Sunday, March 07, 2010

Culture matters

It can be easy to dismiss what is written in the Bible as anachronistic, cultural relics for a time thousands of years ago that needs to be reinterpreted today in light of our supposedly superior and enlightened culture. This attitude is rampant in the church and not just in liberal, mainline denominations. We are so inculcated in modern life that a lot of the Bible with it's patriarchal, agrarian lifestyle can seem little more than curiosities of an age long ago. Kind of interesting, like the Amish, but certainly not applicable in our modern life with twitter and social media and the myriad other comforts that allegedly improve our lives.

For example, many people read passages like 1 Corinthians 11: 4-6 and reject that it is normative for today. You get arguments about temple prostitutes and women of low moral character, you get assertions that wedding rings are symbols that fulfill this today even though the message Paul is writing has nothing to do with the culture of the day:

Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. (1 Co 11:4-6)

That may have been fine two thousand years ago but covering heads now? It looks odd, out of place in our culture. After all, we are not living in the 1st century. This is America, circa 2010, and women covering their heads just seems distasteful.

Then there are gender roles, in the home and the church. Passages which are difficult for many people today like Ephesians 5: 22-24, 1 Corinthians 11:3, 1 Corinthians 14: 33-35 and 1 Timothy 2: 11-15 are seen as commandments steeped in a 1st century culture that are not applicable today. Those poor women in the first century were doormats. In our enlightened world, we should encourage our sisters to take on the same roles as men in both the family and the church! Sure the Bible describes that behavior as sinful but the culture today is so much better. We certainly need to adapt to the present realities of the world. Look at how much better off families are since women have started assuming the roles of men.

A final example might be found in the group dynamics of the church in the earliest days. The earliest church met in homes and met on a daily basis (Acts 2: 46-47). They held all things in common, not seeing private property and possessions as something to be cherished (Acts 2: 44-45, Acts 4: 32-35). They met for the purpose of mutual edification instead of “worship” and all the men of the gathered church were welcome and expected to participate (1 Cor 14:26). That might have been fine back then but I am far too busy to spend all that time with other believers. I have my own life to live! A couple hours a week is all I can really commit to. We should have no problem cramming in our fellowship with other believers into that time while leaving us independent to do what we want the rest of the time.

I think it is very dangerous to dismiss teachings of the Bible as “cultural”, applicable only to a people two thousand years ago but not today. That time may seem primitive to us but it was very specifically and purposefully chosen by God. The time and place of the birth of Christ was not a quaint accident. It was the exact time and place that God had chosen.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Gal 4:4-5)

God very purposefully sent His Son, at that time and into that culture, to redeem His people and establish His church. That fact should not escape us. The Gospel is cross cultural. By that I mean that it is not subject to reinterpretation based on the prevailing winds of cultural acceptance. It is true as it is, whether in 33 A.D. or in 2010 A.D., whether in Palestine or America. Even if the message is unpalatable to a culture, the Gospel overrides what man declares wise and replaces it with a truth that man declares foolish. What I mean by cross cultural is that no matter what the culture, the Gospel is the same and the commandments of God for His people regarding how they should live in community with one another and with the unbelieving world do not change. In many ways, the ways we are commanded to live and worship and relate are done specifically because they are counter-cultural and they form a witness to the unbelieving world that we are different.

There is a world of difference between approaching people in a culturally acceptable manner to proclaim the Gospel and changing or ignoring teachings of the Bible because they clash with our individualistic (narcissistic?) culture today. We may look at the 1st century and scoff at how backwards they were but are we really so advanced, so superior today? Given the state of the world, of the family and of the church I think it is hard to argue that we have figured things out to the point that we can set aside the Scriptures where our cultural bias sees fit. When we read Scripture and examine the culture of that time, we should not do so as anthropologists. We should do so in full realization that the culture that the church was established in was chosen for a reason. Far from a license for us to explain away Scripture, the cultural clash we see between modern life and the ancient world should spur us to live our lives in a more counter-cultural way.

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Steve Scott said...


I'm not trying to be snide here, but I've never been able to tie all these things together. If women are supposed to be silent in the churches (1 Cor 14:33-35), then they certainly won't be praying or prophesying (1 Cor 11:4-6), so there would be no need for head covering, as some people interpret that as a woman wearing something over her head during the church meeting.

Arthur Sido said...


That was not snide at all. I don't see anything in 1 Corinthians 11 that restricts it to the meeting of the church. My wife wears her headcovering whenever she prays, whether when in corporate prayer at church or in prayer at home.

Debbie said...


I don't want to sound snide either, but there are many things that bother me about this post. For example, you refer to Acts 2:46-47 as a basis for churches to meet in homes. Yet verse 46 says "And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts" (emphasis added). Why do you always leave out that they attended the temple together? You also refer to 1 Corinthians 14:26, which says "What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation...." (emphasis added). Many people ignore the "tongue" part, or rationalize it away, saying that it was just for that time or that any kind of message from the Holy Spirit can be considered to be a tongue. That's clearly not the way it's described in the early church, though. Are you seeking a fellowship where tongues are as common as hymns and lessons? If not, why not?

I agree with you that we cannot throw precepts out of the Bible just because we think they are only related to another culture. But there are many things that we cannot understand fully without understanding the culture of that place and time. From Psalm 23, to Jesus' reference to himself as living water, to the message to the church in Laodicea, and many other references, I've gained a much greater understanding of and appreciation for them from learning more about the context in which they were written or said. I've read and researched many sources about 1 Corinthians 11, and I'm not convinced that it doesn't address a specific issue in the Corinthian church. It doesn't mean I find the idea of women covering their heads as distasteful, or that I think the Bible is interesting but not applicable to my modern life. I simply disagree with your interpretation (mostly of 1 Cor. 1:2 and how it applies to the rest of 1 Corinthians). By the way, I find it somewhat humorous that one of the clearest voices dissenting with your interpretation is in the notes of my ESV Study Bible.

The most troublesome aspect of your post, though, is the assumption - or at least the implication - that anyone who has differing views from you on these matters is a narcissistic liberal, believes that our culture is much better now that we have twitter, social media and other comforts, and that we are better off now that women try to take on men's roles. I know that you have a rather sarcastic style, and hopefully you didn't mean for the post to sound as snarky as it came across to me, but please be more careful in how you characterize people. Just because I drive to church to fellowship with other Christians and don't cover doesn't mean I believe that our culture is vastly superior to that of the early church. Or, perhaps more to the point, the fact that I don't have people over all the time, that I stay home to school my children, and that I don't have a lot of Christian neighbors nearby to run over and talk to (even if my allergies allowed me to spend time in their home) doesn't mean that I'm dismissing the early church as a cultural relic.

Again, please be careful.

Arthur Sido said...


Is there anything I write that you agree with?

A couple of things. First, you won’t find anything in the text that restricts the principles in 1 Cor 11 to the church in Corinth. In fact I would argue that nothing in the text restricts 1 Corinthians 11 to the meeting of the church, period. Women covering their heads is not a new interpretation. Quite the contrary, women covered their heads for most of the history of the church and it is only recently that they have stopped. Second, the fact that the temple only existed in Jerusalem and has subsequently been destroyed negates the ability for Christians in America to meet there. I am certainly not saying that we must meet in homes but I am saying that many people view the church gathering as being valid only in a “church” with an ordained clergy present. Third, as far as tongues, 1 Corinthians 14 restricts the speaking in tongues if no one is available to interpret. There is not a similar restriction on lessons or interpretations. I am sure you can find all sorts of people who are willing to “speak in tongues” but you will have a hard time finding anyone who can interpret.

Debbie said...

Sure, there's just no need to respond to those posts!

RE: headcovering. I would argue that the covering you speak of as having been the norm until recently was as much a cultural thing as a 1 Corinthians thing. As you say, until recently women wore hats when they left the house - regardless of whether they were Christians heading to church or just proper ladies heading to the grocery store. I don't see how that is related to 1 Cor. Besides, since we are supposed to pray without ceasing, if a woman is to cover her head to pray she must cover at all times, so the wearing of a hat when one leaves the house doesn't apply here at all. In fact, covering specifically to pray wouldn't apply, either.

RE: the temple. My point is that according to Acts 2:46, the new Christians met in a corporate, public setting as much as they did in homes. Your posts have frequently referred to gathering in a home around a meal as the preferred, if not the most "right" way for the church to gather.

RE: tongues. My point is that you should advocate tongues - and interpretation - as much as you do everything else. Otherwise, you are picking and choosing which parts of the scripture to observe just as much as everyone else is. Do you seek a fellowship where speaking in tongues and interpreting are common? If you are going to quote 1 Cor. 14:26 as the model for the church, you should!

But, as I said, I think the tone of your post was the most troublesome aspect. Please be careful how you characterize others.