Sunday, April 19, 2009

Contextualization of Scriptural Teaching

Much has been written and argued over the contextualization of "the Gospel" in the past century of global missions. The issue, not to oversimplify, really hinges on how malleable God's word is to fit our cultural backgrounds. But, aside from the Gospel contextualization is the often-overlooked issue of contextualizing other, non-salvific teachings in Scripture. What does the metaphor "salt of the earth" really mean? I hardly think it meant anything related to ice, snow, or ice cream to any of Jesus' original listeners in the arid countryside of Judea.

While that certainly is a comical example, there are far more serious instances where a failure to interpret the Biblical texts within a right understanding of the original context--including time, culture, setting, and audience--can bring a grossly varied application of scripture. If I dare attempt to cite all examples of this common in the Church today, I very well may go on forever. And, unfortunately, I still will probably not find every one.

Instead, I'm writing today namely out of retrospect on the lesson that I prepared over the past week and delivered this morning: James 3:1-18. The NIV's rendering of the text has helped to propagate the common misunderstanding that "not many of you should presume to be teachers" (James 3:1). Fearful of the judgment that may befall a teacher, especially one who presumes to be a teacher when in fact they are not called by God, can lead to the most riduculous paranoia of teaching a children's Sunday School class or, God-forbid, even pursuing a career in public education.

But, what did James have in mind when he penned this text? Was their a signup sheet for Vacation Bible School teachers with too many names on it? In 50 ad, I hardly think so. So what does the text tell us? The KJV, I'm afraid, does a far better job rendering the literal meaning than the NIV. "Be not many masters." In essence, James writes to the congregations, "Don't be a bunch of teachers."

If you study and understand the setting in which this letter from James was written, we can more accurately understand the meaning before applying it directly to our own culture without proper exegesis. Churches in James' day were small, intimate gatherings. By Paul's instructions for orderly worhsip in 1 Corinthians 14, we get a picture of free-form instruction. Many people were allowed to stand and address the congregation. So what is James saying? You're not all teachers. Some of you should sit and listen.

Listen and learn. It's become easy for me, as I deepen in my own personal study, to critique a sermon as I listen rather than learn from it. As more and more Americans intellectualize scripture and become sure of their own understandings, we can shift from the mindset of an active participant in Bible study to an all-out indomitable expert their to offer our unsolicited feedback and waiting eagerly for our next turn to talk. James says, "don't be a big bunch of teachers." Fear the tongue, and allow that fear to keep it in check.

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