Acts 17:16-31 is frequently held up as a model of Paul's cross-cultural sensitivity in his evangelism of non-Jews who were completely unfamiliar with Christian ideas and teaching. Have a quick read:
Acts 17:16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19 And they took hold of him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.
Acts 17:22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for
“ ‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said,
“ ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
Acts 17:29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
Acts 17:32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.
In making the case, various observations are routinely trotted out.
So for example, Paul doesn't move straight into the attack, offended though he is by the idolatry he sees everywhere (Acts 17:16). He goes to where the hearers are and engages them, even physically moving into their own territory. He assumes no prior knowledge of the God of the Lord Jesus Christ. He goes so far as to begin by complimenting them on their religiosity, and mentions their altar 'To the unknown god'. He is starting where they are, and sympathetically winning a hearing for himself and his message.
When he begins his explanation, his thoughtfulness and intelligent cultural sensitivity are again on display. He shows an awareness of what they know and what they don't know, and supplies plentiful background knowledge about the nature of God, who alone creates and sustains and rules the universe—all this before even mentioning a word about Jesus.
Then as he explains the truth about Jesus, he puts his best apologetic foot forward. He gently reminds his hearers of God's sovereign, patient, forbearing and sustaining grace before moving on to ideas they may find harder to hear. Indeed he saves to the very last the objectionable but necessary truth of the resurrection, thus allowing him the maximum amount of time possible to speak about the other aspects of God he would like them to hear about.
Of course some dismiss him and mock him as a fool (Acts 17:32), reinforcing their earlier judgement on him as a 'babbler' (Acts 17:18).
But the success of his evangelistic approach is seen in that "some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them."
Sure, this is not as good as the 3000 at Pentecost (Acts 2:41), to whom many were added daily (Acts 2:47); nor yet as impressive as the 5000 men in Acts 4:4. But hey, I’m speaking as a theological evangelical not as a charismatic, so let’s forget the numbers for the moment. When it comes to sympathetic cross-cultural evangelism that would be the envy of our mission societies, not to mention our ministries at home to other ethnic groups, this is as good as it gets.
However, let me make five observations—there may be more—that suggest that Paul was never going to win the title ‘Mr Cross Cultural Sensitivity of the 50s*’ because of his performance in this place.
*That’s the first century 50s, not the 1950s
First, if we are to credit Paul with a thoughtful understanding of the people he is dealing with, it’s a pity he spends almost no time learning the culture and customs of the local Athenians. That has to be a cross-cultural boo-boo, doesn't it? He's never been there, he is on the run from a mob in Berea (Acts 17:14) and the encounter described in Athens takes place in the short gap while waiting for “Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible.”
(but compare Acts 18:1 and 18:5, where it seems that Paul had already left Athens so quickly that Silas and Timothy had to catch him up).
He could have watched and waited, taken notes and thought carefully. Instead, he has to open his big mouth.
Nor does following up potential converts seem to have been part of Paul’s strategy on this occasion. His Athenian encounter is more like a one-night evangelistic stand than a slow and gentle courtship of ideas. Most contemporary mission societies worth their salt would shudder at the idea of parachuting in a culturally untested missionary like Paul, with a history of provoking violent conflict, for purposes of a one-off spontaneous debate hosted by the locals.
Second, Paul as a rule insisted that “the love of Christ control[led]” (2 Cor 5:14) and directed his evangelistic concern. But on this occasion pure exasperation with the local idol industry seems to have been the button that triggered his apparently unpremeditated spray against the local collection of religions. At least as far as motivation, we seem to be seeing at least two parts John the Baptist to one part Jesus. Frothing at the mouth is not an attitude that is going to set you up for careful and detached, yet sympathetic, analysis of the prevailing culture.
Third, although we like to level the accusation of cultural sensitivity at Paul, isn’t Luke (the writer of the account) the more likely recipient of such an award? He, and not Paul, is the one who carefully identifies the enormous cultural diversity that Paul must now wisely navigate in this ultra-cosmopolitan city: “Jews…devout persons…those who happened to be there…Epicurean and Stoic philosophers…Athenians…foreigners.” (Acts 17:17-21) As the missionary on home leave might be tempted to say over the first slide: “Athens. A city of contrasts.” Luke identifies those contrasts, a fact that only serves to highlight how Paul simply lumps every different group together under the general heading ‘idolatry’. Paul scores approximately 0.18 cross-cultural points out of a possible 10 for failing to even acknowledge the less than subtle differences between Epicurean and Stoic philosophy, not to mention the famous, richly traditional Athenian school of “those-who-happened-to-be-there-ites”.
Nevertheless, all this would not matter if it were to turn out that Paul gathered his self-control and allowed the love of Christ to shape the theme of his subsequent message in the direction of niceness and goodness instead of grumpiness. But does he? Let us see.
Fourth, Paul describing the Athenians as ‘very religious’ is a little bit like the school teacher who writes the nicely ambiguous school report summary, ‘Jane is a student who is trying at all times’. Anyone familiar with Romans 1:18-32 is hardly likely to mistake ‘very religious’ for a compliment. But even if the Athenians did think Paul was being nice (being understandably ill-acquainted with writings Paul had not yet produced), the supposed attempt to ‘start where his hearers are’ comes badly unstuck the more he tries to explain. It quickly becomes clear that the one Athenian resident idol Paul is prepared to give time to is ‘the unknown God’. And he immediately moves to alienation mode when he proceeds to insist that of thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of idols on display in Athens, this ‘unknown god’ is the only true one. This is a bit like preaching the gospel of the beef kebab at a vegetarian Hindu Body-Mind-Spirit festival.
Indeed and fifth, even picking out ‘the unknown god’ as the deity with whom the Athenians had hit the jackpot is a slightly awkward thing to do. Possibly the ‘unknown god’ was there as a form of insurance, in case an inadvertent error had been made. Possibly there was an attempt at humility on the part of the idol makers, in order not to seem to lay claim to too much knowledge. Whatever the case, if someone agrees with you that yes, you are essentially as ignorant as you acknowledge yourself to be, they are not fast tracking themselves to popularity.
From this point and on to the end of his address, Paul is sticking fairly close to the gospel itself. Thus it is quite possible that any offence he now proceeds to give is simply because he’s telling God’s story the way it is. So let’s go easy on him, and not mark him down for suggesting that God doesn’t need us, we need him. And let’s skate lightly over his faintly derogatory language about gods who need to be served “by human hands” (v 25; cf. Deut 4:28; 27:15; 31:29; 2 Chr 34:25; Ps 115:4; 135:15; Isa 2:8; 31:7; 37:19 etc.), especially since most likely only Jews would have picked up any insult here. Let’s even acknowledge that quoting an Athenian poet (Acts 17:28) is pretty good stuff really in the cross-cultural stakes, even if ad hominem argument is logically light on.
Nor could Paul have avoided the offence of the resurrection, even had he wanted to—along with its ludicrous and intellectually offensive assumption that God became a man; that that man died; and that this particular man has now been raised up to judge anyone who doesn’t repent of serving idols. Yes, Paul knew that the idea of God becoming a man and dying was offensive (1 Cor 1:18), but whether or not he wanted to offend by telling his audience, the passage doesn’t say. It’s probably enough to observe that along with Paul's own struggles in the sensitivity stakes, the gospel itself is the crowning example of a message that fails to take into account the cross-cultural context of the people being addressed, beyond recognizing the universal cross-cultural truth that we are all sinners in the hands of an angry God.