What does it mean to “put on Gentile clothing” to reach people for Christ?
We need to understand that the message the early Christians preached was a Jewish message rooted in Jewish religion. Israel had a Covenant relationship with God through the faith of Abraham – but what the heck does this mean?
See, I have to translate this before I even begin. It says in Scripture:
Genesis 12:1 The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
2 “I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
God’s promise, through Abraham, was for all the people of the earth. As you read
on in the Old Testament you discover that God was defining a special relationship with Israel, but this special relationship was supposed to result in Israel being a shining light in a dark world. Israel was supposed to be a missional nation, but the ceremonial laws, circumcision, and Temple worship became a “dividing wall of hostility” for the Gentile people (Ephesians 2:11-18 – i.e., the Jews during the time of Christ had many Gentiles [non-Jews] who wanted to convert to Judaism, but the regulations of the Law, beginning with circumcision, were too strict and so many Gentiles stopped short of conversion and some were even hostile to the Jews for being so legalistic).
Then along came the Christian message – a Jewish message with a twist – Jesus has abolished the “dividing wall of hostility” that was preventing Gentiles from converting. And now all the pre-evangelized Gentiles (by the Jewish people) were interested in converting to the Christian version of Judaism. But many Gentiles still didn’t understand some of the language – like “Messiah” or “Kingdom of Heaven” – and so the early Christians had to translate these terms into Gentile language:
For example: Messiah means “Anointed of God”, Christ, or King – to the Jew this meant Jesus was God’s representative King and Lord. But to the Gentile there were many kings. To say Jesus was king was not a big deal. So the early Christian evangelists translated the word Messiah into a Gentile word, which has a similar meaning – and so they called Jesus “Lord.” For the Gentile, calling Jesus “Lord” was to say Caesar is not. This captured the attention of the Gentile.
Similarly, the term “Kingdom of Heaven” didn’t make a whole lot of sense to the Gentile. For the Jew this meant God’s eternal reign and the faithful Jewish people being a part of His Kingdom for eternity. And so the early evangelists translated the Jewish term into a Gentile term people could understand – “Salvation.”
Today: There are many terms we Christians use that don’t make any sense to the average non-churchgoer. For example, “evangelism” or “witness” or “justification” or even “saved by faith.”
I was reading the other day an NPR article about “Evangelicals and Adoption” – the person who wrote the piece may have meant well, but all the terms being used (which were biblical terms) were run through a filter of mistranslation and the article made Christians look manipulative in their motivations for adoption. In one sense I was offended. In another sense I realized that we Christians have a totally different culture and verbiage compared to the rest of the world. This is part of the reason people think Christians are weird or irrelevant or uneducated or judgmental.
We need to do a better job of translation: and this begins with admitting we have created a wall to the non-Christian world. The wall we have constructed comes in many forms: we might think you have to be a certain type of person before you are ready to hear the Gospel; we might think you have to look and act a certain way before you are welcome in our church; we might make a person who is looking for help feel like they can’t find it here because they are not welcome until they have solved their problem; etc.
Examples of Translation:
- One of the problems the current church in America is facing has to do with music – the churches that are shrinking are the churches that insist on a music style “Imported from Europe” (i.e., mainline denominations). These churches, and the people in these churches, are sometimes so insistent on keeping the old style of music and liturgy because it is enjoyable to them that they are missing out on a really important function of the church – reaching the next generation. Conversely, the churches that are growing in America have a style of music that is “Made in America.”
I love hymns and I love much of the contemporary music. I love people who love hymns and I love people who love contemporary music. When a person walks in off the street, daring enough to search for God in a new community, two questions are running through their mind: (1) do they welcome me? And (2) do they love each other?
If we welcome them, they will be more likely to come back.
If we love each other and they see this in the foyer and during worship, they will want what we have.
But if they are looked at wrong or if they see people sitting down with their arms folded during worship, they will think, “That’s awkward” – and make judgments about our community, which may result in people never coming back.
What am I saying? Love needs to be translated to people no matter their race, clothing, or musical standard – and – we need to be a community in which true, biblical love exists.
- One reason people don’t come to church is because people in the church are not inviting people to church. We have a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” evangelistic strategy. There was a church that was struggling to reach people for Christ – they said, “People in our neighborhood just don’t want to come here.” There was an author and speaker named George Hunter who was visiting the church and decided to test if what the pastor was saying was true. He went to the local laundry mat and saw 8 young ladies in their late teens and early twenties. He boldly asked them – “Do you go to church?” They said no. He asked, “If you were invited to church would you go?” Seven of 8 said yes. Then he asked them for their contact information to give to the outreach director. Six of the 8 women gave their contact information. George Hunter went back to the church and gave the information to the outreach director who said, “Where did you find these women?” George said, “At the local laundry mat.” The outreach director said, “Oh, those people aren’t even nice. I don’t think they would accept the gospel.”
What is the point of this true story – some Christians create a wall based on pre-judgments and don’t even give people a chance to hear the gospel. Before we share the love of Jesus with someone we think, “Are they the type of person who would accept this message?” And so we don’t even attempt to share.
What is translated to the world is – “Christians are not nice, not welcoming” or “You have to be a certain type of person to go to church.”
- Another translation problem has to do with the purpose of Church – are we to be a missional community that is living the love of Christ and seeking the lost? Or are we supposed to be separate from the world focusing what we stand against so that we can be good while we wait to go to heaven?
In the Holy Roman Empire, monasteries were built in deserts or on mountains away from society so that the monks and nuns could live lives of pure devotion to the Lord as far away from the evil world as possible. There is a good goal in this, which is purity and devotion to the Lord. But the result was a lack of Christians being devoted to the Lord by fulfilling their mission of positively influencing the world for Christ (Matthew 28:18-20).
There was another kind of monastic community developed by the Celts (Irish) – which was missional in nature. Their purpose was to develop a small evangelistic team, which would move to where the people lived. Their goal was to live in Christian community, on mission, welcoming all who entered their community to love them, pray for them, pray with them, work with them, eat with them, invite them to prayer and study groups, and allow the visitors to soak it in – with the result being that many eventually found themselves becoming Christian and joining the community.
What was translated from the Romans was – “Become the type of person Christ accepts and then we will accept you.” What was translated from the Celts was – “We welcome you as you are, we want to know you, we want to share God’s love with you.” And the people responded and the Celtic way saved Christendom in Europe during the Middle Ages.