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.