Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Missions and contextualization - A reply to Mark Driscoll on the use of language *UPDATE*

Though calm in his defense [of using trash talk], [Mark] Driscoll insisted that Seattle's missionary need demands new, creative ways to engage the city with the gospel [sic].

"I'm not a fundamentalist. I don't think they're any fun at all," he said. "I'm a missionary. Fundamentalists avoid culture. Missionaries study it in an effort to reach people. If I were going into China to be a missionary, no one would complain. They wouldn't say, look at that, Mark's wearing Chinese clothes. He's speaking Chinese words. He's listening to Chinese music. Gosh, what is this guy? A liberal? No, he's in China.

The truth is that Seattle is as lost and pagan as China. And if we're not going to send missionaries to China, we have to send missionaries to Seattle. We need to give them the same freedom that we do missionaries in China."

[Collin Hansen, Young, Restless and Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists (Wheaton, IL, USA: Crossway, 2008), p. 146]

So states Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Wisconsin, in defense of using rather inappropriate language, especially when it comes to sexual issues. Since he decided, as a Caucasian American, to use the Chinese as an example of contextualization, I as a Chinese Singaporean would respond to his assertions with regards to my culture.

Driscoll in his defence attempts to defuse criticism of his usage of coarse language by stating that he is contextualizing his message, thus communicating God's truth to the people in Seattle who evidently speak in that same frequency. With this in mind, he tries to build an analogy between what he is doing and what missionaries to China do. Just as missionaries to China are to speak Chinese, dress Chinese (not much valid today) and do listen to Chinese music, so Driscoll speaks the type of trashy lingo of the audience he is ministering to, dress like them and listen to their type of "music".

As a Chinese, this attempted analogy does not convince me one bit as being valid. Regardless of the variation in Chinese culture and the different dialect groups among the ethnic Chinese, each with their own distinct culture (There is no such thing as a single Chinese culture per se), there is still what is termed culture and what is termed gangsta "culture" (for lack of a better term for it). All dialects and Mandarin (what is termed "pu tong hua" - 普通话) has its own cultured words and swear words; words used for civilized discourse and words used by uncivilized people which often do not see the light of day. Chinese culture is traditinally ordered as per Confucian principles, and with it come ethical codes of conduct to govern everyone and everything in society. Most notable of course is the rejection of all forms of vulgar discourse as being barbaric.

Driscoll's analogy therefore breaks down at this juncture. The missionary to China most definitely will spek Chinese (or one of its dialects), probably does not need to dress traditional Chinese dress nowadays, and will listen to a mix of traditional Chinese, Chinese pop and English pop music, with probably some J-pop and K-pop mixed in as well. Nevertheless, they will not converse in vulgar Chinese. The early Protestant missionaries to China like Robert Morrison and Hudson Taylor certainly did not do so, and neither did any of the missionaries to China. While they most certainly adapt to the culture, they did not adapt to the lowest degradation of Chinese culture to reach any of the Chinese, not even triad members.

It is in this regard therefore that Driscoll has no idea of what he is talking about on the idea of culture and missions. In fact, it seems rather condescending to be thought of as reachable only if a degenerate manner of speech is adopted. Worse still in my opinion is for such a method to be likened to the adoption of the mother language(s) of other ethnic group(s) like Chinese. In fact, it is downright insulting for non-Westerners like me, as if our language is analogous to the language used by Mark Driscoll with his coarse and scatological speech.

On a more fundamental level, the whole idea of contextualization as practiced by Driscoll and others seem to lack a true measuring rod for culture. Culture, as embodying manners and forms of values and living, is to be judged by the Word of God as all conduct is (Ps. 119; 2 Tim. 316-17). Just because a particular sub-culture exists does not mean that the elements of any (sub-)culture must by definition be neutral or even good. Since such is the case, uncritical wholesale acceptance of any culture or sub-culture is not biblical.

In conclusion, it is hoped that Driscoll should evaluate what he is doing according to the Scriptures. There is simply no warrant for deliberately sinning, even for the sake of evangelism. The famous text of 1 Cor. 9:22 cannot apply to the issue of sin, for the context focuses on following or not following various human traditions, having nothing to do with violation of the commands of God. The question he should ask himself is not, "Is what I am doing missional?", but rather "Is what I am doing sin?". If using coarse and scatological language is sin, no amount of protest of being relevant and missional can excuse it, and neither should we condone it.

*Update*: Here is a good sentence I have stumbled upon in the meta of this post that sums up the concern over contextualizaton for the case of Mark Driscoll

A language can be vulgar (common) without being vulgar (degrading).


Jeremy McClintock said...

I understand that Mark's language and topics can be harsh and offensive at times, but give the guy a break. With the number of preachers out there sowing half-truths and outright lies, why constantly rail on a guy who genuinely loves the Lord and has a heart for his church and city. Does his language and topics show poor judgment at times? - Probably yes. But we are all guilty of poor judgment at times. I live in eastern Washington (not Wisconsin) state and have listened to many of his sermons over the years; while I don't share all of his doctrinal beliefs, I do believe that he loves Christ, his wife & family, his church, and his city - and is helping bring souls to Christ. He has received much criticism of late for his choice of topics and language(rightly so) - give him a chance to hear the Lord in this and change. If Godly people offer wholesome criticism and he rejects it; then pray that God reveals to him the error of his ways. We need boldness in the church, we need boldness for Christ; how about posting a prayer request on Mark's behalf that God will reveal to him where he is going astray, and to give him humility (something he admits that he struggles with)?

Diane R said...

Actually, what Driscoll does is a type of bait and switch. He represents Christianity and the Scriptures as allowing vulgarity when it and they do not. In other words, He misrepresents the faith and it's Holy Book.

Abnd as the postmoderns would say, "I don't think that is authentic."

PuritanReformed said...


I don't think Driscoll sees it this way. IMHO, I think he sees the usage of such crass language as being morally neutral.

PuritanReformed said...


I agree with you that we should pray for Driscoll, and I think that Driscoll is sincere in his love for God and in desiring to reach out to the lost. You will notice that I am calling on Driscoll to reconsider his usage of crass language in an attempt to be "missional", however he wants to define it. Nowhere am I criticizing Driscoll on his passion for God or the lost, and I do think he is indeed doing some things which are commendable in Seattle and around the world.

That however does not excuse this particular sin and weakness in him. The worst part is that Driscoll does not seem to want to change. Perhaps I am wrong, and I am eager to be proven wrong that Driscoll has had a change of heart on this issue. If so, I would gladly ammend the post accordingly. As it is, Driscoll should be called to account for his bad example until he repents.

Thanks for the feedback though.

Beng said...

On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'
(Mat 7:22-23)

You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, "The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you."
(Rom 2:23-24)

But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.
(Eph 5:3-4)

I think if you put these three passages together, you will see that it is not what you DO for the Lord, and in the name of the Lord, that counts, it is whether or not you are obedient to His commandments that counts.

He may have reached out and saved many people, but the work was of God and possibility despite him. Remember, God also used Cyrus and Nebuchadnezzar. How many others has he turned OFF Christianity because of his "scatology"?

PuritanReformed said...


Probably quite a lot? I don't know, but yes such would most definitely be an unnecessary stumbling block to many.

Anonymous said...
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PuritanReformed said...


sure, Mark is not committing the unforgiveable sin. However, I wish he would really think through what he is doing according to Scripture instead of justifying it all in the name of "contextualization".

As for spiritual gifts, well, that would be an interesting read...

Anonymous said...

but i think the principle is still the same. when i was a fundamentalist and a missionary, on a short term mission to Singapore, I still had to give way to the Singaporean culture and not take offence when they blew their noses in the sink - and i tried not to blow my nose in public, to respect them.

so many of these things are cultural and not Biblical.

i also was dismayed at the Singapore Christians going shopping on Sunday evening after church - seemed terribly consumeristic to me but i had to trust that the believers there were finding other ways to transform the materialistic culture.

so i guess there is always give and take in missions, and in the emerging church scene where new churches are being birthed in different cultures.

just a few thoughts.

PuritanReformed said...

Andrew aka tallskinnykiwi:

Certainly many things are cultural, but are all cultural practices morally neutral or good, such that any element of any particular culture may be adopted uncritically? I would think not, especially if cannabilism or human sacrifice is used as examples of cultural elements.

Looking at the example you have raised: On Singaporean Christians going shopping on Sunday afternoon and evening after church. Is that a morally neutral action? It is my opinion that if the shopping is done out of necessity, then it is fine but if it is done with the intention of engaging in a shopping spree, then it is not ok. Of course, you may ask where should we draw the line, and in my opinion there shold not be any solid line drawn on this issue, but Christians are to be told not to engage in shopping unnecessarily and we let their consciouses direct them. Anyway, FWIW, I as a Singaporean can say that most Christians in Singapore are materialistic, having absorbed the materialism in our culture.

There are certainly gives and takes in any missionary activity, but I think you would agree that all of such must be constrained by the Word of God? If the Word of God says a certain thing is wrong, no amount of "give and take" should change the biblical prohibition to an invalid rule.

Anonymous said...

agreed. constrained by the Word of God - yes - but the Word of God is silent on shoppping on sundays [some would disagree here]. what i had to realize is that my fundamentalist leanings - which included never shopping on a sunday or even pumping petrol in my car, were perhaps more cultural than biblical.

language is a funny one. a swear word in one english speaking country is not offensive in another. and each generation has its own list of offensive words.

nice to see another Singaporean blogging. I love that country. Yea satay!

PuritanReformed said...


while I hope not to get too involved on the issue of shopping on Sundays, I must say that the issue as I see is one in which the attitude which we view Sunday is portrayed. If a person views Sunday just as any other day available for activities such as shopping etc, he would be more prone to engage in shopping sprees etc especially when the shops are having sales. Those who view Sunday as the Lord's Day may very well shop, but this is not what they would be focusing on for the day's activities and thus shopping would only be done out of necessity.

So while I disavow the unbiblical restrictions imposed by Fundamentalism, this does not mean that anything goes with regards to living our lives. Certain cultural inclinations are not neutral while the activity may very well be, and we should therefore discern all such cultural elements according to the Scripture.

As for language, there is a certain element of truth with regards to certain words, but I do not see any change with regards to the inappropriateness of vulgar words like the F-word for example, or any manner of swear words involving the male and female sexual anatomy. So while offensiveness in language is not absolutely fixed, nevertheless it is neither relative for all generations and cultures. I do not think any culture think that it is not derogatory to call a person using a term denoting the female sex organ for example. Other cultural phrases like OMG may be inoffensive in modern Western culture, but certainly we as Christians should not use this phrase as it violates the 3rd commandment, wouldn't you agree?

With regards to Singapore, you are always welcome to return and enjoy our food. =P

Ted said...

I think you just admitted with your exchange with TSK that there are cultural gray areas as to how scriptural commands are interpreted. You also maintain that there exist lines over which one is in sin despite culture.

Your argument in this blogpost would be much stronger if you could point to specific things that Mark Driscoll has said (as in quotes from a sermon), and then explain how his choice of words has crossed the scriptural line and are definatively not in a cultural gray area.

PuritanReformed said...


If you will click on the link on this post (on the words "sexual issues") to another blog post of mine, I think you will find an example of what you are looking for.

HuaiZhi said...

eh brudder, why you so like that? go until oversea to *hantam dis guy, when here in Singkapoh oleadi so many good target to whack ? ;-P

understand your heart bro, but must say, i disagree with your approach..

whatever it is.. i still treat u as fren fren okie.. take care.. and remember my advise.. set aside time to go and find a wife.. (i serious one, not play play one)..

and for the rest, excuse my use if "vulgar" singlish..

PuritanReformed said...


I was wondering whether you would join in, and here you are =P.

>go until oversea to *hantam dis guy, when here in Singkapoh oleadi so many good target to whack ? ;-P

If we are to be consistent in standing for biblical truth, we must not play favorites. Driscoll is influential enough to merit notice [plus I have US readers], and his usage of crass language is unbefitting of a pastor, or any mature Christian for that matter, is not a good testimony. The last thing I would like to see is people imitating him in utilizing the same sort of "shock-and-awe" language he uses. This is a serious issue with regards to holiness, and our God who is holy detests sin. Simultaneously saint and sinner (simul iustus et peccator), we are nevertheless called to a life of holiness, as God is holy (1 Peter 1:16). Just because Driscoll has touched lives so to speak does not give him a license to sin, and any Christian leader is to be held to the strictest standard of biblical conduct as he is an example to the flock.

>understand your heart bro, but must say, i disagree with your approach.

May I know what is your approach then? I have already treated Driscoll with the respect befitting a Christian pastor, whose sin nonetheless is serious especially when he is unrepentant about it.

>and for the rest, excuse my use if "vulgar" singlish

I know you are trying to make a point, but is the use of Singlish really analogous to Driscoll's usage of coarse and scatological language? To be truly analogous, you must be using language such as the acronymns "knn", "ccb" and all the other Hokkien vulgarities [Just FYI, the first one cursed the parents of the subject, while the second one is a derogatory and crude reference to a part of the female sexual anatomy, both in Hokkien]. A language can be vulgar (common) without being vulgar (degrading). Failinge to differentiate the two senses you have.

HuaiZhi said...

yes brother, you know I love you enough to step into this conversation. Vis-a-vis Driscoll, I won't lie to you, I think he's doing a lot of good. But, I would not say I agree with all that he does, case in point the language that he uses. But honestly, I have not thought deeply enough about this yet..

At this point, I'm still repenting for how my tongue can praise God at one instant, and tear apart a brother/sister in another.

My approach? Brother, I think there are thousands of heresies out there, and it would take a formidable mind (such as yours) to keep track of it all. I know lesser minds like mine can't. My approach would be local church centric, and (as you would expect) Gospel-centered. What do I mean? Well, I think our mission and task should be to preach the Gospel, and teach its implications (mainly) in the context of a local church. Within that task, we will encounter heresies, wrong doctrine etc. that we will need to address, and that we must definitely do, and if need be in a firm manner.

I guess, the main difference is that I wouldn't focus all my attention in heresy hunting, I'd focus on the gospel.. :-) That said, I appreciate those ministries that help us to look out for something.

On vulgar language.. Honestly bro, I've not heard enough of Driscoll's series on sex etc. to be able to tell if he is indeed being vulgar and crass. (So, I may change my mind after listening)

But from what I've read and heard thus far (limited), I think he pushes the envelope, but I don't think he crosses the line. I've personally been challenged to greater holiness in my relationship with my wife through some of his preaching, because its just so straightforward, and pulls no punches when it comes to presenting the truths of Scripture..

take care my friend

Anonymous said...

I remember this interview with Driscoll and he was talking about relating the culture of Seattle NOT using vulgarity.

He talked about it using an analogy of an open and closed hand. An open hand in regard to practices that are not specifically declared in the Bible and a closed hand in reference to doctrines and practices that are explained in the Bible.

I think it is incorrect to make the connection that Driscoll was defending vulgarity in his statement about China.

PuritanReformed said...


sure. =)

>My approach would be local church centric

Well, my perspective is more in line with Horton's perspective as outlined in his book Christless Christianity. (You really should get the book.) I think the local church is best served when we are willing to serve God in any way and situation possible, instead of focusing on the local church only. But that's my perspective.

PuritanReformed said...


It's most definitely good that Driscoll knows that there are no-go zones. And I guess the idea of profanity/vulgarity is not so much whether we can expect Driscoll to use the F-word any time soon (perhaps he has; perhaps he hasn't), but the point is that there are certain sentences he has made which are not suitable. IMO, there is no way you can square a fascination of talking about sexual issues publicly in rather crude fashion, not to mention his infamous message on Mary "knocking boots", with the standard of Scripture.

Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. (Eph. 5:4)