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Cultural Commands, Part 1


Peoples and cultures
Q: Why is it that there are parts in the new testament like, 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, that have direct commands but really don't seem to need to be followed by today's culture - is it as simple as that was just the culture back then?

A: It’s important to point out in this first part that the Bible contains God’s timeless word contained in writings captured in human history. Critics of the Bible often claim that the Bible is merely a human book. They are partially right … the Bible is very human. It was written by human authors, to human recipients, in human cultures and contexts, at certain times in human history. Yes – the Bible is very much a human book. But not merely a human book.

God was pleased to reveal His divine and eternal word through the agency of humans (see 2 Peter 1:21). To ignore the humanity of the Bible is to make a mistake when interpreting the text. Similarly, to deny the divine inspiration of the Bible is also a mistake and can lead to erroneous conclusions and doctrines.

We must also remember up front that the world has gone astray from God’s good creation and is in rebellion against the Creator. All of creation has been affected by the devastating effects of the Fall (Genesis 3; Romans 8:22). We also must remember that because of the Fall, there are three competing forces at work against the things of God: 1) The Devil and his kingdom, 2) the sinful nature inside of humanity (often referred to in the text as “the flesh”), and 3) the world and its systems.

These competing forces should not be viewed as competitors in the sense that they are a challenge to God’s sovereignty. Instead, they are competitors for our allegiance and worship and all operate within the bounds and limitations of God’s good will and pleasure. One of these forces works in the heart and mind of each human being (“the flesh”). The other two forces are external – one is spiritual (the Devil and his minions) and the other is physical (the World).

Often we fail to recognize these threats to our allegiance to God for what they are – idolatry. What we tend to dismiss as harmless cultural variations, God warns us against through the Apostle Paul:

 1 Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. 2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2, NASB)

Anyone who has read through the Gospels can tell you the dangers of “Traditions” and the strong condemnations that are often evoked in Jesus towards those who nullify the commands of God because of the traditions of men (e.g. Matthew 15:1-14). Therefore, we should always be careful to never use our culture to interpret the Word of God, but instead must use the Word of God to interpret our culture!

The above question seems to be saying, “Since our culture doesn’t really seem to follow the biblical command expressed in 1 Corinthians 11, is it really for us today?” I don’t believe the Questioner means exactly this, but many use this type of reasoning to explain away whatever they want to from the Scriptures.

Many people in our culture celebrate homosexuality … therefore, do the explicit commands against homosexuality in Scripture apply today? (See Romans 1:26-27)

How about sex outside of the marriage covenant? (See 1 Corinthians 6:9)

People twist the truth all the time and our culture seems to accept and even reward liars and crooks! (See Revelation 21:8; Psalm 73:3-12)

Our culture worships celebrities and money. (See Deuteronomy 5:7-10; 1 Timothy 6:10)

Our culture and the traditions of men ("religion") often lead us astray and seek to nullify the commandments of God. The question above is a good one, because it exposes the affect that culture has on our interpretation of the Word of God and it also raises a great interpretive issue.

So, what is this text actually saying? Once we understand what is being said, then we can understand whether or not we should reform our culture and our practice to align with God’s Word.

The science of biblical interpretation includes a discipline called “hermeneutics.” Essentially, this means bridging the gap from what the text meant (to the original recipients) to what it means (to us today). Since God’s Word is timeless, it contains principles and commands that apply to all people, in all places and at all times. However, it is not written to all people, in all places and at all times. Instead, it is written to a specific person (or group of persons), in a particular place (or geographical region – some letters are circulars and are expected to travel great distances and reach diverse audiences), and at one time in history.

This means that the timeless word of God is captured in particular context in human history (many theologians and scholars refer to this as the “occasion” of biblical books). If 1 Corinthians contains a timeless command of God, then God’s people ought to obey it!

In part 2, we’ll look closer at 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 to see what the timeless principle(s) and command(s) is/are, and then once we’ve discovered this we can apply it to ourselves in our context (21st century North America).

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