As Christians, we get our instruction from the Scripture. We find there early examples of how Christians crossed cultural boundaries in taking the gospel to ends of their world. One instructive example is the preaching of the Apostle Paul. Since God called him to be the apostle to the Gentiles, we should expect that he would deal with widely diverse cultures—and he does.
On his first journey he travels to central Turkey, beginning at Antioch in the region of Pisidia. He begins by connecting with the people with whom he’s most familiar: on the Sabbath, he goes to the Jewish synagogue (Ac 13.14). Since he’s a rabbi, and even trained at the feet of the highly respected Rabban Gamaliel, the local Jewish community initially welcomes him and gives him a platform to speak. He addresses them at some length (Ac 13.16-41), repeatedly referencing the Jewish Scriptures and demonstrating that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah. This message would be of considerable interest to his Jewish audience and would stimulate interest in further discussion (Ac 13.42).
A few years later he arrives in Athens. Paul visits the synagogue there (Ac 17.17) but does not confine his outreach to that. He wanders the streets of the city and sees a statue “to the unknown God” (Ac 17.23). He immediately recognizes a point of cultural contact: Paul’s God can be known, because he has revealed himself in Creation as well as in the Hebrew Scriptures. In his discussions with the Gentile Athenians, several hearers seek to learn more, so they take him to a part of the city where people can deliver public speeches to passersby (Ac 17.19-21), and he offers to introduce the hearers to this “unknown God” (Ac 17.22-31).
This speech is very different from the one in the synagogue. He doesn’t cite the Hebrew Scriptures even once, presumably because this audience wouldn’t have the foggiest notion what he’s talking about. He doesn’t claim that Jesus is the Messiah, because, again, that is a meaningless term to the Athenians.
Instead he quotes their poets—Epimenides of Crete (“in him we live and move and have our being,” Ac 17.28a) and Aratus (“we are his offspring,” Ac 17.28b). (Apparently, Paul has read these poets enough to be able to cite them extemporaneously.) I find it interesting that both of these poets are describing Zeus—but Paul deftly redirects to the one true God.
So far these approaches are entirely different. But at the end Paul preaches essentially the same message: the resurrected Christ and the need for repentance (Ac 17.30-31). And in both environments he faces both scoffers and those who want to hear more.
Paul’s example leads us to believe that cultural adaptation is appropriate; ambassadors should be effective at communicating to a culture unlike their own. Yet the ambassador must not misrepresent his king; he must deliver the message that the king wants delivered, without distortion.
I’ve written an earlier series on the fact that some doctrines are more important than others; there are certain specified “fundamentals of the faith” on which we must not yield and for which we must do battle if they are under attack. An ambassador is not going to water down these essential doctrines or try to present them disarmingly.
But there are also many teachings, some of which we hold strongly and dearly, on which we must allow one another freedom, and over which we must not fight. I would suggest, for example, that while I’ll die on the hill of the deity of Christ and salvation by grace through faith, I must not fight with brothers who disagree with me on mode of baptism, or church government, or eschatological system.
A wise ambassador is going to pick his battles. He’s going to seek to bridge the cultural gaps as winsomely and effectively as possible while still delivering the king’s message accurately.
There are things about the gospel that are offensive to every culture, and we cannot and should not seek to avoid or disarm those offenses.
But we don’t always need to sacrifice our effectiveness in order to tell the truth. Christ’s great commission can indeed be obeyed and accomplished.