Contextualization’s 2 Ditches: Legalism & License

contextualization is a hot-word for all persons dealing with cross-cultural issues/ministry/work: how far can i go along with the locals’ culture and practice without being unbiblical?

this ends up voiced in questions like:
is this local practice “just for fun” or “out of a religious/unbiblical belief”? is the unbiblical belief an archaic basis for something or some idea that is no longer understood (like the reality that more foreigners seem to know the “meaning” of the common greeting “namaste” than the locals in the hindi-speaking world, who are just simply saying “what’s up.”)
is the it up to me to tell the local believers that a certain belief from their background is unbiblical, or should they figure that out over time, study, etc.?
do i drink with the locals, believers or unbelievers, as this is an everymeal-everyday practice? do i “sip a brew” with them casually or discriminate for only “special occassions”?
should i “blend in” enough to confuse the locals as to my relationship with God (i.e. am i a christian or a hindu or whatever)?
does my fuzzing the boundaries, compromising-in-good-conscience, actually help me to engage the local people with the love of God? (if i do _______, will i have a few more minutes to share with them? if i [ignore/redefine/re-interpret some “grey area” issue], will i be able to then relevantly engage the people?) is it even ok for me to make such a judgment call on something that is God’s work and not mine?
does culturally appropriate trump or bend or re-interpret what is biblical?

this is exactly what i see paul dealing with in I corinthians 8-11:1, especially in regard to idolatry & sacrificial food eating: reality vs. perception; rights vs. purpose; freedom vs. God’s glory; permissible vs. beneficial:
“Everything is permissible”–but not everything is beneficial…follow the example of Christ.

“permissible” speaks to “legalism.” i mean really, if paul says it’s ok and “allowable” then where do we have a place to be judgmental and put boundaries on God’s grace?

“beneficial” speaks to “license.” it is wrong to apply the old adage: “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than to ask for permission.” we must always be on guard against causing our fellow brethren to stumble. what is much worse we must never become a stumbling block to the lost accepting the gospel! what comfort and enjoyment is worth causing a brother to sin or a lost person to have reason to reject the gospel? (so often we show ourselves to be the “weaker brother” by not being able to control/discipline ourselves and causing a weaker brother to stumble!)

like a youth pastor being seen by his students drinking or at a party (not getting drunk or perhaps hot even drinking at all). [or a pastor by his flock]
like a new(er) believer seeing his friend that brought him to the faith doing something that the newbie doesn’t yet understand as “ok/permissible.”
like a seminarian going to the bar with his coworkers after a long shift (whether he’s drinking or not, it’s the perspective of others that is the concern).
like a professor going out to the bars to just simply hangout with lost friends or to try to befriend and have an “entry strategy” for engaging the lost.

the legalist seems to act out of fear or ignorance in order to try to protect themselves or others.

the licensee seems to act out of no fear/no respect for holiness or judgment of themselves or others.

perhaps the goal of contextualization and/or dealing with the “grey-ish” issues should be for us to be self-aware of our own sinfulness/sinful-inclination and the reality of your own actions having much greater ramifications and a much greater audience than you realize (this can especially be seen in your kids).

j.d. greear of the summit recently blogged on legalism-license.

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