In Acts 17 we have the account of three cities, each of which has very different kinds of people, and we read a record of Paul’s preaching of the gospel in each of these cities. So what I’d like to do is to compare these three cities and Paul’s methods in each city, and try to come to some conclusions about whether this “anything goes” philosophy of contextualization is biblical.
First, let’s look at the differences between the people in these three cities.
Paul’s audience in this city was predominantly Jewish. He spent time in the synagogue there speaking to Jews and Jewish proselytes. But it was not in any way a predominantly receptive audience. In fact, it seems like this was actually mostly a hostile audience. Some did come to Christ, but for the most part, Paul’s audience was hostile. In verse 5 we see that these Jews were jealous when a few began to convert to Christ, and so they stirred up the crowd against Paul. In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians he says that they received the gospel amidst affliction (1.6). In his second letter he reminded them that they accepted his message amidst much conflict (2.2). So evidently the few who did come to Christ did so amidst much persecution. Paul’s audience in Thessalonica, for the most part, was comprised of hostile Jews.
He had a different audience in Berea, however. Again, his audience was mostly Jews, but these Jews were not hostile to his message. Verse 11 tells us that they were more noble than the Thessalonians because they received Paul’s message with eagerness. So this audience was similar to the one in Thessalonica except that they were much more receptive.
After Berea, Paul went to Athens. His audience here was much, much different than the other two cities. Athens was the head quarters of Greek mythology. These were rank pagans. Paul noticed this in verse 16 when he saw that the city was full of idols.
Furthermore, this city was full of high class, intellectual philosophers, and we see examples of this in who Paul meets in verse 18. He meets a group of Epicureans and Stoics.
Epicureans were pure materialists. They didn’t believe in the spiritual world. They didn’t believe in life after death. These are equivalent to secular humanists today. Stoics were pantheists. Not only did they believe in many gods, they also believed that all people have godness within them. This is very similar to modern New Age kind of thinking.
So this was a completely different kind of audience than the audiences that Paul had found in Thessalonica and Berea. These were mostly Gentile pagans who were upper class, intellectual philosophers.
So we have three very different audiences. And churches like Mars Hill will look to this as an example of contextualizing the gospel for different cultures. So is it? Let’s examine Paul’s method with these different audiences, and see how exactly he contextualizes the gospel.
The question is, did Paul contextualize the message depending on the culture he was in? That’s what churches like Mars Hill Church in Seattle would argue. They would come to Acts chapter 17 and argue that although the gospel message was the same, the way Paul presented it changed depending on the culture. He preached differently to the Jews in Thessalonica and Berea than he did to the intellectual pagans in Athens.
So did he? Let’s examine the text.
The religious Jews
First, what method did Paul use to present the gospel to the religious Jews in Thessalonica and Berea?
Verse 2 says that he reasoned with them from the Old Testament Scriptures. These Jews would have respected the Scriptures as inspired by God, and so it was natural for Paul to start there.
Verse 3 tells us that he explained those Scriptures to them and proved that the Messiah had to die and rise again. So he showed them in the prophesies about the Messiah that he would have to die and rise again.
Then he explained to them that the facts about Jesus of Nazareth fit with these prophesies about the Messiah. The proper response, then, would be to believe in Jesus Christ.
So Paul was able to assume a lot with these Jews, he could leave some things unsaid, and he did a lot of reasoning from Old Testament prophesies. His method was evidently very similar with the Berean Jews.
The pagan intellectuals
But what about the pagan intellectuals in Athens? In some ways he had to say more to them than he did to the Jews. He had to tell them that God created all things and ruled all things. He had to tell them that God expected them to serve Him. He had to tell them that judgment was coming for those who did not serve Him. The Jews already knew all that. Paul didn’t have to tell them that. But he had to explain these things to the Athenians because, as he said, they were ignorant.
In Athens, Paul didn’t reason with them out of the Old Testament prophesies, trying to prove to them that predictions about the Messiah and facts about Jesus’ life matched. That would have made no sense to them. Instead, he appealed to the needs he knew the Athenians had and showed them why they needed to turn to God.
So did Paul contextualize the gospel? Yes, he did. He presented the same gospel message in slightly different ways depending on the culture.
But the important question is, exactly how did Paul contextualize the gospel? Did he do so by immersing himself in the culture of the Athenians? Did he do so by presenting the gospel in a manner unworthy of it? Did Paul contextualize the gospel in the way that people like Mark Driscoll say that he did? Driscoll would say that when he uses pop culture references like quotes from South Park or lyrics from the latest grunge album or a crass stand-up comic style in his preaching, he is (according to his website) “preaching the gospel like Paul [in Athens]: using the artifacts and language of our culture to point to Jesus.” So is Mark Driscoll really the modern day Paul?
Paul contextualized the gospel in two primary ways that were different for these pagan intellectuals than he did for the Jews in Thessalonica and Berea, and I think looking closely at them will give us some principles to help us prevent sinful contextualization.
Paul understood their pagan religion
The first way Paul contextualized the gospel was with relation to their religion. With the Jews in Thessalonica and Berea, Paul was able to build upon the foundation of their current religion and explain new revelation concerning Jesus. He couldn’t do that with pagans. They had a completely different understanding of the nature of the world. And so Paul had to consider their current religious understanding and then explain what was necessary to correct their faulty thinking.
He does this in verse 22-23:
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.
Paul had evidently spent some time studying the religion of Athens, and he used that knowledge to present the gospel in the best way possible.
Now the problem is that some look at this incident and say, “See, Paul immersed himself in the culture of Athens and even gained a hearing from them by speaking positively about their culture.” But is that really what he was doing?
Notice in the text what Paul thought about this religious culture. Verse 16 says that Paul was “provoked” by the culture he saw in Athens. He didn’t adopt their culture; he didn’t approve of their culture; he despised it.
Furthermore, Paul didn’t try to garner respect by speaking positively about their beliefs. Quite the opposite. In verse 22 when he says that they are religious, he is not complimenting them. The word there is literally “superstitious.” That’s a negative charge.
In verse 23, some translations are a little bit misleading. It looks like Paul is saying, “You worship an unknown god, and so I’m going to tell you who that unknown god is.” But Paul uses a different word where some translate the second as “unknown.” The NASB gets it best: “What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.” Paul was accusing them of being ignorant in their religious beliefs. That’s not very complimentary. In fact, he implies their ignorance again in verse 30, and says that God commands them to repent of it.
The point is this: Paul knew their religion. But he referenced their religion, not to give them credit for a good try, or to somehow say that his religion was close to theirs; he exploited their religion! He demonstrated the futility of their religion. And in fact, he insisted that their ignorant, superstitious religion was worthy of judgment from the true God unless they repent. So he revealed the futility of their religion and then explained to them the truth.
Paul exploited their philosophy
The second way in which Paul contextualized to these people was with reference to their philosophy. In verse 28, Paul quotes their own philosophers:
For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we are indeed his offspring.”
Now again here some insist that this is an example of Paul immersing himself in the culture of Athens and quoting their own philosophers as a way to gain respect from his audience. But was that what he was really doing? Let’s look carefully at Paul’s argument here, beginning in verse 24.
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us.
Paul’s argument is that God is the Creator and Ruler of all, and that he is not served by human hands. Then he quotes their own philosophers who admit that we come from God in order to reveal their inconsistency. Here they say that they came from a god and yet they still try to bring that god under their control by making idols. Paul is trying to discredit them by pointing out this glaring inconsistency in their thinking. He reveals that purpose in verse 29:
Being then God’s offspring [and your philosophers supposedly admit this], we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man [like the idols you have all around you].
He wasn’t using cultural references in a positive light; again he was showing how futile they were. He was discrediting the popular religious philosophy of the day. He was saying, “You say one thing, but then you do something else completely contradictory. You are ignorant of the truth. Repent of your ignorance or you will be judged!”
So did Paul contextualize the gospel message? Yes. He sought to understand the religion of Athens and the philosophy of Athens. But he did so not so that he could present the gospel in a manner they would be comfortable with. He did so so that he could discredit their way of thinking and living.
So now back to our original question: how does Paul’s methodology match with Driscoll’s philosophy of “using the artifacts and language of our culture to point to Jesus”? How exactly did Paul contextualize?
Paul didn’t approve of the culture, he was repulsed by it
First, Paul did not approve of the culture, he was repulsed by it. Since when is saying, “Your religion and your philosophy of are futile and ignorant and worthy of punishment” anything like devouring the movies and TV and music of pop culture?
When modern, hip contextualizers quote lyrics from the latest Indie Rock hit or sitcom or R-rated movie in a positive light in support of their preaching, they are approving of sinful culture. Paul pointed to the stupidity of sinful culture; it provoked him; he didn’t adopt it.
It is necessary for us to understanding the thinking and practice of the people in our culture. It’s important to understand what is going on so that we can discredit their thinking and their living. But we should never, never approve of sinful culture. Paul says in Ephesians that sinful practices should not even be named among us.
Paul did not immerse himself in the practices of the culture, he shunned it
And second, even though Paul did make himself aware of the culture of Athens so that he could discredit it, he did not immerse himself in the practices of the culture. Some argue that in order to understand exactly what people are thinking and experiencing, we have to experience them for ourselves. So we need to watch what they watch and listen to what they listen to and do what they do.
But we see none of that here. If Paul had wanted to personally experience the culture of Athens, he certainly would have had plenty of opportunities. Paul did not have to join in the cultural practices of Athens to understand what they were. And neither do we. It doesn’t take much for us to know how sinfully people think and live. We don’t have to immerse ourselves in it ourselves.
Instead, we must shun sinful culture. We should be provoked just like Paul. It’s all around us; we don’t have to go looking for it. We must flee its influences in our lives. The Devil is looking for any opportunity to capture us in sin. Who are we to think that we can immerse ourselves in sinful culture without it influencing us for evil?
We must contextualize the gospel. We have to present it in a way that is relevant and applicable to the culture in which we minister. If we are preaching to religious Jews, we appeal to Old Testament prophesy. If we are preaching to pagan intellectuals, we begin with an allusion to one of their altars. We must preach the gospel in the language of the people to whom we witness.
But — and this is the most important point to get — to say that we must contextualize does not imply that all contemporary culture is open game. It does not mean that we can or should immerse ourselves in all of contemporary culture so that we can be relevant. It does not mean that we can present truth in any way we want. It doesn’t mean that because all of culture carries meaning. Some of that meaning is good and wholesome, and some of that meaning is bad and sinful. In every culture there are elements that are good and there are elements that are evil. In every culture there are things that support biblical truth and things that contradict biblical truth.
And so it is our job to discern what parts of our contemporary culture do or do not contradict biblical truth. For instance, in presenting biblical truth, I can give an illustration about an airplane — a part of contemporary culture — to support what I’m saying. But I’m not going to — as I’ve heard some preachers do — use an illustration about Bevis and his depraved friend to support a biblical point. I can speak in modern English and wear American clothing when I present biblical truth. But I shouldn’t present biblical truth in the crude manner of a lounge comic. That is conduct unworthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Contextualization is necessary. Without it, we would have to speak Greek and limit ourselves to the exact words of Scripture. But in our contextualization we must be certain that we are not adopting culture that is inherently incompatible with the message of the Bible.
I am very concerned about this, and about Mark Driscoll in particular, for two reasons.
One, many good conservative men are approving of what Driscoll is doing. He is appearing in conferences with other men who would never themselves do what he is doing. They may not agree per se with what he is doing, but they nevertheless raise him up and praise him. I just read recently of a very good, conservative man who proclaimed support for Driscoll’s church planting organization despite some of these things I’ve pointed out. Their justification is this: Driscoll has the gospel right, and that’s all that really matters. That is a very common, popular sentiment today — the gospel is the only thing that really matters. Everything else is incidental.
But that’s like saying, as long as I affirm the reality of my marriage covenant, it doesn’t matter how I treat my wife. As long as I tell her I love her, it does not matter how I tell it to her.
But it does matter! How I present truth affects the very validity of the truth itself. The gospel is the most important thing, but how I present the gospel affects the gospel. And there are some ways of presenting the gospel that render it no gospel at all. There are some ways of contextualizing that destroy the gospel no matter how correct the content.
The fact of the matter is that this kind of unbridled contextualization actually reveals a distrust in the power of the gospel. We think we need to make the gospel hip and cool and “relevant” in order to reach this generation. We don’t trust that the gospel itself will draw people from all kinds of different cultures. But it will. The gospel is the power of God for salvation to anyone who believes. We don’t need to wrap up the gospel in the trappings of contemporary culture in order to make it relevant, because all people regardless of culture have certain things in common; things like the reality of death and suffering, the sinfulness of their soul, an innate knowledge of God. And the gospel in and of itself meets those needs; the gospel alone is relevant enough.
The second reason I’m concerned is that Driscoll and his philosophy are attracting the bright, young men of my generation. Intelligent, theologically sound men are looking at Driscoll and his success and his justification and his sound theology, and are beginning to agree that all culture is neutral and we must immerse ourselves in it to reach it. Driscoll has a large and influential church planting organization called the Acts 29 ministry that many good, thinking, theological men are joining. And if they adopt Driscoll’s methods, I am afraid that they will destroy the gospel they claim to defend.
I think he is attracting these men primarily for this reason: there are some well-meaning people who are so opposed to any contemporary culture that they seem completely disconnected and irrelevant. And these kind of people often preach their position in a legalistic, oppressive kind of way. And so young, thinking men are reacting strongly against that, and for good reason. I’m talking about people who think pants on women are wrong, and don’t allow facial hair on men, and only allow the King James Version of the Bible. Was there a time when pants would not have been appropriate for women? Yes. Was there a time when facial hair would have carried connotations of rebellion for men? Yes.
But culture changes. And since pants in and of themselves are not evil, and since facial hair in and of itself is not evil, we can change with culture. But that doesn’t mean that we just blindly accept all contemporary culture. We must be discerning. Some changes in culture are just changes, and some changes reflect the increasing sinfulness of our culture. We’ve got to work to determine which is which.
For example, in our church we still have suits and ties and dresses in our worship services. Why? Well, we view our worship services as serious, significant meetings with the King of Kings. And if you go to any significant, formal meeting in our culture like a banquet with the President of the United States, the men will be wearing suits and ties and the ladies will be wearing dresses. And so we express respect for our King by dressing in the way that our culture shows respect to someone important. How we dress on Sundays has more to do with how we view our worship services than anything else. But the way that our culture shows respect might change. And when it does, it will be OK for us to change with the culture. But there are some ways of dressing that inherently do not express respect, and so we would never adopt those styles.
We have to maintain a proper balance between changing with culture on the neutral things, and shunning culture when it is sinful. That was Paul’s model here. He spoke in the language of the people to whom he was witnessing. He referenced subjects that they were familiar with in their culture. But he also shunned the sinful elements of their culture, and he showed them how certain elements of their culture were futile and worthless. That’s biblical contextualization.
The gospel is important. It’s important that we don’t change the message, and it’s equally important that we don’t present the gospel in a way that contradicts the gospel.