Christians today seem to assume that the best way to have the greatest gospel impact in the world is to gain the world’s approval and acceptance first. If we can just earn their respect, perhaps they will give us a better hearing.
There is certainly some truth to this: our behavior before the unbelieving world should be respectable so that we don’t ruin the reputation of the Christ and his gospel (Matt 5:16, 1 Peter 3:1-7). This itself has gospel impact.
However, what many Christian mean is more than this; they mean that we need to do what the unbelieving world does, go where they go, engage in the kinds of activities they do, etc. Again, there certainly may be truth to this posture if we’re talking about good things like participating in book clubs, going to baseball games, or establishing relationships at the local market.
But what about in areas where the unbelieving worldview actually dominates? Must we actively engage them on that level, implying to the unbelieving world that their values are actually OK?
What did Paul do in such situations?
Acts 17 records Paul’s attempt to communicate the gospel to the pagan citizens of Athens. His message to them begins in verses 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, but what Paul thought about this religious culture is enlightening. Verse 16 reveals that Paul was “provoked” (parōxyneto) by the culture he saw in Athens.1 He did not adopt their culture; he did not approve of their culture; he despised it.
Furthermore, Paul did not try to garner respect by speaking positively about their beliefs. In verse 22 when he says that they are “religious,” he is not complimenting them. The word here is deisidaimōn, literally “superstitious,” which would have been considered a negative charge.2 Although some might suggest that the term is neutral, Paul’s other use in Romans 1:20–23 is a decidedly negative tone and communicates spiritual ignorance.3 This is reflected further in verse 23 where Paul references their “unknown” god. Again, some suggest that Paul was seeking to gain common ground with his audience.4 However, Paul’s use of the term agnoeō here again connotes a negative charge of ignorance. The NASB is perhaps the clearest translation here: “What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.”5 Even the phrase “objects of your worship” is used elsewhere in Scripture only negatively.6 Thus Paul was accusing his audience of being ignorant in their religious beliefs. In fact, he implies their ignorance again in verse 30 and says that God commands them to repent of it.
Paul continues by addressing 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.’” Some might 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. However, careful consideration of Paul’s argument here clarifies the issue. His primary argument begins 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, and perhaps 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 they come from a god, which reveals their inconsistency. 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 attempting to discredit them by pointing out this glaring inconsistency in their thinking. He reveals that purpose in verse 29:
Being then God’s offspring, 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.
Paul was not 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.
Paul did not immerse himself in unbelieving “culture” in order to reach them; instead, he exploited the ignorance and superstition of their religion in order to confront them with the truths of the gospel. Rather than highlighting similarities between his worldview and that of the Athenians and seeking to express the gospel in their philosophical categories, as some suggest, Paul was pressing the antithesis between their worldviews and ways of life in order to reveal the inconsistencies in their own thinking and highlight the authority of the Christian worldview.
And this kind of approach gained him no applause by his unbelieving audience. Christians should expect this; after all, Jesus told us it would happen:
I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. (Jn 17:14–16.)
- Cf. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church, and the World (Bible Speaks Today), Reprint (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 278. [↩]
- David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009), 494. Cf. Polhill, Acts, 371. [↩]
- Darrell L. Bock, Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 564. [↩]
- Lynn Allan Losie, “Paul’s Speech on the Areopagus: A Model of Cross-Cultural Evangelism,” in Mission in Acts: Ancient Narratives in Contemporary Context, ed. Robert L. Gallagher and Paul Hertig (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), 229–30. [↩]
- Polhill, Acts, 372; R. Kent Hughes, Acts: The Church Afire (Wheaton: Crossway, 1996), 233. [↩]
- Cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:4 and Romans 1:25. [↩]