A missionary meets the mother church—Acts 21:20-25

When Paul visited the church in Jerusalem, its leaders reaffirmed their acceptance of his Gentile mission: Gentiles did not have to become culturally Jewish to become followers of Jesus (Acts 21:25). Those in any culture who become Christians—whether the culture is geographically distant, immigrants near us, or even young people in our churches—are called to give up their sins, but not non-sinful elements of their culture.

What the Jerusalem church’s leaders understood, however, was more difficult for much of the Jerusalem church to fathom. Their local suffering had understandably shaped their approach to Gentiles. Roman governors had exploited Judea for years; the brief tenure of a Judean king, Agrippa I, had restored Judeans’ self-respect and desire for freedom, but his early death had been followed by even worse repression from irresponsible governors. Most Judeans, whose contact with Rome was entirely negative, felt they had good reason to mistrust Gentiles—and any Jews who compromised too much with them. Even in more recent history, this has been a natural response to colonial oppression.

Unfortunately, it rendered plausible rumors about Paul, a Jewish missionary among the Gentiles who was not back in Jerusalem often enough to defend himself (Acts 21:21). Today, no less than then, some Christians are ready to criticize other Christians without taking the time to understand how they often are relating to different situations than the critics face. Sometimes this criticism misrepresents those criticized and becomes slander.

Consciously or unconsciously, the church in Jerusalem had adopted some of the perspectives of its culture, just as most of us do in our various cultures today. Their identification with their culture was helpful in reaching their culture, to the extent that the values they shared were positive or neutral. After years of Jerusalem believers’ faithful witness within their culture (21:20), the message of Jesus was not as controversial there as it had once been; Paul’s audience in the temple later listened intently as he talked about Jesus (22:2-20). Once he talked about going Gentiles, however, many of his hearers demanded his death (22:21-22).

Paul himself was willing to accommodate local Jerusalem culture to reduce offense (21:20-26). He did this with Gentiles and was certainly ready to identify with his own heritage. (Even in the colonial era the best missionaries, who were often at odds with colonial authorities, related to local cultures much better than did contemporaries from the colonial cultures; e.g., William Carey, David Livingstone, Mary Slessor, and Hudson Taylor.)

But Paul was not willing to compromise the demand for unity with believers from other cultures or the need to preach to other peoples; to do so was to compromise the gospel itself. (From Paul’s letters we may even infer that he was in Jerusalem precisely on a mission of ethnic reconciliation, Rom 15:27.) When any local culture’s nationalism refuses to love people in other cultures, unity with one’s brothers and sisters in Christ comes before unity with our culture. Thus Paul spoke about going to the Gentiles even though it was likely to arouse his hearers’ anger (22:21-22).

The danger of overidentifying with our culture at the expense of the gospel was not distinctive to the Jerusalem church; it is a temptation in most cultures. Missiologists distinguish contextualization from syncretism. Contextualization involves making the gospel message culturally relevant, translating it in such a way that people in a given culture understand it thoroughly. Syncretism is where one replaces or mixes the gospel with cultural elements religiously incompatible with it. Paul identified with local culture, but would not compromise his gospel message. Elsewhere, he rejected false gods and sexual immorality even though they were widespread in local cultures. In Jerusalem, he refused to compromise the universality of Christ’s claim (seeking followers from all nations) to fit the expectations of his own culture.

Only God knew how much the future lay more with Paul’s mission than with the megachurch in Jerusalem. Within a decade, Jesus’ followers had to flee Jerusalem in view of its impending destruction. The Diaspora churches eventually outgrew the Judean churches. In the centuries that immediately followed, Christianity grew especially in western Asia, north Africa and southern Europe; then it spread further west in Asia, north in Europe and south into east Africa. In the nineteenth century, western nations sent most missionaries. Today, many younger churches in Africa, Asia, and Latin America far outnumber churches in the west, often outpace them in devotion to prayer and evangelism, and often send more missionaries. More believers live in these regions than in the west, and much of the gospel’s future lies with them. Mission today requires heeding the voices of the church throughout the world. No one culture’s church has everything. We need one another, and must partner together for Christ’s gospel.

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