Context is important at both ends of contextualization. We must not only look at the context of the culture to which we want to bring the message of the Gospel. We also need to look at the context of the message that we are proclaiming, the context of Scripture.
In doing research for a writing project on contextualization, I have been struck by the lack of attention to the context of Scripture passages appealed to. It is not uncommon to appeal to Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 9 like “to the Jew I became as a Jew” (1 Cor 9:20) and launch into a discussion of accommodation among a people group without noting contextual limitations within the passage. D. A. Carson comments, “…although this passage [1 Corinthians 9:19-23] is sometimes interpreted to mean that we should feel free to reshape the gospel when we move from culture to culture, that is exactly what Paul does not mean.”1(D. A. Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry: Leadership lessons from 1 Corinthians, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993, p 120. Italics original)
1 Corinthians 9:19-23 is part of a section of the letter (1 Cor 8:1-11:1) dealing with Christian freedom. Paul is providing an example of responsible use of freedom. Verse 19 sets the tone for the paragraph, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.” (ESV) Paul’s flexibility is an expression of servant leadership aimed at winning as many as possible. Five times in this paragraph he states his aim as winning people then states in 1 Cor.9:22, “that by all means I might save some.” Finally, in verse 23 Paul states, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” (ESV) So Paul’s flexibility in his approach to the Jew, to the one under the law, to the one outside the law, and to the weak is for the purpose of winning them to the gospel. Later in this letter, Paul reminds them of the things that are of first importance concerning the gospel, certainly matters that cannot be flexible in our proclamation:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 ESV
When Paul describes his flexibility, he includes a qualifier. When he says he becomes as one under the law (1 Cor. 9:20) he qualifies it with “(though not being myself under the law)” (ESV). In Galatians 2:11-21, Paul makes it clear that being under the law resulted in conduct that was “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal 2:14). And when he says he becomes as one outside the law he qualifies it with “(not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) (ESV).” Paul must be using “law” in two different senses in these qualifiers; the first probably is a reference to the Mosaic code. Carson sheds light on the second sense, being “under the law of Christ,”
The expression is a peculiar one, but the heart of the idea is clear enough. All of God’s demands upon him is mediated through Christ. Whatever God demands of him as a new-covenant believer, a Christian, binds him; he cannot step outside those constraints. There is a rigid limit to his flexibility as he seeks to win the lost from different cultural and religious groups: he must not do anything that is forbidden to the Christian, and he must do everything mandated of the Christian. He is not free from God’s law; he is under Christ’s law. (Carson, p.119, 120)
So there are important limitations in the context that must be kept in mind as we seek to be all things to all men. This flexibility is an expression of Christian freedom to serve others aimed at winning them to the gospel under the law of Christ. We shouldn’t be surprised that our contextualization is constrained by the law of Christ. Part of the Great Commission is to teach the disciples we are making from all nations to observe all that Christ commanded (Matthew 28:18-20).