Distinguishing the timeless from the time bound
The Culture Question
By ROBERT BJERK
THE study of cultural and historical backgrounds to Biblical books has become a source of confusion as well as clarification and confirmation. Archaeological finds have confirmed the essential historicity of many Biblical narratives and thereby toppled speculative liberal reconstructions of the inspired record. Familiarity with secular history and the cultures in which the prophets and apostles moved can illuminate and clarify aspects of their writings and the situations with which they were concerned. Both our understanding and application of God’s Word would be the poorer if we had to forfeit these gains. Yet there is another aspect to consider.
Jesus and Paul—Earlier in our century some liberal scholars suggested that Jesus so humbled himself when He was made man that He could not perceive the mistakes of the Jewish culture into which He was born. Thus when Jesus spoke of demons, miracles, creation (or anything else the skeptic would reject), He was only speaking (so they said) in terms of the world view, or culture, in which He was involved. Thus, the fact that Jesus taught these things did not mean they were true—they merely reflected the cultural forms in which Jesus uttered more “acceptable” truths.
Believers have rightly rejected this liberal attempt to evade Jesus’ authority. Jesus was certainly not afraid to criticize His culture—and He consistently claimed that His words came from God, who is certainly free from cultural limitations! (See John 3:34; 8:28, 38.)
We now see other similar attempts to discredit the teachings of Scripture by an appeal to cultural limitation. For example, a growing homosexual movement wants to be accepted in the church on the pretense that Paul’s teachings concerning homosexuality reflect his personal or cultural prejudices rather than enduring standards revealed by God himself (see Romans 1:24-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10).
Few people would be inclined to dismiss Paul’s statements on homosexuality by the argument that they were “only cultural.” But some things do seem to be “cultural” (at least we take them that way). For instance, Jesus commanded footwashing (John 13:12-17), and Paul exhorted to greet one another with a kiss (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; I Thessalonians 5:26). If we can disregard these statements because they were “culturally conditioned,” why can’t others regard something else as cultural?
Principle and form—Perhaps we need at times to distinguish the inner principle (which remains eternally valid) from the outward form (which may change with the culture). For instance, footwashing is the form which Jesus used to teach the principle of self-humbling service to others. The kiss of peace was the form which we have replaced by the handshake, which exhibits the principle of affectionate greeting. Yet even this distinction between “principle” and “form” should be handled with care, for who knows but that we have lost some brotherly warmth in our culture in which men have substituted the handshake for the embrace? And to this day some who practice footwashing testify to its value in inculcating humility. “Form” should not be discarded indiscriminately as it is often closely related to the “principle” it embodies.
Often however, we need not ponder such distinctions, for the Bible clearly grounds many teachings on a level far deeper than culture. Homosexuality, for instance, is a sin against the basic constitution of man as God created him male and female. It is a perversion of the very nature of things as they have been established from creation (Genesis 1:27; Romans 1:26, 27).
Women and creation—Although it is a controversial subject, the apostle Paul’s teaching on the role of women in the church is also a good example of something often considered cultural which really has much deeper roots. First Timothy 2:11-14 states:
Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression (New American Standard Bible, ©1973 The Lockman Foundation, and used with permission).
Notice first Paul’s statement of his authority just before this passage (1 Timothy 2:7), indicating that he does not consider himself to be speaking only from his own preference. But above all, notice the reasons he gives for the instructions (introduced by the word “for” in the quotation above). The instructions are not based on cultural considerations, but on the unchangeable facts of history in both creation and the fall. Paul certainly does not absolve Adam of sin (see Romans 5:12, 14), but he holds both Adam’s prior creation and Eve’s prior temptation to be significant.
In 1 Corinthians 11 we find that just as God is the head of Christ, man is the head of woman (v. 3). Although Paul certainly holds woman to be an equal recipient of salvation, and he affirms an interdependence of man and woman (vv. 11, 12), he again appeals to the significance of the creation order and the fact that woman was made from man and for man’s sake (vv. 8, 9).
Sensible application—Turning to one more section of Scripture, we find one other consideration that is relevant for Paul and transcends culture. The relation of Christ to the church (which remains the same today) provides a pattern both for the man’s love toward his wife and for her submission to his headship (Ephesians 5:23-25).
It is possible that there are some cultural factors involved in what Paul writes about women. For example, the veil mentioned in 1 Corinthians 11:4-10 may be a cultural demonstration (“form”) of the woman’s submission, but the submission itself is clearly based on the unchanged facts of creation, the fall, and Christ’s relationship both to the Father and to the church. These are not culturally conditioned or relative.
Because of overly harsh interpretations of Paul’s absolutes some have fallen back on “culture” to provide a way out. For example, Paul’s admonition that women be silent in the churches (1 Corinthians 14:34) could be taken to mean they cannot even join in the hymns. But notice that “silence” is also, for the sake of order, temporarily enjoined upon tongues speakers and prophets who at that time took an active part in the service in orderly fashion (1 Corinthians 14:26, 28, 30). The temporary silence did not mean they could no longer participate in congregational worship. It did mean they were to relinquish the vocal leadership of the congregation to another for the moment. Likewise the general admonition to women’s “silence” probably is in reference to public leadership of the congregation. Questions asked in the general assembly for worship (1 Corinthians 14:23) could disregard the husband’s position or indirectly control the direction of the service.
These questions call for mutual love and an honest study of Scripture, but with diligence and a proper regard for both the cultural clothing and eternal validity of God’s written revelation, we can find basic answers to the culture question. The teachings of Scripture sparkle with cultural colorings, and they stand on immovable foundations.
Mr. Bjerk is a student at Lincoln Christian Seminary, Lincoln, Ill.
My article from many years ago, used by permission. CHRISTIAN STANDARD, August 14, 1977, pp. 5-6 (733-734).