Paul Hiebert, late professor of missions and anthropology, reminded us that we all live in particular contexts, but we need to learn how to live “multicontextually” in a rapidly globalizing world. Hiebert’s appeal to live multicontextually is especially important for Christ followers who are called to cross-cultural work in unfamiliar and uncomfortable contexts. To play on Justin Bailey’s recent title, Interpreting Your World, to be on mission requires that we learn to interpret our neighbors’ worlds, while resetting or sanctifying our own worlds.
Living multicontextually is not easy. To thrive as individuals necessitates community, and community must be rooted in culture. To be uprooted and transplanted to strange soil can be disorienting and discouraging, and can be damaging to the witness we bear for Christ Jesus if we don’t make the transition well. Moreover, living multicontextually can be particularly challenging for Christians in an ethical and moral sense as they seek to live according to the commands of God in unfamiliar cultural contexts.
In this paper, which is an exercise in theological ethics, I will argue that an ethical paradigm, derived from biblical and systematic theology, can assist cross-cultural workers in negotiating unusual moral grounds and in strategizing with national believers for moral transformation in the church.
I will engage works in Christian anthropology, theological ethics, and theology and culture; for example, Paul G. Hiebert, The Gospel in Contexts (2009), W. Ross Hastings, Theological Ethics (2021), Justin Ariel Bailey, Interpreting Your World (2022), Christopher Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory (2022), Jason Georges, Ministering in Patronage Cultures (2019), and Jackson Wu, Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes (2019).
The paper will take the following structure:
1) Locate the kinds of theoretical problems created by the complexities of culture and contextualization, particularly as they translate into ethical confusion. Why is our understanding of culture and contextualization important for communicating moral truth?
2) Present a theological/ethical paradigm as a way to map the moral landscape so that the church can discern how to make disciples of those entangled in the fallenness of particular cultures, while recognizing that which is true, good, and beautiful in a culture.
3) Apply the paradigm to a particular issue: patronage, as honor to the state, and the impact on truth telling in Chinese culture. Of particular interest is the relationship between national believers and the state, and between national believers embedded in the patronage culture and national believers and expatriate workers who are influenced by western culture.