seems to me to be needed to contextualize the Gospel of Jesus Christ in this matter of sexuality, particularly as we look at the world that surrounds us and see father-hunger everywhere. May God open our eyes to this gaping wound and the Gospel opportunity it presents us. Then, may He give us the grace of boldness so that we will be faithful witnesses to The Father from Whom all fatherhood gets its name.

Mr. Bayly,

I would like to respectfully suggest that there may be a certain misapprehension with regard to the Regulative Principle of Worship. I found this line concerning it very helpful. "[It] is not technically the worship which is being regulated, but the authority of office-bearers in relation to doctrine, worship, government, and discipline." (Rev. Matthew Winzer). My own humble understanding is that, in the context of worship, it governs the authority of church leadership with regard to what practices they impose in the public worship of God. If that is true, when rightly apprehended it should function as a prophylactic against spiritual tyranny. This is why the Confession introduces it, in the stately words of XX.2, "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, in matters of faith, or worship."

Sorry for the name typo above. I am not Rubwn, but Ruben.

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