Mission work is hard work. And it’s not just overseas anymore. Our own nation needs its own missionaries. It can be difficult to do mission work or evangelize your own people group because you yourself are often as unaware of the culture’s influence on your own thinking as a fish is unaware that he’s in water. You’ve been in it so long that you make all kinds of concessions or capitulations between Scripture and culture.
When you do evangelism or mission work, you are bringing to bear the eternally significant word of God that was given 2000 years ago to a new people group that may have little to no context for understanding it. While this can be exciting, missionaries and evangelists have to keep an eye on the ways they proclaim Scriptural truth to modern people. Which brings us to today’s word.
Syncretism. noun. Contextualizing the gospel or biblical practices in a way that compromises essential truths as the gospel is sent into a new area or people group.
Note that syncretism is not on its face the same thing as contextualizing the truth of the gospel. Every culture will do that. I’ve even heard of rural Asian cultures that use rice and water for communion instead of bread and wine. Is that an appropriate mode of using contextual elements to make the same point? Well that begs the question, what’s the point of communion, and do the specific elements play a role in that? Some might say that bread specifically refers to Christ’s body in a way that rice does not or that wine is an image of Christ’s blood in a way that water is not. There are biblical patterns and types that are rich with meaning and significance. But, some might say that we’re making it hard for the Gentiles to turn to God.
That’s an example where good, well-meaning Christians might disagree but could part ways and not excommunicate the other. But what about something more serious and detrimental to the core of the faith?
When Catholicism went to Haiti, it blended with natural elements of the previous pagan religions. This resulted in the creation of Haitian voodoo. Ancient African pagan gods are equated with Roman Catholic saints. The people will hold a Catholic mass, leave the building, and go out back to sacrifice an animal to Bondye, the supreme god. They believe that the dead are still present and active. They also have priests and priestesses who can speak to the dead and even angels, or Iwa. This is all while they assume the identify of a Catholic.
That might seem extreme and obviously problematic for us, but, what about us? Surely we’re the pure church and do everything just like how the Bible tells us to, nothing more and nothing less. I mean, after all, we’re Baptists, so we baptize by immersion, just like Jesus was. But he was also baptized outside in flowing water. Why aren’t those aspects reflected in our current practice? Is being baptized, albeit by immersion, inside of a tub of stagnant tap water what Jesus had in mind? Why or why not? What’s the relationship between imagery and practice? What about using grape juice instead of wine? What are the considerations in making that choice? We should be convinced by Scripture that these changes are warranted, even if they seem as innocuous as water instead of wine.
Think about the way we tell the story of the birth of Christ. When we try to tell it in a way that is overly contemporary, we lose sight of all the prophecy that surrounded the incarnation. The timing of the story matters. The people and their way of life mattered. The company they kept mattered. Their religious observances mattered.
This is why it’s good to always be in a state of evaluation in the life the church. We may have inherited ideas or practices that are contrary to Scripture. If we are not always in a mindset of reformation, seeking firm adherence to the pattern of life laid out for us in Scripture, we run the risk of overcontextualizing and minimizing, or worse, losing, the gospel in our culture.