Good and bad contextualization

Error message

(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.