In the previous lesson we explored accommodation and discernment. Some aspects of the ambient culture are fine for believers to follow, while others are not. Yet an even greater sensitivity to culture is required as we discern cultural elements within scripture itself.
Click to listen to the middle lesson in the series (33 minutes).
Click here to download.
Questions to ask
When we weigh the extent to which a cultural practice in the Bible applies today, there are three questions to ask:
- Which specific cultural practice is in view?
- Are we obligated to follow a pattern? to preserve possibly cultural elements contained in the documents of the Bible?
- Why or why not?
Function v. Form
- Foot washing -- John 13:14. Function: hospitality, service. Some groups preserve a token observance (such as an annual foot-washing ceremony), yet the custom is rarely necessary in the modern world.
- The holy kiss -- Romans 16:16. Function: warm, special greeting. In some parts of the world, a kiss (same-gender) is the norm; where modern culture overlaps biblical culture, it's even easier to see the applicability of certain verses.
- Weights & measures -- Ezekiel 45:10-12. Function: honest dealings.
- Raising hands in prayer -- 1 Timothy 2:8. Function: harmony in the church; authentic worship (Isaiah 58:4).
- Burial v. cremation -- Acts 8:2. Function: honorable disposal of corpse. Or preparation for the resurrection?
- The woman's head covering -- 1 Corinthians 11:4-5. Function: social respect; enhancing the gospel. Note: There is some ambiguity here as to whether the covering is her hair or a separate veil. It's interesting that there is no example of a woman worshipping in O.T. times with her head covered by a veil, though this may have been the case. In the Roman world, archaeological evidence shows leaders in religious events (male and female) covered their heads. This was a standard Roman practice. A modern equivalent to an unveiled woman in the first century might be one who wears a bikini to church. For another ancient example, consider 1 Chr 19:5, where shaved beards are culturally shameful. Such feelings obviously no longer apply in most of the modern world.
- Communion wine -- 1 Corinthians 11:21. Function: remembrance of Christ's death. Yet not all believers are comfortable with alcohol, and out of sensitivity (Romans 14 etc) some churches offer unfermented juice,
- Order of widows -- 1 Timothy 5:2-16. Function: caring for the most needy members (female, elderly, poor, alone). (Given the lack of scriptural precedent, would it really be wrong to hire a worship director? a janitor?)
- Synagogues first? Paul in 7 cities. Romans 1:16. Function: taking advantage of the evangelistic beachhead.
- Mission teams or dual preachers -- Mark 6:7 (Luke 10:1); Acts 13:1-3. Function: mutual support; establishing a new church by planting or by preaching?
Many other issues have cultural components (instrumental music, the woman's role, prayer positions...), just as various approaches to church are defended by different understandings of biblical ministry culture.
You may feel like throwing up your hands and giving up. Culture has complexities and nuances. It rapidly becomes clear that genuine Christians will probably not agree on every aspect. And yet we do know that the Lord expects us to live in accordance with the principle of love, and to promote unity.
The conclusion of our study appears in the third podcast, where we present a handful of guiding principles to enable us to navigate the sometimes murky waters of cultural relativism. So don't despair; there is a way forward.