The Ethics of Contextualisation

Bishop Josiah I. Fearon

It was reported that a large number of Nigerian mallams had converted to Christianity, as a result of the work of Western missionaries. Some of these converts were prosecuted in the courts by Muslims because of their conversion, and the missionaries provided the large sums of bail money required.

When discipleship programmes were run for the mallams it became clear that only the first few conversions were genuine. The rest had seen an opportunity to make money by pretending to become Christians, and then pretending to be persecuted, so that money was paid over for their bail. The whole operation had been organised by their leader who was closely associated with one of the women missionaries.

The ethical problems raised in this case concern:
  • the difficulty of ascertaining the genuineness of conversion
  • exploitation of the situation
  • deception both within the situation and in presenting it to supporters of the missionaries back home.
Converts who behave like Muslims

A Western relief agency operating in Bangladesh had staff members who also functioned as evangelists. In the area in which they were working many Muslims followed a particular type of syncretistic Islam, which was very much a fusion between Islam and Hindu mysticism. Belief focused mainly on seeking intercession and blessing through the channel of the Prophet Muhammad who was considered a mediator. One of the relief agency staff was himself a convert from this kind of Islam. The gospel preached by the relief agency staff was that Jesus could bring better blessing than Muhammad which would include the forgiveness of sins, so people should pray to him rather than to Muhammad.

Those who converted to Christianity were encouraged to continue going to the mosque, participating in the ceremonial washing and prayers. They read the Bible, placing it on a Muslim-style stand and washing their hands beforehand as if they were Muslims preparing to read the Qur’an.

The converts were not allowed by the relief agency to meet any other Christian groups or individuals. The agency later pulled out of Bangladesh, and the subsequent fate of the converts is not known. They were reported to have numbered between 5,000 and 10,000.

A somewhat similar situation occurred amongst the Isawa of Northern Nigeria. This group was founded by Mallam Ibrahim who studied the Bible and discovered that Jesus was a more important prophet than Muhammad. His followers still pray in the mosque and wear white like Muslims. They study both the Qur’an and the Bible, and appear not to have decided whether they are Muslims or Christians. Western missionaries are working amongst them. Christianity seems to have become so contextualised to the Islamic culture as to be virtually indistinguishable from it. Is this ethically justifiable?

Cultural adaptation by missionaries

Missionaries who are attempting to be thoroughly inculturated amongst the people they are living with can inadvertently cause mistrust and suspicion if they do not act wisely. One British missionary in Nigeria, not content with wearing the typical Nigerian man’s clothing, would present a very dirty and ragged appearance. He tied his shoes with rope in a way that seemed, to the Nigerians he lived amongst, to make a mockery of their culture. Even when invited to speak at a church he still dressed in dirty and worn clothes. He had hoped to marry a Nigerian woman, but no one would have him because of the extreme poverty of his lifestyle.

The issues here concern the misplaced desire of a missionary to be living at a level way below what was necessary to be acceptable in the society. With the best of intentions, he appeared to be trying to deceive the Nigerians as to the level of his income and to make a laughing stock of their culture by adopting those elements that they themselves did not consider typical or of value.

Some missionaries, in seeking to identify culturally with the Muslims amongst whom they work, will not even admit to being Christians. When asked about their faith they answer, “I am a true Muslim”. In their dress, worship, ritual and way of life, they behave like Muslims, and fast during Ramadan. They use Christian Scriptures rewritten in the style of the Qur’an. Muslims regard this as deception.

Rural development as an ethical problem

In an impoverished society, Christian organisations may seek to provide developmental services such as potable drinking water, medical facilities and education. These may be offered as a sign of Christ’s love, with no strings attached, but will they be interpreted as this by those on the receiving end or by those observing? How can this kind of service be given without it being interpreted as bribery?

The gospel and women

Despite the many roles for women in the Bible, this aspect of the gospel is yet to be fully experienced in Africa. Although women make up 70% of most congregations and are the most active, it is nevertheless the men who lead. Women are still bound by African culture. They are often given away in marriage and are treated as men’s possessions. Education is still not seen as being of value for girls.


This is a huge problem in the African context. “We are all one in Christ” is very rarely experienced across the ethnic boundaries. The tragedy of the Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda gave the problem international prominence, but there are many other examples, including the Ibo and Yoruba and the Dukawa and Kambari of Nigeria.

Mission and evangelism

Folk Islam is prevalent among Nigerian Muslims. In order to reach these Muslims and traditional believers, some missionaries resort to using the Bible, especially the Psalms, as a kind of talisman, or praying over oils and water as medicine against ancestral spirits. This is an ethical problem – is Christ able to heal without any aids?

The issue of materialism is another ethical problem. Large numbers of faithful Christians in Africa and Asia live in abject poverty. Yet some Western preachers equate prosperity with the gospel. The African is asking why there is so much poverty in the part of the world where the Christian faith is growing most rapidly.

A case study from Nigeria

This case study centres on the Dakakkari and Dukawa (Kebbi and Niger States) and the Maguzawa and Fulani (Sokoto and Zamfara States). These people are mainly pagans and folk-Muslims. Evangelism has resulted in many conversions, but also in many of the problems referred to in the Lausanne Willowbank Report. These issues, together with the solutions which we have arrived at in some cases, will be outlined below for our thoughtful consideration as we move into the twenty-first century.

  • Widowhood Those who come to Christ are usually taught that in marriage the man and woman come together as one. The woman in a Christian marriage signs away her father’s name and immediately moves into her matrimonial home. She lives with her husband for the rest of his life and has children for him.At death most of these tribes bring their pagan tradition into the Christian home by demanding the body of their deceased daughter. As Christians we insist that the body belongs to her Christian family and must be buried with Christian ceremonies.

    In the case of the husband’s death, we resist the custom of a long period of confinement for the widow and we are succeeding in stopping the pagan practice of leading the widow to the local stream for a bath by the traditional priestess.

    Another issue which is occurring among new converts is the practice of giving the Christian widow to the deceased husband’s next of kin as part of his inheritance. Often the next of kin is an unbeliever and pressure is put on the Christian widow (1 Corinthians 7:39-40).

  • Naming ceremony

    Almost every part of this very popular ceremony has been continued by converts to Christianity. Most aspects of the ceremony we have had to put a stop to, and replace it with a Christian version based on the fact that our Lord Jesus Christ was named on the eighth day after his birth (Luke 2:21). The custom is to invite the pastor to take this service at home, and christening follows in the church later on the same day. We try to make the naming ceremony as simple as possible and to discourage the other traditional and unacceptable practices.

  • Occultism

    We have to teach new converts, from both Islam and traditional religions, very clearly that our Lord Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father (John 14:6) and there is no other mediator between us and God the Father. We prohibit secret society membership for Christians (2 Corinthians 6:17).

  • Polygamy

    When married men with more than one wife come to the Lord, what should happen to the women who also become Christians?

    Sadly, some of the young men who become Christians when they have only one wife, go on to participate in cultural ceremonies such as kame, catching a wife. When a convert catches this wife he is required to marry her, thus becoming a polygamist. How should Christian leaders respond to this? Should he and his wives be sent away?

  • Death of the father

    Young converts are often required to go back to the village when their fathers die and perform the traditional fetish ceremonies. If they fail to do so, they are expelled from their community. Should they refuse to perform the ceremonies, or go ahead and do so, thus compromising their faith? Or is it an opportunity for them to share their new found faith?

  • Mass conversions

    Recent evangelistic work in Sokoto State has resulted in whole families turning to Christ, starting with the head of the family. How can we know the sincerity of the conversion of the rest of the family? Do we in faith accept every family member as a convert, or do we wait for each individual to come to a personal saving knowledge of the Lord?

  • The novelty of freedom

    For converts from Islam, Christianity is a very relaxed way of life compared with Islam. These converts have been used to doing whatever the mallam commanded, and keep asking the Christian leaders for guidelines and instructions. How should we respond to this?


I seem to have raised more questions than answers, that is the nature of contextualisation, especially if we seek to be honest. The idea is to make Jesus Christ more relevant and help the unreached find salvation.

Date: 21 Jun 1997