Transformation vs. Relevance (Romans 12:1-2)

Not only does God in Christ take people as they are: He takes them in order to transform them into what He wants them to be. Along with the indigenizing principle which makes his faith a place to feel at home, the Christian inherits the pilgrim principle, which whispers to him that he has no abiding city and warns that to be faithful to Christ will put him out of step with society; for that society never existed, in East or West, ancient time or modern, which could absorb the word of Christ painlessly into its system. [1]

The divinely designed Gospel settles into home cultures and then roams on, always crossing new frontiers. This dynamic process challenges the home culture as well as the new ones. Biblical faith interfaces with worldviews of other religions. Careful, biblically prophetic contextualization happens and is simultaneously the most necessary and the most dangerous task for living out the Great Commission. Ideally, the outcome is less about achieving relevance than it is nurturing the process of godly transformation.

Of course, all cultures are composed of humans, all of whom are tainted by sin. Romans 3:23 reminds us that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Cultures reflect varieties of sin’s effects. Christ redeems tainted individuals, and life-long transformation permeates a life lived within culture. Indigenous-Pilgrim tensions push and pull the culture’s sinfulness. Commonly held beliefs, customs, and practices may be value-neutral, -positive, or even -negative in relation to Christ’s life model and standards. “Neutral” means it is void of anything that would hinder faithfully following Christ and conforming to His image. “Positive” means it blends well with biblical truths, enhancing transformation and biblical witness. “Negative” things, however, are so explicitly contrary to what it means to “walk in a manner worthy of your calling” (Ephesians 4:1) that they invite biblical critique and transformation.

Christian truth interfacing with cultural dynamisms already defined by other world religions before the Gospel comes pose particular challenges. The mix of life is lived out consciously, or sometimes not, by that religion’s leaven of thought and deeds. Proclaiming biblical truth requires connecting thoughts to demonstrate God’s alternatives to humanity’s pitfalls usually enshrined into culture itself. Adoniram Judson encountered a 19th-century form of Burmese Theravada Buddhism that had no concept of a personal creator God. How does one connect the Bible to such a different premise? When he wrote a tract stating the Bible’s alternative claims and posed a worldview tension in Burmese society, the Pilgrim principle appeared. This is relevant and biblical transformation in motion.

Today, Islamic pilgrims migrate west, escaping the deadly attacks of some other professing Muslims. Trendy cultural interfacing of the Gospel is unproven. Harley Talman illustrates an over-contextualization. He advocates something so culturally dominant that the Bible’s prophetic voice is mute. Noting similarities only, spoken to listening Muslims, implies the two religions are virtually alike. [2] Talman, a pseudonym, argues that, in the article, he

… provided theological, missiological, and historical sanction for expanding constricted categories of prophethood to allow Christians to entertain the possibility of Muhammad being other than a false prophet. [3]

Refurbishing Muhammad’s image and giving it a hint of both general and special revelatory value creates a babbling voice that over-indigenizes and eliminates the Pilgrim tension inherent to Christ-culture encounters. Missionaries invest countless hours in Bible translations because it uniquely carries a prophetic voice. Lamin Sanneh cites Robert Moffat’s account of a tribesman holding the first copy of the Bible in his own language.

Lifting a vernacular New Testament in his hand, an African convert testified that he and his people once imagined the bible to be a charm of the white people designed to keep off sickness and to be a trap to catch people. He knew differently now. ‘We have never heard of such a thing … but now we not only hear with our ears, but we see with our eyes, we read it, our children read it. … We thought it was a thing to be spoken to, but now we know it has a tongue. It speaks and will speak to the whole world.’ [4]

Biblical believers are “resident aliens,” both in the world and yet not part of it. We now possess only earthly visitors’ visas that will expire. Paul said in Romans 12:1-2 that we are not to let cultural pressures shape us but yield to Christ’s transformative power to mold us into His image. A biblically transformed lifestyle continually critiques our own perspectives and culture, as well as others. Anything else sacrifices Christ’s image on an altar of temporal relevance.

[1] Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1996) 8.
[2] Harley Talman, “Is Muhammad also among the Prophets?” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 31, no. 4 (10, 2014), 169-190.
[3] Ibid., 185.
[4] Lamin Sanneh, “Post-Western Wine, Post-Christian Wineskins?” in Understanding World Christianity: The Vision and Work of Andrew F. Walls, eds. William R. Burrows, Mark R. Gornik, and Janice A. McLean (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2011) 101-102.