Syncretism   Leave a comment

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A quick search for the word “contextualization” on Google brought up the word “syncretism”. I believe it is really important for Christians to be in the world, but not of the world, which means that we recognize our culture and are comfortable with the redeemable aspects of it, but we don’t accept culture’s corrosive influence as inevitable.

When it comes to issues of Christianity in a cultural context, Christians and churches we form must be careful to not fall off the fine line we walk. I’ve previously described what I believe to be perhaps the major issue plaguing American Christianity: obscurantism. Simply defined, that would be obscuring the gospel by emphasizing things that are actually external to the gospel as being central to it. The clothes we wear, the way we cut our hair, the food we drink and our political party are examples where we sometimes confuse culture and Christianity. While it is fine for the Amish to choose to live in insular communities that they feel protect their faith, it would be unBiblical for them to insist that all Christians do so, because what they are really protecting is their culture, of which faith is an integral part. The Amish actually do a very good job of setting rules for their own groups that they don’t expect the world to follow. Read Amish Grace if you want a further discussion of this.

However, some American “Christian” groups believe that they speak for God and that God has placed them into the world to force all Americans to look and act like their group. The end result is a false gospel that becomes a stumbling block to those Christians and our churches are trying to reach the world around us.

When we’re obeying the Great Commission, we want to make sure that we’re preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and not the concepts of Western culture. Missionaries certainly got that confused in the past and even today on the foreign fields, but we also get it confused in working with our neighbors. Although I personally consider tattooing to be a form of self-mutilation, I don’t think God cares and I need to separate my personal dislike from the gospel message. I have to be clear about my evangelism … for the gospel’s sake.

I’ve spent some time discussing this with regards to the early church — that Peter and Paul both set aside Judaic forms of worship in order to reach a Gentile world for Christ and Paul spent considerable effort in explaining to his disciples the difference between the gospel and the law of Moses.

If delivering the gospel in a cultural context is somewhat of a tight rope act, obscurantism might represent falling to the right side of the rope, but syncretism is an equal danger waiting on the left side.

Syncretism is the mixing of Christianity with something else such that they become a different gospel. We see this in cults around the world, most notably in Islam, but positive-thinking gospel, a nationalist emphasis, or emerging churches (mostly) are also examples. Syncretism happens more than we might know.

When anything is added to the message of the gospel, the uniqueness and sufficiency of Christ is compromised and another gospel can be created that is actually not the gospel. Yes, syncretism and obscurantism end up in the same place.

Syncretism can be most easily seen when two or more starkly contrasting religions are mixed. Around the world, examples are readily available where Christ has been preached in places with long and various religious traditions. In many cases, pieces and parts of the traditional religion will remain while Christ is added to the mix.

We recently had some South African Baptists at our church. Both grew up out in the townships. They explained that traditional religion among the indigenous people often included visiting witch doctors and other types of healers for physical healing and spiritual direction. New Christian believers often want to continue visiting the spiritual healers around them. Sonny and Patience recognize that visiting those who actively practice witchcraft for healing or spiritual direction dilutes dependency on Christ, changes the gospel, creates a mix of multiple gods, and thereby denies Christ His rightful place as the one and only Lord in the life of the believer. Those who would mix these practices, if not moving away from them, end up with a false, syncretistic gospel, not the gospel of Jesus.

Santeria is an example of syncretism that mixes African animistic religious practice with Christianity. The Bahai and various neopagan religions also draw from Judeo-Christian belief and mix it into various belief systems and theological structures to create something that is obviously not Biblical Christianity.

But why stop at obvious examples of cults when there are other syncretistic belief systems that hit far closer to home? Many seeker-sensitive churches, in an effort to reach the pragmatic Boomers, have become largely devoid of the gospel, exchanging it for practical positive thinking without gospel transformation. That’s synscretism.

I am NOT saying all Boomer or seeker churches are this way. I left the broad brush in the bucket, but there are churches that emphasize trying harder and being a better person over the gospel of grace. “Living a good life as a good person,” particularly under your own power, is not the gospel Jesus announced.

It is actually quite the opposite, and it has created a gospel that dilutes dependency on Christ and denies His lordship. That is syncretistic.

Likewise, some emerging churches have contextualized the gospel by softening difficult theological truths, which also changes the gospel, leading to syncretism.

Error awaits on either side. If you don’t care about contextualization, you end up obscuring the gospel and confusing it with culture. If you engage in contextualization too much, you end up losing the gospel by adopting pagan practices and even theologies. Both errors are dangerous as each leads to a false gospel. The difficulty is that when you are more afraid of one, which most churches are, you almost always fall into the other.

Each error is dangerous and fearing one more than the other often leads a church directly into the one that is less feared.

Some churches are so afraid of syncretism (they use the word “compromise” rather than the technical term) that they push back against any change from the tradition they’ve known. They define syncretism as changing musical styles, getting a tattoo or body piercing, or having different hair length.

Alternatively, there are those who are so upset with the established church that they run away from it and everything connected to it, including some parts of the gospel. They fear irrelevance to the point they bend and shape the gospel to fit nicely within the culture. In the process, the true gospel is lost and a syncretic version of it emerges.

The truly Christian challenge is charting the course down the middle. Context matters. A lot. So much so that we must work to avoid the pitfalls.

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